Photo by Christina Schmidt
Discovering My Gall Bladder
It was 5:30 in the morning in the ER and this doctor was explaining the gall bladder to me, drawing pictures in blue pen on the bed sheet on the hospital gurney: the gall bladder, the liver, the pancreas, the intestines. He had a very large stomach and thick glasses that magnified his eyes. There was something peculiar about his hair. Maybe it was dyed, or a toupee. He was wearing royal blue scrubs. He had a good bedside manner. I liked him.
I could still feel the goo from the ultra sound procedure on my stomach, though I’d done my best to rub it off with the rough towel the technician had given me. A machine bleeped behind my head, a blood pressure cuff turned on and off, squeezing my upper right arm at regular intervals. The excruciating pain below my ribs had subsided. I was breathing again. The only pain was in the inside crook of my left arm where they’d hooked up an IV. I’d had blood tests, an EKG, an ultrasound, medications for pain and nausea, four or five nurses and the same doctor twice. When I’d started off the night at around 1:00 am, doubled over in agony, they’d given me a cozy, pre-warmed flannel blanket, but now it wasn’t warm any more, and I was shivering in my hospital gown.
My husband wandered in from the outside waiting room, his hair sticking out in all directions, looking dazed. “How are you feeling?”
“Better. A lot better,” I said. “The doctor’s coming back after another blood test.” I didn’t want to think about what I looked like. I was busy calculating what a pain in the ass it was going to be to miss my three classes the next day, and all the arrangements I was going to have to make with my students to keep our schedule on track. If I’d been dying, would I still be thinking about those damn classes and all the arrangements I’d have to make? One dead professor with a lesson plan coming up.
I’d taken a big step the week before, and gone in to Human Resources to talk about the university’s early retirement program. No one who’d used the faculty early retirement plan in my department had by any stretch of the imagination been retiring early. They waited until they were seventy, then exercised their early retirement option to teach half time for five more years, pulling in half pay plus their pension. It’s a good deal. But I don’t think I can wait until I’m seventy, so why not go ahead and start the five-year countdown when I turn sixty-three in December? I would love to have more time to write. My last sabbatical was heaven. It’s making me anxious, though. Smaller things make me anxious, and this is a fairly big decision.
So my first thought when my stomach started hurting was that it was anxiety talking. An early-retirement-decision stomachache. Then, an unbelievably intense early-retirement-decision stomachache. I tend to psychologize things. I remember a friend in college telling me, “You’ve got the flu, Jackie. You’re not undergoing a religious experience.”
Later, after the emergency room, I would get online to learn more about gallstones. “When your gallbladder starts to hurt, you’ll know right away where it is,” the Everyday Health site explained, dispensing with diagrams. The gall bladder stores bile until the body needs it, which interested me, since bile also refers to ill humor or irritability. More commonly in the Middle Ages than now, but you still hear the word used that way. Gallstones, the source of my intense pain, are actually hardened bile.
I couldn’t help turning that into a metaphor. We’d just had an English department meeting and my husband had said, “Take your anxiety medication with you, just in case. You get much too wrapped up in this stuff.” And sometimes I do get pretty pissed off. Years of bile and mild animosities. There’s the faculty member who’s always insisting that certain courses belong to her. Another who won’t come to committee meetings or hold the minimum number of office hours. The literature professors who complain about the creative writing students. The professors who’ve become bureaucrats or administrators and don’t care about writing and writers at all. Others so mired in university politics that they think we want to hear about it for hours. Faculty who want more meetings and more committees and day-long retreats so they can hear themselves talk some more. I say mild animosities because I started my teaching career in a department on another campus where tensions were totally out of control. Faculty members threw Coke cans, pushed over chairs and stormed out of meetings, distributed venomous memoranda, sometimes anonymously. You’ve probably heard the adage: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” I feel petty even listing the sources of my rancor in faculty meetings. Or remembering how very worked up I’ve sometimes become. Fuming. Irate. Bilious might be the word.
Historical accounts of bile distinguish between “two bodily humors, black bile or yellow bile, in ancient and medieval physiology. Black bile was thought to cause melancholy and yellow bile anger. From French, from Latin, probably of Celtic origin.” It sounds like my Irish-American family tree. All those melancholy drinkers prone to poetry and fury. My depressive mother, my raging father, my alcoholic great uncles. I’ve wrestled with all those inherited afflictions, sometimes winning, sometimes not. I’ve been sober for twenty-five years, something for the victory column.
Bottom line. I don’t want to die at my desk at the university, surrounded by ungraded student essays and feuding with some elderly faculty member down the hall. I should qualify that statement. I don’t really want to die depressed and alone in an unheated apartment eating cat food either. Or in a low-cost nursing home that smells of urine. Maybe the bottom line is that I don’t want to age, become destitute, or die. And two of those are going to happen no matter what I do.
For a long time retirement seemed like the final phase of life to me, the phase that was going to end in death. The beginning of that downhill slide, the disappearance of my visible role in the world before final erasure. But a funny thing happened when my father died seven years ago. I started to write. Not the scholarly essays on literature I’d been writing for years. Real essays. Personal essays, then narrative nonfiction, then fiction. I wrote and wrote. I started to publish. I joined a writing group. I took some classes and workshops. I wrote and wrote. It felt like my life had just begun. It still feels like my life is just beginning.
Consider the medical definition of bile: “A bitter, alkaline, brownish-yellow or greenish-yellow fluid that is secreted by the liver, stored in the gallbladder, and discharged into the duodenum and aids in the emulsification, digestion, and absorption of fats.” It’s not unlike writing, where I dig deep to uncover years of experience that haven’t been digested and absorbed. Fats that need to be processed. It’s not surprising to me that after so many years of neglecting my creativity, some of that bitter bile has calcified into gallstones. Or that they would be painful. Exercising that long dormant creativity has been painful. And exhilarating and freeing and utterly absorbing. “The fascination of what’s difficult,” W.B. Yeats said somewhere, and I don’t remember the context, but it describes the challenge of this new activity I want to clear space for.
I’d just been thinking that I didn’t really need my teaching job when the doctor told me, his gaze earnest behind his thick glasses, “You don’t actually need your gall bladder. It’s an expendable organ.”
I looked at the ornate diagram he’d drawn in blue ink on the bed sheet, admiring the level of detail in the wavy ducts. The gall bladder looked like an undersea plant or a strange baby jellyfish. I wondered whether the picture was going to wash off, or whether all the sheets in the ER bore a faint palimpsest of his drawings of parts of the body.
“Right now it’s inflamed,” he said. “But somewhere up the road you could consider surgery. It’s laparoscopic. They take it out in tiny pieces.” He drew lines through his diagram of the gall bladder. Now it looked like a jigsaw puzzle.
“Talk to your doctor about it.”
We shook hands. Both of us smiled. It felt good to know that they’d located the problem and it had a solution. Maybe I’d get my gall bladder removed. There are a lot of things I once considered essential that have turned out to be expendable. Some of them I didn’t notice at all until it was time to get rid of them and move on, transforming melancholy and anger into something rare and new.
I was still undecided when my husband and I left the ER, clutching the hospital handouts on gallstones and treatment and privacy and billing. We marveled at the new fountain outside, rings upon rings of shimmering water lit by spotlights, which we hadn’t noticed on the way in. We hadn’t been to Eden Hospital since they demolished and rebuilt it, and the towering edifice with its graceful curves and glistening blue tiles was beautiful at that hour. It was chilly outdoors, slightly damp, and I buttoned my jacket up to my chin. It reminded me of early mornings on camping trips, when you unzip the tent flaps, fumbling for a flashlight in the darkness, and see dew sparkling on the grass in the last of the moonlight. The air was fresh and pure like that, just tinged with the silver of dawn.