I’m home. I’m home and I’m incorrigible.
I leave with my suitcases, I cry that I gotta go. I come home, I get crazy, wanting there to be something here there just ain’t. I miss Yuri. I probably just need to eat a square meal that I made on my own stovetop and kiss my boyfriend. Both, probably, but I can’t have both.
Let me tell you something I learned when I was very sick. A serious warning: if you are squeamish, you should go.
* * *
When I was very sick after my first surgery, there were a lot of things going wrong. The surgeons at Mayo Clinic removed the whole of my colon and gave me an ileostomy. (I’ll let you go ahead and google image search that one on your own, dear.) The surgery didn’t go well. When surgery doesn’t go well, entropy sets in. Your organs cannot possibly imagine why they’ve just lost one of their own, and this leads to riots. The magnificent — albeit deeply distressed — body then reacts to both the loss and the incoming foreign invaders, fighting back with inflammation, abscess, and government shutdown. You are in another land when you are that sick. Nothing you knew makes sense; you carry nothing into the New World.
There was leak in the revised plumbing the doctors crafted in me. Trust me on this one if you trust me at all: avoid the experience of leaking internally.
I won more in the lottery: my fancy new ileostomy was suppurating on the inside and the outside within a day of my surgery. Among other problems, I had a separation, which meant the skin around the stoma (look it up) was pulling away from the stoma itself. This extraordinary maneuver created a nightmare moat around my stoma where bile, blood, pus, and sh-t did collect. It occurred to me on several occasions that if I were born just a handful of decades earlier — and definitely a century earlier — I would be extremely dead from my predicament. But I would’ve been dead before that. It was cold comfort.
All that bile and blood and sh-t, all that humor had to be cleaned out, darling.
And so it was that a nurse would come to change my ostomy bag and clean out the moat. This would involve taking a long, long Q-Tip and gettin’ up in there. The moat needed excavating. Frequently. Nurse had to insert that long swab into the crevasse between my intestine and my tummy and wick out all the muck.
I left my body during this procedure. This Westerner, this white girl from Iowa had a mantra, a monotone “da-da-da-da-da-da-dummm-da-da-da” that she chanted as she lolled her head from side to side, almost autistic in her zoned-outness, while the cleaning happened. We joke about “going to [our] happy place” but you do, when you have a 8” cotton swab in your abdomen, you do go someplace. And anyplace will do, any place is happier than where you are. It hurt a lot and it was terrifying to experience.
One day, the nurse on duty came into clean my separation. She was but one of the extraordinary GI nurses at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Upon seeing me retreat, emotionally, mentally, spiritually into an almost catatonic state before she began, she stopped.
“You should do it.”
Like someone flipped a switch.
“You should do it, you should clean it out yourself,” she said. “It’s not as bad in there as you think.” She took the swab and put her fingers about an inch up from the cotton wick. “This is as far as it goes down. It’s healing. It’s way better than it was last week. I think if you clean it yourself, you’ll feel better. You won’t be so scared.”
No way did I have the courage. But within a week, that nurse convinced me to clean my own wound. And she was right. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It was beyond disgusting. It was laughably hard. But I did it. And in that beautiful, rare tone that comes from experiencing something truly humorous in the true gallows, I put a sticky swab (4 of 5) on the tray next to my bed and my thin voice creaked out with a chuckle,
“Hey, this stuff builds character, right?”
The nurse, who was not the friendliest nurse in the ward, actually, said, “No, honey. It reveals character you already had.”
I’ve never forgotten that. Don’t you forget it, either.