“Have you ever had surgery?” the question came at me out of nowhere and I answered as honestly as I could.
“Yes.” I replied with a sudden wave of memories crashing into my consciousness of lying on a hospital gurney at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Green Bay Wisconsin as my mother read me the latest Readers Digest to calm my nerves and let the sedation drugs slowly lull me into a false sense of security.
I suppose I should rewind the clock for all you good folks out there who are sitting in your living rooms reading this on the wonderful world wide web.
The year is 1978, the Bee Gees own the radio air waves with little brother Andy coming in a close second and Paul McCartney and Wings are closing in on the title slot like a laser beam. In the theatres Grease, Superman and Animal House are raking in the dough to the laughter and surprise of everyone in attendance. On tv “The Incredible Hulk”, “Dallas” and “Taxi” are getting ready to premier. Home computers, cell phones, and the internet have yet to be invented let alone truly be thought of. And while all this is going on I end up with a bullet lodged in my mental tuberoses of my mandible (that’s a fancy way of saying chin.) All because Al Minnow (Fish) thought it would be funny to shoot me at close range in his bedroom with his Crossman Pump BB/Pellet gun.
That is the back story. Good Times.
Now, fast forward to 2011 and I am sitting in an emergency room in Suffolk, Virginia and some nurse who is barely out of nursing school is asking me about my medical history.
“What sort of surgery have you had?” she asks calmly.
I gaze over my glasses at her freshly washed face and into her ever so eager to help eyes and calmly say “I’ve had a bullet removed from my chin, on my right arm I’ve had my flexor/extensor tendon sewn together and above my left knee I’ve had my vastus lateralus repaired.”
I watch as her face slowly drains of color and her eyes become blank orbs of fear. I wonder what she is thinking for a moment but then the moment passes and I just enjoy the moment.
“Uhm… Mr. Novak, all at the same time?”
I would love to say yes just to watch her reaction but then I answer truthfully and say “No. Different times for the bullet and the tendons and muscle.”
The young lady lets out a nervous sigh and then starts typing on her computer.
The interview continues with such mundane questions like: Why are you here today? If you could gauge your pain level on a ten scale what would it be? Are you allergic to anything? And the list goes on and on. But as you may have already guessed, I have put my brain on auto pilot and am simply answering the questions from some primordial recess deep within my mind.
I’ve answered these questions hundreds of times. I don’t want to answer them anymore, I just want to get back to the semi-private room, have the Doc come look at the worst part of my body, give me a shot or pills and send me on my way. Because unlike the young nurse sitting across from me, I know I will never truly be fixed. I know I will always be in pain, I know I will never be the healthy strapping young man I was twenty years ago. I know that as my life progresses my health will decline and I will always have some sort of ailment that will constantly plague my system. This is the way of life. This is the chronic condition of deterioration we all face. I am comfortable with it.
When she was satisfied she led me to my examination room, handed me a hospital robe that was made for King Kong, asked me to change and then abruptly but politely left the room. But her questions, questions I have answered in the past and will answer in the future, got me thinking. I obeyed her commands and started to disrobe, and as I stood there in that stark, clinical room I stared at the mirror on the back of the door at the scars and age of my body.
Looking at them brought to mind some of the early railroad maps that I’ve collected over the years. Lines of tender pink tissue that started and stopped unexpectedly on my arms, legs and shoulders looked out of place but also looked as if they belonged. I tried to imagine myself without them and the stories they represented and the pain that caused them. I couldn’t.
I realized then and there, standing half naked with the threat of strangers coming to poke and prod me that my scars were as much a part of me as my sarcasm, wit and Polish heritage. I also learned I appreciate my life and all its difficulties, pleasures and familiarities better than most of my friends and colleagues.
You see, I have held hands with the reaper four times so far in my life and the S.O.B. has been cordial enough to let my hand go so that I may continue living on this mud ball for as long as my will sustains my love of breathing fresh air, smoking cigars and riding my bike. These scars are my memories of those lonely walks with him and I will continue to make my trek for as long as I can.
As for the Doctor and the nurse? They pushed, pulled, poked and prodded me to the best of their abilities then gave me some pills and sent me on my way. I’m healthier now because of them but I still wonder where the Reaper is right now and when he will come take me for my final walk.