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My Night Without Armour

Carly-Jay Metcalfe

           May-August 1998

I was in the dying room. You know the one. It's quiet. People slip in and out as though they were never even there, and as though you're not dying at all. Festering in a bed for three months, I had grown tired. My arms were like soft baguettes, splintered with freckles for seeds. Lips a permanent shade of blue. Colourless fingers and toes -- lily matchsticks without the red tips. My hair had been falling out and I had forgotten how to use my legs. Twenty-one not out. For every year, I had lived four, so I was a pale vintage just short of eighty-five.

           Sick of white sheets. Sick of fluorescent lights. Sick of ward vagrants hobbling into my room, bottles full of piss, asking for my help, their gowns askew showing flat and wrinkly bums and saggy, hairless balls. Sick of drowning.

           Friday 21 August 1998. Eight pm.

Watched Burke's Backyard and said goodbye to my family for the night. Said hello to a morphine bolus. Like a little death itself, those two greetings. Interweave me, you two thick threads -- one flame licking at the other in need of a partner. Show me mercy.

           Saturday 22 August. Midnight, or just after.

In rushes Daisy, my midnight oriental muse who injects drugs into my chest to give me another day's grace so that one life could be taken and given to another.

           Tonight it was my turn. Eight months and twenty-two days I had waited for my beeper to beep. But instead of the velveteen hustle of the beeper, it was a phone call -- shrill and cutting. Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck. Hang up the phone and nurses amble in, tears a ruse before I'm carried into the toilet where I cough and piss blood for the last time.

           My possessions gathered up -- my Auden and Heaney, my copper bookmark and a sputum cup -- the room looking like I had never been there. Flowers on my bedside table held me to ransom, the colours having taken on a death hue. I winched my wasted legs into jeans -- my flat bum loathe to filling the denim mould. Found a shirt that masked my bony barrelled chest, breasts shrivelled long ago, but ready to be full again, while Daisy wedged my blue feet into my stinking blue sneakers and succoured me with a jab of morphine.

           The ambulance sat in one of the emergency bays like a glorified hearse waiting to transport the living dead. But what of the person whose lungs were going to be settled in my body tonight? Were they from a man or a woman? What happened? Was it a car crash? Was it a brain bleed? How old? What of their family? If it was a woman, was I going to end up with a lesbian oedipal complex? One woman dies for another. I didn't want to disappoint. I know responsibilities and sensibilities will weigh on my swollen head, soon to be fat from steroids, face like a puffer fish. Who would she want me to be?

           I didn't know. My knowledge of what was dissipated with each breath. What I did know was that there were going to be chains pulling my ribs apart. Pulling my ribs apart so my sternum could break. Breaking my sternum so the surgeons could push past muscle, sinew, bone, veins and innards to get to my lungs. Blackened masses like giant mussels having been sitting in stagnant water, the lips covered in downy fur, shell white and slimy but hard underneath where no knife could pierce. My empty treasure chest. The surgeons would be cutting through a dense back wood to find a decomposing body. They were going to take the body away that was poisoning the forest. Make the forest clean again.

           Wet roads that night that made me think of accidents. You learn to live lighter when you've been dying for nearly nine months and friend after friend has breathed their last waiting for their second chance. Joking about public holidays and the road toll was a primitive form of optimism. Easter was a pensive time. Then we're told that hearts and lungs are squashed on impact. Disgust with equal parts remorse.

           The night my lungs bled where I coughed up half a litre of blood, my father said that he'd find a triathelete and hire a hit man. Is it selfish waiting for someone to die so that I can stop existing and begin to live? Paradox indeed.

           I sit up in the ambulance and spit up what looks like a brown slug, peppered with red specks. My lungs were ready to come out. Flooded with brown molasses fatter than any leech, my chest and throat rattled like a bag of marbles as I saw the city, gleaming with nauseatingly bright lights, the droplets cloaking buildings in crystalline veils of water.

           One-thirty a.m.

My red and white hearse clogged two emergency bays, and I saw the rain had stopped, giving way to my constellation Orion. I looked up, studying the sky, the moon still veiled with patches of cloud. Winds fat with caution slapped my cheeks like pieces of tin, vague in their bearing. Squalls skirling down from the ranges had my eyes feeling like dried labia's flailing in the wind, sprinting off lands edge. The thumping blades of a chopper encroached on the group gathered in my company, silently wondering whether my lungs were in an esky.

           I was hankering for food. Hadn't eaten a meal in six months, but I was hungry.

           Friends stood by the kerb. Drunk boys and grieving girls. Grieving for what was, what may be, what may not come to pass.

           Father chaining. Sister crying. Nuns praying. Mother's hands wringing. Friend's brows twitching. Logged with each other, spine against spine.

           Up to the ward to an onslaught of questions and a nurse who was Maggie Kirkpatrick's twin from Prisoner. Told us to be quiet -- "other patients sleeping" -- made us feel like school kids until Chelse told her to "get fucked. She's only having a fucking transplant." Then the doctor, hair and glasses askew, excited, but telling me "it's not going to be easy." The heck I cared. Just cut me open and do your dirty work.

           Eight-thirty am.

Thick knots of shit slunk down my middle. Dead skunks, their tails unmoving and in soft peaks. Slow, thick cramps clung to my bowel, drawing on my ovaries. A bowel collapse would make me feel less of a stranger where rough hands kneading my gut could be warranted. Instead, I was in the bowels of the hospital and visions of dancing and having sex without a tank of oxygen infused final thoughts.

           Then death throes of my-god-what-if-I-die-on-the- table.

           The sun had risen from the shadows of rain. Someone put a cloth cap on my head and I was wheeled away from the congregation of thirty odd. The subliminal shipment of Valium had vacated my gut, and I looked up to see the congregation of thirty odd in animated lamentation -- the thirty odd I might never see again. What of my mother, my father, my sister? What would I do? I'd be dead. Shame it be that way.

           Screams like my chest was on fire echoed through the hall and I didn't know or care where the breath was coming from to fuel my sobbing.

           With lights as big as satellite dishes, the theatre was peppered with people in masks and gowns like a below par masquerade ball. After some good talk, the collective theatre voice bid me good night.

           "Save me," I retorted.

           I surrendered myself to the milk in the syringe. A perfect death -- lily white, liquid purity where the anaesthetic was such a flooding wave of orgasmic purity, it was almost agony.

           My armour was cut open so hands and instruments could busy and bury themselves in my torso. My breasts had been ripped over my head, so I was literally off my tits for just short of five hours, breast tissue looking not dissimilar to a brain -- the texture finer, patterns more intricate. While scalpels excavated masses of scar tissue and bloody holes were packed with gauze, I slept. Looking like shrivelled bats after having hung from a power line for a week, my lungs were dumped into a plastic bucket, while surgeons eased in the donor lungs, wired them into my chest, whereupon they were inflated. Like plump Atlantic salmon steaks.

           My chest was candle wicked -- sewn up with silken loops only to be crudely de-threaded at the flick of a scalpel and the pull of a string, for my lungs were sweating with blood and needed to be plumbed. After an hour, the clam shaped hole resembled a scar and my armour was back on.

           Sunday 23 August 1998. Nine-thirty a.m.

I opened my eyes to tubes and lines down my throat, up my nose, in my chest, up my vagina and in my neck. I was on a ventilator, my chest was raw and puckered, and four tubes the size of garden hoses stuck out of my chest at even angles.

           I was going to lose my breath, I was going to lose my dignity and I was going to lose my cheekbones, but I was coming away with my life, armour on, sheltering my fall.

About the Author (click here) © 2003 Carly-Jay Metcalfe, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

This essay was first published at dotlit: The Online Journal of Creative Writing

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