May – August 1998
I was in the dying room. You know the one. It’s quiet. People slip in and out as though they were never even there. There is a perfume of dying, and it had tickled the bristles in my nose so many times before. I never thought I’d smell my own. Festering in a bed for three months, I had grown tired. My arms were like soft baguettes, splintered with freckles, like seeds. Lips a permanent shade of blue; colourless fingers and toes – lily matchsticks without the red ends. My hair had been falling out and I had forgotten how to use my legs. Twenty-one not out. For every year, I had lived four, so I was a pale vintage just short of eighty-five.
Sick of white sheets and white lights. Sick of ward vagrants hobbling into my
room, bottles full of piss asking for my help, the knots on their gowns loose; unfurling, and I’d see flat and wrinkly bums and sagging, hairless balls, swinging like a hornet’s nest.
Sick of drowning.
Friday 21 August 1998. Eight pm.
Watched Burke’s Backyard and said goodbye to my family for the night. Said hello to a morphine bolus. Like a little death itself, those two greetings. Interweave me, you two thick threads – one flame licking at the other in awe, in need of a partner. Show me mercy.
Saturday 22 August. Midnight, or just after.
In shuffles Daisy, my midnight oriental muse, injecting drugs into the line in my chest to give me another day’s grace so that one life could be taken and given to another.
It was my turn. Eight months and twenty-two days I had waited for my beeper to beep. But instead of the vibrating hustle of the beeper, it was a phone call, shrill and cutting. Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck. Hang up the phone and nurses amble in; epigrammatic tears flood my eyes, then I’m carried into the toilet where I piss out blood for the last time.
My possessions gathered up – my Auden and Heaney, my copper bookmark and a sputum cup – the room looking like I had never been there. Flowers on my bedside table held me to ransom – the colours having taken on a death hue. With tender hands, Daisy slides my wasted legs into jeans, my flat bum loathe to fill the denim mould. Found a shirt that masked my bony barrelled chest. Breasts shrivelled long ago like mosquito bites, ready to be full again. I wedged my blue feet into my foul-smelling blue Converse, and before I could stir my head, I was succoured with another jab of morphine.
The ambulance sat in one of the emergency bays like a glorified hearse, ready to transport the living dead. But what of the person whose lungs were going to be sunk in my body? Are they man or a woman? What happened? Was it a car crash? Was it a brain bleed? How old are they? What of their family? If it was a woman, was I going to end up with a lesbian oedipal complex? One woman dies for another. I didn’t want to disappoint. Responsibilities and sensibilities weigh on my swollen head, soon to be blubbery from steroids; face like a puffer fish with oriental eyes.
Who would she want me to be?
I didn’t know. My knowledge of what was, dissipated with each breath. What I did know, was that there were going to be chains pulling my ribs apart. Pulling my ribs apart so my sternum could crack. Cracking my sternum so surgeons could push past muscle, sinew, bone, veins and blood to strip me of my dead lungs. Blackened like giant mussels having been in stagnant water; the lips covered in downy fur, shell white and slimy but hard underneath where no knife could pierce. My empty treasure chest. The surgeons would be cutting through a dense back wood to find a decomposing body. They were going to take away the body that was poisoning the forest. Make the forest clean again.
Wet roads that night had me thinking of accidents. You learn to live lighter when you’ve been dying for nearly nine months and friend after friend has breathed their last waiting for their second chance. Joking about public holidays and the road toll was a primitive form of optimism. Easter was a pensive time. Then we’re told that hearts and lungs are usually squashed on impact. Disgust, with equal parts remorse.
The night my lungs bled and I coughed up half a litre of blood, my father said that he’d find a tri-athlete and hire a hit man. Is it selfish waiting for someone to die so that I can stop existing and begin to live? Skewed patterns of thought.
I sit up in the ambulance and spit up what looks like a brown slug, peppered with red specks. My lungs were ready to come out. Flooded with brown molasses, fatter and far blacker than any leech, I rattled like a bag of marbles as I saw the city, shimmering with iridescent lights, droplets cloaking buildings in crystalline veils of water. Tyres seeming to mill the ground, and with teeth clenched, I grunt from the body ache.
My red and white hearse clogs two emergency bays, and the rain has stopped, giving way to a pock-marked moon. I tilted my head, gulping air so I could see the sky, the moon still hanging with patches of cloud. I lowered my head, preserving the memory. Winds fat with caution slapped my cheeks like pieces of tin; intangible in their bearing. Squalls skirling down from the ranges had my eyes feeling like dried labia’s flailing in the coils, sprinting off lands edge. The thumping blades of a chopper encroached on thirty familiar faces, and I wondered out loud whether my lungs were in an esky.
I was hankering for food. Hadn’t eaten in six months, but I was hungry.
Friends stood by the kerb. Drunk boys and grieving girls. Grieving for what was, what may be, what may not come to pass.
Father chaining. Sister crying. Nuns praying. Mother’s hands wringing. Friend’s brows twitching. Logged with each other, spine against spine.
Up to the ward to an onslaught of questions and a nurse who was Maggie Kirkpatrick’s twin from Prisoner. Told us to be quiet – ‘other patients sleeping’ – making us feel like naughty schoolkids until Chelse told her to ‘fuck off, she’s only having a fucking transplant’. Then the Doctor, hair and glasses askew, stirring with excitement, but telling me ‘that it’s not going to be easy’. The heck I cared. Just cut me open and do your dirty work.
Thick knots of shit slinked down my middle. Dead skinks, their tails unmoving and in soft peaks. Slow, thick cramps clung to my bowel, drawing on my ovaries. A bowel collapse would make me feel less of a stranger where rough hands kneading my gut could be warranted. Instead, I was in the bowels of the hospital, and mental pictures of dancing and fucking without a tank of oxygen infused final thoughts.
Then death throes of my-god-what-if-I-die-on-the-table?
The sun had climbed into the sky from the shadows of rain. Someone put a cloth cap on my head and I was wheeled away from the congregation of thirty odd. The payload of Valium had drained from my gut, and I looked around to see the congregation of thirty odd in animated lamentation – the thirty odd I might never see again. What of my mother, my father, my sister? What would I do? I’d be dead. Shame it be that way.
Screams like my chest was being licked with flames echoed through the hall, and I didn’t know or care where the breath was coming from to fuel it, but I was on fire.
With lights as big as satellite dishes, the theatre was peppered with people in masks and gowns like a sick masquerade ball. After some good talk, the collective theatre voice bid me ‘good night’.
‘Save me’, I retorted.
I surrendered myself to the milk in the syringe. A perfect death – lily white, liquid purity where the anaesthetic was such a flooding wave of orgasmic purity, it was almost agony.
My armour was cut open so hands and instruments could busy and bury themselves in my torso. My breasts had been ripped over my head, so I was literally off my tits for just short of seven hours; breast tissue looking not dissimilar to a brain, though the texture is finer, the patterns more intricate. While scalpels excavated masses of scar tissue and bloody holes were packed with gauze, I slept.
Looking like shrivelled bats after having hung from a power line for a month, my lungs were dumped into a plastic bucket, while surgeons eased in the donor lungs, wired them into my chest, whereupon they were inflated. Plump Atlantic salmon steaks.
My chest was candle wicked – sewn up with silken loops only to be crudely de-threaded at the flick of a scalpel and the pull of a string, for my lungs were sweating with blood and needed to be plumbed. After two hours, the clam shaped hole resembled a scar and my armour was back on.
Sunday 23rd August 1998. Nine-thirty am.
I opened my eyes to tubes and lines down my throat, up my nose, in my chest, up my vagina and in my neck. I was on a ventilator, my chest was raw and puckered, and four tubes the size of hoses stuck out of my chest at even angles, like those badges on a soldier’s lapel.
I was going to lose my breath, I was going to lose my dignity and I was going to lose my cheekbones, but I was coming away with my life, armour on, sheltering my fall.