A few days before I was to have surgery, a close friend asked me to confirm the time that my operation would be starting. She would, she explained, be lighting a candle for me at that moment, and sending me her prayers and love.
I’ve always found that the most terrible moment of any surgery is that short, frightening journey as one is wheeled down corridors into the operating room. The unutterable sense of loneliness cannot be described to anyone who has not had this experience. I liken it to the final journey of death. Friends and family in the pre-op room have hugged and kissed one goodbye, and then one is completely alone, facing an unknown. No matter how simple the surgery, everyone experiences that nagging dread that they might not awaken from the anesthetic. Everyone wonders if hands, feet, arms, legs, fingers, toes, will all function afterwards, or be forever paralyzed. Everyone is aware that sometimes, in surgery, things go wrong.
Only once, as I was being taken to surgery, did the orderly pushing the gurney seek to lighten my sense of trepidation. Had I ever had surgery before, she asked, and when I answered in the affirmative, she patted my shoulder and said, “But it’s always a little scary, isn’t it?” There are no words to describe how comforting I found her empathetic remark.
Being wheeled to this most recent surgery, I received no such comforting question or concern. I was taken a short distance to the operating room and helped onto the table. In a surgery just two months prior, a nurse had introduced me quickly to everyone in the operating room, giving me their first names and their function in the surgery, leaving me to wonder fearfully if there would be a quiz afterwards! This time, however, there was only the quick press of the oxygen mask over my face and the staccato instructions of the anesthesiologist to, “Breathe! Breathe deeply!” (Of course, since I am horribly claustrophobic, just having the darned mask pressed onto my face made me do nothing but instinctively hold my breath in complete terror, followed by the rapid-fire, quick, short breaths of a full-blown panic attack. Perhaps this is a reaction for which anesthesiologists should be schooled in their method of approach.)
But, despite my claustrophobia, my lonely distress and anxiety, the image of my friend’s candle, burning brightly for me, shone in my consciousness. I found myself focusing on it during that brief journey to the operating room. The image calmed me, reassuring me that I was not truly alone; that the prayers and concern of others were surrounding me. A memory swam up into my consciousness, a poem I had written years earlier, and I found myself reciting the lines like a mantra as I was carried into the coma-like sleep of anesthesia:
Just a light left burning for me
in my window of darkest pain;
just safe harbor, refuge, retreat
sheltered sanctuary from rain.
Just a kind hand, steadying me
when I stumble a rocky path;
just a heart’s strong, balancing beat
when I settle my face at last
to the shoulder, stable and sure
of a long-cherished friend who shares
light embrace, encircling me
in the knowledge that one soul cares.
Weeks afterwards, my friend told me that the candle she lit had burned throughout my three-hour operation (which had, of course, begun later than actually scheduled). Despite guttering a few times, the candle had continued burning until a call from the phone tree assured her that I was out of surgery and doing well.
But, in my mind, that candle is still burning, guiding me through the darkness, lighting my path with the beacon of caring and friendship.