Time coiled like a watch spring, the tension increasing by ticks. We were on high alert, ready for that ultimate last moment before brain surgery. But it didn’t arrive. An hour came and went. We were left alone. All was quiet so we could hear that mental clock tock loudly.
But nothing happened.
Suzie stretched and her eyes opened narrowly. I worried her pre-op medication was wearing off.
“How long have I been asleep?” she asked.
“About an hour.” She sighed deeply.
It was hard to believe but the fact was, we were getting bored. How long can anyone balance on the precipice of rapt anticipation? As beautiful as it was in this moment, even the beep of my wife’s heart monitor became monotonous.
But when the nurse came back through the door, our adrenaline shot straight back to ten. Maybe we weren’t as relaxed as it seemed.
“I’m sorry,” she began. “We’re having trouble finding the craniotomy instruments.” We must have looked shocked.
“What?” I asked.
“We haven’t done one since moving to the new hospital. You’ll be the first.” Once again, not reassuring. “Things are still being unpacked. They are looking through the instruments now. Then they’ll have to sterilize them. It will be a few more minutes.”
She smiled brightly like she’d just announced that a new batch of fries had to be dropped to complete our order and could we pull our car forward to the sign?
“It won’t be long. I’ll be back to get you in just a bit.” Before we could react, she was gone.
“Well, that doesn’t sound good,” Suzie said. I can’t remember what reassurances I tried to come up with but I was soon interrupted by the quiet sound of Suzie snoring. I pulled my jacket up against the cold, propped my head in my hand and my elbow on the arm of the chair and closed my eyes.
Dr. Rosenthal was at Suzie’s bed before I recognized him. He was dressed for surgery minus the gloves. His mask hung at his neck. A surgical hat and scrubs completed the uniform. There were cloth covers on his feet so his shoes remained a mystery.
I realized that the previous surgery had been his and he would re-scrub and glove for Suzie. He had been working the entire time we were waiting and now, however tired he was, he would begin the most important operation of our lives.
His dark eyes were calm and his voice level and precise, describing the procedure once more but this time he added the sequence of events before and after. He described everything that Suzie would experience leading up to surgery and in recovery.
Knowledge of the process was golden to a person about to give control of their life and mind and future into his hands. The surrender of consciousness and dreams to a man holding a scalpel and bone saw was not a thing anyone would consent to in any other circumstances. There was simply no choice.
We both knew that he couldn’t promise anything. We both knew he would do the very best he could. But no one in the room knew what was about to happen. Now was the time to find out. The meeting had a ceremonial atmosphere, like a scientific liturgy, a routine worked out over many years to take care of all legal and personal details.
At its conclusion, he asked, “Do you have any questions?”
There were none, of course. We didn’t even know enough about the process to ask. It was just one final moment of self-control afforded the patient, for that is what she now was. The end of her former life and the beginning of her unknown future pivoted on her answer. The silence hung.
“No, I can’t think of anything,” she answered.
Ceremony complete, contract concluded, the journey began.
“Alright, I’ll see you back there,” he said pleasantly then turned to go.
There was a rush of movement behind me and the SICU team moved in to disconnect her web of cables. Behind them more pastel-clad people waited to ferry her to the hallowed places I could not go. There was the briefest of moments to say goodbye, circled by this crowd of eyes. I was the only one not wearing ceremonial clothes. People checked gauges and clipboards at our kiss.
This, too, was a practiced part of the choreography, designed to separate loved ones with a minimum amount of fuss and bother. I was being managed and played along.
I gave Suzie a quick kiss that felt too insignificant, like she was heading off to the office or shopping.
As soon as I told her that I loved her, the room’s attention returned to the patient and the train of professionals began to move. I stepped back to get out of the way. I could just see the top of her head as she rolled through SICU.
And then she was gone.