Part 25. Morphine Dreams
I awake in the recovery room. So they tell me. I really don’t remember.
I remember slowly folding out of sleep into a private room on one of the surgical wards. I hear the tap-tap-tap of Nicole’s fingers on the laptop. I haven’t fully opened my eyes yet, but from the nature of the sound and the glow beyond my eyelids, I figure she is by the window.
I keep eyes closed, unsure I can speak. My throat feels bloated, as if I’ve swallowed a hamper of the boys’ sweat socks.
I am alive, which I decide is a good thing. I don’t hurt; also good.
I’m not ready to test movement. I decide to play possum a bit longer, until fully ready to rejoin the world of mirth and magic. I fall back asleep.
Soon, I’m aware of hospital sounds outside the door: dull chimes, no doubt full of meaning for nurses. Muffled conversations, punctuated by occasional loudmouths. Intermittent laughter. Rubber wheels navigate carts down hallways. The sounds remind me of that old Chad Everett television show: Medical Center, Doctor Gannon; Medical Center, Doctor Gannon. I await the sound of a page — for him, or Marcus Welby, or Ben Casey.
Then the sounds grow in volume, meaning my door is fully opened. I hear the soft tread of sneakers and know someone has entered. Nurse Sneakers speaks softly, Nicole answers in kind. I have no energy to speak and mute expectations by pretending to sleep. Nurse Sneakers leaves and there’s no further need to pretend.
The sky turns to rock. I am in an open boat with Stephen Crane and President Kennedy. It is not a cave. The sky grows overcast and clouds harden into stone. It is cold, and we’re lost, without oars or paddles. We tread water with our hands, but all we do is circle. We are trapped, caught in a whirlpool, in a natural sink drain. We keep paddling but merely delay the inevitable.
I feel rustling at bedside. Somewhere down there, around my waist, I feel the tug of adjustments. I hear pouring. I am no doubt catheterized, but I feel nothing of Mister Happy. I know that there’s another thing down there — an appliance in the hospital’s euphemistic lexicon — but I’m not ready to deal with it. I’m too weak and sickened by he thought of it. Whoever is down there now, reaching under the sheets, let them deal with it.
Modesty is an ancient, alien concept. I no longer care about strangers viewing my body, even my manhood in repose. I don’t care if the nurse — assuming this sheet rustler is a nurse — pulls back the covers and lays my carcass bare for the entire staff to behold. I am so tired, so beyond caring. It’s as if I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name. Yet all I’ve done is lay on a table, let a man cut me open and fashion for me a new rectum from spare parts.
He wears new white linen, trying on his robes in the shadow of a dune. He prances, watching his phantom dance on the shifting desert floor. He is unaware that Anthony Quinn watches from horseback nearby. He sees him and starts, then Quinn becomes young Anakin Skywalker. ‘I hate sand,’ Anakin says, and Peter O’Toole pulls out his magnificent gold dagger and cuts off Anakin’s ridiculous braid.
I hear whispers, but I’m too busy being delirious to answer. All afternoon (I suppose it is afternoon), I slip in and out. Hospital sounds rise and fall, as if on the current. There’s the tap-tap-tap from the laptop and at one point, I see small faces — children, mine — at the bedside.
I drift — or so it feels. Everything is white. Faces of children come and go. In and out; I am there, then not there.
Corwin comes in, and I wake. I don’t hear much of what he says, except, “You did great.”
I didn’t do anything, I think. I just laid there and you worked your magic.
But I don’t feel very magical.
We’re going up endless steps, a spiral staircase suspended in clouds. Someone is ahead of me but I can’t see who it is. Someone is behind me, but I’m going too fast, so I slow down and turn around. ‘Here,’ I say, ‘come on.’ Then I see it’s my father. ‘Go ahead,’ he says. ‘I’ll catch up.’ He waves me on. ‘Go, Son,’ he says, ‘I’ll be right behind.’
At some point, I hear mumbled goodbyes as Nicole tells the boys to kiss me. I’m sorry Daddy’s so boring, dudes. Don’t know if I say that or just think that.
Later, a nurse comes in.
“Mr. McKeen,” she whispers.
“I’m awake,” I say, only a blip on the volume meter. In my judgment, I sound pathetic. “I just haven’t opened my eyes yet.”
“How are you feeling?”
In my mind, I wait a couple of hours to answer. It’s probably only a few seconds. “I’m not. Feeling.”
“That’s the morphine.”
“That’s what Doctor Corwin prescribed for your pain. Are you feeling any pain?”
“Oh. No.” (Long pause, perhaps a week or two.) “No.”
Then: “I’m not really. Feeling. Anything.”
“I’m going off shift soon,” she says. “I’ll bring in Helene when she gets in. She’ll be taking care of you overnight. We have to check on you every hour.” She nods toward my midsection. “You have something new, now: your ostemy bag, and then there’s the catheter. And Doctor Corwin left a small drain over here on your left.”
“Good Lord, I’m a mess,” I say. My lips are dry. Did I gargle kitty litter?
“It’s the usual procedure.” She smiles. I don’t know her name and now she’s leaving. “He’s done this hundreds of times before.”
“Lots of practice,” I say, trailing off.
Then she’s gone. Turning toward the window, I see it’s total black. This is April. (It is still April, isn’t it?) Sky this dark must mean it’s 10 or after.
Still tired, not sleepy.
Morphine. I’ve only heard about that stuff in the movies.
I don’t have an unusual drug resume. I smoked dope — as we called it then — back in college. Now and then, I’d smoke something exotic, like opium or hashhish.
I did cocaine a few times in the 1970s; my source was the local prosecutor. The old saying is true: “cops have the best drugs.”
But generally, my narcotic career was short and easy to cast aside when I figured out — after a year of being stoned every night — that I wasn’t doing anything.
But there was a drug I did only one time that left me deeply in love: mescaline.
I’d had LSD once in college but it didn’t seem to do much for me. I didn’t see God; I just tried to eat a throw pillow.
Mescaline, ingested one night with a couple of friends, was a wonderful hallucinogenic experience. Though that night was interrupted by shafts of paranoia (I am, deep down such a straight arrow), by dawn I’d had the sort of mystical experience I’d only heard about. I ended up on the hardwood floor of an upstairs hallway listening to a sunrise and declaiming verse to a dog.
I never did it again. That first night would’ve been a hard act to follow. You never forget your first time.
So now, four decades later, morphine coursed through my veins and it was all legal.
Helene comes on duty and shows me all of my new appendages. From my left side there’s a long, hard plastic straw protruding from my lower abdomen, turned burgundy by my blood. A rubber tube runs from Mister Happy into a swelling urine bag and then there’s the thing I most dread seeing: my ostemy bag.
“Don’t worry about this now,” Helene says. She holds a bucket under the bag, then twists a knob to open a spigot. A disgusting liquid spews forth. “We’ll take care of this until you feel better and can do it for yourself.”
Oh Jesus, I can’t wait.
“It looks worse than it is,” she says. “You’ll get the hang of it. We have an ostemy nurse who’ll come see you tomorrow.”
Morphine. I don’t think I’m high. I’m just sleepy.
I kept having those dreams — short, vivid little dramas, miniature, compressed movies with Lillian Gish, Wendell Wilkie and a cast of thousands, with a musical score by Bernard Herrmann.
Helene empties my collections of blood, urine and excrement. “Try to get some rest,” she says, turning off the light as she leaves.
For a long time, I lay there. I close my eyes but even though it’s the middle of the night, I can’t sleep. I’m wide awake.
What kind of drug is morphine? I always thought it was something that knocked you the fuck on your ass. It’s not like cocaine, is it? I’m kind of wired, like all of a sudden, I’m wired. If I hadn’t just had surgery and been tied down with these bags and tubes and shit, yeah, if it wasn’t for that, I think I’d be break-dancing down there on the floor or duck-walking my way to the nurses’ station — that’s exactly how wired I am now.
Closing the eyes isn’t working. I open up and look at the ceiling. There’s movement, like a reenactment of the Anzio Beach invasion. Seems like this side over here is moving across the room, all across the ceiling. But it can’t be, it’s just a ceiling, it’s an ugly fucking institutional example of acoustical tiles.
I reach for the bedside switch and the light comes on. The beach invasion is over but I see letters and numbers on the ceiling in place of the armed forces. I squint and concentrate on the tiles, but I can’t make out what they say. I fumble around for my glasses. Where are those fucking glasses? I find them and put them on, but now the shapes — they look like mostly numbers, a collection of sixes and nines — start dripping from the ceiling, falling toward me. But before they can reach me and I can decipher their messages, they dissolve. Then another round of letters and numbers appears and begin to fall, then dissolve before they get to me.
For now, the figures appear and attack and then disappear.
Finally, I call Helene.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” I tell her. “I keep seeing these things and they look like they’re falling on me and then they disappear. It’s driving me crazy. I can’t sleep. Can I have something else to help me sleep?”
“It’s the morphine,” Helene says. “It sometimes causes hallucinations. I’ll talk to Doctor Corwin when he makes rounds in the morning, but we can’t just switch you to something else.”
“Can I just stop taking this, though?” I ask. “I don’t like this stuff.”
“We’ll stop the drip,” she says. “By morning, it’ll work its way out and we’ll see where we go from there.”
She leaves me again and dims the lights — not so dim that I can’t see those fucking numbers and letters dripping.
My head feels as if it’s being tossed around an arena of needles. A thousand ciphers and characters fall from the ceiling and gravity empties my body of its principles.
Day One post surgery is pretty miserable and a song lodges in my head: “‘There must be some way out of here,’ said the joker to the thief.”
That’s all I want: some way out of here.