East River Ebb Tide Existential Blues

A wing of the building we are in is suspended over the East River Drive. It is known well beyond the confines of New York City as HSS, the Hospital for Special Surgery. What is not well known is that the East River is not a river, but rather a tidal estuary connecting Long Island Sound with New York’s harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.

         We had arrived at 5:15 AM, a good hour and a half before sunrise in late October. By 5:30, the basic check-in process complete, the registration clerk directs us to a nicely-appointed seventh floor atrium that serves primarily as a waiting room for those accompanying patients. I am given a stick-on tag with my wife’s name and told to wear it in the hospital. I am also handed a card listing the stages — prep, pre-op, surgery, recovery — of the normal procedure. The number on the card, 170911, has been assigned to my wife. A minute or two after taking a seat, a nurse calls my wife’s name and we are escorted from the atrium down a hall and into the pre-op room with several curtained off beds. Of the five beds, our cubbyhole is the only one with a window overlooking the East River, but it is still dark.

         My wife is here to have her arthritic right hip replaced with a new joint, a procedure that involves driving a titanium rod into her femur. We wait for the prep team to arrive, and I help my wife change into the traditional open-to-the-world back cavity “modesty” gown. We chat about things. Our wait is both awkward and frustrating. I turn to see whatever the view might offer.

         Random lights shine from black walls on Roosevelt Island. People are getting ready for work, or coming home, or perhaps feeding children. Gazing down into near blackness, I distinguish ripples reflecting from the swirling tide and sense the water in the East River moving south. I have spent years in proximity to the ocean, bays and inlets, and know the swirling water is not a gently flowing ebb tide, but rather an immense gushing faucet. Draining from Long Island Sound, the outgoing tide squeezes between Manhattan and the western shore of Long Island (Queens and Brooklyn), and on past the bottom of this city until released to the ocean. Of the eight million people confined within the concrete streets and towering buildings on either side, this rushing water cares for none.

         A tall, slender, somewhat older man pulls back the curtain and introduces himself as the anesthesiologist. He explains what he will be doing during the operation. His well-practiced demeaner is both casual and professional.

         He excuses himself and a nurse sterilizes the area on my wife’s hip where the incision will be made. The surgeon appears wearing a light weight down vest over his street clothes. The nurse finishes the prep then backs away to allow the doctor to step in. 

         Pulling a marker from his pocket, he reaches over my wife’s body, draws a series of parallel purple lines on either side of the target area, then departs as suddenly as he appeared. Not much said, business as usual.

         We are alone again. The Roosevelt Island buildings are now surrounded by a blood orange backdrop. Dawn, a nice day. The East River streams south as a barge struggles north against the tide.

         My wife insists I leave. There is no point waiting around. “I’ll be fine, go get some breakfast.”

         “Okay. I love you.”

         “I love you too.”

         I leave, but not before squeezing her hand, and swallowing hard.

         Two blocks from the hospital I pass a fruit vendor helping a customer select some apples. My phone beeps a message: “The patient has been moved to the operating room. (Do not respond to this message)”.

         At a diner on 73rd Street and Third Avenue, I order breakfast mindful that my personal collection of cells requires fuel to continue.

         Opening a newspaper, I turn the pages pretending to read. The headlines, stories, and pictures have no meaning — random collection of marks on paper. The sun shines directly up the cross street. People walk past the diner window, some fast, some slow, many with earphones, and a few absorbed in invisible phone conversations. I choose to watch the occasional dog. Always sniffing, urinating, defecating, living moment to moment as only these small gods of joy and compassion know how.

         Four blocks away my wife has been sedated. She is unconscious. Professional men and women are performing an operation, practicing medicine, earning a living. The East River, an artery of the ocean, flows past the hospital.

         Two hours later I am once more seated in the guest atrium looking up across the room at an electronic board that tracks the status of each patient through the surgical procedure. The board is consistent with the color-coded card I was given hours before. There are at least twenty numbers in the various colors digitally hopping from one spot to another like on an airport arrival/departure monitor. I search the board for 170911. I think I locate the number, but it jumps to another location before I can be sure. Then I find it again and see its color is yellow: “Recovery”. But I knew this. Two blocks from the hospital my phone had beeped me the message, “Patient moved to recovery. (Do not respond to this message).”

         Recovery visiting hours are staggered at two hours intervals. I am a half hour early. The sun is high. The day is bright, visibility unlimited, probably a northwest wind. When I look out the atrium windows, I see planes on approach to LaGuardia Airport. I glance down at the river and watch a tug and tour boat pass in opposite directions.

         At noon, I am escorted into the recovery room area along with seven other visitors. But first we are asked to use a wall dispenser in the hall to sanitize our hands.

         My wife is in cubicle 41. Hanging from hooks suspended over her bed are several wires and tubes all connected to one place or another on her body. She manages a slight smile, and a weak greeting. When I ask her how she is doing, she nods and offers a weak “OK.” But it is clear to me she is in a place somewhere between nowhere and here.

         A nurse opens the curtain and askes my wife if she can wiggle her toes. Barely, but this is good progress according to the nurse. I am allowed to stay for only a few minutes, and then it is back to the atrium. Later, in her semi-private overnight 10th floor room, my wife cannot recall even a moment of my recovery room visit.

         The next day she is looking much better, and has already had one physical therapy walking session. I am given a list of prescriptions to pick up at a nearby pharmacy and told that it is likely my wife will be discharged in the afternoon after one more go-round with the physical therapist.

         At 3:00PM I am directed by an attendant to pull our car into the curb closest to the hospital doors where I am one of four or five picking up discharged patients. After ten minutes, I see my wife being wheeled out. Two aides carefully assist her into the car.

         It is a long drive to where we live at the end of Long Island, but we choose to get it over with.

         There is always traffic on the East River Drive, but somehow we manage to reach the Triborough without much delay. For a few minutes we are once more suspended over the East River. Beneath us the water now flows north on a flood tide. Behind us the sun sinks behind Manhattan’s skyline. To our left traffic passes us headed into the city. People are going home, or to work, or perhaps to a hospital. We are outbound, headed home. For now.