I remember lying like Christ crucified, on a cold operating table, squinting up at silver lights, waiting for sleep and the dreaded knife. They both arrived on schedule. Then someone shook my shoulder and called my name and I was on the other side, in recovery, with nurses milling about, asking questions that my thick lips couldn’t answer. The smiling face of my surgeon hovered above me.
“Do you have much pain?” Dr. Norton asked.
“I’m not awake enough to hurt,” I mumbled back. “How did things look?”
“No sign that the cancer spread. We’ll know more later from the path report.”
I smiled and let the soft darkness close back around me. When I awoke, the ceiling was sliding past. I tried counting the air conditioning ducts but lost track. My gurney turned into a dark room. Strong hands slid me onto a bed, hung IV sacks on a stand, and clipped a urine bag and catheter tube to the rail.
“Here, take this,” a cute brunette ordered.
“Thanks. What is it?” I mumbled.
“For pain. Just push the button and you’ll get morphine. Don’t worry about using too much,” she grinned, “the machine won’t let you.”
From in back of a drawn curtain, the gurgle of a man’s labored breathing filled the room. I raised an eyebrow and pointed.
“Your roommate just got out of surgery, too,” she said.
The brunette moved away, white-soled shoes squeaking on polished linoleum. On the wall in front of my bed a white board displayed the names of those attending me, next to a clock and a day calendar showing the wrong date.
“That’s one way to keep ’em confused,” I thought. “Set the clock wrong and screw up the date.”
Sleep took everything away again. In the late afternoon I awoke to a throbbing gut pain. Groaning, I reached for the morphine button and pressed it hard. Sun streamed in through slatted blinds, showing the tops of trees and a dazzling blue sky. Sweating, I kicked off the top sheet to expose tubes and a stained white dressing covering my lower abdomen. I lay back, waiting for the morphine to kick in. Time stretched like taffy in the stuffy heat. I suffered its passage.
A high clear siren sound pierced the silence and echoed down the hallway. It was somewhere between a scream and singing. But unlike a scream, it continued to flow, maintaining timbre and pitch. I pushed myself up, hoping to clear my head. The sound continued, only now I could make out words.
“Harooold, where are you? Pleeeease come heeeere. Harooold, where are youuuuuu?”
In between choruses, the sound of nurses crooning their concern, enjoining silence, and voicing frustration filled the hallway. But the soprano continued without pause, becoming a chant, impossible to ignore, near impossible to bear.
“Harooold, don’t leave me! Why are you soooo cruellllll?”
The voice became muffled as doors swung shut and admonitions continued. In a few minutes a nurse’s aide wearing a tight smile clomped into my room to empty my urine bag. The sound of my pee filling something got me curious and I peered over the bed’s rail. The aide grinned up at me, as if embarrassed to be caught in the act.
“What’s the story with our singer?” I whispered. The soprano had subsided for a few seconds.
“She’s 92. Just had a stroke.”
“Sorry – even more so for Harold. Is he there?” I asked and wondered when my wife would arrive.
“Harold is just a memory. Her son said he died years ago.” Grasping a full plastic beaker, she pushed herself up and beat a hasty retreat.
The soprano continued her opera, calling for Harold and occasionally for other cast members. Images of a gray haired woman, huge, with an operatic chest, lying prone and chanting at the ceiling filled my mind. I stared at the wall clock, willing its hands to move faster. My roommate continued to softly burble. Evidently his brand of morphine was more potent than mine. The room grew even hotter. I dozed in sodden sheets until Bonnie gently shook me awake. It was black outside. The treetops tossed in a harsh on-shore Pacific wind. They looked orange in the melancholy parking lot lights.
“I’m glad you can sleep through that,” Bonnie grinned at me.
I rubbed my eyes and drew Bonnie’s head down for a kiss. The soprano cut loose with another chorus.
“Harooold, get me some waaaterr. Why do you leeeeave me like this...”
“Sorry about the sound effects,” I said. “That old woman has been at it all day long. I guess they’re afraid to sedate her.”
“I heard it coming up in the elevator,” Bonnie said, sighing. “I was just glad it wasn’t you yelling for me.”
“Don’t be too sure I won’t.” I smiled and we kissed again.
Just then a baritone bellowed from the opposite end of the corridor. “Dolores, where the helllll are youuuu. Damn it, Dolorrrrres, why aren’t you heeeere.”
The voice had a vibrato big enough to throw a dog through. It rumbled through open doors, pushed past hands covering ears, and mesmerized both of us. For a minute the soprano stopped her siren song. I held my breath. The baritone called again, his voice rich and penetrating. The sopranos voice slid under closed doors and mingled in the hallway with his rumblings.
“Great, now we have a duet,” I muttered.
“Don’t worry, John. You’ll be back with your own music soon enough. In some strange way they sound sweet.”
“I hope they think so,” I said with a grimace. Somebody had stuck a knife in my belly and I pressed the morphine button. Bonnie brushed hair from my eyes and retreated to a chair next to the clock to work on her crossword puzzles. The voices continued, an ever-changing call-and-response that demanded attention. I stabbed at the morphine button again.
“Go easy on that stuff,” Bonnie said, smiling, “we won’t have any of that at home.”
“I won’t need it at home,” I whispered. “At least our voices can sing on-key.”
“Hey, not everybody has perfect pitch.”
“Yeah, Christ, I really miss my Steinway.”
“Sorry, honey. I couldn’t lug it up the back stairs for you,” Bonnie cracked.
She blew me a kiss and went back to her puzzles. In a while the wind stopped tearing at the trees and the room turned cool. The duet became just part of the hospital’s background noise, like the ventilating system’s hum that annoyed me at first, but had become somehow comforting. Every few minutes Bonnie asked me if I needed anything. I designed new answers to her question, glad to continue our own call-and-response into the evening.
Two mornings later, the brunette nurse’s aide pushed my wheelchair toward the elevator, on our way to meet Bonnie, waiting in the Odyssey to drive me home. I said goodbye to my roommate, a huge hulk of a man hobbling down the corridor on crutches, his bandaged knee wrapped in an ugly-looking brace. But the ward was too quiet.
“What happened to the old woman and the gentleman?” I asked.
“Who do you mean?” the aide replied.
“You know, the opera troop? I haven’t heard them singing since yesterday.”
“Oh, they’re actually doing quite well.”
“Were you guys finally able to sedate them?”
“Oh no, nothing like that,” the aide said, chuckling. “We put them in the same room. They chatter all day long. She thinks he’s Harold and he thinks she’s Dolores.”
“I kind of missed their singing.”
“It’s better this way – you got your sleep and they can let their minds rest.”
At the hospital’s main entrance I unsteadily rose from the wheelchair and climbed into the van’s front passenger seat. Everything outside looked precious and beautiful in the morning light. I was amazed that I didn’t miss the morphine button. Instead, I itched to lay my fingers on cool white keys. Now the path report seemed like only a single note, not a coda – not an ending. All the way home, Bonnie and I hummed in perfect harmony.