Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “After 60 years the stern sentence of the burial service seems to have a meaning that one did not notice in former years. There begins to be something personal about it.” While John Oxenham wrote: “For death begins with life’s first breath; and life begins at touch of death.”
A Retrospect in Death is a story about discovery. You think you know yourself? Perhaps you only think you do. Do those closest to us know us better than we know ourselves; or do they, as we often insist, know jack? Consider that only in death can you really know, and understand, who and why you are—or were. And then ask yourself: At that point, is it too late? Does it even matter?
Darker than any of J. Conrad Guest’s previous novels, while also more humorous, it portends not only a search for the meaning of life, but also seeks to determine why we are as we are: prewired at conception, or the product of our environment?
My room was in Art Centre Hospital, on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.
The race riots were in full bloom in 1967, and from my first floor room I watched armed National Guard troops drive past my window in jeeps.
Mom left – Dad had stayed home – just before Ed Sullivan came on, telling me, “Good night, honey. I’ll be back in the morning, before you go into surgery. Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.” She sounded somewhat worried herself, although I wasn’t. This was my first night away from home; it was an adventure.
A short time later, a male intern came in with a chrome bowl and a straight razor to tell me it was time for my shave.
“I’m eleven,” I said. “I don’t shave.”
He grinned and told me to raise my hospital gown.
With that, he proceeded to lather up my balls with soap, and then shave them.
I was on edge, listening to the rasp of the blade against my balls. Rodney Dangerfield was doing a stand-up act on the TV. He told a joke about being held up by a mugger with a knife. “I could tell it wasn’t a professional job,” he said. “There was butter on it.” I heard the intern chuckle, which left me feeling even testier over my predicament.
The intern left; a few minutes later, a nurse came in, a plump black woman.
“Time for your enema,” she said.
“What’s an enema?”
“I put this,” she told me, holding up a plastic nozzle attached to a hose that was in turn attached to a bag of what appeared to be soapy water, “into your backside and release the contents of this bag into your colon.”
My eyes got the size of silver dollars, prompting the intern to laugh. I watched her immense breasts shake from the ferocity of her laughter, its pitch that of a baritone.
“Don’t worry. It’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s to clean out your colon before surgery. Now roll over onto your side.
I did as I was told; a moment later, feeling violated, I felt the nozzle inserted into my rectum. The flood of the water felt warm as my colon expanded to accommodate it.
“Almost there,” the nurse said. I felt as if my colon were about to explode.
A moment later, she withdrew the nozzle, and then told me to head to the bathroom to release the water. Like I needed to be told.
I raced to the bathroom and sat just in the nick of time, releasing the water, and everything that accompanied it, into the porcelain bowl.
I sat there for about fifteen minutes as my bowels emptied in sequential movements – like the orchestra to which my parents had taken me and Francine to see over the summer: long classical pieces played in what our program called “movements.” Every time I thought the musicians were done playing, they launched into yet another movement. Now, each time I felt I was done, I’d lean forward to wipe my backside only to feel yet another movement.
When I finally crawled back into my bed, I wondered what new dread might await me next in this little shop of horrors.
My surgery was scheduled for Monday morning, and a nurse came in first thing to give me a shot of something, which left me feeling groggy.
A short time later, my bed was wheeled out of my room and toward the operating room. My mother walked alongside me, with her hand on top of mine.
At the door to the operating room, my mother again reassured me that everything was going to be all right. At eleven, I had no clue as to the dangers of surgery. I was about to be cut open and couldn’t wait to tell my buddies of the ordeal, sans the shave and the enema parts. Like a soldier wounded in a war, I intended to bear my scar proudly.
I was wheeled under the brightest lights I’d ever seen, and a mask was put over my face; a voice told me to count backward from one hundred. I got to ninety-seven and…
J. Conrad Guest is the author of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, available from Second Wind Publishing. Backstop was nominated as a Michigan Notable Book in 2010, and was adopted by the Illinois Institute of Technology as required reading for their spring 2011 course, “Baseball: America’s Literary Pastime.” He is also the author of One Hot January and January’s Thaw, both available from Second Wind.
J. Conrad appears on Facebook, Twitter, his website, and on his author page at Second Wind Publishing.