Ockette (ockette) wrote,

"The Knife," by Richard Selzer. Part 1.

One holds the knife as one holds the bow of  a cello or a tulip - by the stem.  Not palmed nor gripped nor grasped, but lightly, with the tips of the fingers.  The knife is not for pressing.  It is for drawing across the field of skin.  Like a slender fish, it waits, at the ready, then, go!  It darts, followed by a fine wake of red.  The flesh parts, falling away to yellow globules of fat.  Even now, after so many times, I still marvel at its power - cold, gleaming, silent.  More, I am still struck with a kind of dread that is is I in whose hand the blade travels, that my hand is its vehicle, that yet again this terrible steel-bellied thing and I have conspired for a most unnatural purpose, the laying open of the body of a human being. 

A stillness settles in my heart and is carried to my hand.  It is the quietude of resolve layered over fear.  And it is this resolve that lowers us, my knife and me, deeper and deeper into the person beneath.  It is an entry into the body that is nothing like a caress; still, it isamong the gentlest of acts.  Then stroke and stroke again, and we are joined by other instruments, hemostats and forceps, until the wound blooms with strange flowers whose looped handles fall to the sides in steely array. 

There is sound, the tight click of clamps fixing teeth into severed blood vessels, the snuffle and gargle of the suction machine clearing the field of blood for the next stroke, the litany of monosyllables with which one prays his way down and in:  clamp, sponge, suture, tie, cut.  And there is color.  The green of the cloth, the white of the sponges, the red and yellow of the body.  Beneath the fat lies the fascia, the tough fibrous sheet encasing the muscles.  It must be sliced and the red beef of the muscles separated.  Now, there are retractors to hold apart the wound.  Hands move together, part, weave.  We are fully engaged, like children absorbed in a game or the craftsmen of some place like Damascus.

Deeper still.  The peritoneum, pink and gleaming and membranous, bulges into the wound.  It is grasped with forceps, and opened.  For the first time, we can see into the cavity of the abdomen.  Such a primitive place.  One expects to find drawings of buffalo on the walls.  The sense of trespassing is keener now, heightened by the world's light illuminating the organs, their secret colors revealed - maroon and salmon and yellow.  The vista is sweetly vulnerable at this moment, a kind of welcoming.  An arc of the liver shines high and on the right, like a dark sun.  It laps over the pink sweep of the stomach, from whose lower border the gauzy omentum is draped, and through which veil one sees, sinuous, slow as just-fed snakes, the indolent coils of the intestine.

You turn aside to wash your gloves.  It is a ritual cleansing.  One enters this temple double washed.  here is man as microcosm, representing in all his parts the earth, perhaps the universe.

I must confess that the priestliness of my profession has ever been impressed on me.  In the beginning, there are vows, taken with all solemnity.  Then there is the endless harsh novitiate of training, much fatigue, much sacrifice.  At last one emerges as celebrant, standing close to the truth lying curtained in the Ark of the body.  Not surplice and cassock but mask and gown are your regalia.  You hold no chalice, but a knife.  There is no wine, no wafer.  There are only the facts of blood and flesh.

And if the surgeon is like a poet, then the scars you have made on countless bodies are like verses into the fashioning of which you have poured your soul.  I think that if years later I were to see the trace from an old incision of mine, I should know it at once, as one recognizes his pet expressions.

But mostly you are a traveler in a dangerous country, advancing into the moist and jungly cleft your hands have made.  Eyes and ears are shuttered from the land you left behind; mind empties itself of all other thought.  You are the root of groping fingers.  It is a fine hour for the fingers, their sense of touch is so enhanced.  The blind must know this feeling.  Oh, there is risk everywhere.  One goes lightly.  the spleen.  No!  No!  Do not touch the spleen that lurks below the left leaf of the diaghram, a mantra ray in a coral cave, its bloody tongue protruding.  One poke and it might rupture, exploding with sudden hemorrhage.  The filmy omentum must not be torn, the intestine scraped or denuded.  the hand finds the liver, palms it, fingers running alone its sharp lower edge, admiring.  Here are the twin mounds of the kidneys, the apron of the omentum hanging in front of the intestinal coails.  One lifts it aside and the fingers dip among the loops, searching, mapping territory, establishing boundries.  Depper still, and the womb is touched, then held like a small muscular bottle - the womb and its earlike appendages, the ovaries.  How they do nestle in the cup of a man's hand, their power all dormant.  They are frailty itself.

There is a hush in the room.  Speech stops.  The hands of the others, assistants and nurses, are still.  Only the voice of the patient's respiration remains.  It is the rhythm of a quiet sea, the sound of waiting.  Then you speak, slowly, the terse entries of a Himalayan climber reporting back.

"The stomach is okay.  Greater curvature clean.  No sign of ulcer.  Pylorus, duodenum fine.  Now comes the gall-bladder.  No stones.  Right kidney, left, all right.  Liver . . . uh-oh."

Your speech lowers to a whisper, falters, stops for a long, long moment, then picks up again at the end of a sigh that comes through your mask like a last exhalation.

"Three big ones in the left lobe, one on the right.  Metastatic deposits.  Bad, bad.  Where's the primary?  Got to be coming from somewhere."

The arm shifts direction and the fingers drop lower and lower into the pelvis - the body impaled now upon the arm of the surgeon to the hilt of the elbow.

"Here it is."

The voice goes flat, all business now.

"Tumor in the sigmoid colon, wrapped all around it, pretty tight.  We'll take out a sleeve of the bowel.  No colostomy.  Not that, anyway.  But, God, there's a lot of it down there.  Here, you take a feel."

You step back from the table, and lean into a sterile basin of water, resting on stiff arms, while the others locate the cancer.
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