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I hate it when people come to work when they are hacking and sniveling and sneezing. Sensible bosses should send them home immediately. But everybody seems to think they are being real troopers by sticking it out, and infecting everybody else. Bosses are too busy worrying about their budgets, and giving incentives for people who take the least sick days! Maybe it’s O.K. in an office, but we work in a hospital! I work with people that have just had open heart surgery. They have enough to deal with, I don’t think they need to have the flu as well.
Well, it’s October 2nd now, and I am kind of freaking out. I started doing 100 words in August, and I have done them DAILY, for August and September. October 1st, unfortunately, was taken up with being delirious, and in a state of semi-consciousness. I scribbled out some words, but I couldn’t enter them as the system would not respond with an appropriate month/batch to be working on, so I missed that day. Today, when I tried to find the words I wrote yesterday-nothing! The 100 words website home page is still looking screwy, and I still can’t submit! Shit!
I have been off work for 2 ½ days due to sickness, and I really shouldn’t be so damned happy about it. I mean, I feel like shit, but I am still so happy that if I want to pick up my new book of short stories (Lynn Coady, Play the Monster Blind), and curl up in bed with it, I can. Nobody can tell me not to. It’s not that I hate my job particularly either. It’s just nice to have the freedom to do what you want sometimes, especially if it has to do with reading or writing.
I realized during this bout of flu why there are times that I feel comfort when I am sick. As a child, this was the time that I felt closest to my mother. Being the youngest of five children (six actually, if you count the ghost), it was hard to get undivided attention from her, but if you were sick, it was just the two of you. Sometimes if I had a fever she would rub me all over with rubbing alcohol, then baby powder, and wrap me in a warmed blanket, holding my hand until I went to sleep.
This story has elements of many things that I have encountered over the last few years, but all I can grasp onto are wisps of story. I can see parts of the story in still pictures, but they appear for only a few seconds and seem to be obscured by a mist or fog. Sometimes I see short clips, maybe 30 seconds, no sound, again just pictures. I am frustrated because I know, or I should say “I think I know” that this is some kind of waiting game. I am impatient. I want to know the whole story now.
I am feeling the rumblings of a story trying to make its way to the surface. I am dancing around it because it feels just too big for me to deal with right now. I have been working on trying to write short, short (flash) fiction in the last few months, as I feel that all I can manage is something that has well-defined parameters. Can’t say how successful I’ve been at it, but it has been a very worthwhile exercise. This story that is haunting me right now feels huge, like I can’t even begin to know its boundaries.
Somehow I entered the last two entries incorrectly… Being sick (and having time to think) has made me think a little more about my Mom. She used to belong to the Catholic Womens League, and one of their ‘duties’ was to attend funerals. And this was not for people they knew, but I think to “fill seats”. When I was really young, she used to bring me along, I assume for practical reasons as she had no babysitter. She probably had no idea of the effect these funerals had on me. I think this is where my death obsession began.
Another “league” she joined was the “Health and Beauty League”. It is now a world-wide organization that supports fitness, dance and the arts, but in those days was considered a “girl’s” club. I remember talking to my brother a few years ago, and he was trying to explain the difference between his mother-in-law and our mother. He was explaining that he enjoyed his mother-in-law’s company because it was so much more stimulating. He chuckled a little while he explained that his wife’s mother was more likely to join the debating team, whereas our mom joined the “health and beauty league”.
I had never realized before what intellectual snobs my family are. Growing up, it was hard to see it as it really was, but as I get older it is becoming clearer. Friends had pointed this out to me in the past, but I vehemently defended my family with misguided loyalty and denial. It seems funny now that it seems so obvious; the fierce competition, the need to prove intellectual superiority, the lack of ability to compliment another person without feeling that you’ve lost something. It has left me with the desperate feeling of always having to be the winner…
The “ghost” sibling I mentioned earlier was my sister Elizabeth Anne. I never knew her. She was born, well, I’m not even sure when exactly. It’s all shrouded in mystery. All I really know are these facts: -she was born sometime in the three years between the birth of my other sister and myself. -The doctor, after the fact, claimed it was a “ bad pregnancy” from the start. -She only lived for a few days, or perhaps a few hours -her lungs or heart or bones, or maybe all of the above, did not develop enough to sustain life.
Here are some “beliefs” that existed in regards to her:
-she was blond with translucent skin and blue eyes (unlike our dark-haired, freckled, green/brown-eyed attributes)
-my mother killed her by taking one Thalidomide pill during her pregnancy
-she must have been born sometime in December as each Christmas for many, many years was full of her absence
-my brother increased mom’s guilt because he is sure that he kept pestering her after coming home from the hospital, asking her what she did with the baby
-my father’s insistent belief that my mother recovered well from the loss and moved on
These are the beliefs that we all lived with. Each one of us seemed to harbour our own guilt that was in some way related to Elizabeth Anne. Mine was the one about her being blonde and translucent; for some reason that meant perfection to me. So I was like the ugly duckling that was born instead. I lived instead of her, but somehow I could never live up to what she could have been.
It is strange that although her name was spoken fairly often, (we were not instructed not to speak her name) the myths and beliefs persevered.
In other words, we spoke about her, but it was always a very specific script. Only two times did I hear anybody speak about her outside the usual parameters. The first time was late one night, when my mother was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She told me very plainly how angry she had been that there was no one for her to speak to about her grief and guilt. How angry she was at my father’s inability to look into the darkness; for believing that she should be able to put it out of her mind and move on.
The other time was at my father’s funeral, and the story was told by somebody outside of our immediate family. I don’t even know how the subject came up, but my sister and I were talking to Uncle Mike (not really a relative). He was telling stories in his usual raucous manner, and he told us the story of how they did not have a funeral service for Elizabeth Anne, but instead, he and Dad took her in her tiny little pine box in the trunk of the car to the cemetery, and buried her. Just the two of them.
My father had 3 aunts who lived in a 400 yr.old house in Ipswich. I had always heard him talk about “the aunties”, as if they were a sort of collective. There were 3 of them, but they seemed as one. None of the 3 ever married, I think two at least losing sweethearts or potential husbands to the “great war”. I went to visit them wit my father when I was 14, and I thought their house was the most magical place I had ever seen. The doorways were so low you had to duck down to walk through.
The floors and ceilings were uneven. You could easily roll a pencil from one side of the kitchen to the other. They had no central heating, even at that time, but many of the rooms had huge fireplaces. Every room was small, and you could shut the door to keep the heat in. For some reason I slept so peacefully that night, piled high with fresh smelling blankets, the chill kept at bay by the last heat of the dying embers.
All three aunts lived into their early 90’s. I have so many questions I wish I had asked them.
We found out dad was dying about 2 weeks before his last day on this earth and, surreal as it was, that gave us time to say things that we wanted and needed to say. I spent a lot of time with him alone, on and off, in those 2 weeks, and we talked about a lot of things. He told me some things that really surprised me, like about the time I fell out of a tree and broke my arm when I was six, he yelled at me not because he was mad, but because he was terrified.
To say it is surreal to walk through the last days of somebody’s life with them is an understatement. You edit things that you might say, not because they might be upsetting, but because a lot of it seems pointless. Not that you then end up with hugely profound conversations, they’re just different than they were. For instance, my Dad and I spent quite some time one evening discussing the making of a perfect martini. And later that evening we sat sobbing in the moonlit backyard, while he told me that he’d lived much of his life as a fraud.
I’m starting to get into dangerous territory; feeling guilty for writing about my father in a public place. I remember talking to him about being a writer, as he enjoyed writing the occasional article for a local paper. He said that he could never be a “real writer” because he would never feel comfortable exposing himself that much. Perhaps that is what he meant about being a fraud. He always wanted to be liked and because of that I don’t think that he was always honest with himself or those around him. His humor was an easy place to hide.
I rode my motorbike to work today. The rain was moving in gusts that felt like I was in an old B movie, and somebody was simulating rain by throwing buckets of water at me. I must have looked ridiculous in my yellow rubber pants and jacket and boots. So much for being “cool”. The good thing about it is your head is kept warm by the helmet, so the rest isn’t so bad. When I got to work and parked my bike, an old fellow walked by, cigarette dangling from his lips Popeye-style, yelling, “Shit girl. You’re hard core!”
I cannot listen to one more word, or look at one more add about the 2010 Olympics. Our city is being torn apart to accommodate venues that are eating up every cent and more of the taxpayer’s money. When I look out my window across the city all I can see is the skeletal forms of crane after crane shimmering in the sunset. The reflection casts a strange pink glow over everything, which has the opposite effect of rose-coloured glasses. It seems to be warning of some impending disaster. But I am the only one who wants to turn away.
It’s hard to be angry about anything on a day like today. The sun is so bright that it gives everything a crisp and well-defined edge. All the colours are brilliant and intense, more so than any time in the summer. Everybody complains about how much it rains here, and they don’t want to believe that it is the rain that gives the city it’s rich, lush character. It’s only because of those endless grey days, with the clouds so low you feel you could easily reach up and touch them, that a day like today feels like an epiphany.
I like to see patients going home feeling they have been given that elusive second chance. These are the people that have been with us a few days before surgery, gasping for air after walking a few feet to the bathroom, or afraid to move for fear of an aortic explosion that could kill them instantly. They have a different perspective than those that were one minute washing their cars, or doing their weekly hike, and the next, waking out of reality-shattering anaesthetic with a 10” scar down their chests feeling like they have been run over by a train.
There is something very intimate about open heart surgery. Of course, I suppose you could argue that case for any surgery, as it is all invasive and in some manner penetrating your physical being. But there is something more personal about the heart being literally touched by another human being, particularly a stranger. There is much that makes us human or inhuman for which the heart has been assigned responsibility. Somebody might plead with another person to feel compassion by saying “have a heart”, or a politician may be accused of being “heartless” when they ignore the problems of homelessness.
Our hospital is the only hope for those that have been refused heart surgery elsewhere, so quite often things don’t turn out so well. We have a young surgeon who has earned the nickname “cardiac cowboy” because he will do what others wouldn’t dare to, and he believes that he can save everybody. I should applaud this kind of bravado, but I am one of the people whose job it is to try and put humpty dumpty back together again. And sometimes, like all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, we just can’t put them back together again.
It’s not like we don’t have warning of the possibility of disaster in some of the cases I mentioned yesterday. There is actually a list compiled for each week’s patients, showing what the risks of surgery are for each person, depending on their age combined with their medical histories (and present co-morbidities). There are three categories; risk of death, stroke and something called “near miss”, which pretty much covers anything else that could have happened. Sometimes looking at these makes me say “there will have to be a miracle!”
And how many miracles do you think there are to spare?
This is the problem. Because of the people that we perform surgery on, the likelihood of a person having an extended stay has increased. We, the front liners, accept that responsibility and will give that person the best care we can, and if they need to have further rehabilitation, we will find them the best place for that. The problem is, as always, money. The average stay for “standard” heart surgery is supposed to be 5-7 days. Right now we’re at an average 16 days. This makes those in control of the money very nervous and prone to irrational behaviour.
This is where the tug-of-war begins between the “we have to provide the best care” folks and the “we have to keep the conveyor belt in motion because we need money to keep the conveyor belt in motion” folks. It is tense and emotionally draining. Luckily we are all humans, and up to this point in my career at this hospital, that part of our hearts that holds the compassionate and empathetic side of human nature is still winning. I don’t have to fight the battles, but I’ve see the fight suck the life out of some very good people.
The surgeons are the ones that fascinate me. They’re an odd bunch. I’m not sure how they see the whole business. I am good at putting myself in other people’s shoes, but I have never imagined myself in those shoes. Who knows what I would be like if I was a cardiac surgeon. Would I be a raging egomaniac? Would I wake up some days thinking I was God? Would I be concerned for the welfare of the patient I had been “intimate” with for the last six hours, or would I avoid them like an embarrassing one night stand?
Coming out of work today, I heard a bone-crushing sound that gave me goose bumps. I ran to where a crowd was gathering, and saw a man lying bleeding on the grass, separated from his bicycle which had traveled across the street riderless and collapsed-one wheel still spinning. It turns out a speeding car had come through a red light, gone up on the sidewalk and hit a bicyclist one block up the street, and then swerved to hit this fellow before speeding off again.
Sexual predators, gang shootings, and now this….what the fuck is happening to this city?
I can’t believe it is the end of the month again. Time is just taking off on me lately. Actually, it’s been like this for this whole year. How can it be November already? I still have way too many things to do before this years ends. For the first time ever I wrote some New Year’s Resolutions, and I’m going to have to look at them and see if I actually even came close. I’m trying to become more goal-oriented instead of wondering around in a daze like I normally do. That doesn’t seem to be working for me.
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