The emergency room intake attendant side-eyed me in disbelief from under frowning grizzled brows. Holding my pulse with one hand, with the other he was hurriedly filling in my chart with cryptic slashes and numbers.
He looked back down at it on his lap, and glanced at me again. Not really seeing me.
“How is it possible that you’re still alive?” he whispered to himself, oh so quietly, as if in a trance. “You should be dead.”
Not surprised, I just sat silent.
I had neither the energy nor the ability to pay attention to anything but the incessant, excruciating pain in my side.
“I don’t get it it!” he exclaimed. “Your lips are blue! Your hands are ice! Your blood pressure might as well be a submarine — it’s the lowest I’ve ever seen on anyone! You must be the essence of stubborn, to stay alive like this!”
He kept gaping at me, then the chart, then me. Shaking his head in wonder, as if I was some impossible specimen that shouldn’t exist.
Abruptly coming out of his amazement, he aimed his voice out the door and shouted, “GURNEY! NOW!”
In rushed three hefty male interns with a gurney. He gave them instructions. I was so immersed in my pain I didn’t hear them.
They lifted me up as if I was a mere hankie. Any movement sent spears of pain through me. I shrieked, flailing my arms, trying to get them off me. I thought I’d die of torture on the spot.
They were fast, efficient, strapping my arms and body down onto the bed.
“Sorry,” the tall one said, grinning not-sorry-at-all, “can’t have ya hurting yourself … or us!”
They rushed me down a long hall lined with blue-curtained alcoves. Chose one, pushed me in.
Swished the curtains shut.
Shot me up with painkillers, undid the straps. Two of them turned and left.
The remaining one paged the on-call doc.
“An attending will be right here. Don’t go anywhere,” he said, winking.
I just shot him eye-knives. He laughed, plonked my chart folder in a slot on the gurney, pulled aside the drapes and walked out, saying, “You’ll be OK now!”
I sure hoped so.
Helena and Joe, my friends who had brought me here, were allowed into my little cloth cave.
Joe, almost asleep on his feet, muttered, “I have to go — if you need me . . . “
I nodded, thanked him for driving me here, being so willing to help me at a 2 a.m. dash to the ER. He waved a floppy hand, “it’s OK,” and scooted.
Helena stayed. Bless her heart. I told her I’d be alright, she could go, but she insisted on staying. Holding my hand. “I’m keeping guard,” she said. Adamant.
I fell in and out of dozing, waking up to residual agony despite the pain killers they’d given me, moaning, sobbing, falling asleep again, worn out.
What seemed like decades later, two doctors crashed aside the blue curtains of my little cave, rudely shoving Helena aside.
Pulse, BP, overall check, poke, prod.
I screech, “don’t freaking touch me! Especially there … oh my god …”
I come to.
One of the docs is gone, the one left still poking me. I struck his hand aside. “Stop it you asshole! Were you born a sadist or are you just practicing?”
I’d heard that line in a movie ages ago and always wanted to use it. Here was my chance! My language degrades badly when I’m in pain, as well as caring about it.
Dr. Osawa. Small man, short. Scruffy dark hair, shocking grey eyes. Grinned. One of those lips-tight not-including-the-eyes smiles.
“I was born that way,” he hissed, baring his teeth. “I practice every day.”
He inspected the chart, grimacing. “Gallstones. We need to remove the gall bladder ASAP or you will die.” Claps the chart folder closed, ducks out. Evil little shit. Colder than ice.
He peeks his head back in.
“Don’t try to stop surgery! You WILL die!” Pops back out.
How did he know I was thinking not to have surgery? I had been researching gall bladder surgeries. It’s one of the most common procedures in the US, but if at all possible, I wanted to avoid going under the knife.
I knew I had stones, see, and I had been trying various methods to flush them out. I’d thought it had been going well, but surprise surprise, that night a stabbing pain in my right side awoke me so forcefully I fell out of bed and crashed on the floor.
I crawled back up onto the bed. But there was simply not a single position in which to get relief from the pain. Sit up, lie down, one side, the other, on my back, on my belly, knifed over, twisted left, curled right — not one position.
I knew this was it.
I called my friend Joe to come help me get to the hospital. Helena, who had come over the hill from Honolulu, rode with us. I laid in the back of the Volvo whining and bawling the entire trip. Thankfully it was a short ride.
So now I had to choose — I thought — between them taking the gall bladder out, or not.
However, it became very clear that the real choice was take the gall bladder out, or die.
The hospital couldn’t find the doc who did the ‘routine’ gall bladder operations — he was lollygagging on vacation halfway across the world.
So two other doctors were appointed to my case.
I swear they were stand-ins for some crazy circus. I didn’t figure it out until later, but they were stoned out of their minds, arguing right over my bed about which procedure to use.
Apparently you can go in with tiny incisions, and suck the thing out with special tools. But if they chose that way, we had to wait three days for the surgeon who specializes doing that to come back.
The other way was do it now by just opening a hole and cutting the mutinying culprit out.
Their main hesitation was scarring: they didn’t want to leave a bloody scar!
I opened my eyes and told them for crying out loud, cut it open and get the thing out of there — what could be more simple? Who gives a damn about a scar? You can bet I wasn’t about to hang out with this pain for three more days, even if the pain was partially smoothed by the meds!
Next thing I know, I’m waking up in a recovery room.
A woman in the other bed, moaning ceaselessly. I felt sorry for her.
As soon as they knew I was awake, they placed me in my own private room. I slept and slept.
Next day, I awoke to Helena, crooning, holding my hand. She’d come back from town to stay with me as long as I needed. Brought me a card and some pretty flowers for the bedside table. Sweet.
The docs told me the op had been easy, no complications. They tried to give me an old used pill bottle with some disgusting hard gallstones in it.
Seriously? They thought I’d want a souvenir? Like those things could even be mine — they were so dried up and hard they had to be at least a century old! They thought it was hilarious.
They had me on Dilaudid in an IV drip system. Dilaudid is a morphine replacement. After a while, I was practically comatose. They told me I needed it for the “horrible pain you’d feel otherwise.”
I started hallucinating.
I knew I wouldn’t be in pain if they took me off the drip. Don’t ask me how I knew, but I did. I asked them to turn it off. They would not.
The hallucinations turned into gruesome scenarios. It was worse than any acid trip I’d ever been on. It was as if I was wearing one of those 3-d alternate reality face masks — I was right IN the scenes I saw.
Slimy dripping green moss hung from gnarly, deformed tree things. Ropy grey leaves twisted and writhed; curling tendrils of grass-like tentacles reached up through the ground, trying to slide up my ankles.
Hundreds of beings walking, crawling, blindly stumbling around. They looked like someone had ripped entire container loads of giant Raggedy Ann dolls to shreds and sewn them back up wrong.
Some had two arms to a side, others had clawed feet, others had gaping holes with body parts falling out … no faces … some had no heads — worn-burlap bodies sewn with huge jagged stitches as if a three year old had done it, on her first try.
An ancient elevator with rusty open-work wrought iron sides and door creaked and squawked as it hauled groups of these poor creatures up and out of sight to some unknown destination, depositing new ones in their place back down on ground floor level.
A low-level grinding sound reverberated throughout the whole place, as if an earthquake was about to happen, but was too lazy to take it all the way. It made a long, bottomless groaning resonance like razors on the insides of my bones.
There was no sun, no moon, no stars, no source of light that I could pin-point — just a dull half-light. Green-tinged. Enough to see, but not enough to light any one thing up brilliantly.
I’m pretty sure it was the lowest astral plane.
I held my eyes open as long as I could, to try to keep from seeing these things, only closing them or falling asleep when I just could not hold them open one more second.
Every time I shut my eyes, the entire scene appeared in full and exquisite detail.
I told the docs what I was going through, and begged them to please please take me off the meds.
They would not.
They thought I was making it all up.
On the third day, I was utterly frazzled, worn out, afraid to close my eyes. Dread of re-entering that miserable place of misery permeated every cell of my body.
Helena had gone back to Honolulu for work, so I had no advocate.
So I told the docs I’d sue them right down to their small hairs for malpractice if they didn’t take me off the damn stuff right freaking now, and if they did not, I would rip the tube out of my arm myself.
They must not have liked that, since within a half hour it was gone.
I thought, ahhhhh! At last, now I can go to sleep unbothered. I sighed and closed my eyes.
How wrong I was.
I’d forgotten the drug was still in my system. It would take a while for it to lose its effect.
The visions continued.
Not only did they persist, it didn’t matter now whether I closed or opened my eyes. The apparitions were still there.
Eyes closed, I was instantly in the scene.
Eyes open, I’d see it all on the blank wall in front of me across the room.
I panicked, panting in despair, sobbing, unbelieving.
Finally, I remembered to ask for help.
Internally, that is, because certainly no one on this plane of existence could or would help.
In reply to my inner plea, I immediately saw a flame. It was just like the flame of a lit match — just a wee, almost invisible, blue-tinged yellow flame, sitting directly behind my belly button.
I heard, “Focus on that, and all will be well.”
Really? I couldn’t believe it! I ask for help and I get a lit match stick?
I heard again, “Focus on that, and all will be well.”
“OK,” I thought, “what do I have to lose, other than these hideous apparitions? I’ll give it a try.” So I did my best to put all my attention on that little flame.
It was hard at first.
But desperation rules — I did it. I got to the point where every last bit of my attention was centered on that flame.
And just like that — *poof!* — the apparitions disappeared from my mind and my sight.
I started to allow my body to relax. The visions were gone!
But now, right at the edge of my awareness, I could hear/feel an odd sound, like a distant wailing. Like all those beings wanted me to stay, and were profoundly upset that I was leaving. What the hell???
I ignored it. I fell into a deep rejuvenating sleep, awakening a few hours later feeling so much better.
But the memory of that faint wailing tugged on me.
The disconnection from that awful realm, instead of being a relief, made me feel as if I was missing something vitally important.
Something an old mentor of mine once said came to mind out of the blue. She had been teasing me for complaining about some minor ordeal I’d been going through, and said, “You know, every situation is an opportunity to find and share love.”
I laid there, contemplating that.
I got it.
Now I knew what I had to do.
I called back the visions.
And *blammo!* there they were, just as I’d left them. All these despairing beings, headless, broken, badly sewn up, groping around in the slimy twilight atmosphere. The endlessly climbing-falling elevator taking them to who-knew-where, returning others, perpetually crying and howling.
But now it didn’t affect me. I was free of the fear and dread I’d felt before.
I sat down on one of the gleepy green benches, and patted the damp seat the way you do when you want your cat to jump up next to you.
One of the headless beings perked up and sped over to sit beside me. Headless or not, its intention was clear: I want attention! Now!
I no longer thought of them as creepy — just lost, sad, tortured souls. I reached inside my belly and brought out some of my flame, and as it flickered on the ends of my fingertips, handed it to the being.
Gently taking it from me, it plunged its deformed hand into its own belly and placed that little fragment right in the center.
Before my eyes, what had been a hideous living-dying horribly-made doll transformed into a flesh and blood person. Its head appeared, eyes, ears, nose, mouth and hair growing in where there had just been empty space. Its arms filled out, torn, ragged seams and gashes disappeared, its feet lost the claws.
Its face glowed absolutely radiant with gratitude and joy.
I couldn’t contain myself! I jumped up from the bench, so amazed and shocked and delighted. I grabbed its hands and pulled it up and hugged it, and together we spun in circles, threw our heads back, and laughed and laughed and laughed — it was one of the most exhilarating things I have ever experienced.
We sat down again, breathless. We knew what we had to do.
We motioned to everyone to line up for their shares. The line stretched out seemingly forever. I didn’t care, this was beyond fantastic.
That flame was endless.
No matter how many times we pulled out tiny fragments and gave them away, it reignited within ourselves and became whole again.
We lit up every last one of those poor suffering people. We lit up the plants and the animals, even the bugs, releasing them all from the eternal abysmal thrall they had been trapped in for who knows how long.
After the last being was freed, I sat there on that bench and watched them as they danced and laughed and wept with joy. As they embraced, pulled out flutes and hand-drums, sang, whistled, cavorted, raced up and down like little kids, rode that crazy elevator up and down and back . . .
A slow wash of indescribable, un-namable love rolled over me and saturated my entire being.
I closed my eyes to experience the purity, wave after wave sweeping through me — not just my body, but my whole energy system, which seemed to extend out mile upon mile beyond my physicality.
When I opened my eyes again, everyone was gone.
They were free.
I was free.
Thanks for reading my story. I didn’t know how to write the ending without being so abrupt. It seems a bit graceless to me, but — what can you do? If it’s over it’s over.
This all really did happen. It was January, 2009 — the date is etched in my mind. I had just turned 64 exactly a month before. All I could think of on that ride to the hospital was I’m too young to die — especially like this!
Every time I read that last part, I feel my being swell all up, and tears squirt from my eyes — I can still experience that tsunami of love just thinking about it. It’s exquisite.
From Excruciating Pain and Horror to Unending, Exquisite Love
© Angela Treat Lyon
Image: Star Fire
© Angela Treat Lyon 1999
Tons more art: instagram.com/angela.treat.lyon
Prints and originals available. Just ask.