It was my destiny to join in a great experience.
— Herman Hesse, Journey to the East
I went to an outpatient clinic downtown for my colonoscopy. I’m fifty-two and I’ve never had one, so my doctor insisted. He cited grim statistics, using the trembling voice of a prophet. “We’re every one of us on thin ice,” he said.
I knew this was true and had always known it, since childhood.
On the surface, it was a day like any other, the sun angling through skyscrapers to brighten the waiting room. A nurse named Rachel guided me to “prep.” She was young and pleasant to look at. I answered her questions earnestly, naked under my paper gown. Rachel held me with her brown eyes, smiling.
Had I ever had anesthesia?
Yes, when I was eighteen. To have my wisdom teeth pulled.
Any allergies to drugs?
No. None that I know of.
Could I move my neck up and down?
Rachel demonstrated what she meant. “Can you do this?”
“Yes, I can do that.” And I showed her, not without pride, how easily I could move my neck. “Why?”
“In case we need to insert a breathing tube,” she explained.
When I spoke to Rachel my voice sounded small and submissive. I am yours, it seemed to say. I trust you completely. Soon I would be sedated and naked before her. She would watch the doctor insert his instrument, and I would be powerless to stop any of it.
Now Rachel did something unexpected. She got on her knees and took my right hand in hers. She tapped my hand, trying to stimulate the veins, her right arm brushing against my knee. I felt the heat of her body on my skin. When my vein was ready, she inserted the needle to start the I.V.
“In a minute,” she said, “the anesthesiologist will come talk to you. He’ll be using a drug called propofol. It’s fast-acting. You’ll go to sleep fast and wake up fast. Not all of us will sleep, but we shall all be changed. Then it will be over.”
“You have someone to drive you home?”
“My wife, yes.”
“You should take it easy for the rest of the day. Don’t drive or operate any heavy machinery. Don’t sign any important legal papers. Soon you’ll get another chance at everything.”
“OK,” I said and met her gaze. “Another chance?”
Rachel’s eyes were the color of freshly cut cedar. She looked at me as if I were the only person on earth, though I must’ve been one of a dozen patients she’d seen that day.
The doctor came into the room and Rachel disappeared behind the curtain. Doctor McCain was a black man about my age whose first name was Siddhartha. He explained the procedure, but I stopped listening after I’ll go in through your rectum…
Next, the anesthesiologist made his appearance. He had me sign something and led me to the procedure room, using my IV tube as a sort of leash. I held my gown closed in the back and padded after him in my hospital socks. He guided me through a confusion of hallways. Just before we turned left into the procedure room, I glimpsed another waiting area through an open door. A woman with an eye-patch looked up from her magazine to see me walk past all dressed in paper.
In the procedure room I was asked to lie down on a table. Electrodes were attached to my chest, oxygen tubes inserted into my nostrils. Rachel and another nurse turned me onto my side. I faced a computer screen, where everything would be revealed.
The anesthesiologist leaned in close to my ear. “The drug, unfortunately, burns as it goes into the vein,” he whispered. His voice held no emotion at all. “In seven seconds you’ll be asleep.” I closed my eyes and counted to three before opening them again. Rachel was there studying the monitor. The room tilted.
Someone shook my shoulder. “Okay, Mr. Moonie. It’s over.” It was a woman’s voice. “How do you feel?” she said.
“Pretty good,” I said. “How’d everything look in there?” I was on my back with a curtain drawn around me.
“The doctor will talk to you in a few minutes,” she said and asked again how I felt.
“Like I’ve had a martini,” I said.
“That’s normal. We’ll keep you here till your head clears.”
I looked at the room, the artificial light. The nurse speaking to me was not Rachel. Something was different from before, but I couldn’t say what.
Doctor McCain came in and told me my colon looked good. He told me he’d removed one small polyp. The polyp would be biopsied, he said, and depending on the results, I would need to come back either in ten years or in seven.
“That’s it?” I said.
“You don’t see anything strange, or… anything unusual?”
“I didn’t see anything else. Except for the polyp I mentioned.”
“No, no. I mean about this room?”
“I mean… Is this room the same room?”
“We’ve moved you to recovery. This is the recovery room.”
He smiled vaguely, already thinking of his next procedure.
“Your name,” I said. “Your given name is Siddhartha?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Like the Buddha.”
“Like the Buddha,” he agreed, still smiling.
“The awakened one.”
“Our nurses will watch you till your head clears, Mr. Moonie.”
“Yeah, okay,” I agreed. But my head felt clear already.
The unnamed nurse gave me Goldfish crackers and water and had me dress in her presence, though she stood behind a curtain to respect my privacy. She didn’t want me to fall over doing the “pants dance.” This nurse was no Rachel. She was cheerful and down-to-earth, her face as bright and meaningless as the noonday sun.
The new nurse walked me out to the waiting area where my wife was ready to drive me home. At least it looked like my wife. “Everything ok?” she said.
“Everything checks out,” I told her. “How about you?”
“I mean. Did you go somewhere and come back, or…?”
“I’ve been here the whole time.”
“How long did it take?”
“A little over an hour.”
When we got into our car my wife seemed agitated behind the wheel. She drove quickly, following the exit signs in a spiral pattern through the shadows of the parking garage until we broke out into a pageant of daylight and movement. From the passenger seat I marveled at the squirming bodies on the beach, the swinging arms and legs of innumerable smooth-skinned primates. I felt the lake’s energy pounding the sand.
My wife turned on the news. A storm was heading for New Orleans. A great fire still burned out west. And now a cloud the size of Indiana was approaching our city from the east, darkening the surface of the lake like an omen. “What is that cloud?” I said to my wife and pointed.
I realized as soon as I said it that it was not a cloud at all, but an enormous migration of animals. Birds? Insects? Bats? My eye was unable to lock onto any single body. “What are they?” I shouted to my wife. She answered, but I couldn’t hear what she said. The animals roared overhead and the world around me turned dark. I felt the air leaving my lungs. I shut my eyes to the noise and felt my heart rattle its cage.
Someone touched my shoulder. “We’re home, babe.”
“Oh.” I sat up. There was drool on my shirt. “Wow. I’m starving.”
I went inside and immediately prepared myself two scrambled eggs, toast, and a cup of coffee. I broke the yolks in the pan, watching them harden against the iron skillet.
A strange calm had descended upon me. As I ate, I looked into the backyard through the sliding door. It was a late summer day, about five o’clock. The first breaths of autumn shook the trees. When I finished eating I placed my plate in the sink and took my coffee into the backyard, where my youngest son Jacob was crouching on the walkway near the flower garden.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?” I said and eased myself onto a patio chair.
“Praying mantis.” Jacob brought the insect over to show me. It was a spindly creature the color of lettuce, about three inches long, perching obediently on Jacob’s wrist. I examined the animal’s space-alien eyes and triangular head.
“That’s a nice one,” I said. “Looks like he hasn’t missed too many meals either.”
“It’s a non-native species,” Jacob told me. “Its ancestors came from Europe.”
“Just like us,” I said.
I looked at Jacob. He continued to study the mantis.
“You want to hear about my dream?” I said.
“Ok.” Jacob kept his eye on the insect.
“On the way back from my procedure I fell asleep in the car. I mean I guess I fell asleep. Though everything seemed so real. Anyways, I saw this huge black cloud coming across the lake. And when I really looked at it I realized it wasn’t a cloud at all, but a bunch of animals flying toward us. I mean millions of flying critters. There were so many, Jake, they darkened the sky like a storm. And they sounded just like a tornado when it comes at you.”
“Pigeons,” Jacob said.
“What’s that?” I leaned forward in my chair.
“Sounds like passenger pigeons. They’re extinct now. But they used to fly in big flocks like that. They broke branches sometimes when they landed on them there were so many. I read about them in Lost Wildlife…”
“Never heard of ‘em,” I said and leaned back in my chair. “So I couldn’t have dreamed them if I never heard of ‘em, right?”
Jacob shrugged. “There’s ghosts everywhere.”
I looked at my youngest and quietest child. He rose to return the insect to the bushes at the edge of the garden. I watched as he turned and lifted his arms to indicate the world around us. “Everything here used to be underwater,” he said.
“Is that true?”
“Yep. This was a shallow reef.”
Jacob came back and sat on the grass beside my chair. We stayed like that for some time, feeling all that water – the trees swaying in it. I sensed the ghosts of trilobites and Tully monsters unable to take their rest. All at once I understood what I had to do. Whatever the cost it was necessary to proceed, to proceed with life.
That’s when someone called me from the house. I turned to answer and found myself gasping for air.