Thursday, July 23, 2009

On the Other Side

A few nights ago I was scheduled to do heart surgery, and it was very difficult to arrange everything. Everyone assumed I knew what to do, but I kept having to check on things and ask about things. At first I was okay with it. It was sort of like being an airline pilot, I told myself. So much is automated, and you have so many assistants.

"I'd open up the third rib, go in that way," someone said. The third rib? That didn't sound right. Too high. I'd sort of been picturing open heart surgery, splitting the chest open and taking the heart right out, putting it on ice. But I couldn't get a clear picture of what was even wrong. Stents, maybe I should put stents in the arteries? Events marched on, relentless. They were prepping my patient.

I don't even know where the damn coronary arteries are, I thought. I can't just slice all around the heart till I find them. This is crazy.

And gradually a new consciousness crept in, a capacity for thinking at a remove. And with it came a sudden resolve.

"I'm not doing this," I announced. "You'll have to get someone else. I'm not trained for this."

They clucked at me, the way people clucked when I announced I wasn't going to look for teaching jobs: just nerves, they said. You'll settle into it. Look at some of the chuckleheads already doing it. Everybody gets nervous right before surgery.

"I'm not doing this." I said again, stubbornly.

I entered the bardo, the space between sleeping and waking, still carrying my resolve to quit. Slowly I adjusted -- as your eyes slowly adjust, when you enter a darkened room -- to the fact that I was now in a world in which no one wanted me to start carving open anyone's chest.

"I'm not doing this," I muttered again, on behalf of that poor man on the receding side of the bardo, still surrounded by people who wanted him to be things he couldn't be, and do things he couldn't do. But it was too late. I was in the waking world, and he was on his own.

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