It’s like the VA hospital just opened. Only two smokers out front and the usual guy looking confused on the bench near the main doors is absent.
We say hello to an old vet as we enter. He’s missing both legs from the knee down. Fresh bandages, seeping. A dingy, dark blue USS something hat barely sits on his bald head. Kidney spots. In his mind he’s standing, saluting. I can just tell.
Follow a family mostly decked out in sweat suits—pink, blue, and black Adidas—into elevators and up to the fourth floor short-stay unit to the nurses station. We’re all checking in. 5:55am. I’m asked to stay but Katie is sent to the waiting room where TVs anchor the corners, volumes too loud. In her bags are books, snacks, and a Patagonia trucker hat and toothbrush for me when surgery’s over. I’m concerned about having post-anesthesia bad breath and cotton mouth.
In the room alone, I change into pajama pants, a bootie gown, and green socks with sole grip. Stack my street clothes in a wobbly cabinet with a broken leg. I meditate. Deep breath in, deep breath out. And when the nurse does my vitals, she says my blood pressure is really, really nice: 113/78. Pulse too, really, really nice: 61. Temperature normal. Then I wait.
I close my eyes and imagine hiking Copper Canyon, then I’m climbing over a giant pile of boulders on Baja’s gulf side like Kent and I did in 2000. I carried all his shit so he could lug his camera gear. I carried it because it was harder, heavier, less stable, and I like a challenge. Suffering, at times, has felt more rewarding.
I imagined this December. Flying to Helsinki and ferrying across the Gulf of Finland. Renting a warm studio and finishing my novel. Drinking coffee and vodka in dark afternoons. I weigh it against another month-long stay in Mexico City. But the Roma neighborhood this time. Take a bus to the southern border. Watch the landscape pass and know I’m an insignificant part of it all. Some sort of perfection.
Katie joins me and we talk quietly. I’m grossed out by having visited the restroom wearing just these socks. She tells me take them off but I don’t want to touch them. I ask if she thinks they’re brand new and she says no, but they’re clean. Katie’s aunt is also having surgery today. A brain biopsy. Mine is small potatoes in comparison yet everyone in her family has either emailed or texted or Facebooked me with encouraging words. (As did mine once I told them, for the first time yesterday and mostly out of obligation, that I was having a procedure. Their support was strong though tinged with why-didn’t-we-know-about-this-sooner.)
The nurse collects me, says it’s time. I kiss Katie, walk holding her hand to the next room. Katie says see you in a few and turns towards the waiting room. I wish I had kissed her again. Maybe said goodbye. Sometimes anesthesia goes wrong, right?
I say hello to the room filled with nurses and surgeons. The place is abuzz. Everyone says hello back. Like Norm on Cheers. Resident surgeon introduces himself and pulls up my gown to look at my right knee. Wrong one I tell him. Oh? he says. Seriously, did you not know which one you are working on? He leaves and returns with my X-rays, waves them in the air. Says, here we go. Left leg it is. He’s awkward. Lots of ums and OKs. He leaves and I’m like, who was that twelve year old?
Then I’m on a bed and a nurse says she’s starting my IV. She rests my hand on her knee and her body is warm through her scrubs. She says she’s got me. That I’m in good hands. She’s happy with the vein, but fails to hit it just right and has to do it again. She says, shit. An anesthesiologist asks if she needs help and she says, yes. He does one on my left hand, but not before asking me why my arm is shaved. New tattoo, I tell him. He nods.
He asks about my knee. I tell him my running story. He knows someone, a fellow anesthesiologist at Duke who runs crazy miles. Warwick Ames. I tell him I know the guy. But I know him by his trail name, Morph. He texts Morph and I tell him to mention me as my trail name, Gaucho. We discuss hallucinations.
When the nurse shaves my leg, I ask him to shave the whole damn thing. He tells me that’ll cost me. Then he goes on with a story of being kicked out of the Army for insubordination. This is what got him into the medical profession nearly 20 years ago. He’s got a great smile. He gives me two antibacterial wipes and tells me to wipe down my crotch and penis. You don’t want any bacteria getting up in there, he says. He’s right.
I’m feeling woozy. Like a buzz. I ask if it’s normal and the nurse says yes, but then she hurries to round up the surgeon so he can brief me before I’m totally out. The presiding surgeon is an old white guy in long white coat. He tells me I need to stop running. Says I’m compromising my body’s ability to move when I’m old. I tell him I’ll deal with that when I’m old, that I’ve got a life to live. I say my busted stuff is a sign of living how I want to live. He laughs like I’m a moron and I look at my anesthesiologist like, who’s this guy and whatever. He shrugs.
The anesthesiologist puts a gas mask over my mouth and tells me to take five breaths. I remember someone commenting on how well I am inhaling. I think of yoga. Of connecting with my body. Then someone flings open the drapes and says OK, it’s time. I say, yeah, let’s do this.
The anesthesiologist asks me how I feel—and I tell him I swear I just smoked a huge bowl. Folks laugh, then scoot me over to a narrower bed, and then I wake up and it’s all over. And I’m more stoned than I’ve ever been in my life. Even compared to that night before my first 5k in Arizona with my brother Joel.
My friend Rod Bien, who’s had multiple surgeries, told me that surgery time doesn’t exist for the patient. You fall asleep and wake up, with nothing in between. My only other surgery was in 1993, wisdom teeth extraction at Walter Reed, and I don’t remember much. Just Sergeant Bromell telling me that five minutes earlier I was literally crying and begging for my teeth back. Sergeant Bromell who also insisted we listen to a Louis Farrakhan tape on the return trip to my Arlington apartment off Columbia Pike. This is the word, Griff, this is the word. But Rod was right. No time passed.
But something happened, because I woke up with a fat lip. Like that old surgeon socked me in the chops while I was out because I gave him some sass. Like, nobody gives me sass, then POW! Made me wonder what else happened while I was out. Like those crazy stories of dentists blowing their gassed-out patients. But I looked down my PJs at my junk and everything looked normal.
I asked my nurses what happened to my lip and nobody had an answer. But yes, they said, it’s sure swollen. Probably from tubes. And I’m like, tubes? But there are obvious teeth marks and a marble’s stuck under the skin. I don’t get it.
Even as I write this less than a day later, my lip hurts more than the knee. But hell, I’ve got 50 oxycodones in case shit hits the fan. Jesus.
Turns out the two surgeons who previously diagnosed me with a damaged meniscus were wrong. Turns out also (and this is the most saddening news) that my “beautiful cartilage” (as called by one of the residents) isn’t so beautiful after all.
Problem was actually an osteochondral defect, a worn out bit of cartilage on my femur head whose where frayings and broken bits were causing sporadic but acute pain. The cleaning is less invasive than a meniscectomy and comes with a better prognosis.
Still, you never know with knees. Running might be in my past, but there’s always cycling. I guess.