Curtains and Veils
Only a cloth curtain separated the little boy’s anticipation of surgery from my own. But he was only two and didn’t know what was coming and had two kind parents who spoke in cheerful optimistic soft voices and kind nurses and kind doctors who smiled and were soft and kind.
I am always very careful to say nothing when awaking from anesthetic sleep, nothing, so that I will say nothing for which later I will feel ashamed, like telling the nurse how pretty she was and would she like to go to dinner with me? or griping that the surgeon didn’t know what he was doing and did my operation wrong and I wanted my money back! or how I really needed to pee.
Before she put me to sleep with a smile and a slow plunge of the syringe, I resolved that I would say nothing when I emerged an imbecile from the fog. And if the nurse asked How do you feel? as my eyes first fluttered, I would pause and focus and say, very carefully, Well, thank you. and if she asked me who was waiting to take me home I would give her my well-rehearsed reply: Paul. And even when I was mostly awake and the nurse asked me if I would like some ice water, I would say simply Yes, please and thank you and that is all.
More than a half-century before, I lay naked in a hospital crib in a line of identical hospital cribs with white spindle bars, in a long room with no curtains, because my tonsils were being cut out the next morning. The white cribs seemed to stretch in both directions for eternity, like when two mirrors face each other nearly perfectly, and the identical receding images stretch on and on, I am told, forever. I was four years old. Even then I felt embarrassed to lie in the crib with a rectal thermometer telling my temperature like a naked flag pole. My mother was not permitted to stay with me in the hospital—the room held only cribs—and I missed her reassuring presence all that night, though the nurse was gentle and kind so that I felt safe and was not afraid, only lonely. I do not remember the famed post-operative ice cream, only the rectal thermometer and the white bars and the long long room filled with white cribs and the white-clad nurse’s smile and the small window with soft light in the night. I was four years old, and I do not remember saying a word to anyone at all, before or after the operation.
Only a drab cloth curtain hanging from rolling bearinged hooks separated me from the crying two-year-old little boy, crying and inconsolable by his kind soft mother, and the crying complaint reached into my clouded dull brain and pulled me slowly from oblivion and pulled also at my very real heart strings. I felt so deeply sorry for the little boy’s drugged distress. Little children are perfect little creatures, and I wanted to do anything I could do to help him, to soothe and comfort him, so I whispered thickly through the thin separateness, Can I hold his hand? No one spoke back to me through the veil so I slobbered out, “Can I hold his hand please? I want to hold his hand.” That is when the nurse came around and checked me roughly, my blankets and my tubes, my lines and blips on screens, and said in just that way that you know you have crossed some inscrutable invisible uncrossable line and that you are stupid and annoying and why don’t you be quiet, she said definitively, “I don’t think he wants to hold your hand.” And that is when I knew I had been stupid, that neither the parents nor the child nor the nurses nor the doctors wanted my imbecilic offer, and even I knew then that wanting to hold his hand was just my drunken heart beating out in the open for the wide world to hear that I was sad for the inconsolable little boy and wanted to do some little thing to bring him comfort. Inebriation had loosened my tongue from its sober padlocked tightness and moved everyone in the room to discomfiture and then me to shame as I finally fully truthfully awoke.
And now I am very careful upon emergence to say nothing, and I know already when I go to sleep that I will wake up in stolid sleepy silence, though a child’s cries carry through the curtain.
Roger Evans Baker is a 27-year municipal attorney, homebody poet and essayist, and amateur naturalist. Roger is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road and A Time and A Season. Rabbit Lane tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human spirit. A Time and A Season gathers Roger’s poems from 2015-2020, together with the stories of their births. The books are available in print and for Kindle at Amazon. See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.