It's hard to realize that your parents are living creatures that will one day die just like everything else does. I was fifteen years old when death became a real concern, not just a far-off possibility. The funny part is that she only went in for routine surgery. I remember the day she came home, just a little scared, and told me and my sister that she was going to have her gall bladder removed.
I took the news academically at first: Mom's going to have a piece of her body removed. It was only later, during the slow march of months that she lay in the hospital bed that I really considered what had happened to her. The violation.
Of course, there was a subsequent lawsuit. The nearsighted surgeon, somewhere in his middle seventies, had committed an elementary error. We learned later that it is standard operating procedure for a surgeon to order blood work, to check for the presence of an elevated white blood cell count, before any kind of invasive surgery. A high white count would mean infection, and you shouldn't perform surgery if your patient has an active infection. Mom had undiagnosed pneumonia.
Throughout all of this, my sister and I stayed with my grandma in a huge, decaying duplex that still had the capped-off iron pipes from when gas lamps lit every room. All the rooms were huge, with ceilings well over ten feet and ripply, uncooperative windows that had ropes on the inside. The ropes were connected to lead weights inside the walls that helped counter-balance the weight of the windows. Two or three of them even worked. But what you noticed first was the smell.
What is it about an old person that makes their house smell like piss? I never saw grandma soil herself, never found any unspeakable underwear in the basement when I did the wash, but there it was grandma's house reeked of urine. The carpet, the drapes (both blood-red), even the walls themselves were impregnated with the sugary-acrid smell of old urine. We didn't know it the day that we arrived, the day Mom went in for her surgery, but my sister and I would be condemned to live in that urine-soaked house for the next three years.
It is called peritonitis. I listened to the doctor (a different doctor than the one who performed the surgery) as he explained that my mother's entire visceral cavity was filled with infection. That cavity is called the peritoneum, so when it becomes infected peritonitis. The doctor went so far as to tell us, as we sat in the hospital chapel on little orange plastic chairs, that peritonitis is ninety-five percent fatal. He wanted to prepare us for the likelihood that Mom was about to die. On the way home I called my sister a stupid bitch, because she kept referring to Mom's perineum, which everybody knows is the little piece of flesh between your genitals and your asshole (well, I had learned it in Health class that year; I always seemed to remember things better than the other kids).
After we got home, grandma slapped me in the mouth for calling my sister names. I went to bed that night with the coppery taste of blood in my mouth. I kept recalling her face; how flushed with anger it was while she was hitting me. Her bottom plate kept threatening to pop out of her mouth, and the corners of her mouth had yellow, foamy spittle on it as she screamed in my face, over and over, "You filthy bastard! You filthy bastard!" My sister just stared at me with a face as white as fresh linen as I cried my way upstairs and into bed.
My mother stayed in the hospital, in a private room, for ten months. I remember visiting her only once, about six months in. White bands of tape held a tube in her nose, a tube in her mouth, a tube in her arm, a tube in her chest, and a sort of small forest of tubes, all sprouting from her grossly swollen belly like rhizopus mold, which we had grown on slices of bread in Biology that year. Her belly was swollen up like a woman in the last stages of pregnancy with triplets; you could actually see it straining against the staples that were holding the incisions shut. The flesh around each staple was red like a mosquito bite, and there were smears of yellow iodine on her belly. There was a long incision that went from just under her right breast to her navel, then a shorter incision that bisected the long one about where you think your liver would be. It was from the intersection of the two incisions that the tube forest sprouted from. There were four or five IVs hanging from aluminum poles, and two clear canisters on the floor to the right of the bed. The abdominal tubes led into these canisters. One was half-filled with what looked like urine; the other was only slightly filled with black blood and something greenish. While grandma stood at the doorway like a short, fat sentry (in case I should try to bolt from the room), I approached my Mom and leaned over her face. Her eyes fluttered open once but the only word I heard was a muttered, wheezy, "'ove-oo." I leaned over and kissed her on the lips they felt like hot, dry paper. "I love you too, Mom. You're gonna get better," was all I could manage to say. She nodded slightly and we left. I never visited her in the hospital again. I couldn't.
A few months after that visit, the hospital bill came in the mail. Mom had no insurance because by this time, she hadn't worked in over a year. Her last job was at the IRS where she worked as a seasonal tax examiner. The bill helpfully described that Medicare had paid a portion of the outstanding balance. I don't remember how much Medicare paid but I do remember the overdue balance. My grandma and I laughed until, literally, we cried and hugged each other as the forgotten bill fell to the floor. It came to four hundred and fifty thousand dollars. What got us laughing was the line at the bottom of the bill that read: "Please remit your payment with check, credit card or money order to the address listed on the back of the bill."
Another helpful item, included with the bill, was a flyer that proudly announced that the hospital had instituted a policy whereby family members of a patient could donate blood to offset the amount of blood that the patient had used. The program specified that for each pint of blood donated by a family member, eight dollars would be deducted from the bill. Grandma asked me to do it, but I said no. For the next several weeks, grandma went to the hospital twice a week to donate her share. I just didn't see that it was worth it to save such a small portion of such a huge bill. Plus, I was scared that I'd end up like Mom, swollen and pinned to a hospital bed like a blood-filled tick.
A couple of days later, grandma had a big dinner for all the family. Dinners were an institution at my grandma's house. She came from Hazard County, Kentucky and grew up cooking for nine brothers and two sisters. As the oldest sibling, she grew up acting like a second mother to the younger children. She had dropped out of school in sixth grade in order to do for them. We found out much later that she had been routinely assaulted by both her brothers and her father. They worked all day in the coal mines and vented their impotent anger and frustration between her legs. Anyway, this particular dinner was special because my Uncle Tom would be back from the Road. He was a traveling musician and spent most of the year on tour.
We sat down to dinner that day prepared to enjoy grandma's best down-home cookin'. She had made beef neck bones and gravy, mashed potatoes, turnip greens and corn on the cob. I remember the menu because I was looking down at my plate when grandma sidled up to my left side and unrolled something on my plate. There were gasps all around the table as I looked down at the thing on my plate. It was a hospital belly-press. It was something like a wide girdle, with thick cotton padding in the middle to soak up any blood or pus that would seep through the incisions. This one was so soaked with my mother's blood and yellowish to greenish secretions that it had soaked all the way through to the other side. The smell that hit my nostrils was hot road-kill. My grandma screamed into my ear, "You won't give blood to save your mother's LIIIIFE!!"
I don't remember thinking. I stood up, grabbed the table edge in front of me, and flipped it over. Neck-bones and gravy splashed to the floor as I yelled "Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!" Over and over again. My sister, her boyfriend, Uncle Tom and his floozy-of-the-week, and several other friends of the family pushed back from the table, yelling wordlessly. I turned to run out of the kitchen when my grandma yelled, "You goddamn-dirty, lousy son-of-a-bitch!" Something hit me between the shoulder blades and I was out the side door, down the steps and running up the street. The pain between my shoulder blades got worse and worse, then suddenly eased up as I ran. I heard a weird clatter behind me and turned around to see a bloody butcher knife, lately used to cut up the neck bones, lying on the sidewalk behind me. She had stabbed me.
Mom came home about a month later. I wish I could say that grandma got in trouble for what she did, but she didn't. Things calmed down and grandma's rages became less frequent. Mom stayed in a hospital bed in the living room for two years before she recovered enough to return to work. The surgeon settled with our lawyer and Mom's entire bill was forgiven. She received nothing for pain and suffering. We heard later that the surgeon had left the hospital and had gone to work for the VA. Grandma died my senior year in high school. I still have the scar in my back and I suppose I still have a scar in my mind. I learned so many things those years. Everyone is mortal. Everyone is fallible. Everyone is at the mercy of indifferent forces. Everyone hurts. And I loved my grandma.