i close my eyes, only for a moment

by Karen Kolb

lorenzo r sewanan

spring 2016


I awake before the sun has risen and hear the shrill cry of birds anticipating the day to come. I am cold though covered and wonder whether he always breathes so loudly, my husband, in his sleep. Even though I always wake before him, the rhythm of it sounds so foreign to me today, as strange as this country.


I slide out of the bed, the tips of my toes raking across the burgundy carpet; the firm feel of the carpet, the way its fibers press into my heel, reminds me that I’m really here. I have woken from a dream I wish had been real.


The sky was bright; the air warm and humid; the river flowing nearby. I felt at home though the place looked unfamiliar. The house was large and had high ceilings with many chairs and many little round tables spread out and around like somewhere people would come to wait for something or someone. They were there.


Right in front of me, my brother, a father and a husband, stood tall and strong. And, my mother, so tiny and full of grace in her short hair and dark lipstick, watched us; her love in her eyes. And, my heart, my nephew, held hands with and stood behind his father. We stood in the place for a time which I cannot mark and looked at each other, wordless and soundless except for the patterning of rain falling overhead. I went to hold them in my arms, but then it was done.


I walk down the stairs and a familiar heavy feeling fills my chest, maybe lighter today with the hope that ascending these stairs next time will be less difficult. I put on a pot of tea, with three teabags in a kettle of hot water. Our family has always made it that way, strong and dark, like we are, strong like I will be after today.


I sit on my chair, the red recliner, and sip the hot tea. It scalds my tongue, another reminder that I’m here, but I drink it anyway. My husband comes down and stands behind me; he reaches forward and holds gently the sides of my head in his hands like he always does.


“What are you thinking?”


“I don’t know.” I shut my eyes though my eyes and mind continue to wander the dark uncharted territory behind my eyelids.


“You thinking about mami? About your brother?”


“No... I barely told him yesterday. I wish he could’ve come before today; I should’ve told him earlier.”


“They’re coming now then?”


“Yes, they’re leaving today. Mami is too old to travel though.”


“You want to wait?”


I don’t know if I want to do this at all. “I want, but the doctor….”


“Yeah, I know.”


I open my eyes. All at once, the day begins; the cars get louder on the street; the birds go quiet; the light hurts my eyes.



Of the many hospitals I’ve been to, this has never been one of them. I walk behind my husband, empty handed but for one thing, while he carries my mostly empty big brown bag up to the security desk. I show the guard my paper, my letter of invitation to this place.


I want to turn back, through the silvery glass doors, and stand outside, eyes closed, breathing in the warm and humid air, exhaling slowly. But, I wait, already fatigued. I wait for the elevator to slide down, the little light to blink on; my husband beside me shifts his weight from foot to foot, as if anxious for this to be over. All around us people and chairs and stretchers and wares come and go, no slower or faster or more thoughtful than ever, though I’m standing here.


The ninth floor smells clean but probably not cleaner than anywhere else in the hospital. Or maybe more like the lack of smell that stops my nose from perceiving anything but the stale and stagnation, so odd the smell of a place that seeks to continue life and destroy that other thing. It should smell of tulips and roses and fresh grass.


The nurses are busy, bustling about behind their counter, pink and blue and even flowers flashing as they hurry past to hand in some piece or paper or put away some syringe. I wait for a few minutes; it’s 8.04, and soon my brother will leave the ground and sit waiting to get here. I will see him tomorrow with his son.


A nurse walks over, smiling, “Can I get your papers?”


Reading it, her face sombers for a second, but she smiles as she looks at me again. “I’m going to help you get through pre-op; let me show you to the room and help you get prepped. You’re a little late because you’re scheduled for 10 o’clock, so you have to hurry. Anesthesia will be here soon.”


While walking down the hall, I peek in rooms and see people. Most lie, filled with lines and with comforting substances and, I hope, comforting words. Today, I wish I had a father and a mother here; his strength would bear me through, and her spirit would wrap me in love and warmth.


The nurse puts a labeled tag around my wrist; my name is misspelled; they’ve switched an “A” for an “O”. This always happens to me. I show my husband, and we laugh a little, a sound so strange after its absence in the last couple of weeks.


By the time I am dressed in the flimsy but familiar purple gown, I step out and see my husband staring intently at the floor. The doctor had arrived, a man of Asian and probably white heritage, dressed in green with a fiery skullcap concealing grey hair. I hope he hasn’t been waiting for long; I find that doctors are often impatient.


“Mrs. S., I’m your anesthesiologist. I need to ask you a few questions and I can safely anesthetize you for your surgery, and also we will run a few tests too.”


He asks me only a couple of questions. It feels like a pretense. All he really wants is to exhaust me of things to say, so he can work in quiet and just finish the job of analyzing, or understanding this thing, my body. I often wonder what makes a man want to go into medicine even. Surely, there is honor: the glory, the title, the money. But, I think they almost must enjoy knowing secrets, the things that people try to hide.


Maybe they enjoy it too much, this invading of privacy. Do they really need to say, to touch, and to scan as much as this? These tests that they run, the slight inconvenience of an X-ray into my hard insides or the angiograms that pierce my heart with needles through my thigh; are these tests are for our health or for their amusement?


The anesthesiologist finishes quickly as possible and leaves with just a word, “Later.” If my sweet husband was not here with me, I would feel more alone than anything in the world, more far from everything even than my father in his grave.


If only distances were shorter, I could cry on the shoulder of my brother. My husband is trying; even today, he stands next to me, hands on my back, smoothing my hair quietly- so quietly. But, I hear the noise of the central markets beating with my heart, my eyes burn like pepper sauces freshly ground, so unlike these sterile walls that surround me. They are too much like the lifelessness of my womb. I don’t know whether I am doing the right thing to have this surgery.




It passes, time. The nurses rush along, make more beds, check more boxes, and try more conversation. Some patients walk by, some leave, and some are just sitting around. We all wear the same uniform, the tasteless piece of cloth. In some ways, I feel better. How many people have been in this cardiac pre-surgery ward before me? How many will after me sit on this bed and wonder who will come next and where they will come back from the deep sleep?


Five hours is a long time; I don’t even remember the last time I rested completely for so long and now I have to; maybe that more than anything will cure me.


Outside, the day is beautiful; sunlight shimmers along metallic vines and roofs and high edges and rims of things too far to see. Everything seems so good, and in place, but my heart is not. I think it was once, and maybe the sickness came from me, from my eating and drinking and dancing and laughing. Maybe having a happy life or trying to just be happy is bad for living. I am apprehensive; if given a second chance, I will try to right all the wrongs I have done and try to live the life of a pure person.


It is 9.01 now, when Dr. Kim swaggers in, a smile on his face and a pen in his hand. He has finally come end this waiting.


“How are you doing today, Mrs. S?”


The enthusiasm with which he says this makes me feel like he does not remember I am going in for the surgery he wanted me to do.


“I’m waiting; I want to be done with this.” A bit harshly, I sound like I’m accusing him of a crime, this man who is probably trying to save my life.


“Don’t worry. You will wake up tomorrow, feeling new as rain. As I said, you have a risk, but it is not that high.”


My husband speaks up for the first time, “How much of a risk?” He must have forgotten the numbers, and I didn’t really need to hear them again.


“There’s a more than two in three chance of completely successful surgery of Mrs. S’s type. She has more risk because she is diabetic and because her coronary heart disease has progressed, but we will fix that today.”


What he means but will not say is that one of three people like me never comes back from this, never get to see their families and friends again. They die.


“From the pre-op, everything seems ready, and we are set to start the surgery. First, I need you to sign these forms.” The first one reads annoyingly straightforward with words like “coronary bypass”, “surgical team”, and “comprehension of risk”, and “uncertainty of outcome”. I sign, ink trailing the last letters of my name.


“The second form gives Mr. S the power to make medical decisions for you in the case where you are unable to make these yourself. Really, this is important if anything goes wrong, but as I said, it probably won’t. Also, if you want, you can give someone else that right, like another relative.”


I hesitate. No, I am being a fool; my husband would do anything to save me.


“The main surgeon will be Dr. Darien, who you met before, and I will also be present. In about ten minutes, they will take you to the OR, and you should be out in just about 5 hours.


The “they” disturbs me, personless and nameless, the they that would enter my body, still my soul, take out, transfix, repair. I wish I knew.


“Will you be there, Dr. Kim?” I had known him for years; he would not let me down.

“For some parts.”


He never let me down until now. He leaves then; a quick handshake as he takes the form leaves me uneasy but certain. I know what I have to do, and then it is up to god, all of the gods.



Standing before the silver bathroom sink, I remove my earrings. Life is beautiful. I put on the dotted white cap, reminding me of grass shoots in a snowy hill. Life is really what one makes of it. As I get older, I am more knowledgeable.


The flimsy gown is weightless against my brown skin; nothing separates me from the rest of everything. Worldly possessions mean nothing, especially when one doesn’t have health. Even money is good and bad.


The bed is rolled down the hall; on it, I roll. My husband kisses me; they grey doors loom large before us. “I love you.” One last time- no, not the last time.


“I love you too. I wait for you.” His pursed lips plead for me to come back.


Inside, the shadows loom against the walls; bright images of things I’ve never seen before. My heart is fragile, and they, the men standing by without faces, will open it, and will find where it starts to break. I hope they will be able to put it back together, to make it work, to make me work.


A mask goes on my face; hands are everywhere. Everyone is around me. I am the center of this small universe; no, actually, not me.  They forget me; I am the body attached to this heart, nothing more to them.


If only I had everyone else beside me, my brother, my nephew, my mother, my husband, I would feel happy. Now, I am only scared; when will I wake up?


I breathe slower; the anesthesia embraces me and dims all. Life is beautiful. I want to live to be with my family, to do so much good for people. It is dark, and I hear the lulling flow of the river again.