»  The Straggler, No. 2

November 11, 2002

  Timor mortis conturbat me


The late Sir Kingsley Amis wrote a spoof on Shakespeare's "Fear no More the Heat of the Sun," beginning: "Look thy last on all things shitty, / While thou'rt at it …" The body of the poem goes on to list aspects of the modern world that Amis regarded as shitty — pop stars, soccer fans, tourists, and so on. The last stanza is:

High-rise blocks and action paintings,
Sculptures made from wire and lead:
Each of them a sight more lovely
Than the curtains round your bed.

I had occasion to recall these lines recently. I had woken up one morning with a pain in my chest and gasping for breath. In common with, I think, most males of the species, I have a deep-rooted belief that illness is best ignored, and that most things get better of their own accord, provided you show them no fear. Stress, I thought, been working too hard. Must slow down. I therefore got up and embarked on my usual 16-hour day.

Two weeks of wheezing and panting, supplemented by much nagging from my wife, drove me to the family doctor, who ordered me to a local radiology clinic for X-rays. The clinic told me to proceed directly to the Emergency Room of my local hospital, where a pulmonary specialist would meet me.

Oh my God, I have cancer, was my natural and immediate reaction. This made for a miserable drive over to the ER, but much relief when I got an actual diagnosis. "Spontaneous pneumothorax," said the ER doctor in response to my query, squinting up at a syringe he was calibrating.

I did a quick construe. "'Air in the chest'? Isn't there supposed to be air in my chest? Isn't that what chests are for, actually?"

"Supposed to be in the lungs," he explained, swabbing my arm. "Hold still there. Good. Left lung sprang a leak. Pfffft! Air in chest, see? Lung collapsed." He then proceeded to punch a hole through my chest wall, insert a tube with an attached apparatus, and admit me to the hospital. Apparently I had been walking around for two weeks with a single working lung.

I won't say that my incarceration was altogether unpleasant. The nursing profession seems to have mislaid, or abandoned, the art of giving bed-baths, so if you cannot make your way to the shower, you are left to stink. That aside, I was quite happy to have been removed from the demands of family and editors for 48 hours, on the undisputable authority of the medical profession. The food was not at all bad, though I speak here as one raised on English boys-school lunches. I had the essays of Aldous Huxley for company, having promised to review them for a magazine. Furthermore, the ER doctor's syringe had contained morphine, and I got more of that wonderful, soothing, banisher of all cares at three-hour intervals through the first day and a half, and so was removed at a certain distance from even the very limited world of a hospital ward. It is very droll to read Aldous Huxley while slipping in and out of a narcotic stupor.

When the morphine stopped, though, Kingsley Amis came padding in. The curtains round your bed … Yes, there were curtains round my bed, as I suppose there will be at the end time. Impossible not to think about these things. Impossible, too, to ignore the reality of a hospital — a place of pills and potions, of pain and sickness, of resignation and dwindling hope, of wheezing and groaning. All around me tremulous voices re-told their symptoms to impatient doctors, gowned specters shuffled their way to the bathroom holding on to their IV stands, and bodies shifted restlessly on beds, striving to minimize discomfort. All the pleasure, the holiday spirit, fell away as the morphine ebbed, and I was trapped at last in a Gustave Doré engraving of hell, longing desperately for the voices of my children — and yes, even my editors. At last I was very glad to be out of there.

Now, you may say that I am making a fuss about nothing. You may yourself have survived far greater insults to your physical person, and be shaking your head in disbelief at my distress over such a brief and trivial affliction.

Look at it from my point of view, though. Long blessed with perfect health, I have now lost my innocence. The founder of this magazine has a strict conversational rule that nobody may speak for more than two minutes about his bodily ailments. This always seemed to me an excellent and sensible rule, but I see I have violated it by several hundred percent in this space. I am now thinking about my body, and even writing about it — neither of which things I ever felt the slightest urge to do before. A quick scan of the items archived on my web site confirms that none of the half million words I have published on innumerable topics across several years has concerned my own mortal tissue. That was in keeping with my attitude to the stuff. St. Francis of Assisi, on his deathbed, is supposed to have apologized to his body, which he addressed as "poor donkey." That is how I always imagined myself going. I never expected the wretched donkey would up and kick me halfway through the journey.

This morning, after brushing my teeth, I caught myself looking into my open mouth in the mirror, trying to peer down that dark tube that falls away at the back. Away in those lightless inner regions the tube branches and re-branches, terminating in tiny floriform structures that pass life-giving oxygen to my blood, and gather up waste gases for exhalation. That, at any rate, is what happens when everything works … Which, I now know, everything may decide to stop doing at any moment, without warning, spontaneously. It all looks so frail, so absurdly temporary, this arrangement of tubes and tissues. Which, of course, it is. Our lives hang by a thread. We know not the day nor the hour. Timor mortis conturbat me.