The Art of Dying
In July of 1958, while visiting my friend Åke and his family in Stockholm, I broke my right arm.
A covey of pre-teen boys, me included, were machoing (swinging) across a narrow and shallow crevice on a rope tied to a branch high above and spanning the crevice — hanging down from it for us to grab as we leaped. It was a thick rope, sturdy and dry and hard — if not impossible — to miss, unless you meant to. We’d make a running start, leap, grab the rope, swing forward, swing back to gain momentum and gather our wits, then forward again to then let got timed to land, safe and sound, on the far side of the baby-chasm.
So, no problem in other words, easy as pie; only when I ran, jumped, grabbed the rope, swung first out and then back and then out again for the far side of this crevice and then let go, instead of smoothly landing I toppled and moved to stop my fall with my now outstretched (and all-too straight and rigid) right arm, and as fate would have it, and freakily, one of the bones in my elbow just snapped from the precision straightness. I knew right away that something was wrong, but not sure exactly what until I looked down at my freaked-out arm and could see one end of a bone poking the skin (just above the inside of my elbow) from below.
Big to-do, naturally. It didn’t hurt inordinately, mustn’t have (was I in shock?), for I made it home to Åke’s eighth-floor apartment (I remember the elevator ride) under my own steam (accompanied by my friend, naturally) and from there, once his dad took a quick look at me and my useless arm, all the way to the hospital quite with it, still. No, looking back, I don’t remember pain, or much of it anyway.
July is the holiday month in Sweden an in 1958 most people took this tradition very seriously — religiously almost — so the emergency room (which I remember being unusually cold) was virtually empty. I was probably the only casualty they had to deal with, so dealt with I was, at good speed.
X-rays soon confirmed the break (as if you couldn’t tell by looking — but I guess they needed the gory details to set it properly) and then it was me upon a bed of sorts (I don’t think it was an operating table, not that I recall) and a white mask placed over my nose and mouth and then the instructions to count backward from one hundred to one. Fine, I probably nodded or said, “Yes.”
Then fell the first drop.
“One hundred, ninety-nine.”
And then the second drop.
And the third.
And the fourth, or fifth or…
Next thing I know, I am re-entering our solar system from I have no idea precisely where, on my way back to planet Earth. Yes, this is a very clear memory, I am mid-space somewhere, returning, returning, and then I returned and opened my eyes, very disoriented, no idea at all.
Then the mask again.
Drip, drip, drip.
I found out later that they had actually run out of ether during this procedure and that I had woken up while someone was sent to find some more. I was soon put under again and they completed the setting and plaster-casting of my arm.
From just below my right shoulder all the way to my wrist, my right arm was now a big, white, right angle of soon to hurt and then to hurt some more and then to itch, and itch, and itch, and itch until four or so weeks later when I went into our local hospital and had the cast removed.
Sans cast, my arm actually fell down straight — my muscles had atrophied to the point of me not having the strength to bend the arm. So, on to physical therapy, but that’s another story.
My right arm was not set completely right, though; I could never completely straighten it and I can still (sixty years later) touch a particular spot inside my right elbow and send uncomfortable tingles through my arm. Never was quite right, but at this stage, pushing seventy, who really cares?
About nine months later, spring of 1959, I’m diagnosed with hernia and need an operation to close it up, apparently. This is scheduled and a couple of weeks later I’m shipped off to hospital for preps and procedure.
Two to a room here, and I’m sharing mine with some guy who is not looking forward to a spinal anesthesia, which he’s heard hurts very, very much. “I’m not going to have that, am I?” I ask the nurse. “Oh, no, you’ll have the normal ether anesthesia. We’ll put you under for this.”
Oh, good, is my reaction and answer.
So, they make very sure I empty my bowels and that I don’t eat and drink for a day or so, and then they wheel me off into the operating room, and then they put the white mask over my mouth and nose and then they tell me to count backwards from one hundred and then the first drop falls and then all hell breaks loose.
I actually have no clear recollection of my thoughts at this point, but now I’m fighting for my life. I am, on some primal level utterly convinced that I am going to die. This smell means to kill me. Looking back at my reaction, I can see it no other way.
Some base level of awareness saw the previous ether anesthesia for my arm as a death of sorts — I mean, what was I doing outside our solar system anyway? And now, here was that smell again, that killing smell that if I wanted to go on living I would have to not breathe in and fight my way clear of. At any cost. I was the embodiment of panic, clawing and clinging to survival — for dear life (literally), as the saying goes.
I was eleven at the time and not particularly strong; still apparently quite a match for four grownups: two nurses, the anesthesiologist and the doctor — who I bit quite severely, I am later informed.
Yes, of course they managed to wrestle me down, hold my head still and drip, drip, drip me under, and next I know I wake up, with a very dry mouth, in my hospital bed. I think Mom was there to welcome me back. And I think she told me I had put up quite a fight — more details to follow (and did) as the days and weeks went by.
It took a few weeks for the incision to heal and then they removed the little clamps they had used rather than stitches, and then I was pretty much back to normal and very much alive.
Now and then over the years since, Mom, while she was alive, would bring up my fight with the doctor again, perhaps marveling still at so much strength and violence in such a small body at the time.
Often enough to set me pondering: what on earth had happened back then, what had brought this insane, panic-driven, biting monster out of that normally quite placid and nice little boy, and the answer eventually rose to the surface: I was fighting for my life. They were going to kill me.
I haven’t smelled ether since. I’d know if I had. I can, however, smell it with my mind’s nose, that warm, thick, sweet odor of decay and death.
I wonder how I would react should I smell it again today, with no doctor nearby to bite.