It was light in the operating theatre. Bright. Two large disks cast white rings on a patient’s torso. My torso, trapped in the sterile amber of surgical lighting. Three cords stuck on my body. Two on my breastplate. One on my rib. My arm was velcroed to a black padded table with a pulse oximeter chewing my nail. Everything I saw was slow. Measured. To the hibernating beat of the beep, beep. An anaesthetic breathing mask hung over my nose, my lips, until it went foggy. And again came the beep, beep. Then nothing.
When I think of the time I lost while I was under, I see the closing stanzas of an Anne Carson poem. In ‘The Glass Essay’, the female narrator contextualises the appearance of apparitions by grieving through the literature of Emily Brontë. ‘Very much like Nude #1. / And yet utterly different. / I saw a high hill and on it a form shaped against hard air… I saw it was a human body’. I imagined that these visions were mirror images of herself, radiating through different dimensions, finding what she needs in a body of text written by another. The narrator’s visions of bodies are distant, but they remain recognisable, familiar. Like if I were to look down at the operating table and see my own body.
I woke up from my artificial slumber feeling as though I was at the bottom of a pool. An empty pool. Looking up, looking out. It was a lost feeling—I remember thin air. It was bitter in my mouth, breath, veins. I lifted up the polycotton gown to look at my abdomen. It was round and orange, from the gases pumped into my diaphragm, from the iodine applied to my skin. The shape was unknown to me. It didn’t belong to me. My underwear had been removed, replaced with mesh post-op panties carefully pulled up by someone else. And my body was distorted, warped as though seen in the mirrors of a funhouse. Utterly different.
I peeled off the bandage that covered my belly button. In my mind, the poem continued: ‘trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off the bones. / And there was no pain’. I felt nothing. I pulled on the white gauze and elastic adhesive and felt nothing, no pain, besides the tiny white hairs tearing off with the tape. There was a cherry-red incision in the depths of my naval cavity, and clear wires were knotted to keep the skin from peeling away. Trying to stand against the winds so terrible that the flesh. I continued, searched in the hollows of my hips for more wounds, man-made cuts unfamiliar to me, cut into me by someone behind a cloth mask.
In The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison distinguishes cuts, the wounds she inflicted on herself, from interior damage: ‘While wounds open to the surface, damage happens to the infrastructure—often invisible, often irreversible’. I could not see the damage, the reason, the cells multiplying beneath my skin, so I substituted it with the stitches. Like most wounds, cuts heal and scars form and become symbols for the damage they cover, whatever may lie beneath. Something deeper. Like how a doctor, my surgeon, believed my ovary was probably too damaged to produce any more eggs. Even if they could save its delicate structure, my body would never be symmetrical. My mirror was broken. ‘Not my body, not a woman’s body’, continues Anne Carson, ‘it was the body of us all. / It walked out of the light’. Still I feared losing the architecture of my body, the ropy scaffolding cradling my pain.
As soon as I was more conscious, they pushed me back to my hospital room. There were three corners to the journey. Left, another left, then right, but all I could see were the lights. As the nurse steered my tall bed, I counted the ceiling tiles. One, two, three, an LED light. One, two, three, another LED light. All the way back. Then she locked the bed’s wheels and excused herself, turned, resumed her regular pace. I was left to rest—that’s what she instructed—but a metaphysical awareness weighed upon me, made it hard to breathe. A body-shaped dent formed on the plastic foam mattress. Rest seemed inconsequential to my body. Not since the beginning of time, not for 4.6 billion years, when Earth started spinning, has anything been at rest.
For centuries it was thought that an object’s natural state was one of rest, because of Aristotle’s theory of gravity, the one about a heavy object falling faster than a lighter one. This hypothesis went uncontested until Galileo’s thought experiment seventeen centuries later: if someone climbed to the top of the tower of Pisa and dropped two objects, their speeds as they fell would increase at the same rate, regardless of their weight. Heavy as a hammer or light as a feather, those were their governing laws of motion.
It took something like another hundred years from then for us to understand how these laws of physics really worked, for our perception to alter. Time was more abstract. In the end, what advanced our understanding of time was our knowledge of light. It was Einstein who first understood that the speed of light was the standard, whether the object was in motion or not, based on the theory of relativity. He proposed that time was no longer universal. And with that came the phenomenon of time dilation: if two hypothetical observers are under two different gravitational pulls, the passage of time will be different. And since then, time has been something personal, perceivable. Still, intangible.
I needed this theory to understand my own experience as I drifted further into the ether of hospital gown shadows. Still I tried to make myself ready for the nurse when she came to check on me, came to escort me to the toilet, as was routine. I pulled the white sheets away from my legs and tried to get out of the platform bed, jerking my body to the bed’s edge. It was the first time I had moved significantly with the stitches in my body. Gravity seemed to be working harder than I remembered, so I rocked into a seated position. My movement pulled something out of my side. Blood. I saw it a moment later, filling the catheter, extending from my body. The liquid that was sucked into the drainage bag was still vibrant and fresh, diluted only slightly by some surgical antiseptic. With my legs dangling from the bed, like two hands of a clock jammed in a loop, I waited for the blood to stop.
Hours passed like days as I reconfigured my internal clock to a new routine of sleeping and waking. My phone read 04:05, but it was not the screen’s blue light that woke me. There was a woman screaming. Her voice echoed down the hallway. It was sudden and the voice was deep, as if it had a life all of its own. Or maybe it was my own pain that had woken me. My body wanted so badly to join in and scream. I wondered if she must have been giving birth, for the screaming continued. We were mirror images of each other, inverted, flipped, and she sounded both close and far away from me. It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all. I tried to suppress my own pain as if it would help her. And I bit my tongue in fear of overburdening the nurses on the night shift.
Yes, it was still night-time, I could see it through the vertical blinds, the darkness in the sky, and the city lights on the horizon. I did not know then how many million times faster the lights were moving than the cries, but it struck me as a paradox to call the early morning tranquil. Yet somehow it was, as if time were standing still for the infant’s life to begin, and for me to wait and listen while it happened.
I once read that it takes four light years for the stars in outer space to reach our field of view. It was in the last chapter of a book—a fictional world constructed for the character Hilde Møller Knag—once on my school’s reading list. I remember it only because that summer I became fascinated by the stars in the evening sky. Stargazing made me feel as if I were in a sci-fi universe, time-travelling, and the sense of my smallness humbled me, made me feel unbelievably young in comparison. It was also the summer my abdominal pain began. Weeks later my parents sat me down to share their hypothesis of my aching. They thought it was pregnancy. They were wrong. I dismissed it as paranoia and continued to ignore my symptoms.
It seemed like a long time until I called for a nurse, but my phone told me otherwise. The pain came from wounds deep inside me. It was a different pain than what I was used to, the pain I lived with since high school. It was sharper, and pinched with every word. So I spoke only on inhales, small wheezes, and sour gasps.
The nurse arrived swiftly and wheeled the intravenous stand from the corner of the room to my bed, then left to get a bag of clear liquid. She might have said it was paracetamol or some other sedative as she hung it like an hourglass on the stand. I watched gravity pull the fluid down and saw it disappear into the exposed veins of my hand. With my bed still in its lightning-bolt position, I tried to synchronise my breathing with the IV drip to try to make the sun rise faster.
I walked down the same corridor I had walked the day before, when I was awaiting surgery. It had been just twenty-four hours since, like the Sylvia Plath poem, I’d ‘given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses / And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons.’ What I remember most is the surgeon rushing through the hallway in his crisp white coat. When he saw me, he hesitated for a moment, unsure if it was really me or just a reflection. He said I looked better, like a visitor, said that he almost didn’t recognise my form no longer resting on the operating table. There was a figure like me in the window and in it I saw that I still wore the IV cannula, now a splitter, under the skin of my left hand. He, too, must have seen how the bruise around it spread.
I suppose he was complimenting his own handiwork as much as he was me; as if we were now somehow related, proximal. We were only five floor tiles apart. Yet we were caught in our own perceptions, with light years between us. Reflecting on the moments the solar system’s only star was concealed by the moon, Annie Dillard writes in Total Eclipse, ‘My mind was going out; my eyes were receding the way galaxies recede to the rim of space.’ Could the surgeon and I have been looking at the same entity but receding in different directions? It was as if we were looking at two different versions of my body: one recovering and one already accomplished. Something was lost in the speed with which he worked. Something to do with sight. And it could not span the hospital tiles of the gynaecology ward.
When I was back in the tall bed, a young nurse held up the plastic bag attached to the catheter to see how much blood had left my abdomen. A hundred millilitres. No more since the day before. She said I could leave, be discharged, and locked a section of the tube to remove my drainage pocket. My fear grew when the tube was removed. Droplets of blood from the catheter fell onto the white sheets. It was just four little droplets. Next, she removed the large white bandage for me to see where the clear tube entered my body, so that I could see how my skin had already started to close its aperture on the synthetic object. She said I should exhale on the count of three, but she couldn’t see that my breath was not strong enough to do so. Or she chose not to see. I couldn’t resist, and she likely had more patients to attend to, so she began to count. One. I tried to speak. Two. My eyes expanded. Three—a weak exhalation. I felt every millimetre of the plastic tubing rub past my skin, but the catheter was only halfway out. It sounded like an untimely laugh, but I could not breathe otherwise. Then without hesitation, without counting, she pulled again. Then placed a new gauze on my hip.
It was about a week later when I went to the gynaecologist for a check-up. She remarked on how well I was walking, still hunched over but able to lift up my feet. She instructed me to sit in a familiar chair, the one with wide stirrups. Next to it was the monitor I had grown accustomed to reading. When she was ready, I could see the black and white shapes that indicated my womb. She started by examining the healthy ovary, filled with brilliant beads of glowing light. I had seen pictures from the camera sent through my belly button, but in this abstraction, my ovary was more beautiful than I remembered. On the grainy monitor, I could see each egg, all at different stages of development, growing like healthy bulbs inside my body. Bright. But as she moved the ultrasound to the left, a familiar pain came over me. I dared not breathe and strained to look. The ovary seemed withered, weak, and small. They were stars on the monitor, already burnt out. I wondered if they would cycle back into my body and grow. I could make out no glowing little eggs and neither could she. A constellation lost to poor health.
In the closed system of the hospital, time slips and spills in different magnitudes, different measurements. It matches itself to the structure of the head nurse’s schedule and the swift pace of a paramedic’s call, but also to the even spaces between heartbeats and the long pain of misdiagnosis. Time is a body all its own, with an equally complex anatomy, delicate and unstable.