I awaken in a dimly lit room. Not for a moment do I wonder where I am or what I’m doing here, or even why there are plastic tubes in my nostrils pumping frigid air into my lungs. But my mind scrambles to grasp the lost time. A large clock interrupts the blank wall directly in front of my bed. Ten o’clock.
But is that A.M. or P.M.? Is it Friday still, or have we moved straight on into Saturday?
The questions are freighted with indecipherable significance, the pressure to answer them fairly screaming inside me. I glance around, near panic, and make out the form of a nurse bending over some machine beside my bed.
“Is it today?”
She doesn’t smirk, bless her. “It’s still today,” she says, smoothly entering my stupefied reality. “Friday night, ten o’clock. It’s dark outside, see?” She gestures toward a wide window I haven’t noticed before, and she’s right: it’s dark outside.
But a sleeping shape between my bed and the dense blackness snags my attention.. Shanna, I tell myself. My daughter. Then, Shanna? It can’t be. She’s in California, where she works as a Navy pharmacy tech, right? No, I remember now. She’s here in Arizona, leaving her three kids in the care of her husband so she can help us out with this mastectomy business.
I look again, squinting. Yep, it’s our Shanna. But she’s not supposed to be here at the hospital. She’s supposed to be spending the night at our house, taking care of our youngest kids, Dara and Tony, while Bob stays with me after the surgery. So that can’t be Shanna sleeping there in the La-Z-Boy lounger, a blanket pulled clear up to her eyes and her hair a dark tangle across a stiff white pillow case.
I turn back to the nurse for confirmation, but she’s slipped out of the room on silent crepe soles. I feel a pressing need to solve this enigma. Only it’ll have to wait. Sleep tugs me back into irresistible oblivion.
When I wake again the window is alight, but the vision in the La-Z-Boy persists. I stare, taking in the slight build etched beneath the blankets, the long, dark lashes against dusky cheeks. Even in sleep Shanna senses my gaze, and her eyes flip open.
Silence. We regard one another across this unlikely space.
“We’ve awakened together in a hospital room before,” I venture.
A slow smile. “Plenty of times,” she says. “But the roles are reversed.”
I can’t help chuckling.
“You okay?” she asks and starts to climb out from beneath the rumpled blankets.
“Don’t get up. I’m fine.” It’s enough that she’s here; I can’t think of anything else I want.
For the first time since the operation, I remember my body. Both legs are swathed in plastic sheathes that inflate and deflate in a languid rhythm, compensating for my immobility by pumping the blood from my extremities back to my heart. No pain there; in fact, it’s soothing. I’m propped on pillows, my chest comfortably bound and my arms limp at my sides. Nothing amiss at all except for the pesky tubes blowing air into my nose.
“No pain,” I report.
“Good.” Shanna shakes off her blankets and plants her feet on the tile floor. “Ice chips?” she says, and reaches for a cup on the bedside table. She spoons the welcome wetness into my mouth, and I’m aware again that we’ve shared this moment before. All those other times, though, it was my feet on the cool floor, my hand serving up the ice chips.
* * *
There was never a time Shanna woke up happy. Whatever benefits surgery may have promised, she always railed against the process. In between kicking the lab techs who tried to draw blood before surgery and taking wild swings at the recovery room staff, only the use of powerful anesthetics held her rage in check long enough to operate on her ears. Even so, she clearly resented the enforced unconsciousness while the surgeon performed the delicate repairs on her eardrums that finally allowed her to hear normally.
Once she began to come around after those surgeries, it was never long before someone appeared to call me into the recovery room. While cowering nursing staff ducked Shanna’s flailing fists and resorted to guerilla tactics to reattach the blood pressure cuffs and hemoglobin gauges that she repeatedly ripped off, I’d wade into the fray, barking orders at the one-person army pitching about on the bed. Once I took up a position beside her, my hands framing her cheeks and forcing her to acknowledge me, she’d subside, her pugnacity reduced to manageable growls and snarls.
Maybe her anger was understandable, even if it was misdirected. By the time we met, when she was two years old, she was already a veteran of terrible conflicts that had left her wary and uncommunicative. Even then, to trace her life back to its origins involved navigating through a single-parent adoptive placement in the United States and, before that, an impoverished orphanage in Sri Lanka, the land of her birth. Along the way she’d suffered neglect, hunger, and a chronic illness that had nearly destroyed her eardrums. Her first American adoption added outright abuse to her experience. From the time we adopted her until shortly before she enlisted in the Navy, she underwent a series of reconstructive ear operations that gradually ended the persistent infections and restored her hearing to normal.
Her trust would prove harder to restore than her hearing.
* * *
By the next afternoon, having been home and in bed for a full 24 hours, I’m ready to unwrap the ACE bandage and face that first revelation of my newly altered self, if only because the thought of a shower is so compelling. I’d envisioned my husband in attendance, but it’s Shanna who slips into the bathroom without a word, a washcloth in one hand and a gift of watermelon body-wash in the other. She sets them both on the stool beside the tub and casts a calm gaze in my direction, leaving me to assume she’s planning to stay.
I hesitate. For so long we’ve kept our proper distance, like partners in a formal dance. Now, when I’m wobbly as a new calf and just about to unveil a body deformed by drastic surgery, is hardly the time to reinvent the choreography.
Then again, maybe it is. “Is this going to bother you?”
She raises one eyebrow, which I take to be a no.
“Okay. I could use some help.” I chuckle at the understatement, and Shanna’s answering smile tells me she appreciates the absurdity as well. We both know my body is in a traitorous mode, threatening to topple whenever I so much as take my hand off the wall and try to stand unsupported.
Further instructions are unnecessary. Shanna simply steps to my side and proceeds to undress me. I’m stunned at the readiness with which I shed privilege and privacy along with my clothes. Me, the career mother, surrendering myself into my daughter’s hands. But wasn’t it always meant to be this way? Does that explain my ease?
While I lean back against the wall and hold the bulby ends of the drainage tubes, she unwraps what seems like miles of ACE bandage, rolling it into a neat cylinder as she goes. As though we share a script, she stops when she’s finished and allows me to peel the gauze off my chest myself, only offering me a wet cloth to soak the places where it sticks to my skin. She scans the livid scar and nods. “Looks good,” she says.
I glance down briefly and decide I’ll take her word for it. What little energy I have is not worth squandering on the contemplation of mayhem.
Without further fuss Shanna moves to the shower, where she adjusts the water then turns to help me over the side of the tub. Again, she reads my desire to do the washing myself. She wets the cloth, squirts the body-wash onto it, and extends it to me. I attempt to reach for it, only to discover both hands are already occupied. One balances me against the back shower wall, and the other holds the ends of the tubes. I glance around for a place to set them down before I remember they’re attached to me — there’s no way I can hope to put these things aside.
Shanna notes my dilemma, and we burst into laughter at the same moment.
“You just stand there and hold the tubes,” she says. “I’ll wash you.” And she does, every intimate inch of me. Her touch, tender and respectful, wraps my naked, shivering self in chimerical finery. Shanna, though, is not so lucky. Before we finish, her t-shirt has turned damply transparent, her jeans a darker shade of soaked.
I sit on the edge of the tub while she towels me dry, and then I try to find the words to thank her. Words have always been my metier, not hers. She grins at me and shrugs my clumsy gratitude aside.