My I.V. monitor wakes me up with its incessant dinging, progressively getting louder. My Baxter 0.9% Sodium Chloride Solution Injection was at the end of its 1000 ml. It’s twenty after three in the morning. My nurse comes in shortly after to check vitals, another lab tech comes in to draw blood. Somehow she misses my vein twice, and on the third try I can feel her move the needle around in my arm, like she was fishing for her car keys at the bottom of a bloody purse. I hate needles. I hate needles like Indiana Jones hates snakes… like Columbus in Zombieland hates clowns… like The Chicago Cubs hate winning playoff games.
I don’t go back to sleep. My roommate sleeps through the whole thing. He’s a ‘Nam vet who is weighing the option of open heart surgery. I’m 37, recently diagnosed with high blood pressure (the Filipino Kryptonite to our otherwise superior genetics), and the meds I’m on put me into acute renal failure (which sounds way more dramatic than it is–although technically my kidneys stopped working which can’t be good, right?). I’m flipping through channels aimlessly from my bed. The 4AM television wasteland is littered with farm reports and infomercials and pre-perky morning talk show news. The early morning news is either a thirty minute broadcast snooze bar or an even grimmer wake-up call– getting all the bad news out of the way while half asleep so you don’t have the higher lobe functions to process it before Al Roker and the rest of the Today Show are chowing down on some super quick, snappy, ten minute breakfast idea from Wolfgang Puck or the obnoxious British chef who swears at people (no, the other one). It doesn’t matter. I’m not really watching.
I’m laying in a hospital bed and thinking about a pair of friends. One here. One gone. Both spent more time than I have in hospitals than I have. Both dealt bad hands by genetics. I sat on the sidelines and watched one fight for each day she wasn’t supposed to have. I cheered her on when I could, backed away when I was afraid of my own mortality reflected in her face. I thought about her, helped stage a benefit for her with friends and loved ones, wrote to her and about her. I forgot her. I forgot her in the way you forget days, weeks, and months when life, work, and its ebbs and flows carry you along. I forgot like I was half awake for my friend, her days laying in a hospital bed scrubbed away for me by equally novocanning distractions like Ebay purchases, fighting over parking spaces, determining which iPod color defines me as a person. It’s easy to do. We have to do it. But we’ll feel guilty doing it, too.
And we’ll do it again.
I recently read that another old friend of mine was also diagnosed with cancer. She’s a fighter, too. I read her Facebook post, her blog, and thought about what she has to be going through. She’s had a myriad of health problems (none of her doing). And I thought about my own health issues and how much of it was self-inflicted–choices of the half awake but fully aware. That’s changed in the last month since I’ve been here in Springfield; I’ve finally answered my wake up call, surrounded by a community at Quiddity which has been beyond supportive (they’re some of the best people I’ve ever met). But still, here I am, fairly deserving of the uphill climb out of my self-dug ditch, and here’s somebody who has done the right things and her body keeps letting her down. I doubt she’d see it that way, because she’s just that strong. I don’t have words for that kind of strength. Find me someone who does.
When my friend J passed away, we all mourned. We told stories. We said goodbye in our own ways. We wrote. We cried. Went through the cycle of grief and grieving. We knew that there would be a space in our hearts still and silent for her, a tiny room in our minds forever closed off to new insights from her. We also knew, for some of us, when we said “we need to stay in touch,” it was not going to happen. It’s not malice. It’s life. We want to draw everyone in until we know we can’t, so we don’t. Well, some don’t. We go back to our lives, pick up, and move on. Natural. Process. No revelations here. How we change or who we are afterwards depends on our own ability to come to terms with our own fate and how we see our days spread out ahead of us. It’s a thought you have to carry alone. You can talk to others about it, you can process it out loud, you can go to therapy, but where it takes you and the choices on its guiding direction our in your hands and yours alone. Sometimes we table the discussion, unknowingly for years. Sometimes, you allow for your distractions to be more distracting than they should be. If you’re like me, you think about it too much and you chase distraction down like a baserunner caught in between third and home.
In the morning, I’ll be discharged. My kidneys will be back to normal functions. They’ll find a kidney stone, but it’s tiny and not obstructing anything. I’ll go the record store on my way home from the hospital. I’ll buy Badfinger. I’ll buy Koko Taylor. I’ll buy Van Morrison. I’ll buy Men at Work. Come Sunday afternoon, I’ll lock myself out of the 24 hour gym I’ve been going to for the last month, excited by the fact that I’ve dropped 15 pounds. I’ll eat the rest of my salmon and rice. I won’t turn on the television until late into weekend when I fall asleep in the living room to Freaks and Geeks.
I’ll be distracted, but I’ll be wide awake.
Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, PANK Magazine, Drunken Boat, and other journals. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. He lives in Springfield.