The orderly rolled my gurney to a stop before an imposing double doorway. “Okay,” he said, “This is where you get your kiss.” I couldn’t tell if he was speaking to me or to my wife. In any case, my wife kissed me and laughed and cried all at once. Then I was rolling again.
I arrived in surgery and scooted over onto the operating table. I joked with the anesthesiologist. He found my vein on the first try. I recited Psalms to myself and wondered distantly why I wasn’t scared out of my wits.
They sliced me open, broke my sternum, compressed my lungs like empty sugar bags, and stopped my heart to patch the hole between its upper chambers with a piece of my pericardium while redirecting the blood that flowed through an anomalous vein.
I don’t remember that part.
I also don’t remember my hands clawing the air, straining against nylon straps, struggling to tear the ventilator mask from my face and the dressing from my chest. My wife stifled a cry when she saw me in recovery. Apart from the convolutions of my fingers, the pallor of my face starkly mirrored the countenance of death.
“He looks so good,” the nurse told her.
When I did regain consciousness the next day, numbed by morphine and dazed by the residue of anesthesia, I asked my cardiologist if he could release me that afternoon. “I have to catch a flight to Jacksonville this evening,” I said.
I was trying to be funny. He thought I was delirious.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Lacking prescience, however, I had no excuse for the cavalier attitude with which I approached this whole business. No matter how distinguished my surgeon’s credentials, and no matter how casually he explained away the operation as routine (with the probability of success better than 99%), cardiac surgery remains as heart-stopping as it sounds: they carve open your chest and, during an extended period of clinical death, cut and paste around your most vital organ before sewing you back together.
Call it what you like; it hardly ranks among the more attractive forms of elective surgery.
Yet “elective surgery” was how the doctor had described it. After all, I had virtually no symptoms, and my condition might not advance for twenty years. Then again, deterioration could begin within months, or even weeks. And so, at my cardiologist’s insistence, I opted to exchange the distant prospect of lingering death for the immediate promise of physical pain followed by months-long recovery.
That was what I expected. Instead, from beginning to end, while my wife and children and parents were dealing with their respective emotional traumas, the greatest discomfort I suffered throughout the entire episode came not from the incision, not from anesthesia withdrawal, not even from the mild pneumonia I contracted during recovery, but from a persistent hangnail that nagged me from the day after surgery until I returned home and exorcised it with my cuticle clippers.
THERE IS A LESSON
The great tennis player Arthur Ashe, after contracting AIDS via blood transfusion, was reported to have said, “If I ask why this has happened to me, then I must also ask concerning all the good that I have had in my life.”
Indeed, Mister Ashe, may you rest in peace — you should have asked both questions, as should we all.
If life is all One Great Accident, then there is no why. But the exquisitely textured fabric of our universe, the elegant design of our world, and the transcendent nobility of Man when he listens to the calling of his soul — all these testify to the genius of an invisible Conductor who guides the symphony of Creation.
And if there is a plan behind the apparent chaos, then whatever happens for good or for bad should prompt us to ask, “Why?”
Click here to read the whole essay, from my column in the inaugural issue of The Wagon Magazine