Ockette (ockette) wrote,

"The Knife," by Richard Selzer. Part 2.

When I was a small boy, I was taken by my father, a general practitioner in Troy, New York, to St. Mary's Hospital, to wait while he made his rounds.  The solarium where I sat was all sunlight and large plants.  it smelled of soap and starch and clean linen.  In the spring, clouds of lilac billowed from teh vases; and in the fall, chrysanthemums crowded the magazine tables.  At one end of the great high-ceilinged, glass-walled room was a huge cage where colored finches streaked and sang.  Even from the first, I sensed the nearness of that other place, the Operating Room, knew that somewhere on these premises was that secret dreadful enclosure where surgery was at that moment happening.  I sat among the cut flowers, half drunk on the scent, listening to the robes of the nuns brush the walls of the corridor, and fel tthe awful presence of surgery.

Oh, the pageantry!  I longed to go there.  I feared to go there.  I imagined surgeons bent like storks over the body of the patient, a circle of red painted across the abdomen.  Silence and dignity and awe enveloped them, these surgeons; it was the bubble in which they bent and straightened.  Ah, it was a place I would never see, a place from whose walls the hung and suffering Christ turned his affliction to highest purpose.  It is thirty years since I yearned for that old Surgery.  And now I merely break the beam of an electric eye, and double doors swing open to let me enter, and as I enter, always, I feel the surging of a force that I feel in no other place.  It is as though I am suddenly stronger and larger, heroic.  Yes, that's it!

The operating room is called a theatre.  One walks onto a set where the cupboards hold tanks of oxygen and other gases.  The cabinets store steel cutlery of unimaged versatility, and the refridgerators are filled with bags of blood.  Bodies are stroked and penetrated here, but no love is made.  Nor is it ever allowed to grow dark, but must always gleam with a grotesque brightness.  For the special congress into which patient and surgeon enter, the one must have his senses deadened, the other his sensibilities restrained.  One lies naked, blind, offering; the other stands masked and gloved.  One yields; the other does his will.

I said no love is made here, but love happens.  I have stood aside with lowered gaze while a priest, wearing the purple scarf of office, administers Last Rites to the man I shall operate upon.  I try not to listen to those terrible last questions, the answers, but hear, with scorching clarity, the words that formalize the expectation of death.  For a moment, my resolve falters before the resignation, the attentiveness, of the other two.  I am like the executioner who hears the cleric comforting the prisoner.  For the moment I am excluded from the centrality of the event, a mere technician standing by.  But it is only for the moment. 

The priest leaves, and we are ready.  Let it begin.

Later, I am repairing the strangulated hernia of an old man.  because of his age and frailty, I am using local anesthesia.  He is awake.  His name is Abe Kaufman, and he is a Russian Jew.  A nurse sits by his head, murmuring to him.  She wipes his forehead.  I know her very well.  Her name is Alexandria, and she is the daughter of Ukrainian peasants.  She has a flat steppe of a face and slanting eyes.  Nurse and patient are speaking of blintzes, borscht, piroshki - Russian food that they both love.  I listen, and think that it must have been her grandfather who raided the shtetl where the old man lived long ago, and in his high boots and his blouse and his fury this grandfather pulled Abe by his side curls to the ground and stomped his face and kicked his groin.  Perhaps it was that ancient kick that caused the hernia I am fixing.  I listen to them whispering behind the screen at the head of the table.  I listen with breath held before the prism of memory.
"Tovarich," she says, her head bent close to his. 

He smiles up at her, and forgets that his body is being laid open. 

"You are an angel," the old man says.
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