Can you remember what life was like before it happened? Back when you could only guess how it would feel, what it would look like up close and who you would be when it was over?
The time is June 2000. The hot, sticky height of summer in Manhattan. You deposit your bags in an air-conditioned hotel room. Its patterned bedspread and industrial carpet look generic. You think, so this is where I’ll spend my last night in this body. You spill out onto the street, and the gooey humidity swallows you like quicksand. You don’t mind, though, because something about sweat and mosquitoes makes you feel less sterile, more alive. At an Italian restaurant, your parents order pasta; you order a bowl of broth, because you’re in the final stage of preparation now and can only consume clear liquids.
A decade later, when you’re living in a city you’ve never even considered visiting, you’ll know all about cleansing. You’ll use juice as a verb and have your colon hydrotherapist’s number saved in your iPhone. But right now the tepid bowl of liquid in front of you and the enema awaiting you back at the hotel room (at least you think that’s what it’s called; you’ve never heard of such a thing) seem decidedly unglamorous.
Your neighbor back home has spent some time in hospitals. When you asked her, when do you feel like yourself again? She said, never. You get better, but you’re different. You’re never the same as you were.
The next morning is surreal. You think there’s something provocative about the hospital gown, because it opens in the back and shows your perky, ballet-toned ass. You wonder how perky your ass will be when your muscles have atrophied after weeks in bed. It’s easier to focus on aesthetic concerns than on the paper you just signed. The one that said, I will not hold the hospital accountable in the event of paralysis or death. You look at the doctor, anesthesiologist, residents and nurses, and think about how all these strangers are going to see you naked in a few minutes. Besides your parents, only one person has ever seen you naked, and that’s because you were in love with him. Now they’re taking a Bic razor to your back, which is weird; you weren’t aware you had any hair on your back. You don’t. They just want to cut into as smooth a surface as possible. The use of the word cut in this explanation does nothing to quell your nerves. Neither does the iodine with which they are now basting you. You feel like a Thanksgiving turkey, and these nice people are about to slice you in half.
You beg the nurse to let you keep that trendy silver hoop in the top part of your ear, because you don’t want the cartilage to close up. Removing it, she says the metal will disrupt the electromagnetic currents of the monitors keeping your vitals steady. During your recovery the piercing will close. You’ll re-pierce it the following summer at a tattoo parlor in the East Village with your friend Leslie. But you can’t imagine the future now. This day is like the wall at the end of the ocean in The Truman Show. Everything you’ve ever known ends here.
You’ve been the consummate jokester these past few weeks, wearing your moxie like a suit of armor. You’re not laughing anymore. Breathing drugs through a mask, you feel scared… alone… blurry. Your peripheral vision starts to close in. And then everything goes black.
Which of your memories are yours? First word. First day of school. First kiss. Was there a sensory trigger that sent it to the archives of your long-term memory? Or did you construct it later, by looking at photographs and hearing other people’s accounts of how it went down? I know about my spine surgery the way I know that Edison invented the lightbulb and Alice fell down the rabbit hole. They’re all stories I’ve heard. Probably something to do with how morphine disrupts gamma oscillations in the hippocampus.
What I am sure of is this: my neighbor was right. I used to have a spine that looked like the letter “s.” Thanks to a steel rod and some screws, it is now straight. I rarely think about it. Every once in awhile, when a yoga or Pilates instructor reminds the class that spinal flexibility is the measure of true age and the nexus of all well being, I lose my concentration, start laughing and think, I guess that means I’ve been old since I was really young. But here I am in a downward dog, so… yay.
Post-operatively, when I woke up, sobered up and stood up, I had a different center of gravity. A different center of gravity. But I’m not alone in this. You end one relationship. You begin another. Your heart breaks and then sings again. You say goodbye to a loved one. The years draw lines on your face. I’ve heard having a child is pretty intense. You take a bite of the apple and your whole world changes.
For me, this month marks the 12-year anniversary of one particularly life-altering moment in the series of moments that make up a life. It has inspired reflection on how we are changed in visible and invisible ways by that which we encounter on a daily basis.
What are you accumulating? And what are you releasing? The cells that compose your physical body, the energetic vibrations you emanate and receive, your hopes and fears and memories and scars. You are a one-of-a-kind topographic map of what is shaping up to be a beautifully eventful journey.