Friday, February 20, 2009

Heart aches 2

Progress in recovery is very slow and inconsistent. There are good days and there are very bad ones. Were it not for my son, who adjusted his work schedule to help me, I think there would be none at all.

I was reminded the other day of a quip of Mark Twain, about the man who was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail. Asked how he felt about it, he said, "If it weren't for the honor of the thing, I'd have just as soon skipped it." I can say categorically that if I had known it would be like this, I would not have chosen the surgery. I went into it as a man who was enjoying the process of aging, and I came out an old man. I know now why old people act old: you are dependent on others for everything, no matter how trivial, and no one ever does anything right. And so you become irritable at them and angry at yourself, and resigned to your own helplessness. Two days before the operation I worked out at the gym; today I hobble about, barely able to breathe.

The medications I take make me so nauseated so often that I have difficulty eating. The scar is so hideous that I can scarcely look at it - I feel truly disfigured. Yesterday I tried to clean it in the shower, only to have it begin to bleed, fully two weeks after the operation. The pain from the incision and my split sternum comes in long, dank waves, like some filthy tide in a sluggish harbor, choked with memories, and with remorse at the knowledge that I have done this to myself. Yet the vicodin they gave me to manage the pain is even worse. It dissociates my mind, uncoupling my consciousness into two estranged parts that regard each other with a dull curiosity. I hate it and try not to take it; I would rather have the pain, which at least is mine.

A friend asked me about my pain - Which was the worst of it? - and I heard myself reply: the loss of dignity. She laughed, and I assured her that I was not joking. I feel violated and dehumanized. Added to that is the fact that, of all those whom I have tried to help over the years, all those whose suffering I have tried in some small measure to relieve, none is here. From the time my son leaves in the morning until he returns at night, I am alone. Nearly everyone has excuses for not being here - laundry, traffic, meetings, dinners; in one case, simply the fact that I sounded so ill on the phone. The other day I searched my memory to see if I had ever done that to anyone with whom I was close who needed my companionship; I honestly could not think of a soul. That, in some ways, is the worst pain of all: learning who is and is not truly close to you.

I was told that if I did not have the surgery, I would be dead in two years. And yet, I would rather live for two years without this debilitation and the knowledge of this self-betrayal than for the ten or fifteen I was promised with it. I feel as though life has played some terrible practical joke on me, making me a near-invalid like this, stripped of dignity and the illusion of caring, but it was I who made the decision. And the reminder of that choice, fraught with reluctance and false hope, is always there, nagging and tugging at me just beneath my chin.