When I was in elementary school, I remember laying in bed at night marveling at the fact that I was nearing the end of sixth grade. The inevitability of time passing was right there for me to see. I’d been through repeated cycles of school years and it dawned on me that I would repeat another six years, be off to college, then on and on into my adult life and pursuits.
I have friends a decade or two younger than me who are in their forties or have turned fifty. It’s now a common occurrence for contemporaries to be having surgeries. Two events marked my milestone of turning fifty; one was honorific, the other surgical. In the same month as my birthday I was the commencement speaker for Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon. I spoke of my trajectory as an artist, with a quarter century of experience and observations to draw from.
Then a month or so prior to turning fifty-one, I had my first and thus far only surgery; I had my gall bladder removed. The overall experience had me pondering the shape of time, as if a film had been abruptly slowed. On the day preceding surgery the hours seemed to last ninety minutes. I felt time slowed even further by the morning of my surgery. It was as if any unit of time was being forever cut in half, the principle of infinite divisibility, progressing until time seems to nearly stand still.
Once at the hospital and in prep, I became part of the hospital’s internal functioning, pulled along as if by a conveyor. I was not master of my time, but subject to it; not working, but being worked upon. Various nurses appeared at my beside, each asked me my date of birth and what I was going to have done, confirming what was on my chart and wristband. I was asked to confirm my signature on papers I’d signed weeks previously giving various permissions and acknowledging the possible negative consequences. Having gone through this battery of questions, I asked if the little colored dots I’d been staring at on the ceiling were a perception test. I learned they are indicators for electric lines and other cables.
At my bedside I met the anesthesiologist, his assistant, and a couple more nurses, who then wheeled me to the operating room. I recall arriving there and being slid onto the operating table. They warned me it would feel cool, but I found it refreshing and said so. Then they asked me to slide down a bit so my feet were flat against a vertical stop. This position was quite comforting, and that was the last thing I said before the general anesthesia took over.
I awoke to the sound of a nurse quietly saying my name. I was in a dimly lit recovery room and there was an oxygen mask over my nose and mouth, which she gently moved aside when I asked for water. She offered me a moist sponge affixed to a stick. I didn’t need to quench my thirst so much as to wet my lips and mouth.
Everything proceeded as it should; I went home, was sore for a couple days, and began to feel normal by the fourth or fifth day. Time still moved more slowly than normal, but picked up speed as I returned to my usual routines. It was those routines that set the pace.
I don’t think my childhood musing on basic concepts of existentialism extended beyond the simple linear progression of my own lifespan, to the extent I could imagine it, which surely didn’t go beyond age thirty or forty. It could not include the idea of loss. I was too young to know that my life would beautifully overlap with the lives of others, a wonderfully mysterious confluence of people I’d meet in cities I’d never heard of when I was a sixth grader. I had no way of conceiving that I would know some of them for lengths of time that were multiples of my own boyhood age. And I had no way of knowing what it would mean that sometimes these friends would suddenly be gone.
Artist David Greenberger lives in Greenwich, NY. His latest CD of monologues & music is My Thoughts Approximately. You can find it here. @davidbg