Like a mist curtaining from the surface of a black deep pond, I rise up into voices, slabs of hard sound, scrapes of metal, thuds, and clinks. I realize I lie on my side. And just across from me, on another wheeled table (we are like two reclining figures on a tomb) in this huge brightness that allows us no modest hiding of blemish or sag, there looking back at me is a man whose skin gathers the light at his naked leg. He is trying to pull himself to a sitting position, elbows jabbing air, the hospital gown falling back from his wrinkled thigh. No one comes to help us, we’re utterly alone with each other here in the bowels of Highland Hospital, the long crowded corridor and warren of rooms that is Emergency. This is the classic county hospital—last resort for those without insurance or money—crowded, understaffed, and noisy.
Now we are joined by an intern clutching a clipboard. She has a lovely Asian face like Kwan Yin, the Chinese Buddhist goddess of compassion. I am touched, having come very recently from the island in the South China Sea where Kwan Yin is said to reside. I went there on Buddhist pilgrimage, hoping to encounter her. How oddly appropriate that she has materialized here.
“What symptoms are you having?” she asks me.
I can’t quite manage a response. I was operated on for colon cancer and then given five days of chemotherapy, then I began to vomit and couldn’t stop: Didn’t I already tell two groups of interns about this?
I lie back, imagining this white-coated young woman in the elaborate headdress and flowing robe that Kwan Yin wears, her dress blown by the sea wind.
For many years I have been practicing the vipassana meditation which trains one to be fully present to the moment at hand, not to escape into memories or future thinking, not to get lost in strong emotion, or to become undone by physical pain, but to stay with the texture and challenge of this perpetual present in which we really live. As imperfect as I am at it, the habit of leaning into the moment rather than pulling away from it, had sustained me strongly during the weeks of surgery and recovery.
But after this latest long week of not eating and regular retching, I had arrived in a condition beyond choice and discernment. If I were still an actor in my own drama, it would go something like this: Imagine a stage, dim and shrouded, with willow trees and distant moon, a fountain amid dark shrubs, a spooky nineteenth century stage set, fit for the appearance of ghosts. Then, enter a shadowy figure who announces in a thready voice, “I will try to eat again.” That was the only willed action I had participated in for the last several days.
From the still, dark pond, I come up to consciousness again to see that the gurney across from me is occupied this time by an old woman. Kindness and care have carved shallow gullies on her face; she looks as if her back and limbs are electric with pain, as she holds to the hard workman’s hands of a young man who resembles her, his dark head tilted close to hers, contorted in equal distress. I feel tears pooling.
“What seems to be the problem?” asks an African-American young man in his stiff snowy coat.
Yes, what is it? I ask myself. What terrible disease wracks this woman, how has she come here to this place in such agony? Is there a shot or a pill or. . . . All the touchstones I have identified in meditation—my breath, the vivid theater of my sensations, have disappeared into a flat sea of weakness: I am momentarily lost in this woman’s distress.
The intern leans closer to me and raises his eyebrows. Slowly I realize he is asking about me, about my “problem.”
Each time I arrive out of my darkness into consciousness, I become more aware of the noises, the endless clangs and bumps and raised, tight voices outside my curtained cubicle.
Next to my gurney, now, stands Deborah, a large woman with straight brown hair down her back. She speaks in the sweet slow accents of North Carolina, as if she is chewing and savoring the words in the back of her mouth, sucking off the edges so they come out thick and run-together as caramel. Deborah tells me, because she is a nurse and knows these things, that the drug dripping into my hand has stopped the vomiting.
“And see this bag? They’re puttin’ fluids in you for your dehydration. I bet they’ll take you upstairs to a hospital room pretty soon and you can rest.”
I had met Deborah in one of my writing workshops. She is a gifted, subtle writer and shy student. When I told the group I would have surgery in a week, she spoke up with uncharacteristic force, “I’ll stay overnight with you in the hospital.”
On the night after my surgery, in my hospital room, Deborah helped me into a chair and sponged me with a cloth soaked in warm soap scented with eucalyptus that she had brought from home. Avoiding the ten-inch open incision that bisected my belly, being careful of the needle through which narcotic and nourishment dripped, and watching out for the tube that entered through my nose and snaked down to drain brown acids from my stomach, she drew the soft wet rag over my skin. My body, so utterly vulnerable now after the assault of surgery, slowly surrendered to her touch. I felt a deep, voluptuous pleasure, powerful enough in itself but enhanced by the awareness that I was alive still, my body could feel something other than pain. When Deborah had toweled me dry, she changed the linen on my hospital bed, helped me back into it, and pulled the clean-smelling sheet up over my chest.
Perhaps Kwan Yin had arrived yet again, speeding from her South China island to inhabit Deborah’s body and guide her gentle hands. There is so much lore centered on Kwan Yin’s hands and arms: the thousand-armed Kwan Yin, ready to reach out and avert every disaster, grant every wish; the celebrated Princess Miao Shan who gave up her arms and eyes to save her father’s life; the statue missing its right arm that came sailing across the sea to a little village and prevailed on a carpenter there to carve her a new arm.
But Deborah knew nothing of these stories: She wanted to have a conversation about literature. So I marshaled what brain power I could, and we talked of writing and writers. I am happy to see Deborah’s round, kind face smiling at me, to feel her hand stroking my arm.
Rolling her eyes toward some new uproar in the hall outside the curtain, Deborah grins. “I guess you been havin’ some night, huh?”
I feel my lips pulling up into a grin. “I guess so.”
Deborah shakes her head. “Well, I just want to tell you that all hospitals aren’t like this.”
She knows that although I am almost sixty years old and had worked for doctors, I had never—until the cancer got me—been a patient in a hospital. She knows Highland was my only refuge and that I had no standard to which to compare it. I guess she thinks I will be reassured by knowing that not all hospitals vibrate with such urgency.
But after this long night I feel like a creature whose true environment is this hospital’s lower depths here in the ground-floor emergency room. The floors of the hospital rise above me. Hundreds of people move and talk, bend and lift, touch roughly or with a practiced tenderness as I lie here in the fundament. I can’t imagine being anywhere else but here, absorbed into this giant body.
Yet, I wonder about the passage of time, impossible to gauge in this fluorescent eternity.
“Deborah, how late is it?”
She lifts her hand from my arm to look at her big-faced nurse’s watch. “It’s 3:30 in the morning.”
I stare in astonishment at her as I calculate. I have been on this hard gurney for twelve hours. The thought plunges me into a puddle of weakness, Jell-O body melting. And yet my head, arms and chest buzz, perhaps from the drug they’ve been giving me, maybe from the tension so palpable around me, maybe from not having any nourishment for seven days, except this drip of liquid. I know I am in an unusual condition, unhinged by the anguish I have seen and heard.
I try to focus on my breath, to experience the flow of warm air over my upper lip as I inhale, to feel the touch of air on my nostrils—to experience life where it is actually taking place. When suddenly a doctor appears. He is erect, brisk, blond with little mouse-tufts of gray at his temples. Is this a senior doctor, or yet another in the parade of interns who have looked in on me?
He consults the clipboard that he lifts from my gurney.
“Well, Ms. Boo-cher, looks like you’re stabilized. I’ll get the nurse to send you upstairs, and we’ll keep you until tomorrow to make sure you’re done with that vomiting.”
Zing of curtain whipping open, and a nurse enters. She looks dead-tired but determined.
“They’ll be sending someone down for you soon. Till then, I’m putting you in the hallway.”
The hallway! Deborah looks as stricken as I feel.
“Oh no, please,” I beg. “Not the hallway. Don’t put me there.”
“It won’t be long,” the nurse answers. She leans to release the brake on the gurney, and I find myself gliding out of my curtained haven, a sacrificial victim in a wicked sorcerer’s canoe, pushed from shore into the crocodile-infested stream.
Gurneys line the walls of this bright loud corridor. Nurses and interns rush through a collision course of crutches and wheelchairs and IV stands. Patients lie, swollen, bloodied, with great angry bruises, wearing patches of gauze hastily stuck over the holes in their skins; rent, opened, struck down by a cramping heart, a drug-induced mental full stop. Some twist and moan. Policemen lounge at the entrance, radiating authority.
The nurse parks my gurney against the wall, and I am becalmed in this new place whose noises I have been hearing for so many hours. The wings in my chest flutter to a halt, leaving an expectant silence in their wake. Deborah finds a chair and sits with her arm up next to my pillow. Together we gaze over this wreckage of broken, beaten people.
The gurney just in front of me is occupied by a rawboned blond woman. She looks as if she’s in her forties, a jeans-clad, hard-luck looking woman with puffy purpled face and stiff bleached hair. She’s sitting up, but her wrists and ankles are held tight to the metal bars by thick leather straps.
“God damn you, let me up! I’ve peed my pants! I’m sittin’ here in my own piss.” Her voice, thick and metallic, clangs.
“Nurse!” she shouts to someone pushing past her, “You got to let me up! Unfasten me!” And she jerks her arms against the straps.
“On her way to the psycho ward,” mutters the nurse as he passes. “Tried to kill somebody and then herself.”
I feel a quaking inside. I can’t stand this—I can’t stand any more suffering. All night I’ve been filled and filled with it, and now I have room for no more.
“Help!” she shouts. “Let me up off here!”
Her frenzy enters me and pushes against the last fragile threads of my control. It hurts more that I can believe. And then something trembles, rips, and falls away. And I feel myself pass through. Suddenly I am in a realm where all has become wide and still. I have lost what solidity I had and become a shower of musical notes tinkling like glass in the silence. Maybe this is the realm that Kwan Yin inhabits, beyond my limited perceptions and expectations, beyond boundaries, where “form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form.”
This goes beyond my penetration into the flow of phenomena, which I have entered in meditation, where I have been aware of my body as atoms gyrating, as waves of energy endlessly transmuting. No, this is something else, as if all of me has been lifted out into a vast space that is both inside me and outside containing me. A space that encompasses every person and object, sound and smell, holding all in exquisite pleasurable suspension. Something frail and witty pulses in my cells.
I look into Deborah’s brown eyes, questioning; she smiles, and I wonder if she is here with me in this same condition.
Then I sink back, aware that there is nothing I could want that could match this fullness. A plethora of joys vibrates in the huge space that I inhabit and have become. I could call it “emptiness” instead; it’s there in the sutra, “in emptiness no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no impulses, no consciousness . . .’’
I look around me, seeing the tired tense faces of the nurses and the young interns, seeing the man lying deathly still with a huge white bandage on his head, the young man in the wheelchair huddled over his bloody leg, the woman clutching a sobbing child. Their suffering enters this spaciousness and hovers, held in a radiance of infinite tenderness.
The woman on the gurney before me continues to rant. “You fuckers, you get me off this thing and let me go to the bathroom! I’m sittin’ in a goddamned puddle, damn you, I’m gonna flood this whole damned hallway!”
She does not know that Deborah and I are laughing. Helpless before this onslaught, we have slipped beyond suffering and compassion and bodies and instruments, beyond noise and blood and pain. Giggling, we acknowledge the limitless absurdity of all of it, including ourselves, I with the big scar in my belly and my veins full of chemicals, Deborah here to help out, plunged with me into this cauldron, among the interns punchy with fatigue, the harried nurses, the restless policemen wanting to write their reports and leave—all of us shimmering in this heightened light, gone so far beyond our minds and bodies into the immense loving welcome of the universe.
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