Suburban Soliloquy #99


During one of my check-ups with my doctor, he criticized me for not taking better care of myself, for eating the foods I enjoyed rather than the foods that were good for me. "Don't you want to live longer?" he asked. I told him I had no particular interest in outliving my wife. At my answer he seemed mildly stunned and didn't know what next to say. It is the tragedy of being in love, that eventually the companionship must end and most likely one will have to outlive the other.

For the last decade I have been hanging out in the same virtual cafe. Recently, the discussion was about an essay by Calvin Trillin in the March 27th issue of The New Yorker, a piece titled "Alice, Off the Page". Mr Trillin frequently mentioned his wife, Alice Stewart Trillin, in his writings. His wife died in 2001. The cafe spoke of how touching was his account. He loved his wife dearly. Those who read his essay recommended it. I told Ms Keogh, my more significant other, about the piece. We had just celebrated our nineteenth wedding anniversary a few weeks earlier. Ms Keogh is well aware and very fond of Trillin's work, but I had somehow managed to miss him, even when The New Yorker was regularly delivered to our house. We both wanted to read this highly praised essay. We wanted to know if the Trillins were as happily in love as we are. Our experience has been to observe other relationships and find they rarely compare favorably with our own.

The next day I went out in search of that issue of The New Yorker , but it was already gone from the racks, the next issue in its place. My plan then was to later visit the library and photocopy the entire piece, but my attention was diverted.

Because I work nights, I sleep during the day. Ms Keogh came home from dialysis this particular afternoon and without hesitation woke me at four o'clock. Jefferson Hospital had called her at the dialysis clinic to say they had a potential kidney. It had not yet been harvested. Ms Keogh had been on dialysis for the last nineteen years. The clinic sent a sample of her blood to the hospital by courier to further check the match and the state of her antibodies. Twice before, in 1989 and 1991, Ms Keogh received transplants. Both failed within days. Failed transplants increase antibodies (as well as damage potential surgical sites) thus making it ever harder to find a match. With over 50,000 people waiting for kidney transplants in this country, of whom only about 14,000 will receive them, we were getting anxious.

Ms Keogh was about to turn fifty-three on the 23rd April. The kidney was to be the best birthday gift.

If I haven't written about Ms Keogh's chronic renal failure before now, it isn't because it was a secret. It was never a secret. However, she has been reluctant to share this news without need. Ms Keogh did not care to be defined by her chronic illness. She wanted to be known for her paintings, or for her skills as a midlevel practitioner of medical care at Planned Parenthood, or as a teacher of the gynecological examination. She wanted to avoid dewy-eyed sympathy with which others might greet her, first asking about her health with that tragic lilt in their voice when they knew about her illness. She did not regard herself as disabled by her illness, merely inconvenienced. Except for her kidney failure, she was otherwise in fine health.

It was ten o'clock that evening when we received a second call from Jefferson Hospital. There was now even a greater likelihood this kidney would be given to her and she was to stop eating or drinking in preparation for possible surgery. We had been provided some details as to the donor, the accident that befell this otherwise healthy person. It was a most promising kidney, uninjured by the donor's lifestyle or cause of death. That I cannot give more details here is because I have promised the transplant unit to respect the anonymity of the donor.

At 2:30 in the morning the next call came. How soon could she get to the hospital? She told them we would be there in an hour. Fifty minutes later I had delivered her to the Emergency Room entrance and drove off in search of parking. Soon afterwards I was by her side. She was answering the same battery of questions regarding her medical history for each of the specialized units that would be tending to her during her surgery and stay. And each office wanted their own sample of her blood. Ms Keogh stands five feet six inches and at any time weighs little more than one hundred pounds. It injured me to watch the many test tubes that were filled with blood from her skinny arms. Between examinations and tests, X-ray, MRI, CAT-scan, EKG, we played cards, or, if I napped, Ms Keogh played Sudoku. Eventually, by morning, we were both napping, with me on a chair beside her bed, leaning over her mattress to maintain contact. We had been that far into the procedure once or twice before, only to be turned away because the kidney was a better match for someone else. At six o'clock, it was decided.

I accompanied her as she was prepared for surgery. Once before we had gotten this far, with her prepped and waiting to be moved into the OR, when at the very last the transplant unit's leader decided the kidney was not good enough. Here we were again waiting for her to be moved into the OR. I was not permitted to stay with her, yet she had a long wait. The surgery commenced at 10:10.

In the waiting room that morning I recalled Hemingway's terse account of Catherine Barkley's unexpected death in A Farewell to Arms, so accurate an expression of dread and hope. As I waited, I felt desperate to know the conclusion of the moment and not be trapped in the midst of it. At 2:10 in the afternoon, the surgeon greeted me with the news that the surgery was completely successful. The new kidney had not started working, but that wasn't unexpected. She would be in Recovery for at least two hours, then I would be permitted to see her.

In the days that followed, I remained fearful. I tried not to indicate it. Health and recovery are as much attitude as medicine. I remained guarded against being too hopeful, trying to protect my feelings from being too disappointed if her kidney failed. I also appreciated the torment it would have been for her if the kidney failed, yet being the optimist she is, she would not entertain doubts for this kidney's success.

She was eleven days in the hospital. There were numerous milestones to be celebrated. When she passed gas we celebrated, for after any major abdominal surgery there is an unpleasant wait for the bowels to come back to life. All she could think about was eating. Not just eating, but eating bananas, strawberries, peanut butter, black bean soup, chili, all the things denied her when she didn't have a working kidney. Her first solid foods were lasagna, garlic bread, accompanied by minestrone, and she didn't have to take her binders. I ate the ice cream dessert. Ms Keogh does not like ice cream. She quickly became finicky, would sample but not eat the hospital food and started sending me out to bring back Chinese food.

We celebrated the morning they removed the Foley catheter and the subclavian line. They took her in a wheelchair to what was to be her first session of physical therapy, but they kicked her out saying she didn't need it, sending her back to her room with just a cane. We began taking long walks through the hospital's block long corridors while pulling the IV pole with its bags and battery-powered dispensers.

I was visiting Ms Keogh every day, usually arriving before noon and not leaving until being pushed out at eight o'clock. They were exhausting days for me. I would stop on the way home from work to bathe, dress in fresh clothes, attend to the dietary needs of the cat, then drive into Philadelphia to spend the rest of the day with her. I then left the hospital at eight o'clock and stopped at home to attend to the needs of the other end of the cat, this time shower, change my clothes again, and drive to Monmouth Junction, New Jersey to work. For those eleven days I usually didn't sleep in a bed, but was adding up thirty-minute naps in chairs at the hospital and at my desk at work.

Ms Keogh has been home from the hospital for over a month, feeling better than she has felt in over twenty years. The kidney shows no signs of rejecting. Unhampered, unrestricted, not having to be attached to a dialysis machine for nearly two months, she is discussing plans to fly home to Britain and visit with family. She hasn't been to Britain in more than twenty years. She is still in a period of recovery, acclimation, adjustment, but her improvement is rapid and steady.

I have finally managed the time to visit the library and photocopy Calvin Trillin's essay. "They remind me of us," Ms Keogh said, except some of the characteristics we share with them are shuffled differently in us. I am continually overwhelmed with how lucky and happy I am - dare I write it? I shouldn't want to jinx this. "And you're going to have to take better care of yourself," announced Ms Keogh. "Now that I have a kidney, you're going to have to stick around longer. I have no interest in outliving you."

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"