“Clearing My Throat”
Kill Your Darlings issue # 13
by Alison Strumberger
I’m standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom, pulling my hair back and opening my eyes as wide as they’ll go. It’s early May and I’ve just woken up. Aaron’s left for work already and it’s cold in here. I know outside is warmer. I’ve seen the rice fields sprouting green and filling out, but the house has been cold since we arrived in Tokushima last November. I lean forward and open my mouth, but I still can’t see it. I drink a glass of water and try again. A perfect pink bump the size of a pea is tucked so perfectly against the rigid ceiling where mouth meets throat it’s like it’s meant to be there. I drink another glass of water and go downstairs to put the kettle on.
I get to work an hour before my first class and tell my boss, Yuko, that my throat hurts. She suggests I visit the clinic over the road from our office, and says they’ll give me medicine. Japanese people are always asking me if I have the right medicine, or if I’d like medicine, but I politely tell her I don’t think I need any. I have a bump back there, I say. The day begins. I get through my lesson plans quickly and treat all my students to Pictionary.
A week later it’s raining and Aaron drops me off at the big University Hospital on his way to work. Here I see a dapper ENT specialist who speaks just enough English to make me feel comfortable. Despite my diligence over the past six months – attending Tuesday morning conversation groups, filling exercise books with childish Japanese scrawl, hours shouting into my Rosetta Stone microphone which rarely recognises my voice, testing my progress through conversations with my youngest students about whether Rilakkuma is cuter than Hello Kitty – my Japanese skills remain in the basic comprehension/minimal production stage. The doctor says Open, kudasai, and looks down my throat.
The good thing about receiving bad news in a language you struggle to understand is that, among all the concentrating and inferring and contextualising and body-language reading, there is little space left for emotion. What I hear is tumors. One word, exactly as if it were any other word, like badminton or brunch. I concentrate on that one word so hard I don’t have room to think about it, or even to be distressed by the doctor’s use of the plural.
He asks questions about me and my medical history that I am embarrassed not to be able to answer. I sit gaping when he asks me what my blood type is, and he frowns. He tells me that they will need to do a blood test and other tests, and that I will have to come back later to schedule surgery. I hardly let myself hear the word as I bow, thank him, and excuse myself.
I wait. Blood is drawn and I find it less gruesome than usual as I watch it pulsing into vial after vial. The needle is withdrawn and replaced by a cotton ball taped taut into the crook of my arm. I wait. The man facilitating the respiratory test is astounded by my lung capacity. He yabbers on and I glean that I am the first Westerner he’s ever tested, and that I’m blowing far above the level of the average Japanese. So even after my lungs have proven adequate to handle surgery under general anesthetic, he puts the clamp back over my nostrils and the giant tube back between my lips and admits that he wants to see just how hard I can blow. I find this irksome and embarrassing, but I pretend to be flattered by his excitement. Next comes the waiting room. Urine test. Elevator ride. The electrocardiogram is the most relaxing part of the day because I get to lie down.
In the next waiting room I meet Yuko, who arrived as soon as she could to help with translation and paperwork. I’ve already taken my own blood pressure twice today because there’s a machine in each waiting room and it helps to pass the time. Even though it embarrasses Yuko, I stand up, stride down the hall under curious eyes, sit down, shove my arm into the support and let the cool fabric squeeze the shit out of my arm. It beeps. Air hisses out. The machine relaxes, leaving my hand and eyes throbbing, and spits out a little printout identical to the two others in my pocket: some words, some numbers, and the image of a little penguin wearing a doctor’s coat and stethoscope. With its little head bowed it exclaims Odaijini. Get well.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in June, the day before my surgery, and I’m at home getting my hospital things together. I imagine myself lying in a hospital bed, staring at an inflamed IV entry point and bleeding in the back of my throat from little weeping burn sites for seven days. I’m reading a checklist and placing necessities in a canvas bag. Towels, cup, pajamas, slippers, toothbrush, hairbrush, soap, face cloth. I start to cry a little. Aaron comes in and asks, ‘What’s the matter?’
I tell him I feel lonely, and he says, ‘Come on,’ and leads me by the hand out to the car.
The eighth ward is quiet when I arrive. I bow as I walk past the nurses’ station. As soon as I step into room 825 I’m assaulted by the staring eyes of three roommates. It’s hot, too – being in the throes of the rainy season, the entire city writhes under a sticky wet blanket of thirty-two-degree humidity – and these ladies have the heater on. Their conversation stops. All three are sitting up in bed, their legs stretched out before them under matching hospital blankets. They let their gazes settle on me, and what I’m sure were meant to be welcoming expressions are contorted by raised eyebrows and open mouths.
I bow and say good evening in Japanese. They each give a little bow, but only one returns my spoken greeting. They keep staring. So I sit on the edge of my bed, open my cupboard and begin arranging my things. Both pairs of pajamas I’ve brought with me have long legs and sleeves because I was counting on an air conditioned chill. When I close the curtain around my bed their conversation resumes. I put on my pajamas and place my book on the stool beside the bed. I fold my jeans and slide my feet into the slippers I’ve bought specially for the occasion and slip out of the room hoping not to be detected. The women, though, are looking. From the bed directly across from mine the oldest one, about seventy, exclaims ‘Pajama!’ and all three begin to laugh. I look down at my modest heather-grey jersey-knit PJs, then up at hers, and feel underdressed. The old woman’s are made of crimson silk.
It’s morning. The yellow curtain that surrounds my bed flickers into view and I don’t even wonder where I am. I hear voices all around me and figure I must have slept in, until I glance at my phone and see that it’s just past six. The room smells like rice and miso and I’m excited for a moment before I remember that I’m not allowed to eat. The woman in the next bed is slurping and slurping, stopping only to contribute to the chatter.
An interesting phenomenon of only partially understanding a language is how attuned you become to the various nonverbal components of communication. You suddenly become an authority on the standard volume used, for example, by various demographics in society, and an expert in assessing tones. To my estimation these women are calmly irate. This, combined with my understanding of the words gaijin meaning foreigner and samui meaning cold, brings me to the conclusion that they are clucking about my having risen in the night under a cover of stealth and sweat-soaked pajamas, and turned the air temperature down by a couple of degrees. I had been lying awake well into the wee hours, silently slow-cooking and listening to Silken PJs’ gas-passing. After the nurse came at 9.30 to ask me to turn off my reading light as it was disturbing the others, I kicked off the blankets in smoldering frustration. They were still in a ball under my feet hours later when I whispered fuck this and rose to tamper with the thermostat. If they wanted to lodge petty complaints about the dim glow by which I was reading, fine, but I would roast no more.
I tune out the complaining roommates and am just dozing off again when my curtain is wrenched back by a nurse. In a moment of delusion I imagine she’ll wink and slip me a bowl of soup, but she is the IV nurse. I am disturbed and despite her greeting I take a strong disliking to her. I can’t make peace with the idea of an IV. It is not the pinch or the prick, but the sustained sight of this little invader that is at once inside and outside my body that I find upsetting. She sticks me, tapes me and walks out of the room without closing my curtain.
It’s just me and the needle and the stand with its dripping bag watching. My shelter now vanished, I am again under scrutiny. Silken PJs starts nattering on to me, but, again, the only words I understand are foreigner and cold, so I smile and look to the youngest of the three. I guess she’s about forty. She has wavy black hair and a warm face, and while her pajamas are not silk they are covered with a lively floral. As I smile at her I notice a thick tube coming out from the bottom of her shirt, and as she smiles at me my eyes follow the tube over the blanket, over the edge of the bed and into a transparent bag hooked onto the bedstead. The tube is draining a reddish pinkish yellowish fluid into this indiscreet receptacle. I shut my eyes tight. All I can think of is that mortality is an ugly thing.
I get up and lead my IV stand – like a pet – into the bathroom.
When Aaron arrives I’m looking at a sheet of paper a nurse left for me, entitled ‘Message Board’. I sense it will be a useful tool for communication and I am thus familiarising myself with the various messages I might need to convey. The sheet lists some words and phrases in both English and Japanese. I can express whatever I must with the simple flex of an index finger, as long as what I wish to say is one of the following: I want painkiller; I want nausea stopper; cold; hot; thirsty; phlegm is hard to appear; bleeding; I cannot swallow a meal; I want to do urine; I want to do mail; I want to change my clothes; I want you to watch intravenous feeding. I am charmed and relieved by the appearance of this sheet, and I am working out the possible meanings and uses for some of the phrases when Aaron says ‘Hey there,’ and I see that he’s brought a mini clip-on fan and I’m so happy to see him. I tell him I’m a mess and he looks from my IV to my twisted pajama top to my pillow-creased face. He presses the nurse button, takes the paper from my hands, and when the nurse appears, points to I want to change my clothes.
I don’t know exactly what time it is, but if they’re on schedule it must be just before two in the afternoon. I have been wheeled on a stretcher from the eighth ward, west wing, through the twisting, shiny guts of the hospital. I am looking up partly by default, given my recline, and partly because a doctor is holding a clipboard above my face, communicating to me via sheets of A4 paper with English messages printed on them. Hello. Flip. Welcome to your surgery. Flip. Are you wearing any of the king’s metals? I think hard about this one and, deciding that it must be referring to jewelry, I shake my head. Flip. Did you eat or drink (vomit is likely fall into trachea while anesthesia)? I wince and shake my head again. Flip. Please inhale oxygen from the mask. Flip. You will become sleepy soon. Calmly. Flip. You will fall asleep before you realise. Flip. When you wake up the operation is already completed. This page has an illustration of a well-rested teddy bear wearing an oxygen mask and stretching his arms above his head. The next page asks whether I have any questions, but the doctor just chuckles and puts the clipboard away.
Now she is checking my wrists. At first I’m concerned by her confused expression until I hear someone say namae wa nanidesu ka and realise that she is looking for a hospital bracelet – which I was never given – to confirm my identity. Now there is collective unrest and I say my name, but everyone is speaking very quickly, including the surgeon, whose presence I’ve just noticed. His scrubs make him look small, like a preschooler wearing an old shirt of his father’s, backwards, as a painting smock. The nurse who wheeled me here goes sprinting down the hallway and I look back at my IV while we wait.
Before long, someone is fumbling with my right hand, and when I look down I see my hospital bracelet with my surname written twice in Japanese and a large A+. Now I know my blood type.
On the move again. Although I feel quite calm, I can feel liquid streaming from the outer corners of my eyes, across my temples and into my ears. The stretcher finally stops under very bright lights. I am disoriented and squinting, the medical professionals are hovering above me, haloed, masked and gloved. One of them is dabbing at my eyes and putting cotton in my ears and sticking ECG pads all over and pulling my left arm away from me. There is an intense pain in there and then it’s all black and a second passes and suddenly I’m coughing like I’ve never coughed before. It’s the kind of cough that strains your eyeballs and burns your ears and you keep expecting something to come up but it doesn’t. I’m still coughing when I discover that I’m back in motion and I figure it’s all done, that I’ve been burned.
The coughing subsides and gives way to a thick warm sting just as Aaron comes into view. His eyes are full of water and he says ‘How are you?’ and I say ‘Copacetic,’ but no sound comes out. He laughs and walks along beside me. I look at him and point at his watch and he says ‘Half an hour,’and I marvel at the anesthetic’s thievery: thirty minutes and two tumors, gone.
It’s time for the evening meal and I am again taunted by the scent of the steam that fills the air around my bed. This time I am allowed to eat but cannot due to the searing pain in my throat. I ring the nurse and when she arrives I brandish the message board, pointing to pain and I want painkiller. They have given me pain tablets but they’re doing nothing. When it’s clear that I haven’t understood the nurse’s response to my request she runs off and returns moments later with an electronic dictionary, which she jabs a few times before passing it to me. sup•pos•i•to•ry. This angers me more than it should and I pass the dictionary back to her, shaking my head, no.
It’s dark outside now and Aaron has left. Though I enjoyed the companionship, I’m now glad for the solitude. The ladies also had visitors. Visitors who entered the room, did a double-take before pausing at the foot of my bed, staring, mouths open, confused. I wanted to spit blood at them.
So it’s just the four of us ladies. Drainbag and Slurper are carrying on quietly, and Silken PJs’ surgery has rendered her, like me, silent. She looks restful though, and I am restless. Thanks to the IV I don’t feel hungry, but I still fantasise about eating. I taste blood.
Well past lights out I feel the need to move. Silken PJs is snoring a sad wet rattle. I’m wide-awake and my fingers are twitching. I have to pee. As I manoeuver myself into standing position I feel intense resentment toward the needle in my aching hand and I come close to ripping it out. I regain composure, pick myself up and begin the journey down the hallway to the toilet. I pull my companion across the metal-strip threshold and slide the door shut behind me, and when I’m finally sitting down I look at my hand. Now in the light I can see my own blood creeping up the tube. I want it back in me. My eyes fill, and when I glance at myself in the mirror – a pathetic nest-haired heap of rumpled pajamas on a hospital toilet in the middle of the night – I begin to weep.
Days later, I wake up in the morning and don’t move. I can feel my hair quivering in the breeze from the little fan and I stare straight ahead at constellations of fluorescent light penetrating the pores of my curtain. I imagine that I will be forgotten, scratching a tally of the passing days into the wooden night stand, my nails growing long and curling in on themselves, bedsores. My pajamas are starting to feel like my skin, and my skin is starting to feel numb. I remember in this moment that I haven’t spoken since Monday afternoon.
I close my eyes and whisper the word whisper. It works. I make a short, quiet humming noise with my mouth closed. While yet tender, I’m humming. I part my lips and say ahh very quietly and am surprised at the pleasure I take in hearing my voice. I do it again louder, then louder still. After several more tries it becomes a little too close to a shout and a nurse whips back my curtain. I close my mouth and make a face that says wasn’t me. She smiles, looks at her watch and walks away.
A few moments later she is back. She says good morning, takes my blood pressure and, without warning, slides the needle out of my hand and tapes a cotton ball over the not-so-little hole. She leaves, taking the IV with her. I am elated, waving my arm around to prove its freedom to myself when the nurse returns, this time with the coveted morning meal.
By the time the surgeon comes to see me I am chipper and manage a quiet hello. The first thing he does is hold up a jar containing a clear liquid in which two small greyish pink lumps are suspended. I recognise them and this lowers my spirits considerably. ‘Your tumors.’ In fear of appearing ungrateful or rude, I resist the temptation to look away. I stare at them bobbing around in there, so far from where they started, and tell myself that at least they’re out. The surgeon is saying some things and I’m not really listening, but I am suddenly brought back when I hear the word benign. He says they still have some paperwork to finish, but that I can leave tonight.
It’s after dinner and I stand up and wander out into the common lounge. My canvas bag is packed up and I’m waiting for Aaron. I am happy to find no one there except for one pajama-clad man who has been watching the television since my arrival in the eighth ward. He doesn’t look at me and this is comforting. I wander over to the window and stand looking out at the lights of the city, the black snake that is the Yoshino River sliding along the northern reaches, and the void to the south that is Mount Bizan, a looming hole in the night.