Even though most of us, thankfully, won’t ever need to confess to crapping the bed, we will all have moments when human dignity seems a distant memory.
If we’re writers, we’re going to be tempted to write about those moments – and even put our stories where other people can read what we’ve written. That can be risky, even borderline masochistic. My grandmother, for example, once told me that “ladies’ names and ladies’ faces are never seen in public places.” And yet, here I am, ready to write about . . . well, you know.
And, when I imagine my younger son reading this, I see a deadpan expression and hear these words: “Oh, Mother . . . you didn’t. Please tell me you didn’t.”
Over the past 14 months, I’ve had four colon surgeries, three of them extensive, plus five colon stretchings. In a stretching, a colonoscopy-like outpatient procedure, “balloons” of increasing diameter are inserted into the colon, theoretically stretching its capacity and fighting against collapse.
As for the four surgeries:
January 2013: The first removed 18 inches of a weak section in my colon, an area that repeatedly perforated.
July 2013: The second was a life-saving measure, after the reconnection area collapsed and a rupture of the large intestine was imminent. If we didn’t proceed immediately, I was given three possibilities by the surgeon:
1) My colon would rupture and I would die
2) My colon would rupture and they would be able to save me with “horrific” results
3) I’d start vomiting up feces, which would buy me more time
October 2013: The third surgery reconstructed damaged areas of the colon. The reconstruction work, overall, was more extensive than anticipated.
March 2014, one week ago today: The fourth one was a stoma reversal. I hope this is the last.
Since the fourth surgery, I’ve been reflecting on the entire experience – and I keep imagining an outstretched hand: my lifelines.
My lifeline: the nurse button
After the surgeries, I was grateful just to be able to push a button for a nurse when I needed water, or pain or anti-nausea medicine.
They also took on less pleasant tasks in response to my button-pushing, as I needed to be regularly catheterized after my bladder “froze” and I couldn’t empty my bladder for 67 hours, post-surgery. Then there was the time that I needed to have what we formally called “stool” cleaned up from the bed when my aching sphincter couldn’t perform; a quote from my rescuing angel was a bit earthy: Never, she warned me, in the hushed tones of a night-shift nurse, trust a fart.
At that embarrassing moment, one where I thought I might never smile again, her pithy advice and her “oooh . . . my goodness” expression caused me to laugh out loud, which was just the medicine I needed.
My lifeline: my nurses
They often reached out their hands to help me, without even being asked, whether that meant fluffing up my pillows or smoothing sweaty hair from my forehead or, in some cases, literally covering my ass when I couldn’t physically do it myself. They also made sure I ate, something I didn’t necessarily want to do.
Even an exhausted, less than sympathetic nurse helped. Shortly after my emergency surgery, I was back in the hospital, dealing with dehydration. For whatever reason, this was the only time throughout this crazy year-plus that I simply cried.
The nurse scolded me, telling me that I wasn’t going to get any better if I didn’t find a way to eat and drink. And, although I wanted – and deserved – more compassion, her approach got me to realize that, whatever the magic ticket, it certainly wasn’t what I was doing at the moment, which I was perceiving as self-pity. That led me to a discussion with the ER doctor about temporary prescription-strength nausea medicine that would allow me to get the nutrition I needed.
My lifeline: my family and friends
Post surgeries, my parents put food in front of me, three times a day, when the thought of food was the furthest thing from my mind. They gave me their downstairs bedroom and 24-hour access to their downstairs bathroom after my three largest surgeries.
My husband was there for me throughout the entire experience. One day, I couldn’t deal with stoma issues on my own. In July, remember, I’d needed surgery to prevent a colon rupture. To do so, the surgeon cut a hole into my abdomen, pulled up an inch or so of colon above the surface and cut a hole into the colon so that waste could empty, providing pain relief and preventing rupture. To deal with the waste, a medically-designed bag is attached, via specially designed tape, over the stoma. The bag needed to be changed regularly – and emptied even more frequently. Before the surgery, I’d looked about 4 months pregnant; post-surgery, I could visibly watch my belly begin to flatten.
Although I independently cared for my stoma for all eight months that it existed, one day it overwhelmed me. That’s because, although my colon now had an efficient way to drain the backed-up waste from my body, the calming-down distention was not shrinking in an even and regular manner. Of . . . course not.
So, on that day in question, I couldn’t get the tape on my stoma device to attach to my body, which meant that there was no way for the bag to capture feces. Not a good situation. And yet, I was exhausted enough from the massive surgery and accompanying ill health, and frustrated enough by the challenges that I was ready to give up attaching the bag – and so my husband calmly stopped overseeing tight-deadline production work, drove home and got the tape to properly adhere. Problem solved.
After my recent surgery, the hospital chaplain showed up to visit, almost immediately followed by my minister. One pastor stood on one side of my bed, with the other, on the other. They each took one of my hands and then they joined hands, forming a circle of prayer. Afterwards I told them that I’d never before been spiritually tag-teamed and, actually, it felt pretty darned good.
Vulnerability in writing
Practically speaking, getting this story down will give me an example of what I mean about becoming more vulnerable, which will help me to mentor other writers – and, let’s face it, I sometimes shine my own tiara so brightly in my memoir writing, writing as though I live the perfect little princess life, that my advice can border on hypocritical. (Feel free to change “can border on” to “is.” It’s more succinct as well as more truthful.)
More importantly, some of the best writing I’ve ever read happened because the writer became vulnerable, even raw. And, by raw, I don’t mean vulgar. I don’t mean, for example, that I’m finally talking publicly about my poop; therefore, I am vulnerable. If that’s all it took, I could call it shit and double my brilliance. How simple was that? Wow. I could share how, early on, I’d miss the toilet when emptying the bag and triple my genius; share how it smelled and, voila! Rawness, quadrupled.
In other words, by raw, I don’t mean simply using words, phrases and images that are blunter than other choices. I mean to focus less on the polish when it’s at the expense of intimacy, whether emotional, psychological or spiritual. I often encourage other writers to delve more deeply, to exchange some of the sparkle and clever phrasing for more of the genuine in their writing. Glossing over the yucky stuff may help writers feel less naked – and yet, that’s the devil’s bargain when the connection between writer and reader is diminished.
In an earlier draft of this story, I stopped here. I had, I felt, said enough, perhaps too much, at least by my grandmother’s standards. Bathroom habits, after all, should typically remain private. It’s time, I thought, to go back to work in my mythical four-story ivory tower, remaining on the most protected top floor, window shades drawn, writing about pretty little things that make me smile. Maybe cats. Oooh, I do love cats. Or history. I so love history. Or, what about a recipe? Everybody loves a good recipe!
On the other hand, my anger at what has happened to me is making that less and less possible. I find myself wanting to fling aside my heavy drapes and, yes, I even want to open my window! I want to shout at the passersby, berating them for the simple things they’ve taken for granted – even worse, what they continue to take for granted.
I want to single one out, humiliate him. “You have a belly button, don’t you?” I envision myself taunting. “You don’t have the sense God gave a goose, do you? Not even the sense God gave a stink bug. You walk around with that belly button, every single day, every single frigging day and night, never once feeling grateful that your abdomen” – at this point, I’ll lift up my shirt, revealing my scars – yes, every single inch of my twisted ugly scars, my personal roadmap to hell – hoping that he gasps. “You’ve never once even felt grateful, you son of a bitch,” I mock, making sure that he feels the entire weight of his transgressions. “You aren’t even grateful that you HAVE a belly button, our God-given right as human beings, while I, while I, while my gut is chopped hamburger.”
I now need to climb out onto the ledge, that tiny, chipped – even crumbling – granite perch that exists just outside the window on the fourth floor of my ivory tower, so that this unacceptable wretch of a human being can see that my so-called belly button is gone, eaten up by godforsaken scar tissue, gobbled up by blood and pain. “Does this make you happy? Do you even care?”
This man, he just keeps walking, which infuriates me further, so I lift a foot off the ledge so that I can lean in even closer to that little bastard. “Are you listening to me? Can’t you see me? Don’t you dare ignore me!”
As he walks on by, I wonder – do I need to jump off this freaking ledge to get somebody to notice what’s happened to me? If so, I will. Damn right. I will.
The bottom line
Deep breath time. More than one, for sure.
Without question, I feel thoroughly spanked by life, physically punished beyond the sum total of anything and everything that I’ve ever collectively done to anyone else, intentionally or unintentionally, passively or aggressively, been caught doing or “gotten away with,” punished more harshly than what I’d known was possible.
“What have I done,” I want to tearfully ask that uncaring stranger passing by my ledge, “what have I done to deserve this? Tell me. Please tell me. Can’t you at least tell me?”
Maybe, I think, maybe I need to run down all four flights of stairs, even though my doctor might cringe, to catch up to this man. “Do you need me to tell you that I’m sorry?” I might breathlessly ask him. “That I’m sorry that I yelled at you when your only transgression was to walk down my street? Do I need to grovel? IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT?”
My heart pounds as I write these words. And yet, even though my body and spirit have been unmercifully beaten, I somehow feel incredibly blessed. How these two truths can exist in tandem, I don’t know. I’ll leave that question to the philosophers. I only know that they do.
I am blessed. I haven’t lost faith in tomorrow. I have the saving grace to be able to laugh at life’s absurdities and to be surrounded by people with marvelous senses of humor.
I don’t simply feel surrounded by love. I feel immersed in love.
I am also unaccountably, inexplicably and utterly joyful, free floating in who I am, in what I have in my life and its immense untapped possibilities. Life is just so good. I literally ache because of its goodness. I want to embrace it all but there is simply too much for my arms to hold, its sweetness too enormous.
And even though I may never be able to find the right words to share those feelings, if I can help to pass along even a percentage of them to others, if I can share even a snippet of the paradise that I’ve glimpsed, oh-so-barely glimpsed, then I’m already in the place where human dignity – true human dignity – abides, forever and ever. Amen.