THE MOTHER-MACHINE

Following is an account I wrote in the summer of 1980 about a stay in hospital. There is a curious note of melancholy about this text that I can’t account for.If there were a specific source for it, I have long since forgotten.

A month ago, on a Tuesday night in May, I went to the Vancouver General Hospital with severe pains in the small of the back. At fifty-three I had never been in a hospital. The back pains turned out to be due to a fierce urinary infection which in turn necessitated a kidney operation. This seems to have worked, since I can now piss even more copiously than before.

The operation came on a Friday morning. Wheeled drowsily along basement corridors, and then without a break the kaleidoscope confusion of surfacing out of that deep place. This is the disconcerting part of anaesthesia: there is no formality, no sense of time having passed as you get when you wake out of sleep. As though, in that deep place, time had been temporarily disconnected.

I spent the first days in complete symbiosis with the hospital,wired into the mother-machine night and day. Fed and watered and urinated by way of intravenous tubes, the oxygen mask, the catheter, tubes of surgical rubber sprouting out of the skin, nasal tubes draining fluids, and the endless needles.

I spent most of that time with eyes tightly closed. They felt sore, the light hurt them. Did it really hurt them? Or did I keep them closed so I could listen inward? I talked lucidly enough to visitors, so far as I know, but basically I was listening to myself and to the mother-machine.

Once in those first days I caught a glimpse of death. It was no more than a flicker between waking and sleeping. I saw it between the boles of large black poplars (cottonwoods) growing as they do along a gravelly river-bank. I recognized it among the leaves, in the dapple of shadow. Where does this figure come from? And why black poplar?

And I suspect it didn’t come as neatly as that, all in one image. I think it was disordered, probably in parts, and I have pieced it together in my mind. I have done the literary thing: by saying so I have made it so.

Yet the hospital itself could be so beautiful. Waking in the night, if the ward was quiet, I could lie and listen to the quiet clicks and throbs of that vast machine, and the remote soothing voices at the nursing station. The incredible gentleness of those nurses, most of them.

Somewhere along the line I came to know Demerol, injected at first into the arm, later into the hip. With each shot the tensions eased off and I could get an hour or two of sleep. But then after a day or two I became aware of it as an experience. Along with the miraculous softening of pain there was a buzzing or twanging effect, then a flooding of the body with ease, an incredible bonheur, to each last nerve.

I can’t remember now if it wiped out pain or just made it easy to ignore. The important thing was the Great Alignment. The misery and chaos of hospital life became coherent and oriented, and therefore no longer misery. Everything lined up—memory, feelings about the world, the body—all. And I see this process. I seemed to be lying on, or more exactly was part of, a luminous sheath or membrane, backlit against the dark, like one of those boat-shaped green or gold leaves whose long parallel veins fan out from the base and then come together again at the tip.

Why do I see this in memory, when I remember only knowing it was so? Where does the picture come from? Is it that so intense and so important an experience must be formalized by granting it visual form? Does one do this so it will make sense and then superimpose it, retroactively as it were, on the event? There are aspects of the Demerol experience that I don’t understand.

Mind you, it didn’t always work. There were times when the tension in myself was so high that the drug would only partly damp out the pain, and would not allow the least alignment. But most of the time it was all right.

I talked endlessly in my sleep, as I found out from other members of the ward. And it brought the most extraordinary waking hallucinations of a manual nature. Often this would be when visitors were there. As I would drift off to sleep my hands would reach out and work—turn screwdrivers, or run the enlarger up and down its column. Once I came to with a start to realize I had been trying to turn the pages of a visitor’s forearm to read as a book.

Friends and family were amused by these hallucinations as harmless by-products of the painkiller. But they were not so funny: they sprang from the tension and the distress of the operation. At last I began to realize how deeply I had been shocked by the operation. When that became clear the hallucinations stopped.

On the Wednesday or Thursday I was transferred from Demerol to a set of pills with less spectacular effects. I must say it was about time, because the flowerings of the Demerol experience were becoming excessive. I was startled when I found myself in two places in the ward at once: one conventionally lying on the bed, the other a copy of myself tilted about thirty degrees from the horizontal and intersecting my other self through the chest, if you can follow. I see how shamans could become skilled at self-duplicating.

Demerol made the whole thing possible. Without it, what a nightmare it would have been. Not just the pain, but the noise and the disorder and the tension. I see those Demerol hits now. At the very beginning I was not aware of them, so I cannot see them, but coming closer in time they become brighter. I see every one, with perhaps gaps for the failed ones. Corny as this image may seem to you, I hold to it as a long wavering line of candle-flames through the dark labyrinth of days.

Moments. A soft cantonese voice saying, at three in the morning, along with a set of pills, “Mr. Greenaway, we are so happy that you are making so rapid recovery from this operation.” In the small hours of another morning a European voice on the other side of a curtain, “Chesuss Christ, I am only haff a human being!”

Human moments in the machine.

But then the most woeful of all things happened: early Friday morning I woke up with my mind wiped clean.

I did not know who I was.

I did not know why I was there.

The core of my despair was not the loss of identity, but a terrifying question: why was I there? To be helped, or for the benefit of others? Because if it was for the use of others, then I was a nothing, not a person but a creature. If was as though the roots of my teeth had been scraped bare. It was the anguish of the infinite, familiar to me from very early childhood, when I saw mazes in the air before sleep. I saw them, but I was also trapped in them and couldn’t get out and I knew that I never would.

In the hospital that morning it began to come clear: I was from somewhere else, and therefore was there for a fixed time. Then my home life came into focus. And finally my name. I was in the hospital, I could pull the call-switch and a nurse would come. But what could I say? She would only give me more pills.

Friday was a nothing day. Even though I was helped up to walk my first steps by a physiotherapist. “Open your eyes, Mr. Greenaway!” I was tense and nervous. End of a nothing day.

And then on Saturday morning I opened my eyes. They didn’t hurt. I looked around at the ward and saw the others. I looked out the window. I saw buildings. And grass. And I kept them open. I was back. I bolted everything the kitchen would send up. The whole thing was over. Seven days. I thought about my business, such as it was, I thought about the world, the hospital became intolerable. I began to pester everybody to get me out. I turned through 180 degrees.

Looking back now, I ask, what does it mean? Why should it mean anything? Millions of people have operations; they don’t demand that it mean something. They are just happy to be alive. But in my mind there is some lingering sense of sorrow about the whole experience that eludes me. A desolating sense of loss. But loss of what? On the whole the hospital was not a bad experience. In a month I will be completely over it, and I am certainly not depressed. What, then?

Has it to do with the violence done to one? I have read that the art of the anaesthestist is to lead the patient to the edge of death and then coax them back. It sounds like the technique of an interrogation team: alternating violence and tenderness, until the interrogee develops a dependence full of dread. Is the intense ambivalent relationship with the mother-machine the source of tension? The humiliation of being helpless? Or is this glib amateur psychologizing?

The operation/anaesthesia sends one out to the very edge of the world. To remotest aphelion. And it’s such a long road back. Perhaps for me this was harder than I thought. Also, as I now realize, I had become mildly addicted to Demerol. Perhaps this is why I lost my memory: I didn’t want to give it up. More psychologizing? I think it would help if I could talk to others. But no-one else has been there, apparently. Or if they have they’re not talking. When people talk about “their operation” it is all about the nice surgeon and the bad food. Not a word about where they’ve been.

So I still wonder. One’s life is sundered. A suture lies across my life at the 53-year mark. My life came to a stop. Now, it has picked up. I eat, ask useless questions, write down words. But that cutline lies athwart my past.