by Robb White
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The surgeon’s name was Patel Lovejoy, and he played Vivaldi in his beige rectangular operating room. The receding gums on Adam Hayworth’s lower jaws were to be sutured with cadaver skin because he had grown weary of listening to his regular dentist nag him about it. The periodontist worked fast after the local anesthesia kicked in and, except for some tight pulling of the thread, it was over in a half hour, and he didn’t feel much pain. The doctor wrote him a prescription for codeine and gave him two Tylenols in the office.
That night, however, Adam felt his jaw begin to swell and it made talking difficult. He took some of his wife’s leftover Percodan from her shoulder surgery last year and that did the trick. He fell into a deep sleep and had no dreams, a pleasant change of pace from those irksome nightmares of late where he seemed to be driving in strange towns on narrow roads designed for rollercoasters. Adam’s stomach would pitch with the car’s eerie ability to negotiate the steep plunges down vertical inclines where the g-force made Adam’s face tingle in his sleep.
When he awoke, he knew he was in trouble. His whole face had swelled and even the skin around his eyes was puffy. By noon he was seeing through slits and he had difficulty swallowing. He spoke to the periodontist’s receptionist who told him Lovejoy was working in his second office out of town. She suggested he call his regular doctor, which he did. The appointment was set four o’clock that day.
He took more Tylenol, but the swelling worsened. He and his wife often kidded each other about Adam’s pig face to her fox face, but she was visibly shaken by the sight of his face. Adam scoffed at her and played the tough guy, but he was grateful when the doctor finally got to him. He’d known the doctor’s friendly receptionist for ten years, but she did a double-take when she saw Adam’s enormous head and quickly averted her eyes.
The nurse who took his blood pressure and wrote his answers to her questions on the computerized chart also avoided looking at him; the reactions from both women set off a panic alarm in his chest.
The doctor’s own reaction wasn’t exactly reassuring when he entered the cubicle; his little stutter-step before he gathered himself made Adam’s blood pressure surge, and the blood thumped in his ears.
“You normally see this kind of swelling in burn cases,” the doctor said.
He spoke to Adam of “interstitial fluid shifting,” as if he were in a lecture, but his voice dropped a notch when he noted the amount of edema fluids Adam was displaying was “irregular.” He explained to Adam what “third-spacing” meant and how “osmotic pressure” and “hydrostatic pressure gradients” worked until Adam wanted to slap the patient file out of his hands. “
Can you cure it?” Adam asked. He was distressed by the mushy sound his own voice made.
“We’ll bomb it with NSAIDs,” the doctor said. He wrote quickly on his pad.
“Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs,” the physician said.
He ripped off three scripts from his pad and handed them to Adam with the advice: “Eat plenty of apples, red onions, and capers.” Adam was trying to recall what a caper was when the doctor added: “They contain plenty of bromelain and quercetin. These will reduce the swelling.”
Adam left the office relieved. He was glad to know he didn’t have an infection from the surgery yesterday, and that his was an abnormal but obviously treatable side effect. At the pharmacy people waiting for prescriptions to be filled openly stared at him or darted eyes away at once.
One little girl clinging to her mother’s hand started to cry looking at him.
“That man thcary, Momma,” she said. “Ith he a monthter?”
“No, baby,” the little girl’s mother said. “He’s just here to get some medicine.”
“Haf he haf a toof-ache?” the child whispered to her mother while looking at Adam. The mother smiled at Adam.
Adam deplored public displays of any kind; he considered himself a private person despite his profession as a college instructor at the local community college. Any attention outside a classroom made him blush.
Adam avoided sitting on the couch with his wife that night. His presence made her nervous, so he went upstairs to watch CNN. Around nine-thirty, he fell asleep. When he awoke before dawn, he felt nauseated and his vision was blurry. The skin of his face was stretched tight as a drum and felt hot to the touch. Despite the wretched feelings assaulting him all at once, he dropped back into sleep.
At seven, his wife was shaking him awake and screaming into his face. Adam found it difficult to raise his head from the pillow to see her. He heard her calling nine-one-one, and that was when he knew things had taken a big turn for the worse.
The paramedics handled him carefully as they led him downstairs and helped him get on the gurney. One of the men riding in the back with him shouted into his face. Adam realized the man was merely trying to reassure him, but he did not know where Adam’s face was oriented. It was as if Adam’s eyes, nose, and mouth — that dollar bill-shaped rectangle of our facial features, so critical to our essential humanity as a species — had disappeared and left him an alien species strapped to an ambulance gurney.
The next three weeks were difficult to recall in the accordion that time had become, speeding up some days and dragging others into a molasses-slow pace. His mind was unable to keep up with things happening to him and around him because he had lost some of his sensory apparatus.
He was kept in the ICU because of his grotesque swelling. Only veteran nurses were capable of tending to him. His head was literally the size of a beach ball and his eyes, nose, and mouth were difficult to discern without staring. The doctors tried a multitude of drugs, but nothing worked. His wife was told he might not make it another day if this latest combination of drugs didn’t work.
All this time, Adam seemed to feel he was not in his body, that he was being watched by presences who remained in the room, hovering over him. He had always scoffed at that popular perception of one’s body floating above oneself on the operating table and the notion of one’s long-deceased relatives beckoning one forward through a tunnel of light was a myth for the unwashed masses. He was incensed by the pabulum of TV shows that featured these earnest nincompoops waxing eloquent about a blue-eyed, flaxen-haired Jesus leading them through the pearly gates. Sheer idiocy, he felt, to deny every known law of the universe for the sake of a fairy tale’s solace.
At the point where he felt gravity’s grip release him, he floated upwards to these “dark shapes,” as he thought of them, and they surrounded him. However, he was not afraid of them. He rationalized his hallucination as some squirt of the amygdala embedded in his brain, that walnut-shaped cluster that controlled fear and warned us of danger, an artifact of the limbic brain.
That’s all it is, he told himself. Then the realization hit him like a punch to the gut: I must be dying. My brain is trying to ease me into my own death.
The gauzy shapes came closer, almost smothering him in a scentless embrace. Adam couldn’t say how they escorted him out of the room. He only knew he was aware of moving as if he were floating, being transported, in a medium neither air nor water but like both.
He and his “escorts,” as he now thought them, left the blinking red and green lights of the machines, the whoosh and beep of ventilators, monitors, and other contraptions he was hooked to since he had arrived. When he turned his body to look down to see himself lying in the bed, it was too late, because they were already moving down the hallway just inches beneath the rows of fluorescent lights, past his wife getting coffee from the vending machine, past his doctor speaking to a nurse, and out the massive half-round window through the parking lot and the rows of cars, angling toward a semicircle of trees planted beyond the main entrance.
Adam was no longer fearful to be flying like this — a recurring childhood dream — and he wanted to ask one of these escorts, now thinking of them as his personal guardians, how was it that they had passed through an entire plate glass window en masse without shattering it.
His reason had not altogether abandoned the citadel: Adam thought his dying brain must be propping up fragments of a lifetime of reading, and this was all a twitch of brain cells, nothing more. He told himself he was still lying on his hospital bed back there in that same room. This was delusion made from a concoction of chemicals released in his brain that had nothing to do with reality. Neurons must be skipping over receptors, neural sparks misfiring because of the synaptic damage owing all and purely to his deteriorating physical condition.
He tried to will himself back into control. His mind was strong. The Guardians — he had named them; there was no going back — did not disappear. Their faceless shadowy figures surrounded him again. When he was able to muster enough cognition to comprise self-awareness, he was in a room where other guardians were waiting in rows like a pool of jurors at voire dire. The ordinariness of his new surroundings and the banality — after flying! — were distressing.
They brought him, still hovering, to a chair and eased his body into it, mindful of his swollen head. A bright light shone on him; it blinded him so that he had to turn his head to the side. This distracting light, the sense of an interrogation, and the rapid shift in perception made him feel like a suspect in an interrogation room. He was about to protest his treatment, deny whatever it was they intended to accuse him of, when he was aware of communication occurring.
The Guardians were speaking to him without moving their mouths but not the ones who had escorted him to this place, which now seemed more like an abandoned car-repair shop without the equipment than a hotel suite, much less a sterile hospital room. But before he could ask a question of his own, they were asking him questions, all of which he knew the answers to. Adam understood them perfectly. He was in perfect sync with these fantastic beings. He assumed this was a test, an initiation, and he wanted to join them, wanted to be one of these superior beings — until he remembered his wife back there in the hospital waiting for him to recover.
No, no, wait! His initiation into the mysteries of life were abruptly ended. The shapes withdrew from the room. They seemed to disappear all at once. Simply there, then gone. He was alone in that forlorn room with paint flaking off the walls and ugly stains on the ceiling and walls.
She was looking straight into his face, and he realized he could see her plainly for the first time in weeks. The worry had aged her, but he saw love in her eyes.
The pain of coming back into his body from where he had been hit him with full force and he gasped. Everywhere nerves tingled, and it was like trying on a soaking wet suit that was two sizes too small.
The doctor told her in words he understood exactly that his swelling was receding. “The worst is over,” he said. “The last combination of drugs has worked.”
“Rest,” his doctor said, leaning over him, “you’ll feel better soon.”
He asked for water, and after a few difficult sips that took all his strength, he passed out and slept for five straight hours.
Copyright © 2019 by Robb White