Lying on the operating room table, I was strangely calm. Looking at the surgical light hovering above me, I counted how many times I’d been put under anesthesia. Not counting wisdom teeth extractions, having broken bones set or colonoscopies, I’d been put under five times – once for almost six hours. After all those surgeries, I emerged from the haze of drugs quickly, always knowing where I was and what had happened. I figured today would be more of the same.
“Okay,” the anesthesiologist said. “Time to go night night.”
“What are you giving me?” I asked.
“Propofol and (unintelligible) plus an inhalant.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Okay. Here it comes.”
When I had my cancer surgery, I’d figured I’d have enough time to compose myself before the drugs hit – to say a prayer or crack a joke – but the anesthesiologist did me dirty, knocking me out moments after I was slid onto the table. Maybe they figured they had a live one. This time, however, I felt myself floating away as the drugs pushed through my IV line, giving me the chance to focus on what was important. Although I was having a minor procedure, I knew there was a real risk, no matter how minor, that I wouldn’t wake up. So, after saying a quick prayer, I summoned up an image of my wife and daughter.
Years ago, I watched a woman die. Afterwards, I was unnerved to realize that I was probably the last face she ever saw. I’m sure if she had her druthers, that woman would’ve have preferred to have seen something other than my sweaty mug hovering over her, but death is funny that way. But now, as I felt my consciousness slipping away, I focused on my wife and daughter’s smiling faces. If I went down for the dirt nap, that was the last thing I wanted to see. Then I felt a mask being slid over my face.
“Inhale deeply,” the anesthesiologist said. Annoyed at the interruption, my eyes snapped open, and, to my distress, I noticed I was wide awake. “Oh shit,” I thought to myself. “I’m not going under.”
Complying, I inhaled but, after a couple of lungfuls of the metallic tasting gas, I was still awake. “It wasn’t like this all the other times,” I thought to myself. That’s when panic set in.
“Breathe deeper,” I heard. “Breathe deeper.”
As my eyes wildly scanned the OR, they fell upon a clock that read 12:30. “I got to stop this,” I thought to myself. “I’ve got to get outta here.”
“Mr. Dublanica,” a voice said. “You’re all done.”
“All done. You did great.”
Peeling my eyes open, the first thing I saw was the face of another clock. 12:50 PM. I’d been out only twenty minutes. That my sense of temporality returned so quickly was reassuring.
“Would you like something to drink?”
“Please,” I said. Having ingested nothing for fourteen hours, I was a bit cranky.
As I guzzled my ginger ale and devoured a packet of crackers, I mused on my panic in the OR. That had never happened to me before – probably because, unlike all my other surgeries, I hadn’t been given a sedative prior to anesthesia. It was only a minor procedure after all, but I was chagrined that the last face I saw was the sterile face of a clock.
An hour later a nurse wheeled me outside, handed my wife the discharge instructions, and I was soon on my way home – alive, well and free of the thing that had been bugging me for over a year.
“How’d it go?” my wife said as she guided the car onto the highway.
“I freaked out a bit when they were putting me under,” I said. “But I’m fine.”
“I’ve never been under anesthesia.”
“I’ve done it lots of times,” I said. “This time was different. But how are you doing?”
“I’m okay. I just did errands until they called me to pick you up.”
“Good to keep busy.”
Then my wife said something that saddened me. “I was preparing myself for the worst.”
“It was just same day surgery,” I said, putting her hand in mine.
“I know but….” Annie’s been through a lot these past couple of years. Sometimes I forget that.
“Well,” I said, “I hope you weren’t dusting off your Match.com profile while I was under.”
“I think you’re too old for Match now,” I said. “If I shuffled off my mortal coil you’d probably have to go on Our Time.com. You know, one of those websites with silver haired vixens saying, ‘I’m sorry my husband’s gone but I still have to get laid.'”
“I’m glad I don’t have to do that.”
After a drive thru lunch in a parking lot my wife took me home, deposited me into bed, and I fell asleep – only to be awakened by the exuberant noise of my daughter returning home from school.
“QUIET” I heard my wife hiss, “Your father is sleeping.”
Lying in bed, I listened to my daughter as she tried to silently creep up the stairs. Then the door to my room creaked open and Natalie poked her head inside.
“Hello, dear,” I said.
“Are you all right Daddy?”
“I’m going to have a sleepover at Aunt Tara’s tonight!”
My daughter has no idea I had surgery and this fun distraction was planned long ago. Despite all our efforts to protect her from my ordeals, Natalie’s had a rough time of it too.
“Have a nice time. Be a good girl.”
“Give me a kiss.”
Feeling my daughter’s lips on my cheek, I began to tear up. The procedure I’d just undergone was to fix a complication from my cancer surgery. Nothing major, just removing a do-dad that had migrated to another part of my body causing infections. “A pain in the ass,” my doc told me. “But nothing serious.” Despite his reassurances, however, it was an unwelcome reminder of the hell I’d gone through before.
“I love you sweetheart,” I said.
“I love you too,” Natalie said.
“Run along now. Have a good time.”
Alone again, I thought about the clock in the OR and how that could’ve been the last thing I saw. Then again, if I had died, the last my wife would have seen of me was sitting in a waiting room with a mask obscuring my face. That couldn’t have been easy either. Shaking my head, I figured I was being morose but then it dawned on me – maybe I have been looking at this all wrong.
After watching that woman die all those years ago, I became somewhat preoccupied with whose face I would see last. Getting cancer only aggravated the situation. But then I membered that God, at least as he’s classically defined, is infinite, eternal and beyond time. He is everywhere at every moment – the very thing in which we live and move and have our being. For Him, all our lives – from birth to death – occur in an eternal now. So, it’s not a stretch to imagine that, once we’ve shuffled off that aforementioned coil and enter into an existence where the clock ticks forever, we’ll have a new sense of time. Measured against the vastness of glorious futurity, we will then understand, in a strange but wonderful way, that everyone who ever lived was born and died at the exact same time. That means there will be no waiting for your friends and family to join you in the Empyrean because they will already be there, snug in eternity’s warm embrace. So, in the end, don’t waste time wondering whose face you’ll see last – just whose you’ll see first. And, if you’re like me, I suspect you already know.
And that wouldn’t be so bad.
When my time ends, I want to believe that the next thing I see is a river with grass under my ass, trees around me and the sound of the best band in the world playing. A river boat sails up the river, lazy, loud with music and voices in revel. It stops before me, lowers the gang plank and the first person I see is a favorite actor from the past or Freddie Mercury saying, “Come on board. It’s not a party without you.” And then I go on board and it’s a party with me.
When I had my cancer surgery, my surgeon was the last face I saw. She was looking at me with such concern, such tenderness. I woke up to post op workers tired of me apologizing in my stupor. (I had surgery years before and the post op people were trying to hustle me out of there in an hour and were pissed that I had a reaction to propofol so I automatically apologize now). So yeah, I get this also, Steve. I’ve had two surgeries and a couple colonoscopies since that cancer surgery. I get this also.