Around the third hour, I’d had enough. I lurched into a seated position, and fumbled through the covers to find my phone. I brought up my wife’s number, but hesitated before calling. She was at a graduation party for an old family friend. Best not to interrupt like that. Even with this. I texted her instead.
“Come home. I think I need to go to the hospital.”
When she got home, pale and distraught, I was curled up in a ball.
“Baby, you should have called. I would’ve left sooner.”
I grunted and shuffled into the kitchen to drain one of the bottles of Gatorade she’d brought for me. Red liquid was dripping off my beard when Michelle caught my gaze.
“Is it your Crohn’s?”
I nodded. As much as I wanted to be able to answer in the negative, I knew better. Knew my body. Knew these feelings. I’d spent those three hours trying to find a rationalization that didn’t involve that dreaded “C” word.
Under other circumstances, I would’ve elected to go to a quick emergency clinic instead. You’d get in faster, get some IV fluids, and be on your way. But this was different. Last time my guts had been in open revolt like this . . . well, I didn’t want to think about that. So to the regular ER we went, since being admitted to the full hospital was a very real possibility.
Michelle drove wildly there. Drove like me. That made me smile. She propped me up as I shambled into the ER waiting room.
Rarely are rooms so appropriately named.
I glanced around the room. Found the location of the bathroom. This would be important information.
I took stock of my fellow waiters. A teenaged boy was cradling his wrist. An older woman was in a hospital wheelchair pushed by her dutiful husband. An obese middle-aged woman was quietly moaning.
A Richard Gere movie was playing on TV. Everyone and no one was watching it. I just remember a scene where a beautiful silver classic Mercedes, piloted by Gere, crashed spectacularly, tumbling end over end. Such a waste of a great car.
The troubled look on Michelle’s face broke my heart. When she and I first met, six years ago, I was barely out of the woods from my first bout with Crohn’s Disease. I’d spent the previous three years learning about this nasty disease, an ulceration of the small intestine that brings with it stabbing abdominal pains, drastic weight loss, and crushing fatigue. But she’d never seen me like that until now.
I’d told her about it, of course. She’d been there when greasy food would trouble me, but it was never anything an antacid and some water couldn’t fix. She knew that I’d gotten my tattoo after I regained the forty pounds that Crohn’s had robbed from my already slight frame.
But those were just stories. This was pain, excruciating pain. Doubling me over in the hard chairs in the waiting room. Pain only interrupted when a sudden flash sent me scrambling to that restroom.
I was so weak. So thirsty. But not hungry. I felt like I’d never be hungry again.
When the diagnosis first came, I’d had to adjust to a New Normal. Certain aspects of my lifestyle had to change, certain symptoms became commonplace. As I slowly recovered, that Normal receded, and I was quite nearly back to the Old Normal. This pain announced the sudden return of the New Normal.
Hello, cramping, my old friend.
Michelle didn’t know the New Normal, and I’d always hoped she never would. Funny what one bad plate of paella will do to you.
I never got to finish the Richard Gere movie. I can only assume he squinted a lot, and then got either his comeuppance or redemption.
The questions about my medical history hit a hitch. My old gastroenterologist had moved his practice to Dallas, and I hadn’t seen him in five years. Then again, even if he’d still been in Houston, I wouldn’t have seen him those five years anyway. He was a nice enough guy, but I just didn’t like going to any doctor whose giveaway ballpoint pens bore the logos of pre-colonoscopy enemas.
They hooked me up to an IV. Saline to rehydrate, and an anti-spasmodic drug to calm the tremors. My back muscles had started to spasm as well; I don’t know if it was that damned uncomfortable chair in the waiting room that did it, or some sympathetic show of solidarity for my intestines, but at least it distracted from the original pain somewhat.
My father-in-law arrived, a Target bag in hand. He’d heard how cold it was in the exam room, and had brought me some tube socks.
Michelle explained that I was being a trooper, but that it still hurt a lot. I managed a wan smile to show that all was well, in spite of every evidence to the contrary. She’d coordinated the response with her usual aplomb, handling the hospital paperwork and phone calls to friends and family deftly.
Slowly, the drugs began to work. The physician’s assistant who’d been looking after me came in to announce that they wouldn’t need to keep me overnight. She took the liberty of scheduling an appointment with a new gastroenterologist for me.
Oh, goody. That only means one thing, really. Colonoscopy.
Colonoscopies are one of those medical procedures endlessly mined for cheap humor. And I won’t protest that the idea of sending a gigantic tube up your butt isn’t funny. But what those of us who’ve actually had one can tell you is that the real humor (and real discomfort) comes the night before, when you are entrusted to clean out your colon as surely and completely as possible. We’re talking squeaky clean. Like “no dust on the white gloves” clean. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out how this is accomplished.
Other than that, they’re a walk in the park.
They gave me my discharge papers, and we returned to the waiting room to pay. By this time, my parents had arrived, tagging in for Michelle’s folks. My dad was wearing the pained expression that he only has when my Crohn’s is active.
I must really look bad.
We drove home silently. I hate being a passenger. We ascended the stairs to our apartment, and I crawled back into the bed where I’d begun the day. I’d first thought it was just some nasty food poisoning, but by the time I’d sent Michelle that text, I knew better. She rubbed my tummy until I fell asleep.
For the next several days, I took the prescribed anti-inflammatories and ate bland food. I kept a fitful eye on the calendar.
It had been my plan to surprise Michelle with a trip to Austin to celebrate the end of her busy season at work. The hotel was booked, and so was the rental car. But the trip was now just days away, a scant six days since my hospital trip.
It’s a running joke in my family that any post-vacation discussion inevitably gravitates toward food. It’s not a vacation unless we partake in the culinary pride of the place we’re visiting. The richer, spicier, and more gravy-soaked, the better. I’d already made reservations at one of the most heralded restaurants Austin had to offer in anticipation of continuing this tradition.
Yet with four days to go before the trip, the most adventuresome food I’d tackled was chicken salad. With celery. A veritable food orgy, no doubt. Maybe we could find a food truck that specialized in bland food.
Friday, the day of our departure for Austin, I had my first appointment with my new doctor. I like him. He’s blunt and slightly sarcastic. As expected, he ordered a colonoscopy for me. He gave me a couple of prescriptions and an encouragement to listen to my body, to stay attuned to the burps and burbles along my digestive tract.
I picked up the rental car, gleaming orange with a black racing stripe and a cocky V8. The engine rumbled in a way not entirely unlike how my stomach had. We navigated westward.
As I drove, we listened to ZZ Top and I found myself considering the situation. When I was first diagnosed, my ability to have a normal life thereafter was very much up for debate. Handicapped parking tags were discussed. During several particularly intense weeks, I moved back in with my parents. I tried various diets: dairy-free, gluten-free, yeast-free, joy-free.
Michelle had never seen this part of my life. It was my most guarded secret. Because by the time we met, the thrill was back. I was able to enjoy almost any food, and my affection for beer had become the only reliable way to restore my lost weight. I didn’t like talking about it any more than I liked talking about my first bad job after college. It cut into the image I had created for myself.
Now that image was cracking, and I began to realize that everything I’d built up in the healthy years was a gift God might now be withdrawing. He’d kept the receipt, apparently.
I knew better than to finish lunch. Franklin BBQ may be considered the best barbeque in Texas, but I didn’t need to gorge myself in order to see if Bon Appetit magazine was right. A few bits of sublime brisket with a sparing dip in the espresso-vinegar sauce was all it took to render judgment. The critics were right.
As I reached into my pocket for the car keys, I found the roll of antacids instead, and popped one in my mouth. I could feel it waging war against the acid that my stomach had marshaled to take on the brisket.
The big challenge lay ahead. The sushi restaurant I’d booked in advance was known for its powerful flavors. California rolls and green tea, this wasn’t. I popped a second antacid for good measure and said a little prayer.
Austin is such a casual city. After spending an embarrassing amount of time fussing with my date night attire, we arrived to find that half the patrons were in sandals, despite the fine dining atmosphere. Oh, well.
It was during the second course that it hit me.
I was fine.
No rumbling. No burning. Just the growing fullness brought on by a good meal and good wine.
“This is amazing,” I said, gesturing at my plate.
“I know!” Michelle gushed. “The hamachi is so light and perfect.”
I reached for her hand.
“I feel fine. Better than fine. I feel great.”
I could feel my eyes welling up.
“This is grace.”
Her eyes began to shine in the candlelight, too.
“I don’t deserve this.”
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I don’t. And that’s what’s so amazing. I’m so glad that you’re part of this, and not what it could have been.”
Before May, when I was still trying to forget that the brokenness of this world had a special little place right where my small and large intestines meet, I would’ve enjoyed that hamachi quite a bit. But as that brokenness was being repaired, I was reminded that my whole life is an ache being soothed. I can’t hide that ache from my wife any more than I could have hoped to hide the effects of my illness from her for the next sixty years. There is grace for all kinds of broke-down things, even (and especially) graces that restore to us our joys when we least expect it.