In kindergarten, I had a massive crush on Dorothy, of the Wizard of Oz. That gingham dress. Those pigtails. Her blood-red lips and lilting voice. Who better to free her from the red sand gushing through the hourglass than me, someone who loved her loved her, I thought. I believed I could protect her against time. Time had been pouring through the hourglass of my life, too. I had massive nosebleeds, the most recent requiring emergency room treatment. I remember a plastic bag of ice on my neck and metallic slickness on my tongue. My legs dangled over the gurney, beating time in the air, and the towel against my nose was sopping with blood. But it was not just blood flowing out of me. Rushing away like rain after a storm was the feeling that bad things could never happen to me. My nose gushed away my parents’ perceptions of healthy children. It gushed away safety and security. Carrying off pieces of my innocence in a flash like debris up the funnel of a tornado, the nosebleed deposited my naiveté haphazardly in places too impossible to retrieve. Feeling the hot blood flow into the towel I got a little bit older a little bit quicker. I got a little bit scared. This moment is a vestigial memory preceding my first hospital stay. I attempt to grasp it now like a squirmy puppy that I cannot keep in my arms, cozy and safe and real against my chest. I was diagnosed with an aortic coarctation. A portion of my aorta – the main trunk of the arterial system, conveying blood from the left ventricle of the heart to all of the body except the lungs – was constricted. The narrowing increased the blood pressure in my upper body, which caused blood to funnel out of my nose while I ate a Happy Meal. I needed surgery. At the pre-operation appointment, my arm was stabbed with needles and my parents signed paperwork, some of which acknowledged there was a chance I might die. “Highly unlikely, of course,” the doctor said, but that was little reassurance to us. He used blue and red ink to draw a tornado of arrows on diagrams of the heart. He charted normal and abnormal blood flow through the chambers, before-and-after pictures, me now and me later. The narrow piece of my aorta would be removed and the two ends of the tube spliced together. “The scar, will it eventually go away?” Dad asked. “I mean, will it fade?” “No,” the doctor said. “It might fade a little, but a scar will be there forever.” I spent the night prior to surgery in the hospital. I was no longer inviolable so Mom, who allowed me to experience measures of independence whenever possible, slept in my room. I imagine her squinting at me through the dark. Surely my parents had explained to me the reason for my visit, but how could I comprehend the severity of the situation? This burden they carried for me, as only parents can. The next morning Dad helped me dress in a papery hospital gown while Mom combed her blonde Glinda hair. The minutes burned fast, like fire eating straw. I wanted another cartoon. Another night to sleep. Another hug. I was soon wheeling along the bright hallways, my parents walking alongside my gurney. I felt a lumpy heat on the back of my throat and that if I moved under the blanket I might cry. I took a deep breath to push away my tears. No matter how easily Dad smiled his squinty-eyed smile or Mom ran her hand against my cheek, I was aware of the forthcoming separation. I didn’t know the word at the time, but traveling to the OR felt like an abduction, like I was being torn from safety. I was helpless. I wanted my mom. She was an arm’s length away but she might as well have been in Oz. I knew she wanted to make me feel better, too, to pick me up in that mom way like I was a little baby, which to her I still was, and to hold me. She walked next to the rolling bed and I knew that wasn’t close enough. I’m sure she knew this, too. I wanted to hit the brakes but there was no stopping time. The OR was behind schedule. All of the proper waiting rooms were occupied so the bed-driver ushered us into a supply closet. This raised my hopes that the whole deal was off. Instead, we endured the angst like storm-dodgers, hunkered in our root cellar and temporarily protected from the gales and erratic electricity above. Like a sudden clap of thunder a nurse knocked on the door. “Time to go.” We said goodbye. Then I was on the move alone. In the OR I didn’t have time to cry. “We don’t want you to be the only one who doesn’t look silly in there,” a nurse said adjusting a hairnet on my head. Why not? I wondered. I was already wearing a gown, after all. The transportation team parked my bed against the operating table and lowered the side rails. I squinted in the brightness. Machines hummed. Water spattered in a sink. I heard beeps of various volumes and frequencies and I heard laughter. The hairnet, I thought. “You just hold still, honey,” another attendee said in a voice muffled by a paper mask. Scrubbed arms rolled me on my side, scooted me to the edge of the bed, rolled me on my back, this time onto the operating table. I felt stiff and cold. Nylon straps crossed my legs and waist and two buckles clicked. A blanket settled over me. I shivered as a woman holding a large Q-tip painted the left half of my chest the color of water poured from a rusty can. “What’s up?” A man the size and shape of a lion – all neck and chest – appeared overhead. “Going to help you take a nap. What flavor gas you want: bubblegum, cherry, or grape?” His question paralyzed me in the way of a child deciding something that seemed crucial yet impossible to narrow down under the circumstances. I said nothing. I was scared. “Bubblegum’s what most people choose.” “Okay.” “All you have to do is breathe.” He fitted a plastic mask over my mouth and nose. The soporific air did taste like bubblegum and before I could wonder how long it would take to work I was in the dark. The Emerald City was on the horizon of my subconscious and Dorothy wilted onto a quilt of poppies, the narcotic pollen pulsing through my imagination, the red sand pouring time away. Together we drifted off under the spells of science and sorcery.
The nurses updated my family in the waiting room. Then the surgeon himself appeared. Before he spoke a word my parents began sobbing. They assumed the hourglass had emptied and I was dead; for what other reason would this great and powerful man come forth? He hastily explained that the smoothness of the procedure allowed him to visit. The operation took all day and when the bubblegum spigot dried up I found familiar voices wobbling through my mind. Each waking glimpse revealed flashes of brightness as my bed clipped along under the corridor lights, my world framed by talking heads and IV bags on poles. I was desperately parched. Finding my lips and tongue, I murmured, “Thirsty.” “We’ll get you some ice chips in a short while, honey,” a nurse said, apparently oblivious to my dehydration. Her cheerfulness conveyed understanding, though I doubt she understood. My groggy mind was unable to convey to her that my visit to Oz was indescribably arduous. I required not only liquid refreshment but gallons of it. So thirsty was I that I would have given her my mutant eyeball for the opportunity to lick condensation off a toilet tank. In a swirl I arrived in ICU and the attendees left our family alone. The intravenous pain medication and time have muddled my memories. I know the sun flooded through a window. This light teased me with dreams of the neighborhood fun I was missing. I chewed ice chips served in plastic cups, which did little to stifle my thirst or hunger. In the way of scared children who recognize their dependence on adults, I was all yes, please and no, thank you during my stay. My manners bought me extra attention and empathy; somebody made me a puppet out of a latex glove that looked like a ghost rooster. Memory has an interesting way of compressing time, these images an inadequate measure of the cruelty of early recovery, the limitations of my recollections truly a blessing. I transferred to the pediatric cardiology ward after a few days. Perhaps it is appropriate to mention one of Mom’s most loving qualities. In her bid to document my childhood she became a devoted photographer and heart surgery was a prime opportunity. Whenever I complained, Mom would say, “They’re for the museum – you know, after you become President.” Among the photos from this time is a shot of Dad in bed with me. His hair is black, his polo shirt is pink, his body is muscularly slender. His feet overreach the end of the bed and his presence all but swallows me. I was responsible for the large splotches of perspiration under his arms. That morning the bandages covering my incision were removed. “This might be a little painful,” the nurse had said to me, “so if you need to rest, just say, ‘Rest.’” If by “say” she meant “scream with the ferocity of someone being lowered into a vat of boiling oil with the intention of causing unspeakable pain that brings the suffering party to the brink of unconsciousness without causing death,” then I followed her instructions perfectly. “REST!” I howled, again and again. The nurse paused in her torture and spoke softly to me. “Oh, honey, you’re doing great.” “REST!” “I know it hurts.” “REST!” “I’m so, so sorry.” “REST! REST! REEEEEST!” The sweat poured off Dad. He listened helplessly, pacing back and forth, rubbing his face in his hands. Every inch he reminded me things would be okay, at which point I resumed screaming before the wicked nurse even grasped the edge of the bandage. One could presumably pick up an airplane with a small square of the tape that encased my left side. Its adhesive qualities acted like trillions of microscopic sutures bonding bandage to skin. My mind was on fire. Dad was melting. I remember the moment the nurse finished. She snipped the knot at the end of the thread used to stitch me together and, from nipple to spine, I felt the line slip through my skin in a fluid tickle. It is truly amazing how vividly I recall this, something I have only felt once in my life. “You’re a member of the zipper club now,” she said. Mom taped this thread in a scrapbook for the museum.
Mr. Flaherty, the principal of my elementary school where Mom also taught second grade, delivered the first truckload of gifts. After half a dozen bags of material sympathy I let go of the bandage fiasco. For exercise I walked around the nurses’ station. To soften the violence of coughing or laughing or sneezing, which strained the incision, I held a bundled towel to my side. There was also a breathing device to expand my lungs – a plastic cylinder with a ball inside attached to a tube that I sucked on, trying to lift the ball as high and for as long as I could. I walked a yellowish strip of tape on the wall with the fingers of my left hand, stretching the tightness from my side, reaching higher and higher to my family’s praise. They marked each new apex with a black pen. This progress was observable from my bed like the bricks of a road. I counted the bricks and began to understand that I was returning to myself and that was a priceless knowledge. One day my friend, Clay, paid a visit. There was something important he had to tell me. “You missed it,” he said. I knew this would happen. “What?” “The storm.” I didn’t even know what he was talking about, but I was crushed. “It’s called hail. I saved you some in my freezer.” Mom filled in the details of the falling ice. “Some were the size of golf balls,” she said, the biggest anybody in Naples had ever heard of or seen. With the sky so dark and the hail so bright, it appeared as if somebody had unscrewed the stars and let them drop. The language of the storm was the language of destruction and the language of the exotic places of imagination. Cumulonimbi clouds. Super-cooled water droplets combined with the dirt and dust. The storm like a tornado. Turbulent air churning, suspending the chunks, contributing layer after layer of ice to the stones with each updraft, some stones clumping together, over and over in the blowing wind before becoming too heavy to float. Falling, falling, falling to earth like waking from a dream. I imagined Clay in his family’s car as the hailstones thundered the metal with the power Mom described, windows breaking all over town. “It was very scary,” she said. I couldn’t wait to touch my piece of the sky. Mom reached for her camera and nodded toward Clay saying, “Put your arm around your friend and smile like you love each other.” Then it was time for everyone to leave. I felt small in the bed. Mom tucked the blankets under my legs the way she did at home, tightly, so that my heels touched together. The curtain dividing the room glowed green in the light of my roommate’s TV and even though I knew I would be discharged the next morning, I felt lonesomeness rolling in like a thundercloud. More than I wanted her to stay, I wanted to go home with Mom. To sit beside Dad in his rocking chair, holding half a book with my left hand, the other half in his right. To hear my grandma tell me, “You have a face only a mother could love.” To exercise whatever newfound strength I had gained to rescue Dorothy, to flip over our hourglasses another time. Mom kissed my forehead and each of my eyes and was gone. I had never felt so alone. I closed my eyes. I listened to the laughter on my roommate’s TV. I held tightly to my coughing pillow and waited for the dreaming sleep that would carry me like paper in the wind to tomorrow and all that I loved.
-- Thomas N. Mannella III earned a B.A. in writing from St. Lawrence University and a Masters from St. John Fisher College, both in New York. His writing and photography have previously appeared in various other magazines and journals. Currently, he teaches English and Environmental Literature in Naples, NY, where he lives with his wife and sons around the corner from the house he grew up in.