The daughter of one of my colleagues recently celebrated her ninth birthday. Three or four other young ladies were invited to spend the night. Unfortunately, the evening turned sour when one of the guests – a strong personality – led a sort of revolt against the birthday girl, recruiting others to her side and refusing to participate in the planned activities. Tears and recriminations followed, and the night was largely spoiled. I had a slumber party on my ninth birthday too. Adam and Chris and Neil were invited. We camped out in the living room, our sleeping bags thrown down in front of the TV. We drank gallons of Mountain Dew and Dr Pepper and ate M&Ms and Reese’s Pieces. After my parents went to bed, we watched episodes of Benny Hill on the local PBS station. It was, at the time, one of the most outrageously fantastic nights of my life. The lesson here is never plan activities.
Someone ought to invent a word for the special pleasure of cancelling surgeries. Twice now I’ve scheduled a hernia repair surgery and subsequently cancelled it because I felt so well. Anyway, it’s a minor hernia. In the past three years it’s only rarely caused me notable discomfort. I figure, if I can hike nine miles with a heavy pack and suffer no ill effects, why volunteer myself for the carving table? I’m in no rush to be anyone’s roast turkey. St Paul in his letters complained of a mysterious “thorn in the flesh,” a temptation that pestered him to no end. I’ve come to believe the apostle had an inguinal hernia too. It’s a convenient complaint for a regular church attender: you’re immediately off the hook when fellow parishoners want help moving their pianos. The temptation, however, is real, and St Paul was a passionate man. For all we know, he may have scheduled and cancelled dozens of surgeries all over the eastern Mediterranean.
On a father/daughter birding expedition last month, I was shocked to see, at a great distance but still unmistakeable, a flamingo in San Francisco Bay. I would have doubted my own eyes, but apparently there have been several confirmed spottings in the past two years. My daughter was ecstatic, breathless, leaping up and down and shouting her astonishment in an attempt to interest passersby. How, and why, had it come here? Despite the absurdly pleasant weather we’ve had this winter, Northern California is not yet the tropics. David Sibley in his field guide assures us that any flamingos spotted in the western continental United States are escapees – from the zoo, presumably, or from some Hollywood celebrity’s or tech magnate’s personal golfcourse. My daughter and I prefer to imagine that our flamingo was simply fed up with all the other flamingos back home – their gossip, their politics, their pet causes. It wanted some quiet, some isolation, some anonymity. But anonymity is hard to come by when you’re the only bright pink animal around for hundreds of miles.
Quaint forms of medieval torture are still practiced at the ophthalmologist’s office. Twice now I’ve bowed to the knife for the excision of a chalazion cyst. A summary of the procedure: A clamp with a hole in its center is placed over the eyelid to isolate the cyst and turn the lid inside out. An incision is made into the cyst from the underside of the lid. It is drained and scraped and the wound is cauterized. The clamp is mercifully removed. Then the bleeding really starts.
In the waiting room I am the youngest person by twenty years. The average age hovers at something north of sixty-five, and half of the others are in wheelchairs. The only magazines available are Reader’s Digest and Where to Retire. Locales suggested in the latter include St Augustine, Florida, where a friend of mine once worked for the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Odditorium; and Whidbey Island, Washington, where I once got lost in the eagle-haunted woods, and which the writer stupidly keeps referring to as “The Isle.”
One of my fellow patients is a tan golf-club type in white shorts reading a library copy of A Fistful of Fig Newtons. Another is a woman in her seventies wearing a blue beret, a black-and-white striped sweater, strings of red plastic beads, and camouflage pants. She introduces herself as “Joyce and Rejoice.” I leave the operating room a half hour later with blood in my beard and a patch over my eye. Joyce is sitting in the hallway, waiting for her eyes to dilate. She looks at me worriedly a moment, then winks.
“What’s that noise?” I asked. There was a sound like metal springs released somewhere behind the wall. The nurse said it was just the music. Not the music, I said, something else. Didn’t she hear it? No, she didn’t. She left the room for several minutes. When she came back she stepped toward me and – without a word – made a mark on the left side of my forehead with a black felt-tip pen. I hadn’t expected that. I didn’t know what to say.
The mark, I gathered, was intended to show the doctor which eye required surgery. Apparently, the nearly marble-sized cyst in my eyelid wasn’t enough to give it away. My confidence suffered a minor blow. One wants to believe in the skills of someone shortly to wield sharp instruments near one’s eyes. When the young ophthalmologist came into the room I asked if this was a procedure he performed frequently. “It’s a fairly common complaint,” was all he would say.
The anesthetic injection to the eyelid hurt. I worried for a moment that he had skewered my eyeball with the needle. Then he applied the clamp to my upper lid, tightened it, and turned the lid inside out. I realized with a start that the music piped into the room was a Beethoven piano sonata. At least, I thought, it’s not the Ninth. I observed from millimeters away as the doctor made an incision with his scalpel. “It’s draining now,” he announced.
From my reclined position in the examination chair, the doctor was standing at my left. A comical rumbling sound came from the direction of his stomach. “Doctor L?” I said. Yes? “Haven’t you eaten lunch?” He apologized and explained that he’d just finished a mocha. Mochas always did that to him. Then he used a miniature melon-scoop to scrape out the inside of the exploded oil gland in my eyelid. Finally, he cauterized the wound. I smelt myself at the stake.
The bleeding began when the clamp was removed. Ten minutes of pressure on the lid stanched it, but I would have to exit through the Pediatrics waiting room and was afraid my bloodied orb might frighten the children. There came the weird sound of springs again. When I opened the door to leave and turned to my right I saw a boy of three or four riding a spring-legged toy donkey. “Merry Christmas,” he said. Then he pointed to my forehead: “Someone wrote on you.”
It really is a pity that he hasn’t got a Twelfth Century at his disposal.
~ Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten
My ophthalmologist will introduce me to his twelfth century later today when he removes a chalazion cyst from my left eyelid. I made the grave mistake of watching a video clip of the procedure, which brilliantly combined memorable scenes from A Clockwork Orange and Un Chien Andalou. My pain threshold is nothing exalted and I won’t get more than local anaesthesia. But who could pass up the chance for a little time travel?