I wake to hear my name blaring like it’s a prison call.
I unfurl my foetal tuck and my feet meet the ground and instantly the world twists like a kaleidoscope. I clutch each side of my face, squeezing both sides together to compress the torment. My head threatens to split at any second.
I step out into the corridor, smack into the path of a speeding stretcher moving like a silver rocket. In its squeaking wake, stumbles a man clutching a sequinned purse for dear life.
Medics scream for me to get out of the way. I blunder to the left as they pass. I throw my arms out to keep balance as a blast of antiseptic hits the room as automatic triage doors open. The silver rocket and its entire human contrail disappear with a gulp.
I’m moving like a marionette made of jelly. The impatient orderly waiting for me waves a clipboard over her head, shouting like I’m an indolent passenger sauntering for a delayed flight.
I get to the man who didn’t quite make it through the doors in time. He’s reciting the Hail Mary. It’s around the lines of “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death”. I pass out. December 24th seems as good as any to die.
* * *
I wake up, I wish I hadn’t.
I’m flat on my back, dormant, in a world running on fast-forward. My ears curl at the banging, yelling, faint strains of muzak. Cheap, floral deodorant wafts from the bodies that lean, tug, and jiggle me.
Now, something new hurts. I try to lift my head but it refuses to obey. I raise my arm, though it seems to operate like a slow crane. My eyes still offer only half of what I need but the throb is a stinging lure. Its port lassoes me to a towering IV pole, laden with mixed bags of homologous blood, saline and pharmacological magic.
Memory refuses me a favour as I can’t remember being parked, photographed punctured, pricked and drawn. It seems I’ve been productive in my down time. The thermometer is drawn out with pomp.
“You’re not feeling well, are you?”
An oxygen mask descends. I attempt to claw it away and fight a rising panic from the outside in. I want to rip all of these things attached to me clean away. I’m not an animal type but I’m inclined to gnaw at the plastic to set myself free. I want to escape the stench of this ‘wellness.’
They start to work in tandem, lugging off the thick blankets covering me. The chill of air conditioning meets my bare skin. Goosebumps explode as they unceremoniously yank my damp togs off, discarding them like peel into a brown paper bag. It only takes a second to start chattering with uncontrollable shakes. They’re not even vaguely discreet as they hustle my abject nakedness into a worn, electric green, mid length smock.
If this is where it ends, I’m ESC44382, a patient with vital statistics from the wrong side of the tracks. I’m 39 degrees too high, 50 over 33 too low.
The sound of footsteps causes the knot of Asp to sliver apart, revealing my much too young looking Chinese doctor chewing gum. He’s dressed like his Tiger mother personally did him the honours. He sports a perfect comb-over that frames his streamline Gucci spectacles. His immaculate shirt is tucked into high waisted, tan, chinos. But his piece de resistance is the high top sneakers with neon pulsing lights. He is a one man Hippocratic disco.
... his piece de resistance is the high top sneakers with neon pulsing lights. He is a one man Hippocratic disco.
“So yeah. I’m Dr Chris. I am the man, I mean, doctor, looking after you. OK? The surgeon on call, he stuck in the holiday traffics and nobody else around today. So I do my best. OK? He grabs a portable stool and places himself on it, extends it upwards so our eyes meet at the same height, as if to suggest we are equals. Which at this moment we clearly are not. He crosses his legs and readjusts his glasses on the bridge of his nose.
“So, right now, it’s like this OK? You bleed on the inside. Pretty umm, pretty bad actually. So we will put some hose into your bad lung and drain it away. But we must do it pretty quickly, because you have a clot that is travelling up to near your brain. So no time OK?”
We watch each faces for mutual clues. He doesn’t seem panicked so I stifle the urge to hurl my frustration at him like a bowling ball.
I could dwell on the hours I sat in a wet ball, asking for help and insisting that it was more than a headache. But instead, I’m taken with his description of a travelling thrombus. It makes me feel like my brain has become a desired holiday destination. And like any person heading away for the weekend, it just wants to take the shortest route, see some sights along the way and have a good time.
“So yeah, you already had some small strokes today, OK?” And another one coming but don’t be frightened OK? We fix. We got you on the heaps of drugs, the thinners and pain stuff.”
* * *
My earliest memory is playing in a hospital corridor with my toy lamb, Chee Chee, waiting for my parents to come out of my grandmother’s room.
They’ve taken forever and a hot sun is straining through a giant stained glass window, casting blasts of colour against the white wall. When they finally appear, they don’t look the same.
My father picks me up, crushing me so tight I struggle for breath. He presses his wet face against my cheek and tells me that my best friend has gone to sleep. “Forever.”
I’m deeply suspicious. She had promised we were going to have one of our tea parties in my Wendy house this weekend. As always, she’d bring the special red cordial, raison scones and whipped cream. My cat, the garden snails and neighbours’ guinea pig, Churchill, had all been invited.
My mother, the truth monger interjects. She pulls me out of his embrace.
“A comet hit her brain, which caused it to explode. Yes, it hurt very much and then because God is kind, he took that pain away. And she died.”
She exchanges a look with my father that suggests, yet again, he isn’t quite hitting the parental mark with his soft approach. It’s her kind of sophisticated science fiction fable that’s what’s needed to bridge the understanding of life and death.
Turning to me again, she looks deep into my eyes. “She gets it, don’t you?”
* * *
A new nurse arrives; this one is different to the rest. She looks like a bronzed Ox wearing a reindeer antler on her head and chipped nail polish, the colour of Christmas cherries. She’s holding a phone, with the longest telephone cord in the world. So long, it could wrap itself around earth twice and not be done.
“Sweetie, your mother is on the phone.”
I don’t move, don’t smile, don’t reach, or sigh in relief. She is the last person on earth I would call in a disaster. Or just call. I hate assumptions the most. There’s no lower moment than to be reminded by an altruistic stranger that in the presence of the person who gave you life, you remain wholly alone.
She hands me the receiver. Despite an ocean being between us, her screams are audible. I try numerous times to begin conversation, but no words come out. As I sit there with the receiver balanced on my shoulder, the Ox attempts to tidy my dregs of matted, sea salty hair. Her deftness with the execution of this gesture reminds me of my grandmother’s mantra that to have a beautiful mane you must stroke it 100 times before bedtime.
She gave me my own magic brush and promised I would have hair like her sister ‘Little Jean’, a golden blanket that shimmered from top to toe and famous the world over.
When she died of appendicitis aged eight, they cut it all off as a keepsake before the priest placed her clean into the earth and put a lid on her. And from that day on, every member of the family slept with stands of her hair under their pillows.
On the day of my grandmother’s funeral, my mother insisted I wear two ludicrous pigtails, flourished with ribbons to go with my perfect little dress. In the car ride there, I kicked off my Mary Janes, peeled off my white stockings. I then unleashed my hair, setting the ribbons free into the wind.
And my punishment, out the same window, went my same brush and my mother words.
“I give up.”
The words roll around the fizzing pinball circuit my head and I drop the thing in my lap. Exhausted.
She pulls back the curtain and takes away my mother and her mistaken notion of me being a loving daughter.
She pulls back the curtain and takes away my mother and her mistaken notion of me being a loving daughter.
I can now see the man from earlier in the cubicle next door. His forehead is resting on the silver rocket and he’s still praying. The patient is my age, tethered to machines. She’s utterly swollen, bursting at her own seams. A breathing mask struggles to accommodate itself across her red cheeks.
Dr Chris pushes past me with a tray laden with three giant plastic jugs and a collection of glinting scalpels. His glasses keep slipping due to bubbles of moisture forming on his bridge.
“What happened to the girl?” I ask.
He stares, shocked to hear me speak. I realise my voice, even the speed at which I talk doesn’t seem to sound like me anymore.
“She go for nice lunch with the Daddy and they cook her fish in a pan with the oil of peanut. She got a bad, yeah, pretty bad allergy. She got a bad shock.”
I wondered if while she had been eating, she had seen me in the water from the open deck of the restaurant. If by any chance, she had grown bored of her father’s conversation and seen the endless circuit I was making along the coast.
Back and forward. Forward and back. I had tried to thrash out the brewing chaos, not realising you can’t swim off a comet heading for your head.
* * *
Dr Chris perspires from every pore. He takes one final lingering look at the X ray of my resplendent hemothorax. This black and white of my anatomy is what will guide him on his virgin run.
“OK, so we gonna do the hose thing now. But you gotta help me, help you OK? I haven’t done this before. So please be calm, OK?”
The Ox lurks with her Asp in tow. She claps. “Let’s get cracking everybody.”
I’m manoeuvred to sit upright, my still sandy feet dangling off the side of the bed. I contemplate the tragedy of not being able to run, even if I wanted to.
The Ox places both of her hands on each side of my face.
“Sweetie, I’m going to kneel down in front of you and I want you to hold both my hands and squeeze really tight. Whatever you do. Don’t let go. Do you hear me? DO. NOT. LET. GO”.
Being understood relies on how much you’re prepared to reveal of yourself. I want to tell her that its not that I don’t want to die, I just don’t want to die today. Not here with these people. Not in this place. Not this room. Not even at this time of day. Wearing a red woollen hat.
I feel Dr Chris’s warm, minty breath ricocheting off my neck. His head is almost resting on my shoulder.
“So I have to be here OK. And when I put in the hose, you have to tell me if it hurts OK? Otherwise I puncture your lung.”
The Ox adjusts the analgesia on my IV and exhales and shakes out her neck and arms before she assumes a crouch position.
Dr Chris takes a needle gun of numbing lidocaine and shoots me in the back; I’m assured through my red screams that this is the worst of it. I don’t know that they’re lying.
I squeeze the Ox’s hands so tight that I’m afraid I will crack them, but they don’t balk. My two snakes on either side try to pressure their wispiness onto my shoulders as I instinctively try to wrestle away from what my biology can only recognise as attempted murder.
One good, violent jerk from me pushes Dr Chris clean off the bed, knocking his tray as he goes down.
But the Ox doesn’t leave me. She yells at Dr Chris where to find his clean instruments. She tells me to keep breathing, in and out, nice and regular, in and out. I’m can feel moisture seeping down me and I try to focus my head which lolls about like a rag doll. My eyes fall on to the pair of smart male brogues and series of surgical slippers that peep from under the curtain. I hear the father saying her name, over and over.
At the moment I look up to see Dr Chris, restocked, his shirt now sodden, the man’s voice fills the entire ward. It’s not a sound I have heard before.
Dr Chris seems as paralysed as I am. The Ox looks up at the clock and barks. “Let’s MOVE it people.”
The snakes regroup and the Ox momentarily breaks my grip, only to wipe away the water that seeps from eyes. Not tears, because I’ve gone past the point where the word ‘hurt’ means anything.
The scalpel slices through me. I arch my back and as air hits the skin that’s peeled open.
“I CAN FEEL EVERYTHING”
Dr Chris whimpers.
“Oh Fuck. Fuck. OK. FUCK.”
His proclivity to ‘fuck’ is not helping him or me. The Ox grips my hand tighter.
My instinct for living is measured precisely in this moment. I would have made for the doors, and beyond that, who knows? But I would have run through the white maze, like getting out of it, not staying in it was my only hope.
She grabs both shoulders and forces me downward, throwing her entire body weight on to me as he keeps carving. I am trapped, buried by her as the hose pierces its way through my rib cage. Smack into my lung. I’m screaming so loud that my larynx starts to seize.
Dr Chris yells. ‘DOES THAT HURT?”
I feel him pull my ribs apart, and I start to vomit.
The traitor Ox is suffocating me. I start to hyperventilate, she screams at Dr Chris to go faster. She releases her weight just a little. Enough for my back to straighten out so he can push this creature deep into me.
Just enough for me to raise my head to see both my hands are bloody, my green smock now changing colour. I scream. I feel the Ox shudder. I scream some more.
“FUCK CHRIS. HURRY THE FUCK UP.”
Dr Chris is making grunting sounds, interspersed with muttering Cantonese. His sweat has poured down my neck, trickled under my gown and flows in a rivulet down me.
“I HIT IT, I PUNCTURE, I THINK- FUCK“
“CLOSE HER UP.”
“WHAT IF I_”
“ STICK IN A DRAIN AND CLOSE HER THE FUCK UP.”
I beg for air. I have to get air. She releases her pressure so slightly, enough for me to take a breath. Released from having my face in my own lap, I see on the tray in front of me, three giant jugs, like freshly poured pints, with cackling frothy peaks, a beautifully clean division between the sediment and the pour. The floor beneath is wet.
The Ox’s white shoes are covered in me. And next to them are her antlers, brewing in my blood.
The curtain opens and a perfect, groomed, immaculate man appears with a tan and a briefcase walks in.
“Hi. Sorry, traffic on the Northern was a nightmare. We had to drop Gulliver at the kennel on the way. How’s it all going in here?”
Behind him, I see the girl on the trolley go past, her father still holding onto her clutch. She went for a seafood risotto. And now she is dead.
* * *
I am naked, again. The Ox cleans the war off with a soft warm flannel. She’s careful to not knock the hosing tubes protruding from each side of me with giant bottles filling with fluid.
“I shouldn’t have called her. It’s just I’ve got two kids and if it was me, and it was one of them, here - and it looked more like you weren’t coming home - and nobody called, well, maybe one day you’ll understand.”
She climbs onto the bed next to me and tells me what she’s gotten her kids for Christmas. There’s a $5.00 limit. She’s not cooking this year, menopause makes menstruation seem fun and she thought about inviting her ex-husband who gambled away their life savings behind her back but she’s trying to draw a line under all that jazz.
Her son has his father’s addictive tendencies. He sold her car and her lovely old mum’s wedding rings last year to get out of gang debt. He also cracked one of her teeth when he punched her in the face as she tried to resuscitate him from an OD, but he’s getting on track. That’s all that counts.
Dr Chris appears at the door. He’s changed his shirt. He’s got an orderly with him, holding the telephone with the world’s longest cord.
I think of the man and his daughter’s clutch. How that stranger and I have shared an afternoon. I to live, she to die. Like Plato said “Which is better, nobody knows.”
The Ox places the phone in my hand and tells me “there’s no time like the present.” She is a creature that never quits.