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Back You are here: Home Reports from Real Life Oh, The Things We've Seen! Travel Writing The Part of Me I Leave Behind
Tuesday, 13 September 2011 03:30

The Part of Me I Leave Behind

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You wake up three hours after lying down and the pain is excruciating. You open your eyes, blurred world, faint sun, but mostly pain. Pain that hobbles you to the toilet where you vomit five, ten times, cursing the kebab you ate just six hours previous.

You hobble back to bed, lie down, close your eyes, pretend the pain away, try to trick it into sleep. Turn one way, then another, your legs curled against your chest because maybe that was the reason why in the first place. Sit up, a boiling in your chest, hobble back to the toilet, vomit till there's naught left inside you but knots. Staring into the bile, the nothing, the snot dribbling from your nose, the tears in your eyes, the heaving gasps, you walk around your apartment because maybe it can be walked off, maybe it'll just kind of go away if you keep going in circles. Turn on music, anything, lie on the couch because maybe it was all the bed's fault. You turn over, roll, sit, hold your legs to your chest, rub your forehead raw on your knees, keeping your eyes closed because if you don't look maybe it'll forget. Somehow three hours pass in this way and it's almost 9am and you start wishing your mother was here, anywhere, because mothers know what to do, even when no one else does. But, for lack of a mother, you call your boss who doesn't answer and so you wait ten minutes and call again, then ten more and call again. Time goes on and the pain just never stops, though you've stood over the toilet for at least an hour, emptying what's been empty for hours into it, your throat raw and your mouth metallic. Call your coworker because she has a real phone with the numbers of real people and she calls another coworker who wakes up early just to come help you, maybe save your life, because life in a country where you're phoneless, loveless, and aimless makes emergencies difficult to understand or deal with.

She arrives, takes you to one hospital where the doctor quickly tells her [her, not you, because he doesn't speak english and you don't speak korean] that it's appendicitis but there's nothing he can do here because it's Sunday, and, for whatever reason, that makes sense to everyone. Except for you, of course. Taxi to the next hospital where they process you and you lie in pain on a table where they take your blood, prod your abdomen because, maybe, it amuses them to touch your appendix, to watch the pain contort your face. After that, you're largely ignored for the next two hours while you wait for the results to come back and tell you what you knew already: your appendix needs to go. Somewhere in this time period, your boss arrives and takes over and demands some painkillers for you, which helps, but not much, and then she goes on to tell you about the night she spent at the concert of a famous German composer and asks you peculiar questions about your musical taste and gives you inane details about her daughter's college life, which you appreciate, because anything is better, even a stilted dialogue with a middle aged woman who kind of doesn't like you and who you kind of spend a lot of time daydreaming about yelling at, than sitting quietly with the pain. The results come back and, yes, appendix needs to go, but, of course, it can't be done here, at least not today, and maybe you can come back on Tuesday or Wednesday. Your boss translates all this, demands they treat you, the foreigner curled fetally, uncomprehending. After an hour, maybe more, they tell her [again, not you, language being a barrier culturally deep] that you can get your operation in two hours, but you need to go to a third hospital.

And finally, you arrive at the hospital that will treat you, some ten hours after you woke up.

Things happen quickly now, with needles going in, going out, IVs and the like, painkillers and antibiotics, even a change into scrubs because your clothes aren't surgery friendly, but you knew that. The nurses are kind, cute, even, and you're staring on accident as they touch you, poke you, inject you, speak words you don't know, giggle constantly [something that would define your time here].

A doctor appears in plainclothes and he speaks english but tells you very little. They roll you into the operating room where a team of bescrubbed koreans crowd round you on a table that's made like a T, your arms spread to either side, crucified for the removal of an organ you never thought much of, never knew hated you so, or maybe only hated you recently, bad decisions and so on, the normal occurrences of your strange and magical life. The plainclothed english speaking doctor follows you into the operating room and carries on the small talk, even while you're being gassed, the anaesthetics starting. Where are you from? Oh really? I lived there, studied under doctor whatshisname. I lived on this street near Dinkytown. Have you ever been there? Oh, yeah, it is. What brings you to Korea? A teacher, right.

And to his questions, you go under.

You wake up, or what amounts to being awake under such circumstances. A face appears above you speaking in maybe any language but you don't understand and can't be certain if you're really awake yet or if this is part of some delusion but you're free of pain, finally, and then the face begins to focus and the words start to make a bit of sense and she's cute, with a mole at the corner of her neck, right below her ear, behind the curve of her jaw. The words, in stilted english, partly korean, she asks you where your guardian is. You're confused and you look around the room, almost asking how you could possibly know as you were in surgery for the last hour, but instead you just stare at her clavicle, unable to look anywhere else any longer, and mumble something that amounts to I don't know. But then it doesn't matter because she appears and you wonder why it mattered where she was since she's not you, not a patient, not staying here the night.

They wheel you to your new room with eight beds but only two other patients. They lie you down and your boss tells you that she brought you some things--towels, toothbrush, toothpaste--and that she'll be back in the morning, that you should sleep, not to worry about work, that your coworker will e-mail your parents, let them know you're not dead or dying, just hospitalised. You nod, maybe, and give your head to the pillows, to dreamless sleep of pretty nurses stealing your blood, touching you, laughing at you.

In the morning your coworker arrives and brings you a book, a pad, and a pen. She sits with you a bit and talks about things you can't remember or really express properly. No one feeds you and no one tells you why because, probably, they can't. You watch the trays of food go to your roommates, the nurses look at you sheepishly, smile, laugh, and leave. Your boss arrives and tells you that it's important to start moving around, to not sleep too long, to urinate and so on. When she leaves, you venture out, follow her advice. You pull your IV with you everywhere but there's only the one hallway so you walk up and down it maybe ten times, your movements rickety, sore, the gait of an incontinent septuagenarian, but you persist if only to keep the nurses smiling, giggling, because already you can tell that you've become the source of their amusement, which you somehow didn't pick up on because of the nervous way they come to your bed to poke, inject, adjust your pain medication, ask if you're in pain.

You fall asleep again and when you wake up a middle aged man is stroking your head, calling you his son. Through his broken english, your broken korean, you come to realise and understand that he has a son your age and so you spend time with him, not so much talking, but simply sharing space, communicating without words, and it's enough, just feeling someone close, someone who cares, even if only vicariously, even if only because you remind one another of someone else, someone you both wish was here, could hear you, see you, be near you.

When you wake up again he's gone. And the next three days go by in this manner. Nurses come and go, as does the man with a son who is not you. Your friends visit you and talk with you a bit. No one feeds you for the first full day you're there, which puts you at about 48 hours without food, but, eventually, they give you a bowl of rice that you can't even finish. You wander the hallway, the nurses laugh, you smile. Your pain medication runs out after the first day and the nurses keep asking you if you're in pain [in korean] to which you reply in the affirmative, to which they nod, then walk away, bringing no more chemical relief, though no one tells you why. A doctor comes occasionally to wash your wound: weird puckered lips sutured shut. They don't say a word to you, simply lift off the bandage, wipe it, disinfect it, rebandage it.

Mostly you spend your time watching the walls, studying the nurses, watching your roommates, who seem to sleep here but leave in the morning, only to return again at night. You do not speak because there is nothing to say, no one to say it to.

On the second night you tell your nurse that she's pretty, that you like her mole. She smiles but you don't know if it's because she always smiles at you or because she understood you. You tell her to stay with you and she smiles again and walks away and you stare at the ceiling, your mind wandering for miles and centuries, but you keep drawing her clavicle in your mind, the lines of her neck leading to her mole, to the squareness of her jaw.

After three days in the hospital your boss arrives to check you out. She talks with the nurses who laugh even more. Your boss tells you that your being here made their week, that they think you're handsome [which makes you laugh because you've looked in the mirror at least once over the last three days and you know that you look like the rabid dead], and then one of them calls you Handsome Guy, which seems to be your name in korean, no matter where you go, no matter how awful you look. They hand you a bag of medicine without instructions and no one bothers to tell you much about anything, and your boss drives you home, telling you about a massacre on an island off the coast of Korea, but mostly you're out the window, thinking about the hole in your abdomen and the pain there and how there is now a part of you that will never leave this place.

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edward j rathke

Getting foppish since '96.

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