waking up asleep
by Douglas Messerli
For the past year and a half—with the duel patterns of mass isolation due to the world-wide invasion of the virus COVID and its variants—perhaps the most shattering international tragedy since World War II*—and the absurdist transformation of US politics in which a formerly troubled but seemingly sane nation suddenly woke up to discover that the other half of the population had apparently gone stark-raving mad (and presumably that represents the situation for both sides of the issue)—I have the feeling that I have been living in some vast dream: a nightmare at times, a comic and even absurdist farce at other moments, but overall simply living in a world that doesn’t seem to be logical, in which no matter how hard I try I can’t quite reach out of the others who seem to be sharing their own versions of this dream.
The utter isolation—in California we were appropriately ordered to a semi-lockdown and have never completely abandoned the requirement of wearing masks when we come into contact with other human beings (I often just long to catch glimpse again of my friends’ full faces)—has been made even more queer in Howard’s and my case simply because of our own bodily frailties. Beginning about this time last year Howard started to show signs of what appeared to be something akin to Alzheimer’s disease as he retreated to the couch, found it difficult to even stand, and begin to forget everything he once attended to so very capably, including paying bills, shopping, cooking, and cleaning the house, all tasks which I gladly took over while being terribly worried by his abandonment of them. I masked up and darted out to grocery stores and carry-out restaurants, cooked our home meals, wrote out our checks, and helped him to the bathroom and shower, while he began also to show signs of something more serious in his abdominal area.
Indeed, it was quite serious. I pulled out our old walker and forced him to the hospital emergency room, after a stop by our excellent gastroenterologist, where he was diagnosed as having an acute gall bladder infection which was discovered during the operation to be gangrenous, almost costing his life. His behavior was soon explained by the long-term effects of that infection.
Had he become ill just a few weeks later, after the second wave of COVID sufferers of December and January 2020 which filled the hospitals to capacity, he might not have found a hospital bed and would surely have died.
So Howard returned home and to normal health after a period of recovery, during which we bonded in an even further sense of isolation, as recovering couples do since there is no way to completely explain to others the effects of such a near-brush with death.
Both of us were also recovering in other ways as well, since I had stopped drinking, cold turkey in June of 2020, and Howard stopped the day he was hospitalized. We remain sober despite so many lovely temptations to tilt a cocktail glass to toast our survival.
But hardly had Howard fully recovered but I began to have difficulties, arthritis of the hip striking so quickly that what first appeared to be a simple sprain or illogical bruise grew day by day to a limp and then a dull pain that over the weeks grew sharper and sharper. A trip to an orthopedic specialist led to a diagnosis of severe loss of hip cartilage, with my hip bones rubbing rawly against one another. A steroid provided some months of improvement.
The pain, however, began to return, this time even more severely, and another visit to my orthopedist indicated that it was time, finally, for a hip replacement.
Once more we hunkered down in a time of international hunkering to prepare for my operation. Howard returned to his role of shopper, home chef, and nurse as I grew increasingly more lame, hardly even able to make the long trip downstairs in our vast condominium complex to check the mail, let alone to travel out—except of course to further doctors necessary to prepare for the surgery, planned for more than month away since medics in this time of despair were so very much in demand.
The pain increased. Even though I had always thought of myself as being highly pain tolerant, if I was grading it on a 1-10 scale I would describe it as a 7 or 8. I called to see if they might move my surgery just a week or too earlier, which they were able to accommodate.
Like a sleep-walking soldier I marched to my primary physician to pass a series of blood tests, an electrocardiogram (EKG), a chest X-ray, and hundreds of questions repeated so many times over the past several months regarding my state of health with regard to COVID symptoms that it has almost replaced the US Pledge of Allegiance or the Star-Spangled Banner in my memory bank.
I gave up my daily aspirin, my fish-oil pills for cholesterol, and some of my vitamin supplements that are all incompatible with surgery.
Yet there was yet one more hurdle which had never before been set up in my path: because of my age (terrible words the doctors invoke to remind you the miracle of your having survived all of these years only through their hard work and medical knowledge) I would need to undergo a “stress test.” Of course, most such tests involve asking the patient to run for a while on a treadmill in order to raise the heartbeat so they can check if everything is going smoothly when the body is functioning full force. Obviously, since I could barely walk, let alone run, the treadmill was an impossibility; but nowadays, they can inject chemicals which bring up the heart rate without any motion.
Again because of COVID and the stress of isolation and politics, I might guess, cardiologists are very much in demand. And the only appointment they could schedule, despite my doctor’s prescription of the test’s urgency, was the day before my operation. I knew from the start this represented a dangerously close hurdle over which to leap before I landed in my hospital bed.
Meanwhile, I received calls at least once a week advising me of the logistics, reminding me what pills to stop taking, what foods to remove from my diet, and when to start fasting, as well as testing my aged memory by requesting over and over for me to repeat the daily pill regimen, my name, by birthdate, my phone number, and the capitol of Afghanistan. Perhaps I am confusing the outer world with my inner, something that happens perhaps to all of us in these days of mass catatonia.
During the long wait, moreover, I was losing more and more power over my bodily motions. To bend down to make the bed with Howard, a daily morning ritual, was an increasingly impossible series of actions. To use the toilet was a torture since it involves moving into a near squat position, putting intense pressure upon the aching hip bones and increasingly exhausted leg muscles which have been asked to substitute for activities the hip might have previously facilitated.
I rarely left the house during these days except for another visit to the surgeon for several more detailed x-rays, since, I was told, the fit had to be absolute and the artificial replacement was molded particularly for my personal hip abnormalities.
As I described it to Howard, I felt that each day brought about new capitulations to age and death. I now could only put on and remove my pants by sitting on the bed. I could no longer bend to put on socks. Howard purchased me a new pair of downy-lined slippers to serve as my shoes. Nervous and irritated by my increasing sense of aging, I snacked on childhood favorites. I gained weight, which obviously was helped along by difficulty in getting any exercise. Finally, I was forced to rely on a cane.
It was the day before my surgery when I finally entered the door of the cardiologist’s office to take my stress test. As they put the injection into my system they asked if I’d taken my blood pressure medicine that morning. I had, I told them, since no one had told me not to and the procedures I’d had in the past all required a fairly normal blood pressure. “I took it very early, at 2:30 that morning,” I responded. But they were still dubious. Beta blockers work against the very goal of this test. As expected, my blood pressure rose higher and higher while by blood rate barely inched up. The doctor was called in, and the test cancelled.
I was angry, frustrated as all my doctors reported back that the surgery would have to be cancelled, and I would need to get in line, after another stress test, to make yet a appointment for my hip replacement.
The next morning I apologized to my primary doctor for demonstrating that frustration and was about to call to make an appointment for another stress test when she called me, gracefully accepting my apologies, but also announcing she was now asking that I consult with a cardiologist. Now, I realized, I had gone even one step back since I would have to visit the doctor before having the test before, if I passed the test, I could begin to make another appointment for hip replacement surgery. The first time I could get an appointment with the new cardiologist was another month in the future.
For that month, predictably, I continued my decline in my walking abilities. The pain had reached an imaginary number 10 on my little scale. I walked about the house winching in occasional tears. I wondered whether I might ever walk normally again.
Fortunately, I was living in the nightmarish dream the entire nation was suffering. Soon everyone remembered the name of the capitol of Afghanistan. People who had confused their medicines with politics were dying as if it were the normal result of such fervent beliefs. Politicians didn’t seem to mind sentencing entire state-wide populations to suffer a murderous disease if they could get a few more votes by arguing against medical advice. So I was not going to join them by further arguing against my now several doctor’s maxim: “It’s better to find out that something is wrong with your heart before having a heart attack on the surgeon’s table from which you might never wake up.”
When, I asked over and over, might we all wake up? This dream was now beginning to look like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But not as pleasingly exotic, just strange and frightening. Fires were burning hundreds of acres across the Western states.
Another month passed and the very young and extremely knowledgeable cardiologist recommended a new blood pressure prescription and arranged for another stress test, this one including a nuclear component where they followed a small radioactive trail through your veins after having chemically set your heartbeat into full motion. Everything seemed to go well, even though my worst nightmare came true, since I suffer from claustrophobia, when they required my body to completely enter a narrow camera chamber for a five minute wait—twice. But the news a couple of days later from the cardiologist himself was not so good.
Evidently my veins suffered from a great deal of calcification, which presumably is what is meant by “hardening of the arteries.” And I would have to undergo a hospital angiogram with the possible injection of a stent or two, which, since that would require another month or so of an aspirin regimen, would postpone any chance of finally getting my hip on the way to better health for two to three further months, moving it from August 1 to possibly November 2021, a year to the date after Howard’s hospitalization—that is if they had not by that time had to cancel all elective surgeries due to another wave of COVID infections.
I woke up this morning, September 1, 2021, feeling as if yesterday had been a dream within a dream, a strange personal space carved out of the large mass hallucination under which we all are suffering. I even asked Howard if yesterday had not been a dream, half seriously.
It had started on Monday. The appointment for my angiogram had been scheduled for Friday, September 3rd and today I was scheduled to get a Cedars-Sinai COVID test. But on Monday my new cardiologist specialist, Mamoo Nakamura, had his assistant call to see if I might be able to switch my angiogram to Tuesday. The assistant began by suggesting the appointment would be at 2:30 in the afternoon, but quickly cancelled that, since she had still to arrange for a COVID test that morning and the time might change depending upon whether they had received the results of that test. She called again a short while later, saying that she’d made by COVID test appointment for 11:30 a.m., but that I should just wait around in the car to hear when they might be able to make the actual procedure time.
Explaining to her that we lived only 6 minutes by auto from the hospital and that neither of us had cell phones on which she might call us** that it would be better if we returned home, she agreed, promising that the doctors would call me after the test to tell me of the actual time I should be back at the hospital.
Tuesday morning I awoke early at 1:45 a.m. (another strange aspect of my dream days involve the fact that my schedule has radically returned to my childhood days when I used to go to bed after supper and rise early for my newspaper route before going to school). I had been fasting since 3:00 on Monday, and had had no water since 6:30 that afternoon. Amazingly, after swallowing one of my two daily painkillers I felt strong enough to waddle downstairs to check the mail.
All of my close friends know that in these mad days I have taken up an ever madder venture. Inexplicably just before COVID descended upon the globe, after nearly a lifetime of Howard and I living a very gay-removed lifestyle (see my essay “My Queer Cinema: A Prelude”) I have suddenly decided to re-engage with my LGBTQ roots, determining to write a multi-volume work, My Queer Cinema: LGBTQ Films Coded and Explicit 1887-2000 in which I have undertaken to write pieces on all and any film between those dates which pointed to or involved LGBTQ behavior. The inclusiveness of this volume is it’s defining feature, which gives a far broader perspective that ever before of just how important—despite all of the restrictions and film codes against representing homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, and others—this minority was to filmmaking.
Accordingly I wrote two essays (I have been, on average, writing 1 or 2 such essays each day), determined not to let my physical difficulties stand in my way. By that time it was necessary for Howard and I to ready ourselves for the quick trip to get a COVID test. I took the test without any difficulties and returned home to wait for their call.
I answered several Email and Facebook messages and began to watch another movie, but still no telephone call. Howard was beginning to panic, but I reminded him of their promise to call and the fact that if I attempted to call to the office (which I eventually did) I would only get a recording which would not allow to do anything but to leave a message, unable to contact any real human being.
I grew disinterested in my film and time was clicking away without a call back. Finally at 2:20, after increasing impatience with what he perceived as my great calm, I agreed that we should quickly return to the hospital to at least see if they were expecting me.
We arrived, quite miraculously, at 2:30
on schedule, checked in and discovered that indeed I had an appointment. Soon I
was upstairs in the waiting room and a few minutes later I was called in for preparation,
where they undress you, hook you up an intravenous tube and to a machine that randomly
checks your blood pressure, heartbeat, temperature, etc. They ask you the
standard questions again, about COVID obviously and about who you are, when you
last ate, and if you can recall your name, your birthdate, your telephone, your
medical pill regimen, and the capitol of Afghanistan. I now quickly answered
their questionnaire, but discovered rather startlingly that I had lost 10 pounds
from my weight check in the cardiologist’s office and that my blood pressure
was near perfect. It
This time was no different. Even the woman who rolled me into the procedure room had me laughing as she told stories about how she has utterly no sense of direction and had even gotten lost on her way from her house to her high school prom, only a short ways from her home which she had traveled five days a week for years.
They were able to enter my veins from my wrist, and, after giving me a mild sedative which in no way that made me feel mentally impaired—I was awake and alert for the entire procedure and felt no pain—although the tests ended so quickly I may have lost my sense of time. The doctor, speaking a few inches away from my face, told me that all my veins were fully functioning, there was no blockage of blood, and I had only very minor calcification.
They rolled me back to the room, fed me a chicken salad sandwich and cranberry juice, attended to my wrist wound for a little more than an hour, and invited Howard to help me dress. Soon I was up and whisked off into a wheelchair with wonderment. Everything that stood in the way to my hip salvation was now over so suddenly I hardly had time to let out a grateful gasp!
Today I’ll call to see when I might be able to make another appointment. Stay tune to further adventures. Perhaps we will all soon wake up, vaguely able to recall all of these awful dream-like days.
*The World Health Organization estimates that the total of deaths to date due to COVID are close to 3 million. With the Holocaust and military and other civilian deaths, from 70-80 million people were killed in World War II. The Korean Way is estimated to have killed about 3 million, but of course COVID has apparently a long ways to go before being eradicated.
** Howard finally broke down a purchased a cell phone just for my hospitalization, but has been having difficulty in getting it to fully function. I do think they called him in the lobby during my procedure yesterday.
Los Angeles, September 1, 2021
Reprinted from Green Integer blog (September 2021).