The Semblance of Control

Early on a Saturday morning, my wife Debbie woke up in excruciating pain. There was a radiating pain below her navel, slowly spreading outward. For a couple hours, she was curled in a ball, hoping that if she wrapped herself around the pain, it might go away. Like many people, she is not fond of doctors and would have done almost anything to avoid submitting herself to a medical professional. The morning dragged on. I administered some over-the-counter heartburn medication and Aleve and Alka-Seltzer because thought it was just a stomachache. Nothing helped. There are few things more helpless than seeing someone you love in pain and knowing you cannot bring an end to their suffering. I suggested that we call a doctor, several times, and she refused until noon and suddenly, she relented. I realized she was dealing something serious. I was out of my mind with worry but determined to be good in a crisis.

A kind and competent doctor examined Debbie and said there was a 75% chance she had appendicitis. The doctor urged us to go to the Emergency Room. Debbie decided the doctor was wrong and wanted to white-knuckle her way through it. I put my foot down. Off to an E.R. in Greenwich Village we went. When we got there, in the mid-afternoon, the place was fairly empty. We only had to wait five minutes before she was seen by a nurse who wrapped an ID band around Debbie’s wrist and sent us to an examination room. She lay on the bed, her face pale and drawn with pain, being forced to confront the reality that sometimes the body is vulnerable.  

Before long, a doctor came by and told us what to expect (hours of waiting while she drank contrast for the CAT scan, the test itself and more waiting for the results). As we waited for the contrast fluid to work its way through her system, an administrator came by to get our insurance information, that absurdly transparent thing hospitals do to make sure you can afford their services even when you’re in the middle of a medical crisis. They administered pain medication that did nothing and then a little more and still, the pain did not subside, and finally, they gave her the good stuff, because she did, indeed, have appendicitis.

I enjoy filling out forms. There is something meditative about being able to enter the information I am asked for, however mundane. Completing forms begets a small sense of accomplishment and as we waited for more information, I needed to feel like I was doing something useful. As Debbie tried to get comfortable in that ridiculous hospital gown and stay warm and handle the pain, I wrote down her name and address and our insurance information. When that task was completed, I peeked in the drawers of a cart in the room. I got Debbie another blanket. I played Pokémon Go on my phone. I read a novel, The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade.  I tried to distract my wife from her discomfort. I marveled at the number of times, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that medical professionals assumed I was the person seeking medical assistance. People harbor all kinds of assumptions about fat people. Our bodies are only understood as inherently riddled with illness. I was too focused on the situation to dwell on those assumptions in the moment but later, when I had the time, I certainly did.

We were at a satellite so once we had a diagnosis, they had to find her a room which, before long, they did. Near midnight, Debbie was taken by ambulance to the main hospital for emergency surgery. The EMTs, like every medical professional we encountered over the course of ten hours, were kind and charming and caring—a small miracle given everything they’ve had to endure over the past eighteen months. They bundled Debbie like a cute little burrito and strapped her to a gurney. I followed them out of the hospital, and high on pain killers, she kept asking where I was. She was freezing cold with fever so they turned the heat up in the back of the ambulance after lifting her inside. She smiled wanly but bravely as the EMT pulled the doors shut behind him. I stood, alone, on a Manhattan street, lined with even more ambulances, and my chest tightened. I couldn’t be by her side. I couldn’t reassure her that everything would be okay. I couldn’t do much of anything. It was terrible even though I knew she was in good hands and that this was a common affliction for which there was a simple resolution.

Because of the pandemic, I couldn’t accompany Debbie past the ambulance bay, and I couldn’t make a fuss about it because for the past year and some, people have had to comfort loved ones via FaceTime, if at all, during some of the worst moments of their lives. It was a small miracle I got to stay with her as long as I did. Back at home, I fell into a fitful sleep. The next morning, I was at the hospital at the start of visiting hours, but they wouldn’t let me up to Debbie’s room because she was still in recovery. I sat in a waiting area for two hours, trying not to worry too much, but the more time passed, the more I was convinced something terrible had happened. I’ve watched enough Grey’s Anatomy to know that even though an appendectomy is a routine surgical procedure, you never know what resident dealing with some ridiculous melodrama might be cutting you open.

There were all kinds of pandemic-related signs throughout the space, indicating where we could and could not sit. There was a station with hand sanitizer and disposable masks and tissues. A few feet away, an older woman listened to a religious service, loud and tinny, on her cell phone until a disgruntled woman huffed over and asked her, tightly, to please turn the volume down. I watched several couples with their infants in rolling plastic cribs strap their newborns into car seats and stumble, nervously, into parenthood. Eventually, Debbie texted me, telling me to come up immediately. She looked way better than she did the previous night. After more than a day without food she was starving so I ordered her food from the hospital dining services and before long we went home where she could recuperate in her own bed, surrounded by doting, furry creatures and a comfortable new mattress. Her friends and colleagues sent flowers and warm socks and an Edible Arrangement and a basket of thoughtful things like fresh farm eggs, tea, and honey. Over the next few days, the breath I had been holding released. The tightness in my chest loosened.

Over the past few years, I’ve had many opportunities to think about the body, and both how strong and frail it can be. Certainly, the pandemic was part of that. In the early days, COVID-19 was an invisible, deadly menace and it seemed like we were all going to die. But just before the pandemic began, or before we knew enough to be afraid of a coronavirus, my wife and I were in Egypt. The original plan had been to take my parents because they love travel and have always wanted to go. And then my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer two months before our scheduled departure. It was discovered because her eye wouldn’t heal after a completely unrelated procedure. She was and remains asymptomatic. Treatment is going as well as can be expected. If it weren’t for her eyes, she may have never been diagnosed. We were going to cancel the trip, but my mom insisted we go. There wasn’t anything our staying would accomplish so on New Year’s Eve Debbie and I boarded a plane with two friends to whom we gave my parents’ tickets and accommodations.

We visited pyramids and tombs and other sacred sites in Cairo and Luxor. We saw a wooden boat that was thousands of years old. We saw sarcophagi. We saw the Nile River. In the Valley of Kings, we had to go deep beneath the ground to see a tomb. As we started descending, I wondered how we were going to make our way back to the surface because surely, we weren’t going to have to climb our way out. I half-jokingly said, “Looks like I live here now,” as we continued making our way deeper and deeper. The walls were covered in hieroglyphics that were startlingly preserved. It was awesome in the truest sense of the word. Finally, we reached a landing that wasn’t the deepest point, but close. I looked back at the longest staircase I had ever seen. Ten stories, at least. I truly did not think I would make my way back up and then I did, and it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I imagined. My body had done something I thought was impossible. For a few hours, I felt strong, invincible. I crave such moments because they are few and far between.

A few nights after the appendectomy, we were at home. Debbie was asleep and I was in the den, working and watching television. My parents were upstairs, asleep. Around 2:30 in the morning, a man started banging on our front door. I don’t do well with being startled at night. My heart starts to race. I become hyper vigilant. My imagination runs wild with every terrible thing that could happen. The banging grew louder. I started to worry about the structural integrity of the door.  I went to the window saw a man I didn’t recognize. He kept pounding on the door. I opened the window and asked what he wanted. He said he wanted his dog. I told him he had the wrong house, to please leave. He refused, insistent that his dog was in our home.

Before long, the entire household was awake. Our puppy Maximus Toretto Blueberry was barking ferociously in his crate because he is a wonderful alarm system. The man kept banging on the door. My dad went downstairs and told the guy to go away. His face was bloody, and he was clearly drunk, disoriented. We were reluctant to call the police. In a just world, there would have been some kind of community support entity we could call, who could see to his wounds, help him find where he belonged. The next day, I ordered a baseball bat and put it in the hall closet as if wielding it could make us less vulnerable in our bodies.

I don’t do anything like backwoods camping, hiking, or flying in propeller planes that crash in the wilderness, where I would need survival gear. I am prepared, nonetheless. I have a medic kit and an earthquake preparedness kit or four in my Los Angeles home. They are designed to support two people for up to a week in a worst-case scenario—plastic bladders of water and purifying tablets, energy bars, MREs, mylar blankets, a compass, a shovel, a solar charger, a hunting knife and multi-tool, some playing cards because even in crisis, boredom must be averted. We also have an emergency kit and relevant supplies in New York. There are emergency kits for us and our puppy, in both of our cars. I’ve seen too many seasons of Survivor, so I have fire-starting tools—ferro rods, strikers, and tinder—because on this island, fire is life. I’m sure my therapist would say that all this preparedness is a manifestation of anxiety and she would probably be right. Or, it might be about the semblance of control, about feeling safe in my body, about ensuring the safety of the bodies of everyone I love.