Healing Grace

In rolls Grace, my neighbor, out cold. Seconds later, she's awake and croaking, "Oh, sweet Jesus! Help me!" I'm just back over the line myself, so I stay put. The curtain's drawn between our beds. I wouldn't pull it if I could. I might be sick.

Surgery's like being mugged; you never know what you'll do going under or coming up. On Nembutal, I'm always sharp. I rolled off to the knives this morning memorizing names, numbers, faces, in case I should need to get back alone. I woke up whining, "Ah, ah, my I.V.'s too tight!" Sodium Pentothal. No shame. They gave me a shot. They give Grace a shot. I doze. I'm really concentrating on my first job, which is not vomiting.

Four of us sleep in this room, Grace on my left. By her second bad spell, the curtain's open and I can whisper to her, "You'll feel better." It's easy for me to talk. It's 10 P.M., I've finished my second job--taking a walk--and for me the suspense is over. The first walk is how you know your cut. In England, where I spent a month in hospital years ago, the entire ward watched one patient take her first steps after surgery. She was a blooming, muscular redhead of about thirty, and she was being a good girl, you could see it in her face as she worked at her job: One, two, three, four, five, the end. Then she burst into tears and had to have a chair brought to her where she stood. It's the truth of the cut.

Boy, what a month that was. One room, twentywomen. We ate at one table and had to do ward work (beds, dusting), not for economy but to heal ourselves. Everyone complained. This was years before I came to Washington, met and married Tom, and tried to have our child. It was 1967, and the room hummed with racial tension. I had a Pakistani boyfriend, no emotional reserves, and was forever leaving conversations shaking like a china cupboard. On the whole, I made a good impression, though. I never screamed; I thought they'd throw me out. Only, I was bad at healing. I healed two weeks late. My visa expired, and the minute I got out I had to marry Amir or leave England, but for weeks it was the hospital I spoke of.

Grace has one more bad spell. I have a yogurt. Then we all go to sleep.

I wake up starving: I must be well. I've walked twice to the bathroom with only my I.V. cart for support. And now, as I wait for breakfast, the morning staff rush one by one behind the curtain to advise Grace, who woke up groaning. "You think you have to go, but it's because you have a catheter." They all tell her this; they never ask. This time it's the ward nurse, who leaves at a dead run. Next the voice of Bette Davis: "I shot you up good, didn't I? And now you must help me. You must walk for me." A gaunt tennis type, white coat, white pageboy, rushes out. Whoosh!

A small nurse in a perfect shag rushes in. She says her name is Nell and tells Grace in baby talk, "Now, you had a hysterectomy, so you don't have a uterus, so you won't ministrate anymore." Whoosh! But little Nell skids to a halt.

Across the room, my neighbor Marge, a nice, gray-haired woman, is waiting in bed, alone and pale, for her pre-op sendoff. Nell stops with her perky smile. What is Marge having? Marge has a little speech prepared and she gives it: "Hysterectomy. I'm sort of nervous."

I'd giggle if it didn't hurt. Get out of that one, Nell. But Nell's cool. She pauses just long enough to get a good spin on her rubber soles. "Routine!" she says.

Who teaches bedside manner? My first night here, a surgeon rushed up to the fourth patient in our room, Mrs. Ng, who had been cut that morning and was just surfacing. She had her daughter with her to translate. "Well!" the surgeon said. "We took one out but we left you one." Ovary. She and her daughter said, "Thank you, thank you."

Should I carp? Surgeons have their reasons; nurses, too. At the very least, they have no time. Next, they barely know us. Moreover, they can't heal us. Not as such. Sympathy might promote weakness, I can see that. What can they be but perky or dry? The truth is, I'm only making excuses. I find Nell as irritating as an I.V. I must preferred the night aide, who looked at me as if I'd lost my mind when I asked her to help me walk. I don't mind honest mistakes or even honest neglect, but I won't be talked down to--when I'm talked down to, I fight. On the other hand, when I fight, I always win something--some fact I didn't know. From the resident: side effects of the tubal surgery I didn't have to have. From the morning nurse: my drug's second name. I don't want baby talk, I want theories, facts. I want knowledge. How am I? Why? What are my orders?

My orders are to do what I want. Everyone says this--nurses, internes, my doctor. I want to be better, so I act as if I am. I never ask for help. I urinate alone. I spilled yogurt and cleaned it up on my hands and knees. I clean everything. Except blood; that's their problem. Can I bathe myself, an aide asks, and I practically laugh in her face. I crank my own bed. Oh, then I want a shower? I fell right into that one. I'm great! But I couldn't manage a shower.

I ought to be great. When Grace croaks compliments on my great walking, I brush her off. I had nothing, compared to her. One D. & C., one two-inch slit through the belly. A long look through with the narrow laparoscope. No inside cuts. Alone of my neighbors I'll bring home everything I brought in with me: two tubes, two ovaries, one womb. Not only that--my news was good.

Everything works now. My doctor said so when I woke up last night, before I walked. Half of it didn't work when they looked in by culdoscope, five years ago. The culdoscope showed what was wrong, but not why. It only showed the scars. But bacteria hid inside the scars and spread until in time the whole system was sealed off. Infection shielded the system. Behind that shield, my doctor told me, the scars healed themselves. He gave my stomach a friendly poke as if to say, "That's that."

"Don't make me laugh," I cried. But it was too late. I was laughing. He'd gone. Whoosh!

And I still had one more question.

Little Nell is back, with a vengeance. She's given Grace a plastic pipe with three balls at the end. Grace's job is to blow through the pipe until the balls spin. This will clear the gas off--and with her wound, gas is a real liability. No effort except breathing doesn't hurt--twisting to one side for a shot, even being cranked up in bed, and, God knows, the real terror of the abdominal-surgery convalescent: coughing. But Grace, a remarkably sweet and affable woman who, before surgery, fretted over other people's troubles on the evening news, is considerate even in pain. At night, in her third bad spell, what Grace wailed was "I don't want to be a nuisance!"

I'm working on breakfast. Up to a point. Surgery does something to your sense of ambiguity. One minute I could eat forever and the next I'm so clearly finished that I have to take egg out of my mouth.

Nell's theory of healing seems to be positive reinforcement, and she has no shame at all. She'll compliment anything: Grace turning for a shot, Grace raising one plump brown leg for washing. Nell moves on the common interests: fashion. She draws Grace out What about knits? Skirt lengths? Rabbit coats?

I'm working overtime to get Nell off my nerves, but my real job is lying down again, by angles. Who really knows what heals? Take this operation of mine as a case in point. Why was this laparotomy a snap and that culdoscopy so bad that I was sick for weeks? After all, this wound's worse. It could be the angle of the cut. But it might not be that at all. It might be me. Maybe I'm stronger now. It might be that this time Tom knew he had a job and did it. Came when I called, to do what Mrs. Ng's daughter did. To watch me sleep. That could have made the difference. Or could it simply be that, after five years, I'm stumbled on an infertility specialist with charm? What I had was nothing. But I couldn't get over my culdoscopy, could I? And that was nothing, too. They told me so.

I'm on my back, recovering from getting there. Nell, meanwhile, has called another nurse behind the curtain to help compliment the bedsocks, the interesting career aspiration, the newest progress. And finally Grace is taken in. She did blow that one well, Grace admits with a croak. They are good socks. She vows to blow even better next time. At each college try, the nurses pummel her with compliments. At each halting admission, a frog leaves Grace's hoarse throat. Grace?s voice gets louder, clearer, and surer. Nell has taken Grace in, and healed her. At nine o?clock, Grace, who at eight could barely shift weight, emerges from behind her curtain, dazzled, on two nurses' arms, walking.

The rest of us, Grace's three neighbors, go wild. Marge claims she isn't afraid anymore. Mrs. Ng smiles very hard. She smiled at me, too, when she saw me walk. This is her first day smiling. "Grace?" I say, when the dust has settled behind Nell, and Grace, still dazed, has been put in a chair. I gesture after Nell. "She was good, wasn't she?"

Grace swears, "That girl was born to nurse!"

One day in the English hospital, an out-patient was rushed behind a curtain for an emergency procedure screaming so bloodcurdlingly that I had to leave the room in tears. That troubled me. I was twenty-two. I knew, at heart, I cared for no one but myself. What was this leaving rooms all about, then? Who was I trying to kid? Why go to such lengths?

I did care, but I was right to doubt my motive. I healed myself by caring, just as Grace healed herself with her own natural trust. "I'll miss you!" she tells me when twenty-seven hours after surgery I'm allowed to go home.

I brush it off. "Oh, well," I say, and go pack my fourteen books. For me, trusting is harder than caring. But trust heals, like sleep. I care for Grace, and let her trust for me.

On my way out, I have two bits of luck. First, Tom takes my bags. Next, I work out how to walk outside: pigeon-breasted on top and crooked back at the hips like a seven. Clutching my tulips like a ballerina, I walk my walk up the street. One, two, three--only I hadn't figured on the hill--four. Five. The end. No ambiguity. A cab has to be brought to me where I stand. No shame.

The New Yorker, June 29, 1981