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Heads or Tails, Part II

January 28, 2009 by · 3 comments

Linda Cruise

Photo: tanakawho

Read Part I

The following week, both women—having surrendered control—arrive at the hospital, just as their appointment cards foretold. They’re processed through registration, one form after another, until they reach pre-op and are handed an obligatory gown. Their IVs are started, their wedding bands removed, and they’re obliged to sign the anesthesiologist’s waiver amid a litany of possible side-effects.

Naturally, the nerves are kicking in big-time by this point. Cindy talks to her mother on the bedside phone. “Don’t worry,” she says just like she rehearsed, “everything will be fine. Paul will be here the whole time, and you can always come by tonight, if you want.” But then some hesitancy creeps in and compels her to ask, “Say a prayer for me, okay?”

After she hangs up the phone, she reaches through the bedrail to touch Paul’s hand. He clasps hers between his, almost uncomfortably tight, then says, “You didn’t lie. It’s gonna be fine. The doctors know what they’re doing. Just as soon as we get you all fixed up, we can put this whole mess behind us, once and for all. Think of it as our ticket to a fresh start.”

Tears fill her eyes. “Oh, wouldn’t that be heaven?”

“Yes—yes, it’ll be wonderful,” reassures Paul, before lingering over a kiss to the back of her hand.

“We’ll have lots of babies—as many as you like—till we’re tripping over them, if you want.” They share a tense laugh, but a tender one, nonetheless; after all, it is their shared dream.
Two curtained-rooms down, Leslie’s mumbling her rosary as she tries not to count the ceiling tiles. Tom interrupts her effort, to say, “Look, I just want to apologize if I haven’t seemed so supportive, lately. Sometimes I can be a real jerk.”

Leslie offers a conciliatory smile. “I suppose that makes two of us. Who knows, maybe that’s why we’re so right for each other?”

Returning the smile, Tom leans over the bedrail and strokes her hair with a tenderness she hasn’t felt from him in months. “Listen,” he starts, barely above a whisper, “I know you don’t like to talk about such dire things, but I’ve been giving our situation a lot of thought.” He pauses long enough to kiss her forehead and clear his voice. “You see, I know how scared you are. Hell, I’m just as scared—but I figure, there’s simply no way you were meant to get through last year’s tragedy, just so you could come up short, now—y’know what I mean?”

“Yeah.” He doesn’t need to remind her of how the year before, while returning home from a church supper, her parents had been struck by a drunk driver. Nor does he need to remind her of how her father had been spared and how, if only her parents had stayed a few minutes longer to have dessert, her mother would’ve been spared, too.

Looking down at the IV line threaded out from her wrist, Leslie tries not to picture the punctured flesh, hidden beneath strips of white tape. Instead, her weary eyes shut; her chest heaves a burdened sigh. “You know,” she says, opening her eyes, “during these last two weeks, I haven’t once stopped thinking about life’s utter irony. Do you remember how last year, this same time, I was so decimated by darkness and grief? It really wasn’t so long ago, yet it feels likes it’s been ages.” A half-laugh escapes her at the mere recollection.

“I swear, I was literally at that brink where you’re convinced it’s easier to die than to live. Can you even imagine reaching that point of despair?” She shakes her head, still somewhat disbelieving in the power of human emotions—in their ability to prey on a soul, to dig in their claws, dragging and tearing away at it, with no more foresight than that of a whim. “And now—when maybe God’s handing me a one-way ticket out of this place—what do I feel but pure inspiration to live?”

It’s noon—the appointed hour. Leslie is wheeled into Operating Room #4; Cindy is wheeled into Operating Room #9. The identical rooms are chilled and doused in that oh-so-lovely shade of hospital-green. Shiny steel shimmers throughout in the bleached, overhead light. A nurse, decked in scrubs from her head to her shoes, greets the patient, patting her gently on the shoulder as another technician prepares the mask for anesthesia.

Rapid-fire thoughts shoot out in the expanse of the patient’s mind—a smorgasbord of life’s images, mostly—of children (real or imagined), husband, friends, and relatives (alive and dead). The gritty reality that she will be cut open and her innards exposed to raw light presses heavily on her thoughts as well. She recalls the doctor’s last words, explaining just how long she’ll be under will depend on what they find once they’re inside—that if it’s cancer, it could take up to four hours, and that she should expect to be in post-op for at least another hour or two after that, before the anesthesia wears off completely.

With the mask secured, she’s given instructions to breathe deeply and to count to ten. She does as instructed. The room begins to bend and blur, curling at the edges first, before finally fading into black nothingness.

Near the hospital’s elevators, just down the hall from the surgical waiting room, frustration boils within Tom as he makes his fourth attempt at jamming a limp dollar bill into the metal mouth of a soda machine’s gleaming face. Once again it spits back rejection. He mutters, “C’mon, you lousy—”

Here—” calls out another ragged-looking man, as he approaches Tom with a hand extended with coins. “Try these!” says the kind stranger, putting the coins into the slot before Tom can politely refuse. The man smiles at Tom. “They don’t wrinkle as badly.”

Nodding appreciatively, Tom yields his anger to the faintest trace of a grin. “Thanks,” he says, offering the crimpled note to the man. “That’s very nice of you.”

The man’s hands fly up in resistance. “No, no—it’s on me—really.”

While selecting his drink, Tom lets out a bemused chuckle before shaking his head. “Today must be my lucky day.”

“Let’s hope so,” replies the man, “considering what you’re here for.” The man wedges some more quarters into the machine, to get his own soda. He pops the top and asks, “So, how ’you holding up?”
“All right—I suppose.” Tom’s too drained to elaborate.

The man extends his arm again, this time to shake hands. “Well, nice meeting you—in spite of the circumstances, right?” He lets slip a nervous sigh as the men begin to stroll back through the vacant hallway, illuminated in the fluorescent-white sterility of a morgue. “By the way, I’m Paul. My wife’s having surgery.” Time blinks a prolonged blip before Paul adds, “How ’bout you?”

“Oh—uhh, Tom’s the name. My wife’s in, too. Women’s stuff—you know.”

Soon after the ritual of getting acquainted subsides, the two husbands establish the fact that their wives have been dealt similar hands. There’s no room for jealousy or bitterness. Instead, compassion and sympathy fill their mutual voids, which have been carved out by fear.

The waiting is interminable. The steel hands of the clock behind the receptionist’s desk strain to encircle its endless loop. The sting in the back of the husbands’ thighs, from sitting too long on stiff-cushioned chairs, is pleasurable only when compared with the ache resonating in their heads. Will this be the day they learn their wives flew undetected below death’s radar in order to live—or will this be the day they remember forevermore as the single, worst day of their lives?

Surrounded by the absent coziness of a post-op stall, Leslie labors to lift her weighted eyelids. She’s disoriented at first, her head feeling like a slab of frozen meat. Struggling to focus her vision through the room’s cracked curtain, she glimpses a wall clock with bright red, digital numbers. It reads: 15:22. Her eyelids droop shut again, but now her mind begins to thaw. She does the math in her head, “All right, 15:22 is really 3:22.

That means I’ve only been out for three and a half hours. That includes time in post-op.” She makes the sudden and joyous connection that her surgery must’ve only been a couple of hours, tops. No cancer, she shrieks in her mind. Moments later Tom’s soothing voice confirms her hunch as they bask in the sheer ecstasy of that realization.

Back in Operating Room #9, things haven’t gone as smoothly. Cancer riddles Cindy’s abdomen like potholes on a dirt road in mud season. A team of doctors continue painstakingly to pluck away each cluster, each nodule, each mass.

Suddenly, a red plume of blood gushes upward. “Shit!” cries a surgeon. “We’ve got a bleeder!” There’s a flurry of activity as blood-soaked gloves scramble for clamps and gauze.

“Pressure’s dropping,” announces a technician.

“Clamp, dammit! Clamp!” shouts another surgeon, amid the frenzy.

“Pressure still dropping—80—75,” advises the technician again.

The head surgeon’s reddened face beads up with droplets of sweat behind his cloth mask.

Goddamnit! I can’t control the bleeding. 10ccs of adrenaline.”

“Pressure: 55—50—45.”

“She’s going into shock. Heart rate’s accelerating!”

Shit! She’s hemorrhaging! More suction—I can’t contain it!”

“She’s coding! Crash cart, stat!”

“More blood!” demands the head surgeon. “We’re losing her!”

“Pressure at 25—20! She’s fading fast,” warns the technician. “Eyes are dilated, unresponsive!”

“We’ve got cardiac arrest!”

Clear!” A jolt of juice courses through Cindy as the ECG machine flatlines with its discordant, hollow beep. Desperately, the medical team works to bring her back among the living, as another thirty minutes fall away into nothingness.

Finally, the head surgeon yields, “Okay—enough,” before pulling down his mask to reveal sweat and anguish twisted within the furrows of his defeated face. “Let’s call it.” He wipes his brow on his blood-splattered sleeve. “Time of death: 15:22.”

Even anesthesia’s protracted stupor cannot dilute Leslie’s overwhelming sensation of gratitude. Never before—except possibly at her children’s births—has she experienced such absolute, unadulterated love. Laughter and tears mesh with the reality of this second chance at life—another possibility to hold her son’s nimble hand while savoring her daughter’s infallible embrace. It’s this second chance at discovering all of life’s wondrousness and sublimity that she vows never to squander again.

She knows she just as easily could have died as lived and that it could have been her lying under earth, entombed in concrete, rather than someone else. That the wind just as easily could have howled past her grave, depositing fallen leaves and debris against its stone, as it does at any other’s. That it just as easily could have been Tom kneeling and weeping above her remains, as any other forlorn lover. How privileged she considers herself to be.

And why shouldn’t it be that way? There’d be no way for Leslie to know—from this vantage point—what awaits her. How could there be a way for anyone to know—to comprehend? Instead, let her wonder, let her dream, let her hope.

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