Amid the beeping and prodding all around me, two things became clear: I was running on hospital basement mochas and Jon Kabat-Zinn.
My husband was in the Shock Trauma ICU of the University of Maryland Medical Center, recovering from fibula flap jaw reconstruction surgery for a rare aggressive noncancerous tumor called an ameloblastoma. It took a team of four surgeons ten hours to remove most of the fibula bone from his leg, shave it, shape it, and then place it in his face with a bike-chain-like titanium rod to replace the six inches of excised jaw bone where the tumor had been.
He was on a ventilator; he was on a feeding tube. He looked like a shark attack victim. His neck scar looked like a botched decapitation. Blood seeped through the bandages. I was having a terrible time looking at him, but I could not turn away.
Had I not been taking a mindfulness meditation class, I’m certain I would have cracked like a vase, like the 12th-century Korean celadon pot the kids and I have been reading about at night. They snuggled close to me, missing their father, as I read aloud Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard and we considered that, unlike the characters Wood-ear and Crane-man, we had enough to eat. We had much to be grateful for. I made them list a few things every night. For several nights in a row my daughter had written “CATS.”
“But Daddy had a huge surgery,” she now said, her eyes starting to well up. “Daddy’s face! Daddy’s leg!”
In my meditation class, we are taught to accept and surrender to the present moment, to say to ourselves, “And this, too . . .” It’s hard to say that to a private-school-educated American 7-year-old, though. Conceptually, philosophically, culturally, she’s good at pruning out bad feelings and replacing them with adages and advertising: The body is a temple. Things happen for a reason. Practice makes perfect. There’s a sale on Legos at Toys“R”Us, Mom; you should check it out.
My daughter imagines that somewhere, for some lucky person, everything is perfect. This lucky person has a cat, no irritating older brother, and a father at home who is not scarred, scary to look at, and unable to walk. It is challenging not to grasp at this fantasy. I get it. I imagine the same thing on her behalf, sometimes, in my desperate, clawing moments, when I forget that this recent surgery is simply an experience, regardless of the “good” or “bad” judgment I attach to it.
Bad bad bad is what was repeating in my head when I first changed the bandages on my husband’s leg the week he came home and I became, for better or for worse, his nurse. I have no experience with tissue or blood; I am a creature of the blogosphere, and there it was—the body—confronting me. Oozing. Ragged. Gash-red. Nothing about it was anything I’d ever have agreed to.
In my meditation class we were beginners, freelance writers, and high school Algebra I teachers still locating our bellies, unsure even of our own breath. We had read about asubhabhavana, mindfulness of the various “foul components of the body,” including drool and urine and fingernails, and we were like, What? Are you kidding? How impolite.
We had spent our lives flushing that stuff down the drain.
We were not alone in our attitude toward contemplating the body, one’s mortal pink coil of intestines, or—even more discomfiting—engaging in the charnel ground contemplations, mindfulness of the stages of decomposition of the human corpse. The Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu wrote in Tricycle that he had “never felt much enthusiasm for this particular meditation theme,” preferring instead to contemplate the light and airy breath.
But there is much to be gained from the practice. The body’s true nature is to gurgle, to bleed, to be mucousy, and ultimately to decay. “The Buddha’s teaching of body contemplation is an act of kindness,” Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes, “one of the many effective and essential tools he left behind to help alleviate the sufferings of the world.”
I remembered my husband heard me call to him in the ICU, “Javier,” and he turned, swollen and confused, toward my voice as I remember my babies, as newborns, turned to my breast. As I looked at him, I tried my best to consider how just this kind of flesh is what we’re all made of.
And I do this every day now; it is my version of mindfully drinking tea. I contemplate the body, its wounds. I record their colors, their drippings; I examine them for signs of putrefaction. I cut the Xeroform, which smells like mopped hospital floor and Vaseline. It nauseates me, yet I cut it to fit the gnarly graft site on his leg where the bone was taken. It has not healed perfectly, the way the surgeons had wished, and I think of the Lao-tzu quote on one of the well-meaning get-well cards at Javier’s bedside illustrated with a branch of blooming plum: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” O body, the same is true of you.
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