clinic, music, sleep

Sleeping Gas, Altered States

ball and socket

I’m in hospital for an operation and they’re about to put me to sleep. It’s early evening and all of the day has been counting down to this moment. Not a Big Clock, booming tick tock-style countdown, but more of an background hum of nerves left undeclared and not directly observed.

The Big Clock - black and white  title card from 1948 film
no way out

Being put to sleep was what often happened to the family dog when we were kids. Three of them got shuffled off in this way before I was thirteen. My parents didn’t mess about: if the dog screwed up, then the dog paid with sleep gas – the big sleep kind of sleep gas.

But my soporific is different. I will wake up after the surgeon’s finished planing and fixing my shoulder. You will wake up, I repeat in my head, as the anaesthetist fusses at the counter on my right.

A nurse meanwhile is warming me with a portable heater that comes with a hose and a nozzle and looks like a Hoover. Outside, it’s one of the hottest days of the year, but down here below sea level in the pre-op arrivals lounge, it’s sort of Arctic and I’m shivering on my bed trolley. So the nurse inserts the heater nozzle under my surgical gown, getting me up to temperature. 

The surgery is for my left shoulder and will take an hour. I specifically point out that it’s the left because earlier, when talking to the surgeon, he kept looking at the right. I said you remember which one, don’t you? He smiled and said yes, and then showed me a felt pen in his hand and said, but I always mark it to be certain. 

So, that’s one anxiety downed. Queue the next, as it’s time  for the anaesthetist to insert the IV cannula and fade me out. I wonder what would happen if I said no at this late point. How bad would cancelling look, how pathetic, but also how angry would they be? It’s not going to happen, though. The anaesthetist gets in there quickly. He pinches the tight skin on the back of my hand – the weird way this feels is enough horrible already. And then in goes the needle, followed by the  pipe, and I stare up at the ceiling lights as the sleep drug starts to flow. 

I feel the cold fluid rushing through my vein, and the anaesthetist says you will have a nice, long sleep. And amid a flood of assorted thoughts, one stands out – what if the sleep’s too long, what if I don’t wake up? 

Publicity still for actress Monica Bellucci
you never knew me

Let’s see what turn out to be the big concerns when faced with such a terminal scenario. What’s the first thought? Didn’t cancel Netflix. That’s truly the first thing that comes to mind. Won’t find out if Mourinho plans to play Falcao alongside Costa next season – that’s thought number two.* And third – guess this means I’ll definitely never sleep with Monica Bellucci. 

Photo from front cover of Eureka by Jim O'Rourke
Jim O’Rourke, Eureka

You have little control over what pops up in your brain under pressure. In Ghost Ship in a Storm Jim O’Rourke sings about a random bad luck day including accidentaly riding his bike into wet cement: ‘And as I’m sinkin’/ The last thing that I think, Is did I pay my rent.’  

The previous surgery late last year, when they top-sliced the crooked stick, the anaesthetist guy had a honed, relaxed style – asking me questions and getting me to talk about my work as he lined up the drugs. And then he segued to time off and holidays, and favourite places I’ve been to in my life; and in doing so he shut-down down the vast, cavernous potential headspace for death worries. And one second I was telling him about Venice, and the next the stubble on my cheeks bristled with a rush of warmth and I was gone – fast asleep

An IV cannula being inserted into an arm
Not to be here, Not to be anywhere

But today’s anaesthetist guy isn’t particularly interested in sweet-talking my passage to nod. He’s a bit sour and distant. Left isolated in these last few moments, with spare available brain space, I briefly dwell on the possibility of things going wrong. I tell myself not to be stupid like this – but still, what if the anaesthetist screws-up? I’m not the family pet – I want to see tomorrow; I’m looking forward to resting up at home for the week and finally starting Bleak House.  

And then something odd and unexpected happens: just as soon as I start worrying about not waking up, I stop worrying about it. My mind briefly considers the death fret and shrugs it off, rapidly moving along as I find myself thinking about my annoying son instead. Maybe I’m already delirious, or feel supremely sure that I’m not really going to pass away, and therefore this is just another one of those irrational panic moments. Whatever it is, I’m apparently pretty blithe concerning my own personal longevity and more anxious about what I’ll leave behind.

painting of A Giraffe reaching for a Leaf from a Tree

The Annoying Son. Knucklebrain… I start reciting something in my head, an entreaty – asking for J to be okay. Let’s be clear though, it’s not a prayer, and I don’t mention God. I don’t do religion, what Philip Larkin called ‘That vast moth-eaten musical brocadeCreated to pretend we never die.’ I’m not one of those hardboiled atheists reciting a Hail Mary as the plane hurtles down the runway at Gatwick.

Rather than a prayer, I think that what I’m doing here is calling out to fate, asking that it makes sure my son has a happy life. Briefly, and you have to be brief when the light’s going out fast, I bargain that if it can be arranged that my son is okay, then I’m alright to let go. And so, I let go…

Evening photo of a plane taking off from Gatwick Airport
pray for us sinners

And then it’s a hour later, and I’m waking up, and a nurse with neat and detailed eye make-up is putting an oxygen mask over my mouth; and then off; and then back on again. She’s saying something – but I can’t hear – smiling at me as she goes. She says it again, louder – that the extra oxygen is normal, just to help me get level again. 

She warns that the morphine will make me woozy. She’s from Ireland and tells me she likes my name. She mutters ‘we Paddies get everywhere’ close to my ear and starts warming me up with the Hoover. Then she does my blood pressure, and tells me she watches the tennis when she can.

Last time after surgery, I woke up confused and emotional. And today is no different. For the first few minutes after the schlong op, my emotional wheel was wound so tight that I thought I was going to start blubbing on my trolley. I told the nurse, and she said, that’s fine, go for it. But I was able to keep it back. This time round though, the emotional surge isn’t lachymose but loved-up. A gallery of recent things I’ve been enjoying flicks past at speed, but now super-charged with affection. I really like Daft Punk. I love sushi! Beer is phenomenal. 

And this nurse with the ornately painted eye lids is wonderful. I love you, I say. And I do love her at this moment – deeply, euphorically, and urgently. But fortunately I only say it in my head. I don’t declare my love out loud. (Would that be harassment?) I do want her to know, though, and tell myself that she’d also like to hear how much I’m in love. But the residual, sane part of me realises she’d probably much rather I kept it to myself. 

And then she removes the oxygen mask and says goodbye and a porter wheels me back to my room, where a nurse with ash-grey hair, called Stefano, is waiting with a dinner menu. I haven’t eaten since this morning. I think of sushi and chilled wine. But Stefano says he thinks they only have chicken this late in the evening and he goes off to check.
patch of ash grey
ash grey


Stefano has to be only mid-20s. How did he get old man’s hair? 

There’s a knock on the door. Another nurse steps inside and sticks a thermometer in my ear. She says her name is Rita and that the kitchen’s closed. She smiles a lot and says it will have to be sandwiches. She says she’s from Portugal and that I have to call her if I want to go to the toilet.  

After she leaves the room, I really need to pee and shuffle into the bathroom. But I wait and wait and nothing happens. Rita comes back and I tell her about the loo, and she says my bladder’s gone to sleep, its normal, but that next time I must call her through, as she doesn’t want me fainting on the bathroom floor. 

The sandwiches come and I listen to a podcast about the life of the philsopher mystic Simone Weil, who may have starved herself to death. My throat is sore from the anaesthetist’s tube and it’s hard to swallow.

Rita comes back for another check-up. I ask her about my throat. She says it’s usual to find it sore and removes the pipes from my nose. It’s the pipes you always see in medical dramas, but I hadn’t even noticed them hanging from my nostrils. Rita’s tied her hair back. I wonder which part of Portugal she comes from. I’m just about to ask, but get distracted by the hair. Why did she change it mid-shift? Vela often tied her hair up when it was oral sex time. I picture Stefano with a smile on his face. Rita says something about ordering breakfast and suddenly, finally I realise it’s a different woman.

‘You’re not Rita.’
She smiles. ‘No, I’m Marina.’

She points to the name badge on her uniform, but it’s pretty small. Marina says patients often confuse her with Rita. As she says it, the electric ceiling light above the bed flickers off and on. We both look up. For a moment Rita/Marina part resembles something spectral sprung from the world of David Lynch – what the American philosopher Marshall Berman described as the ‘soft labyrinth’ of the Lynchian worldview. But maybe that’s the morphine talking.

Film Still from Blue Velvet, by David Lynch, of roses against a white picket fence
Softer than satin was the light

The rest of the night the Rita/Marina conflation haunts their repeat visits to the room. They tell me things, chat, but I’m not listening properly, preoccupied with figuring out which one is speaking. 

I also wonder what happened to Stefano? He went looking for chicken and vanished. I settle back and try reading a piece on Vertigo by the film-maker Chris Marker, who talks a lot about doubles and dreams. Marker speculates that the second half of Vertigo is actually one continuous dream. He thinks the peculiar disappearance of the character of Midge supports this theory, as only a dream logic would allow it. Midge is James Stewart’s plucky, supportive, adoring pal. Played by Barbara Bel Geddes, her character vanishes after the death of  Madeleine, never to be seen again (or at least not until Bel Geddes re-appeared as the Ewing matriarch in TV’s Dallas). ‘Her disappearance… is probably unparalleled in …. Hollywood scripts,’ writes Marker. ‘A character …. disappears without trace.’  I read this and think of Stefano. Where did the nurse with the ash-grey hair go? 

Barbara Bel Geddes as Midge in Hitchcock's Vertigo
no second act for you

In the night I wake up from a profound log-sleep with my shoulder feeling angry and sore. I ring the nurse station with my bedside buzzer and Rita/Marina fetches me a big top-up of pain relief. She also takes me to the toilet. I’m half way to the bathroom before I realise I’ve got no clothes on and that Rita/Marina has her eyes averted. 

I think of a recurring dream from my 30s. I’m at a job interview and it’s going really well. But instead of feeling good, I feel anxious. Something’s wrong, but it isn’t clear what. My future new boss keeps saying nice things about me, how pleased he is that we’re going to be working together. The interview panel offer me far more pay than originally advertised. But I still have this sense of foreboding sitting in the grey interview room with the whited-out windows and no view. I don’t understand: it’s nice to be praised, and wanted, and made a fuss of. So why the icy feeling of dreadAnd then I look down and realise I’m not wearing any trousers. No underpants either. It’s time to stand up and shake hands, and my new boss and the rest of the interview panel are about to see my nub. 

I climb back into bed and put my surgical gown back on and fasten it tightly this time. Rita/Marina leaves the room and I never see her/them again. 

I think well, that was one of those bad things you dread happening – accidental wang exposure – which actually happened and it wasn’t so bad really. I can’t get back to sleep though, for thinking of other bad things that might occur that will be my fault. 

Blurting out in public, loudly saying completely the wrong thing is a serial worry – revealing the crude or morally toxic sprite lurking deep inside. 

When I was a teenager, my dad told me he’d willingly rush into the street and throw himself in front of a bus to keep me from being run over and killed. He said it on two separate occasions. Both were times when he was angry concerning a choice I’d made for myself he didn’t agree with. I’m not saying it was morally toxic of him, or anything remotely like that, but I think he shouldn’t have said this. 

I doubt it was true about him giving up his life for me. I think it was just some high-blown rhetoric to get my full attention, and obedience. It is a strong idea though, and one I have often thought about since becoming a parent. Most of us never get to find out how much we’re prepared to sacrifice for our loved ones. 

Would I give up my life to keep my annoying son safe from harm? I don’t think I can say for certain that I would. At least not reflexively. In the shadow of an oncoming bus, for instance, with a split second to decide, I suspect my self-preserving survival instinct would prove a stronger, countervailing urge. In fright, I’d either freeze, or worse, I might even take flight.

You just have to hope you’ll take flight with greater dignity than George in Seinfeld, pushing the young and infirm out of his path to get to safety during a fire at a children’s birthday party. 

‘How could you not know who Bozo the Clown is?’


A more realistic worry to not taking a bullet for my son, is that one day I’ll say something terrible. Something too harsh that will injure and stay with him. I dread it because it will be hurtful and wrong – and with it some of the good parenting might be undone – but also because he may never forget the words, and quite possibly never let me forget them either. 

Whenever Vela (Ex No2) and her siblings gathered together as a family, they used to get drunk and remind their mum and dad of all their parental crimes and misdemeanours from the childhood years. The daughters shouted them out – the charge sheet was lengthy. Meanwhile, I spent a good chunk of my early adult life thinking about challenging my dad over some things from when I was young – but never found the will or the beak to do so. 

Maybe a definition of adulthood is the process of letting go of the hope of ever fixing or squaring away the complaints of the grown-up child. Eventually, late 30s I think, I realised you don’t always, or can’t always, get things settled. There will be no reckoning with my father: he’ll go to the grave, and I won’t have said the stuff that for a long time I felt the need to broach, for the sake of resolution and closure. It seems a peculiar but necessary defeat. 

Orange Ottoman Sofa by  Ligne Roset
yoisho!

By the next day the weirdness of the morphine has dissipated. A new nurse has come on shift and removes the giant hard compress bandage from my shoulder with one brutally swift tear. 

The doctor arrives, telling me that the operation went well. He comes bearing photos of my arm and shoulder, ball and socket in alignment like a couple of planets. I’m discharged in stitches and a sling, and a sales assistant at the food shop in the station carries my shopping basket around for me. For a few minutes I’m a happily useless person in the supermarket.

I get home and it’s the violet hour and the sky is tropical. I flop on the sofa blowing the usual woosh sound out through my lips. The Japanese have a word for the tired sigh we make as we land on the sofa bushed – they call this yoisho. They have lots of handy concept words we all might wish to adopt. Ukiyo means living in the moment. Komorebi is sunlight coming through the trees. Tsundoku refers to books piled up waiting to be read. 

Front Cover of Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I crack open Bleak House on the iPad. I wonder if later I can persuade the Annoying Son to sort his own dinner by waving my shoulder sling at him. 


*I doubt Mourinho will play Falcao and Costa together – or only if it’s late on and a goal’s needed. Just wanted to get that on record.

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