The Garden

Charlie Hamer pounded his fist into the dirt, which did nothing to assuage his frustration.  He had just pulled up the weed which had sprung up next to an onion that he had planted from seed.  The roots of the weed had become entangled with the roots of the onion, and both came up out of the damp, brown earth together.  To make matters worse, Charlie’s aim was off and instead of simply burying his knuckles in the dirt, he accidentally flattened an adjacent seedling which had committed no other crime than to be growing where Charlie’s fist came down.

“Damn it!” Charlie barked.  “Damn it!  Damn It!  Damn it!”   Charlie looked at the corpses of the two onions and then sat back in the dirt of the garden.  He put his head on his knees and quietly sobbed until tears and snot were running down his face and onto his hands and knees.

“Are you all right?” was the question that came from a voice nearby.  Charlie was reluctant to look up and acknowledge the voice.  He was not comfortable showing such emotion in public and had always striven to prevent crying where he could be seen.  Many times at weddings and funerals, or even watching a sappy movie on the television with his ex-wife Evie, Charlie would think about football games or Civil War campaigns or a complicated construction project that he had worked on in the past in order to deflect his mind from whatever was threatening to draw out his tears.  That stratagem had rarely worked, but he tried it anyway, so uncomfortable was he with showing emotion.  Now Charlie had no time to retrace in his mind the Battle of Chickamauga, so with barely repressed sobs he looked up in the direction from which the voice had come.

Standing at the edge of his 20’ X 20’ garden plot at the Muir Park Community Garden in Camas, Washington was the young woman who tended the plot just to the east of his own.  They had hardly spoken a dozen words in the two months that he had been working his plot that spring.  Charlie stared up at her with eyes blurred with tears.  He drew the sleeve of his loose, long-sleeved shirt across his nose, not caring two cents that he left a streak of glistening mucous that resembled a slug’s trail along that sleeve.

“No, I don’t suppose that I am all right.”  Charlie stated peevishly, already beginning to think about the landing of the Marines on the beach at Guadalcanal in August of 1942.  “This is not the way that I carry on when everything is just hunky-dory.”  Charlie saw the woman flinch, and her face turned a light shade of red.

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to intrude” the woman said stiffly.  “I thought that you might be – – -, well, I’m just sorry.  That’s all.”

The woman turned away and walked across a four foot border path and back onto her own garden plot, her back ramrod straight and turned to Charlie.  Charlie sat, collecting himself, looking first at the onions that he had just murdered, and then at the back of the woman who had been stung by his pain-spawned outburst.  He then looked straight in front of him and saw the guy with the pot belly who tended the plot just to the north.

Pot-belly was a crusty geezer of at least sixty five years.  Charlie knew this because the old guy had spoken of receiving medicare benefits one day. His chatter had been bothering the hell out of Charlie as he tried to focus that day on building a trellis for the green beans that he hoped to grow.

“I’m going to get what I can out of the system before the goddam politicians bankrupt it” Pot Belly had declared with his usual absence of delicacy.  Charlie just nodded and continued with his trellis building.  The geezer didn’t really need a response; any breathing blob of protoplasm that could maintain homeostasis and wouldn’t turn its back on him was audience enough to keep the geezer going for far longer that Charlie would volunteer to listen.

“That’s a sweet little piece of ass that works the plot next to you” the geezer had said one day, and on this day the unending verbal wood rasp chaffed a little flesh off of Charlie.  The young woman was an adult; Charlie could see that clearly enough, but she didn’t look to be a lot of years older than his daughter would have now been.  The rasp that drew across the flesh over Charlie’s bruised and bleeding heart today drew a purulent wave of stinking emotional pus that oozed out of the wreckage that now rested there in his chest.

“I would prefer that you don’t speak of her, or any other woman within my hearing, in that manner to me” Charlie snapped.  Her ass is her business, and I’ll be content to look after my own.”  The geezer had looked surprised by Charlie’s outburst but was hardly chagrined.  He simply shrugged his shoulders and returned to building frames around his tomato plants.  On this day, geezer just looked at Charlie, shook his head a little, and turned back to his bed of beets and carrots.

Charlie felt bad about his response to the woman’s act of compassion.  He rose up from his sitting position and as he did so he stirred up the dust, which settled on his sleeve and highlighted the shot that had now soaked into the fabric.  Charlie scowled at the brown streak but realized that it would be useless to try to wipe it off, so he ignored it.  He walked over to the edge of the garden plot to within a few feet of where the woman was bent over, wresting weeds and grass from between corn shoots which had just emerged from the ground.

“Excuse me, Miss”  Charlie said.  “I believe that I owe you an apology.”

The woman continued to work at her weeds for enough additional seconds to convey that she had little interest in Charlie’s apology.  At last she straightened and turned to face him.  She said nothing as she looked at Charlie with an expressionless face.  Charlie became confused at her silence and began to look at his fingers and snot-stained sleeve as he shifted his weight from one foot to another.  The woman at last broke the silence.

“I believe that you said you owe me an apology.  You’re right.  You do.  You don’t have to give me one, but if it will make you feel better I would be willing to hear it.”

Charlie looked at her for a moment longer, tongue-tied and embarrassed.  He realized that she was right; he had made the offer and it was time to follow through.

“Oh, yes.  You’re right.  You were trying to be nice to me and I snapped at you.  You didn’t deserve that and I apologize for my bad temper.  Thank you for the concern that you showed to me.  I’ve had a nasty couple of years and I’ve lost the knack for behaving well with other people.  I have no right to take it out on you though.  I’ve just gotten off track with the social graces.”

Charlie looked back down at his fingers, digging some dirt out from under this thumbnail.  When he looked back up the woman’s expression had softened.  She said “Apology accepted, and I hope that your day gets better.”

“Thank you” Charlie replied softly.  His day wasn’t the problem; it was the last two years that were a weight that he could hardly carry anymore.

“My name’s Rachael”  the woman said.  “I don’t mean to pry, and if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s OK. but if it’s alright to ask, what was it that set you off over there?”

“I was pulling up a weed that had its roots already wrapped around an onion sprout.  I tried to pull the weed and ended up pulling both of them out of the ground.  I had forgotten how much work went into this gardening thing and how intentional it has to be.”

“Yes,” Rachael said,  “gardening isn’t done by accident.  Well, welcome to our little world; it can be a blessing and, when you lose a crop to cucumber beetles or tomato blight, a damned curse.”  Rachael chuckled at her own statement, as if the memory of past gardening failures and frustrations came to her mind as a joke more than an annoyance.  “I am not the best gardener in the world” she stated to Charlie.  “But what I know I would be happy to share with you.”

“Thank you” Charlie replied.  “I hate to be a bother, but I don’t doubt that I need all of the help that I can get.  Oh, by the way, my name’s Charlie Hamer and I now formally agree to take you up on your kind offer.  But maybe some other day.”

Rachael thrust forward her hand in a grand manner and Charlie took it and gave it a grave shake.  They then separated to return to their own gardens.  Charlie resumed plucking the weeds out of the dirt between his onion plants, but now more judiciously.  He was absorbed in his work and didn’t notice that the geezer from the adjacent plot had walked over and was standing nearby until the old guy cleared his throat.  Charlie looked up and wasn’t concerned whether displeasure showed on his face or did not.

“Excuse me for butting in” he began, “but I heard that you had a problem with pulling some of your weeds.  If you would like I could share a little trick with you.”  Charlie wanted mostly to be left alone, but he had already been rude once today and didn’t feel like repeating that performance.  “Oh, it looks like I need all of the help that I can get today,” he replied.

“OK, so here’s how it is.  These weeds come up right in the middle of what you want to keep and it’s impossible to get some of them out without harming the good stuff.”

“So I’ve noticed” Charlie commented drily.

“So I keep these little snips,” the old guy pulled what looked like a pair of outdoor scissors with a short, sharp blade, “and just clip the tops of the weeds every other day or so.  You can’t get rid of some weeds, but you can sure manage the little bastards.”

“What good will that do?” Charlie asked.  “The weed is still there, and still competing for nutrients with my onion.  My father taught me to get the weed by the roots once and then you’ll not have to do it again.”

“Your Dad was mostly right.  Sometimes, though, it isn’t feasible.  Like in your case here, for instance.  What you have to do in these circumstances is keep the weed from thriving.  The leaves feed the weed plant, and so if you keep it clipped and let the onion grow. The strong survive and the weak gets pushed aside.  You really are new to this, aren’t you?”

     “I really don’t want to get chummy with this guy” Charlie thought.  “Maybe he’ll just impart some wisdom and go away.”

“Yes, this is my first year here.”

“Well, then welcome to our community.  My name’s Walt, and I would be happy to give you some tips if you would like to hear them.  It looks like you’ve had at least a little experience though.”

“Yeah, you’re right.  My father made me help him in the garden when I was a kid.  I hated it and hated vegetables, which is why he did it I think.  Dad was pretty good at growing things and a little bit of that rubbed off on me.  Not very much though, it seems.”

“Well, the let me share with you the little bit that I know.”

Walt proceeded to show Charlie how to build proper beds for planting tomatoes and cucumbers, how to protect bean seedlings from slugs and a dozen other techniques designed to coax clean food out of the dirt.  By the end of an hour Charlie had a respectable looking garden and the beginning of a new opinion of Walt.  The old guy was crusty, to be sure, and his language as earthy as the soil into which Charlie had just deposited beet and carrot seeds, but Charlie could see that Walt cared about him and his garden.  That human connection had been missing in Charlie’s life for – how long had it been?  More than a year now.  Charlie didn’t feel the need for a confession, but a kind ear was not a bad thing to have.

“What brought you back to gardening?” Walt asked.  “My Dad used to make me play the violin and I haven’t touched one of the damned things since the day I turned 18.”

Charlie hesitated.  He hadn’t talked about his life with anybody for a long time, and while his usual reticence to be open with anyone was still strong, the need for human contact had begun to grow in him.  At last Charlie decided to pull the curtain back, a little at least, and see what would come of it.

“Well, I’ve had a pretty shitty last couple of years” Charlie began.  “My wife ran off with my pickup truck and took my dog too.”  Charlie tried to smile at his little attempt at humor, with scant effect.

“Yeah” Walt replied.  “I hate it when that happens.  I’ll bet she held the title on your single wide too.”

“Yeah.  She took it clean.”

For another moment Charlie stared down at his feet.  Then, with a barely perceptible shrug of his shoulders he looked up at Walt.  Tears were once again forming in his eyes and he had to clear his throat two or three times before he could speak clearly.  Finally he could begin.

“Well, my wife really has left me,” Charlie began.  He sniffed back a nose full of snot and coughed to clear his throat again.  “We didn’t have a dog, but we did have two kids; a girl and a boy.”  Charlie had to stop there once again and regain his control.  Thinking about some military action was just not going to draw his attention away from his grief, so he just studied the new bed that housed a tomato plant while he got his act back together.  Walt at last spoke to fill the uncomfortable silence.

“Yeah, I’ve heard from a friend that divorce is a bitch, especially when kids are involved.  I’ve never been in that situation, but I do believe that it’s tough.  Do you have visitation rights?  I know of some divorce lawyers who are really good at fighting for stuff like that.”

Charlie stared blankly at Walt for a moment, and then said “visitation is not a problem for me.  I can visit Stevie’s grave any time that I want.”

Walt stood in front of Charlie, still as a statue.  Charlie’s shoulders slumped forward and his head was down.  The sobs returned, but this time softly.  Charlie wasn’t trying to hold anything back, but he was simply exhausted from having carried this load for so long.  Walt put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder but said nothing, which was probably the best thing that he could have done.

 

The young woman, who had been listening to this while trying to not appear as if she was eavesdropping, now dropped all pretense.  She stood up, took off her gloves, and walked over to where the two men were standing.  Coming up to charlie she said “I’m sorry that I was listening to your story, but I’ve heard it anyway and I can see that you are hurting.  I can’t imagine the pain that you are feeling.  Would you let me give you a hug?”

Charlie wished desperately that there was someplace where he could hide.  The grief that he carried was like an anchor of lead and he was just tired as hell of carrying it.  Charlie had lived a solitary life for over a year and now the idea of the enfolding arms of a compassionate stranger were a gift that he had not expected, and one that he readily accepted.  She placed her arms around his shoulders and gave him a gentle embrace, which she held silently for what might have been two or three minutes.  Charlie’s sobs continued and he tried, with mixed success, to keep tears and snot off of her shoulder.  At last Charlie regained control and the young woman released her embrace and stepped back.

“My name is Monica” she said, “and if you would like to take a break from the garden and tell your story I would be happy hear it.  Sometimes it is good to pick the scab and let some of that stuff ooze out.  I will understand if that is not something that you want to do, but if you think it will help I will be glad to do it.”

“I think that she’s right” Walt chimed in.  “I’m in a PTSD group, and letting out the bad air is usually a good thing to do.  If you’re up to it of course.  We could take ten and go sit under the canopy.”

“Take ten?” asked Monica.

“Oh, you kids” Walt smiled.  “Take a ten minute break.  In the Army, when we were marching from one place to another, every so often the company commander would say “Take ten, hope for five, get two.”  He was talking about taking a rest, and ‘ten’ could really mean just about anything.”

The three of them walked out of the garden plots and over to a covered area that they called the canopy.  There were several plastic chairs and a rickety wooden bench that had been exposed to too many winters there.  They found seats and waited quietly as Charlie tried to get his thoughts together.  It was obviously a struggle, and after a short while Walt decided that the pump needed to be primed, so he began to speak.

“I don’t know anything about you’re problem, man, and I don’t want to turn this into a pity party.  I told you that I’m in a PTSD group, that means Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, in case you aren’t familiar with it – and I have seen that it sometimes helps to know that you’re not alone in this world of hurt.  Can I tell you a story?”

Charlie nodded in the affirmative, and Charlie began to speak.  “I’m sixty nine years old.  I wasn’t three months out of high school before I was drafted.  Uncle Sam needed cannon fodder and six months later I was pounding ground in The Nam.  I was 11B.  A grunt.  My paid vacation in the tropics took me to Dak To, Pleiku, and a hundred hilltops and villages and valleys with names and numbers that I’ve either forgotten or am still trying to forget.  I just wanted to survive my year and go home, but it didn’t go quite that smoothly.  Somehow I would always find myself in the hottest shit that was going down in-country, and usually when I least expected it.  I made some friends early on, but when my first buddy’s head exploded right next to me like a melon with a cherry bomb inside of it, and then another got gutted like a fish by a bouncing betty land mine, I quit making friends.  Oh, we covered each other’s asses all right, but I wasn’t making any more friends ‘cause I didn’t like seeing them die on me.  We went from one engagement to another; some that made the news but most that didn’t; some that made sense but most that didn’t.  Big or small, smart or stupid, they had one thing in common:  men got torn open.  Men bled and men died.

When I was taken out of the jungle and assigned to an armored unit that mostly secured a road from Saigon to the highlands I thought that maybe I would make it out of there in one piece.  At least we weren’t walking around in the bush looking for trouble.  Now I got to spend some time in an APC – oh, sorry.  I mean and armored personnel carrier – and sometimes I rode shotgun on a jeep.  The best thing to me, as I saw it was that I didn’t have to walk so goddam much, and sometimes had something metal to hide in.  In fact, my new posting made me feel like I was the hunter instead of the hunted.

We were on the road to Cu Chi one day and it seemed quiet.  I was sitting in the back of a jeep, manning the machine gun.  I can still remember that I was thinking ‘I could like this country, if they weren’t fucking shooting at me that is,’ when some VC bastard opened up on me as we passed by.  The little son of a bitch must have come up from a tunnel, because nobody saw him come up or go down.  I felt like a quarterback who got tackled by a 300 pound dickdoo.  I got knocked forward and landed on top of the passenger up front.  I thought that I couldn’t get a good breath because the wind had been knocked out of me.  I later found out that it was because the little fucker had walked a couple or three rounds up my back and blew out my left lung.”

“Dickdoo?”  asked Monica.

“Yeah.  One of those big linemen who’s bellies droop lower than their dicks do.”

“Oh”, Monica replied.  “Sorry I asked.”

Walt paid no attention to Monica, and at that point lifted the bottom of his tee shirt and pulled it over his head.  Fifty years after the fact the discolored, blotchy exit wounds still disfigured Walt’s belly and chest.  “Lucky for me he went from right to left.  The prick missed my right kidney and aorta, but he punctured my left lung and got my spleen.  Recovery was long and hard though, and I can’t be around kids because without a spleen, if anyone gets a cold I catch it.

The worst part for me was that when I got home I got shat on by just about everybody.  I grew up in Seattle, but Seattle wasn’t my home when I returned.  I still had to convalesce after they released me, first from the hospital and then from the Army.  Until my hair grew out and I was no longer identifiable as military, people spat at me and called me shit that you wouldn’t believe.  I was still so weak that I couldn’t murder the bed-wetting little sons of bitches with my bare hands, which I would have loved to do, so I dreamed of getting an M-16, putting it on full auto, and killing as many of the snot-nosed pukes as I could before the police took me out.

A smart doc at the VA hospital picked up on that and got me hooked up with a psychologist and a PTSD group; other guys who saw the same shit that I did and in some cases even worse.  I can’t tell you how much that helped.  I still have trouble with dreams and loud noises – the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve aren’t my favorite days of the year – but mostly I can function OK now.”

Walt stopped speaking and looked at Charlie and Monica, who were standing in front of him speechless.

“What’s the matter?” he asked. ”You two never seen a bat-shit crazy Vietnam vet before?”

Charlie allowed a little chuckle a little at that, and Walt said “That’s better.  You’re not the only guy with a wood file up his ass, see?  So what’s your story?”

Charlie’s mind returned to his pain, but the knowledge that somebody was with him who knew what pain was made all the difference in the world.

“Well, two years ago my daughter died in a surfing accident.”  Charlie’s throat tightened up again, but after a moment or two it loosened back up.  “She was in cold water off of the Oregon coast.  It was good surf, and we think that she just stayed out in it too long, until the cold overwhelmed her suit.  Hell, we don’t really know to this day what happened.  They found her in a cove, pretty beat up by the waves bouncing her off of the rocks.  An autopsy couldn’t pinpoint a particular reason for her death.  It’s like the goddam ocean just rose up and took her.

After we buried Stevie – her name was Stephanie, after her grandmother – nothing could get back to right in our home.  Insignificant things became issues.  What was once just an annoyance became a crisis.  I can’t say that Maureen and I ever quit loving each other, but any return to normal seemed like a betrayal of Stevie.  Because it WASN’T normal.  It could never be normal again.  After a year we separated, and two months later Mo filed for divorce.  I didn’t fight the divorce.  I couldn’t.  I didn’t have the energy.  Hell, I didn’t care.  Jack, our son, was mad at the world but focused most of his anger at me, and I didn’t do much to help him out.  I couldn’t do much to help myself out.  Mo never tried to poison Jack’s relationship with me but she saw that it was over, for now anyway, so she took my son with her and moved out of state.

We settled the whole thing without a fight.  I liquidated my company, Hamer Properties & Construction – you might have seen some of our signs around the county. I gave her the whole damned enchilada.  The company went for a pretty penny; enough for her and Jack to be comfortable for the rest of their lives if they’re careful.  I do handyman work now and live in a studio downtown.  It’s all I need.  My family doesn’t live close to me, but they told me that I should get out of my cave, get some fresh air and meet people.  Well, this is out.  I guess this air is as fresh as any around here, and I decided to start with plants and work my way back up to people.”

The three gardeners sat silently after Charlie wrapped up his story.  It was warm, with hardly a breath of a breeze.  Charlie saw a snake slither between rows of a neighboring gardner’s spinach plants.  He pointed it out and Walt said “Ugh.  I hate snakes.”

“That’s a garter snake” Monica said.  “They eat slugs, among other things.  I’m glad he’s there.”

“Yeah?” said Walt.  “Well you didn’t have to put up with the fucking snakes that I did in Vietnam.  They called ‘em ‘step-and-a-half’s ‘cause that’s about as far as you would get after one of the sons of whores bit you before you were face-down in the jungle.”

“Well, if I see a step-and-a-half Walt, I’ll surely chop his damn head off” said Charlie with a chuckle, which, if the other two gardeners had known Charlie better, would have known that this chuckle was the first hint of a release from his pain that he had shown in many months.’’

Monica spoke up at this point and said “I have nothing like the stories you guys do.  My family is fine, and I’ve not had any major trauma.  I’m a Messianic Jew however, which is a Jew in all ways except that I believe that Jesus was the Messiah.”

“I don’t believe any of that hocus locus bullshit” said Walt.  “I never saw no God when young men were blowing each other to bloody goddam pieces in Vietnam.”

“I don’t care whether you believe it or not Walt.  I’m not trying to convert you.  I’m telling you what story I have to tell.  Will you allow me to do that?”

“OK, ok.  Fair enough” Walt replied.  “I guess I get a little cranky about all of that.  I’m sorry.  Go on.”

“Thank you Walt.  My family is Jewish but not religious.  It’s an ethnic thing.  I was raised Jewish with the understanding that I could decide for myself if I wanted to go fully into the faith or remain outside of it.  My parents never dreamed that I would choose to follow Jesus.  At first they were really pissed; I mean, Jews don’t do that.  I told them that I was exercising the freedom that they gave me, and they accepted that.  Eventually.  Sort of.

But it was hard.  Other Jews want nothing to do with me.  I am functionally cut off from the faith of my birth.  And Christians don’t really know what to do with me either.  I know that you don’t buy any of this Walt, and I don’t know what you believe or don’t believe Charlie, and that’s OK.  I’m not asking.  It’s none of my business and I don’t look to stick my nose in it.  But you guys were talking about being separated from friends or people you love, even society.  And traumatically too.  I’ve tasted that as well.  Not the seven course meal that you two have had to choke down, but I’ve tasted it.

Now I work for the City, providing counseling for abused and disturbed children.  I won’t share names or circumstances, but I’ve seen young lives that have been through meat grinders like you’ve described before they had tits or pimples.  That doesn’t make me an expert on experiencing pain, but I’m pretty familiar with trying to clean up after it, all the while knowing that I may not really do any lasting good at all.  My faith tells me that I have to try, and hope that Someone from outside the world that we see will do something that will bring a little healing to this screwed up place.”

All three sat in silence for a while longer, pondering what each had said.  At length Charlie stood up and said “Thank you both for listening to me, and for telling your stories too.  This pain has been killing my soul for a couple of years now, but maybe you two are the beginning of the fresh air that I was told that I needed.  I guess I should feed what is good in my life and pull as many weeds as I can.  The ones I can’t pull I’ll just have to manage.”

Monica stood and gave Charlie another hug.  “That sounds like a good plan.  And if you see a snake or two, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”  She gave Charlie a pat on the shoulder and then turned and walked back to her garden.

“I hate a fucking snake” growled Walt, but he had a ghost of a smile on his face as he turned and walked back to his own.

Constipation

I have pondered for more than a week whether or not to tell this tale, and to be honest I don’t know at the moment that I am scratching out a first draft with pen and paper if I will actually complete it. If I end up doing so I will then have to decide if I will publish it. This may not be a story for all readers. My good friends, wonderful people all of them, may feel uncomfortable reading about this experience which I am about to share. If that is the case, please don’t read this. My sole intent is to share information in the hope that anyone who reads this will take precautions to prevent a severely painful situation which I experienced from happening to them, but I value my friends above most things in life and would never want them to feel uncomfortable reading anything that I write.

I never want to publish a story simply to shock, and the story that I have now set out to tell consists of details unsavory enough to shock and gross out many people. I suppose the trick will be to see if my writing skills are adequate to deal with the topic in a way that gives objective information of a deeply personal story in a way that the unpleasantness of the topic doesn’t detract from the point. I will assess upon completion of my first draft whether or not I have achieved my goal. Only then will I push the ‘Publish’ button and send this out to a world which may not even be interested in it at all. We shall see. (author’s note: I obviously assessed this story and decided that it should be sent. As I wrote a moment ago, we shall see).

The title of this tale is simply “Constipation” and, not surprisingly, that is also the topic. And it is a topic that many people do not consider to be serious; the butt (forgive the pun) of an inferior comedian’s potty humor or something that old people in the retirement home speak about often. But when constipation, and I mean real constipation, hits you all of the jokes and laughter fall away and you find yourself praying for some kind, any kind, of relief. Most people can avoid constipation by eating a balanced diet, remaining active, and staying hydrated. Surgery changes all of that however, and it is in the context of a recent major surgery which I underwent that this story is being written.

I recently suffered a heart attack and had to submit to bypass surgery to enable my heart to receive an adequate supply of blood. I was under general anesthesia for over three hours and then given regular doses of a narcotic pain medication for the next five or six days on a regular basis. I tapered off of the narcotics over the next two weeks but still needed them sometimes in order to quell the ache in my chest so that I could sleep. A side effect of the anesthesia and narcotics is that they interfere greatly with normal bowel function, and part of my daily post-surgical physical examination was to listen for the sounds that normal, healthy intestines make. Mine were obviously making normal sounds, so other than a stool softening pill given to me once a day I received no other attention to this potential problem. That would come back to haunt me.

In addition to the effects of the drugs that I was now taking, the other three components of healthy elimination were removed. I was very restricted in my walking around or doing any other exercise by the fact that my split chest was now held together with wires and stitches, and the heart medications given to me made me very light-headed and therefore unable to walk very far or very safely. My appetite vanished after the surgery and even if it had not done so the diet was virtually devoid of fiber, and they wanted me to lose some of my body fluids for reasons I don’t understand so I was put on a diuretic. The result of this perfect intestinal storm was that by the time I was released to go home I had had one small bowel movement and that was all. I was told to be conscious to avoid constipation but not given a plan to do so which fit my new situation.

Returning home was a wonderful thing. I now had the foods which I like to eat and my appetite slowly returned. I ate a lot of salads and other greens, and drank a great deal of water too. I hoped that this would do the trick, but nothing came of it. By day three I began to suspect that I was in trouble, but my preoccupation with safely rehabilitating with my light headedness and healing chest wound, plus the effects of all of the drugs that I was taking, diverted my attention from what should have been a priority. On day four the degree to which it should have been a priority burst upon me with a pain that one could hardly imagine unless one experiences it firsthand, and experience it i did.

I could tell when I arose that morning that things were moving to a conclusion. I tried a couple of times to eliminate but the bolus of stool reached the last centimeter of my digestive tract and then refused to budge any further. I gave up after a while and arose to return to my place on the sofa, but the stool was far enough down to be painful. I hobbled gingerly back to the sofa and sat/lay in a position that caused the least discomfort and waited for something good to happen. Nothing good happened. This was at about ten in the morning.

After a couple of tries I had moved things along another millimeter or two, which only sufficed to lodge a bigger chunk of clay-like stool right at the porthole of freedom, where it was as painful as it could possibly be. It was like having the gnarled, knobby end of an Irish walking stick or the spiked ball of a medieval mace stuck in my rear end. After a few more tries I sent my wife to the store to purchase a laxative, which is precisely what I should have done four days earlier and would have it I had been properly (in my opinion) counseled upon discharge. The bad news, I later learned, was that the laxative was great for future bowel movements but would be of no use for the problem at hand.

Time after time I returned to the toilet, and each time the pain increased but no relief was obtained. I was beginning to get desperate. The pain was intense and offered no prospect of diminishing anytime soon. My wive later told me that she was approaching the point of taking me back to the Emergency Room, such was my physical discomfort and her emotional anguish from watching as I suffered. I finally found myself praying to God for relief, even though I suspected that God is not in the business of giving colonics. I knew that God, when He was with us on Earth, suffered greatly too and that He understood my pain, and that gave me some comfort although I confess that it wasn’t much.

By four thirty in the afternoon I clutched at my final straw. I asked my wife to go to the store and purchase an enema. When I was a kid we had one of those in the house, although I cannot remember ever seeing or hearing of it being used. I didn’t even know if they made the things anymore but as luck would have it, they do. My wife returned with my last best hope, and after about twenty minutes of assembly and test runs, we put this final plan into action.

At this point I will cease with close descriptions of this drama. They are gross and embarrassing. The procedure itself was painful in the extreme and not immediately successful. Repeated attempts, each one introducing a little more of the warm water which I hoped would loosen things up, resulted in having to clear and clean the nozzle while I waited in almost breathtaking pain so that I could try again. Finally, after the third attempt, while the nozzle was once again being cleaned and prepared for use, all hell broke loose.

I could hardly believe that my ordeal was over. I simply said to my wife “it’s out”, but she could scarcely believe it either. She continued to clean the nozzle and I repeated “it’s over. I got it out.” Finally she allowed herself to believe it, and we just looked at each other; her standing by the sink and me sitting there doing my own interpretation of “Game of Thrones”. The relief washed over both of us and we went about the business of cleaning me and the bathroom up.

I returned to my sofa, but this time in considerably less pain. It would still be the next day before the fire down below was finally extinguished. At this point I began to take the laxative, drink glasses of prune juice, and a glass of water containing a tablespoon of psyllium seed husks every day, plus up the fiber in my diet even higher. It was and continues to be my intention to never go through that again.

If anyone is still reading this tale of my scatological nightmare I would like to reiterate why I wrote it. I did not expect to need bypass surgery. We never know when such things will overtake us. Anyone reading this may find themselves tomorrow faced with a difficult and painful surgery in their immediate future and if, heaven forbid, that is the case you might find yourself in the same position that I was. If I have properly utilized this opportunity to tell one person this messy and embarrassing tale, and if it in turn results in that person avoiding the dreadful situation that I endured, then I will understand why I had to endure it at all and will celebrate that I was able to help that one person avoid the pain.

There is my story. I urge you, reader, to take it to heart and make of it what you will.

Serious As A Heart Attack Part IV

The second day of recovery began when I emerged lazily and with some difficulty out of a fog of anesthesia, narcotic pain killers and sleep. My wife was beside me, as she almost always was, and as the fog cleared she was asking if I wanted to sip some chicken broth. The doctors had explained that it was important that I resume eating and drinking in order to speed up my recovery. There was nothing I wanted more than a speedy recovery, so I was eager to comply.

The broth was listed as low fat, low sodium. I guess that this is standard for hypertensive cardiac patients, but I thought that low taste, low interest would have been a good deal more accurate. Still, an order is an order, so down the hatch it went. I drank a cup of cranberry juice as a chaser and relaxed back into my bed to continue my nascent healing process.

I knew that my urine was draining out from my bladder through a catheter and found the convenience of that arrangement comforting. All of the peeing in a urinal that I had been doing before my surgery had now been taken out of the picture, and I didn’t miss it. I was actually mildly disappointed when the catheter was removed the next day, which will illustrate as clearly as possible what a lazy man I truly am. I also had one or two surgical tubes protruding from my chest and coursing into a bubbling container. Why the container bubbled is a mystery to me. Those tubes were draining blood or air or anything else which might be in my chest post-surgically but didn’t belong there. I was practically unaware of those tubes at first, but that would change.

My nurse, who was one more wonderful person in a parade of wonderful people, was constantly flitting in and out of my room taking vital signs, checking IV fluids, and generally making me feel as comfortable as possible, and the latter duty involved administering periodic doses of a pain killer called Dilaudid. The dose was prescribed to be given every three hours as needed through a catheter threaded into a vein in my right neck.

My son made his first post-surgical appearance that day and I greatly enjoyed chatting with him, although the pain killer had the exceedingly weird effect of loosening my grip on reality. I have an active if somewhat shallow mind and it is not at all difficult for me to slip in and out of a daydream at any time. Under the deluge of Dilauded which was pouring down my central line I was no longer slipping into daydreams; I was now jack booting down the door and commandeering the residence.

A conversation might go something like this. WILL: “I’m going to go to the house tomorrow and water your garden. Are there any special instructions that you have for me?” ME: “Yes. Use the sprinkler on the onions and just lay the hose at the base of the tomatoes. Don’t worry about the dog (author’s note: I don’t have a dog), he stays in the shade and will fix the bicycle tire himself if you have a…. Wait a minute, that didn’t make sense, did it?” WILL: “Some of it, Dad. You told me to sprinkle the onions and just put the hose in the tomato beds.” ME: “Yes, that will work. Do the same with the cucumbers and squash and don’t worry about the asparagus because they take care of themselves since they moved out of the house and haven’t had much trouble except that one time that the police….” It was like that all day.

As morning moved into noon the pain in my belly began to grow and by lunch had come to dominate my consciousness. Hospitals like to use a pain scale of zero to ten, with zero being no pain and ten being agony. Those scales are highly subjective of course, and for me skinning my right foot and plunging the raw flesh into salt would be about a three. By noon I was at five or six. I sat up in my chair and tried to eat, and the pain seemed to subside a bit, but I was not able to eat much and soon returned to my bed.

The pain began again to cresendo and soon I was begging for more of the pain medications with the result that I became even more stoned but not one bit less in pain. I had maxed out my Dilauded dose and still I was crawling up to an eight-and-a-half. My nurse was truly sorry for my pain and tried anything she could think of to bring it down, including exchanging morphine for Dilaudid a couple of times, but nothing worked.

The nurse’s instructions were to get me up in a chair as much as possible so that the changed position would keep fluids moving and allow me to inhale as deeply as I could on a device designed to help me gain greater expansion of my lungs. I groused about having to move in my pain but complied. It slowly began to register with me that I really did feel somewhat pain-diminished when I was sitting up. Not pain free by any stretch of the imagination, but pain-tolerable. My nurse noticed this as well, and I stayed in my chair until it was time for visitors to go home and for me to try to get some sleep.

“There’s no way that I will be able to sleep if I lay down” I told my nurse. “I know” she replied. “That’s why I’m going to turn your bed into more of a chair.” With that she began to fiddle with buttons and my bed began to move like a Transformer. The head began to raise up almost like the back of a chair and the foot of the bed dropped down towards the floor, leaving me a shelf to be seated on with feet dependent and head upright, then she tilted the whole thing back so that I was reasonably in a kick-back mode. In that bed I passed through the night. The pain level stayed down at a four or so and sleep, with the help of the Dilauded and a benedryl capsule, stole over me and I enjoyed something which approached acceptable comfort the rest of the night.

That second day was one of the worst of my life. I have suffered physical and emotional pain before and this day stands out from all of the others by a long shot. The pain in my belly felt like the larval stage of “The Alien” was eating his way up from my intestines through my liver and diaphragn and into my chest. It was hard to breathe and I performed very poorly on the device through which I inhaled in order to expand my lungs. The pain was almost like a physical entity; a beaked, taloned and tentacled monster from one of the ‘B’ sci fi movies of the 19650’s that I loved so much as a kid

Only there was no love here on this day. The tentacles embraced me with a power which refused my lungs the ability to inflate. The talons dug into my flesh and denied me the opportunity to shake my monster off in any way. The beak ripped and tore through bone and cartilage and muscle to feast on the crying organs at my core. This monster came to stay, and none of the tricks and devices which became available at the end of the ‘B’ movies to enable the humans threatened with destruction to escape the final victory of the monster was becoming available to me. I was the captive of PAIN. I would remain that way. Tough luck, Kiddo.

The pain meds, which no doubt prevented me from shrieking at the top of my under inflated lungs even if they seemed to not be working at all, also kept my mind in the fog that I mentioned earlier. It was a humorous side note to the day when I would prattle on to my family and then stop, both of us knowing that I was not speaking of anything real at all. But there were those times when I was not speaking, when I stared vacantly at the television or at the ceiling or simply into the pain which gnawed at my belly, and they were not humorous. They were dead, or at least deadening. They robbed me of what is peculiarly me and replaced my me-ness with a stoned, mentally wandering imitation of me.

I am not a narcissist by any measure, but I have grown over the years to like myself. I am glad to know that I have some good points and I can clearly see the bad ones and work towards their correction without self-loathing. I have managed with the help of God to be a blessing – a mixed one to be sure – to a wife of thirty seven years, two children whom I adore and three grandchildren. I short, as the saying goes, I’m ‘comfortable being in my skin’. The drugs blurred my self awareness and I became ever so slightly not me. The sensation lasted most of a day and a half and never came to wholly dominate the real me. It tried however and it was not pleasant, and I was eager to cut down on the narcotics as quickly as the pain would let me, which I am told was a great deal more quickly than most people who have undergone my surgery have done. That process would become easier by the events of the next day, which will have to wait for my next post.