The anesthesiologist, I thought, looked competent. He had introduced himself shortly after the nurse in pre-op had managed to pull my wedding ring off.
“The biggest danger in removing an adrenal gland and an attached pheochromocytoma is a blood-pressure crisis. When the surgeon clamps off the blood vessel running from the adrenal, he will step back, and we will all watch what your blood pressure does. You have to know that Dr. Rodriguez is an excellent surgeon. And I see from your records that your primary care physician has prepared you well. You’ve been on an alpha-blocker for how long?”
“Almost two weeks.”
“And you’ve been drinking lots of Gatorade to get your electrolytes up. Also eating lots of salty snacks. Right?”
“Right. I think I’ve had more chips in the past two weeks than in the year prior to that.”
“That’s good–we need your blood volume up. You’ve probably read some scary articles about this procedure, but things get really dangerous mainly when the surgery is for something else and they discover a pheo by accident. But we know what we’re going in for. I’ll insert a wire in one of the large vessels in your neck, and I’ll run that wire right into your heart so that I can monitor your blood pressure at every heartbeat. I have medicine if it spikes. And I have other medicine if it bottoms out. Any questions? O. K. You’re going to be fine. That being said, I’m going to give you a little something to take the edge off. Here.”
And then an orderly came, Wanda pressed her lips to mine, and I went through the gleaming doors. I was a little proud that, despite the “little something,” I was noticing so many details. As we rolled down the hallway, I thought of all the sermons I had heard about death as the ultimate certainty for all humankind.
What I needed was memories of a sermon that would prepare me to see the face of God, maybe in the next twenty minutes, a sermon about “my only comfort in life and death,” with the emphasis on the “my.” As I came into the operating room, I saw more people than I had expected, probably seven or eight, all masked and looking at me intently.
“Why so many people?” I asked myself. It was then that I started praying as hard as I ever have, asking God for forgiveness until my very last moment of consciousness. I was trying to ensure that no sinful thought could worm itself into that last fleeting moment between final petition and ultimate injection.
When I opened my eyes, I saw three people off to my right, dimly backlit. “Who? ” I wondered. And then the one in the middle moved toward me slowly, almost as if floating. The other two followed, at a slight distance. I couldn’t make out their faces. “Where are my glasses? I need to see who it is.”
“You’re awake, almost right on schedule”; it was Wanda, some questioning mixed with relief in her voice. My dad and mom came up on either side of her.
“How long have I been out?” All I could remember is someone tightening a strap over my ankles in the operating room. I had heard things about surgeons using gravity to move organs around.
“Surgery took about two and a half hours, and you’ve been in surgical intensive care for another hour or so,” Wanda leaned over and let her lips linger on my forehead.
“Am I going to be O. K.? Did they talk to you after surgery?”
“Both the surgeon and the anesthesiologist spent some time with us,” my dad took over; “they said they were really pleased with how everything went. I guess you were as well prepared for this operation as anyone they’ve ever seen. They had to do a little rearranging before they could see the pheo, but they got it. They had to send it to the lab, of course, but they said it didn’t look cancerous. And through the whole thing, you hardly bled–they didn’t have to give you any blood. Do you remember much?”
“As I watched them strapping my ankles down, I was praying so hard I was running words together in my head. And then I was gone.”
Early one morning about four months later, I was standing on the dock of a fishing lodge on Ontario’s Eagle Lake, waiting for a floatplane with my friend Duzzer, my three sons, and their friend T-guns. The plane was scheduled to pick us up and fly us sixty miles north to Oak Lake, a relatively shallow, dark-bottomed lake through which the Zizania River flowed. This was to give us all a day-long taste of Canadian wilderness and put us on some walleyes. “Lately,” the word around camp was, “everyone flying to Oak has been slaughtering the walleyes, big walleyes.”
Before we boarded the plane, the dock boy gave us three bait buckets, each holding a gross of gasping minnows, and Herbie, the lodge owner, handed us a rough map of Oak with spots highlighted in red on it. All the points as well as the shorelines of most islands, I noticed.
I had told everyone to eat plenty of toast so that their stomachs wouldn’t be lurching around once we were in the air, and they had taken my advice, but the flight was smoother than a train ride. We landed on a southern bay of Oak, filled the gas tanks in the boats waiting on the shore, and then Duzzer and I followed the boys’ two boats as they headed around a point in our bay and stopped in the first little inlet they came to.
“This isn’t even highlighted on the map,” I yelled over to them.
“Big deal,” Joel yelled back; “it looks good. We might as well try it. We flew up here to fish, not ride around.”
“All right. We’ll all try it. But I think that sooner or later we should head down to that island in the narrows. The pilot said that’s a good spot.”
We bobbed in the mouth of the bay while we all tied on quarter-ounce jigs and hooked a minnow through the lips. Then we split up so as to make three different drifts across the inlet. I thought we would catch nothing.
But as we drifted, Jon and Jason each caught a small pike, and T-guns hooked a twelve-inch walleye. As we all approached the shore, Joel called over: “Three fish on one drift–not too bad.”
“Get real!” I was impatient. “Everyone says that on Oak you slaughter fish, and a couple of skinny pike and a young walleye is not exactly a slaughter. Catching that walleye was almost child abuse! Let’s head down to the narrows.”
I heard some mumbling from the other boats, a spike of shrill laughter, but then they waved at me to take the lead. It wasn’t hard to find the narrows: the river got skinny as it made a sharp turn to the right, and just off the right-hand point lay a teardrop of an island.
“Let’s start up by the island,” I motioned, “and let the wind take us drifting into deeper water.”
The walleyes off the island seemed hungry, even desperate. We hardly ever caught anything as we started our drifts, but once we got out into what our portable depth finders showed to be fifteen feet of water, we got busy. If we ever made a drift and didn’t get a hit, we were startled:
“How can this be?” we would ask ourselves.
That day on the water, as so many similar days, turned into a contest. Who led in numbers? (Jon ended up winning with thirty-six.) Who had the biggest fish? (I led for a while with a twenty-five incher, but again Jon ended up beating me with a twenty-eight.) Who caught the most fish with a single minnow? (Jason caught five walleyes with one minnow, which by the end was only a shred of flesh attached to a tail.)
If people had been fishing near us that day, they would have heard an astonishing amount of noise: bragging, taunting, counting, whooping, laughing, even some singing. It didn’t even seem right to stop for ten minutes and unwrap the jelly sandwiches we had packed so early in the morning.
I sometimes tell people–I really have to trust them to tell them–that as a child I had a debilitating fear of the whole notion of eternity. I would sit in church and hear the choir singing about life without end in heaven, and I would wonder, “How can anyone want that?” And I often could not get to sleep at night because I would start thinking of what it must be like to live ten thousand years and then look ahead and see no end, no closing off of the arc of actions, apparently not even some little breaks from all our heavy consciousness.
I still have this fear. It’s just that I’ve learned that I have to block it–when I first feel one of its icy fingernails, I force myself to think about something else. I can’t even toy with it, as I can with some of my fears. Considering it even a little means inviting all of its paralyzing effects in–the pounding heart, the lightheaded isolation, the panic of being trapped by something incomprehensible.
But when I was catching all those walleyes on Oak, counting and bragging while I re-baited and got my line back in the water as fast as I could, all sense of time fell away and I was fishing in the wonder of a continuous now. “That was a beauty,” I thought; “now I’ve got to get another.” So when Duzzer said that it was 4:30 and that we should pack up and head back to make sure we would meet the plane on time, I was a little surprised to find myself thinking that I wanted the fishing to go on and on, walleye after walleye after walleye.
“One more drift,” I resisted. “We’ve got time for one more drift.”
“O. K. But just one. I don’t think it’s a good idea to have the pilot land and start wondering where we are.”
I motored from the deep water back to the island, hooked up a fresh minnow, dropped my line, and started jigging. Nothing. Nothing. Maybe. No, still nothing. Wait a second. There it is. Just a tap, the subtlest of taps. I dropped my rod tip slowly toward the water, giving some extra line. Herbie had told us he called this “bowing to the fish.” Then I whipped my rod skyward, braced myself, and felt the resolute presence.