One year ago, my appendix ruptured in India. It cried out for a week prior to the Emergency Room, and mended over nine months until the bureaucracy mandated surgery. Introducing itself as a rogue, my appendix came to signify a quiet philosopher, showing me how change can come swiftly and with a punch. I saw that identity and experience rely on the body, and that its losses, however deep-reaching, reveal what cannot be touched.
Prior to a 24 hour agony in Chennai, bed-ridden and sweating cold, I had been delighting in the riches of India – learning to drive a motorcycle, climbing the sacred mountain Arunachala, and trading riddles in star-light with venerable mamas and their children. I was at a wellspring of experience and didn’t realize how deep the waters were soon to run.
Did I scale Arunachala in irreverent haste? As I flew by mellow climbers I thought, ‘surely the gods can appreciate an athletically motivated pilgrim.’ At the peak all I saw was mist. Two naked ushers insisted I remove my shoes as I objected in misunderstanding: ‘I need them to reach the summit.’ I clambered barefoot to the windy crown, placed my palms on the rock, and began my descent.
The ushers brought me to a cave within which an ascetic sat in the dark. He beckoned me next to him and touched my forehead. Into a clay bowl, the fire hissing at his feet, the man poured a ladle of steaming milk. Served up in the recesses of the holy mountain, this hazard was too archetypal to decline. Neither the cooking fire nor the sanctuary meant safety, but I decided the potential illness would pass, while partaking in this ceremony was a lasting fulfilment. Whether or not the milk led to my appendicitis, I can’t conclude – doctors said the causes are unknown – but the ensuing journey reflected both the risk and the mythical drink I took.
Days later, I began to experience diarrhea and abdominal pain. Next was constipation. The aches in the gut sharpened over a ten hour train ride to Chennai. I arrived at dark in what was the most frenetic city I had ever seen. By the time I was in bed, my stomach felt squeezed by an orangutan. I coped for hours and finally crawled out of bed to wake up my father. We phoned a doctor who suggested I had Beaver Fever, so I endured the night hoping tomorrow would bring reprieve with antibiotics.
The cramps continued the next day and I wondered whether my ailment was merely extreme constipation. By noon I was in bed again. This time the pain was so intense that it must have been busting out new synapses in my brain. How could pain so fiercely demand attention with no conceivable solution? I rolled out of bed and phoned reception. The bell-boy at my door understood no English, and when I gestured to convey ‘laxative,’ he had only a smile to offer. I lay back down and wondered whether my intestines would endure the ape-grip. ‘Alright – got to act,’ I finally rasped. My flight back to Canada was only hours away. I reached the phone again and Raju, our driver, rushed me to a clinic. At the hospital doorway I vomited on the street.
Despite the apparent quality of the clinic, I had to ask about the needles. I was then at ease to enjoy the care of these Indian healers. I lay in bed, the ambience waxing heavenly, nurses floating around me without angel wings, just gentle hands and faces. The doctor administered a suppository, a shock to be appreciated for its novelty. I visited the washroom, co-visited by an overly attentive nurse, who handed me a bucket and a bar of soap. My father was bound for the airport and I surrendered with some excitement to a solitary adventure in Chennai.
I awoke in bed to see an apparition of love. Our dear friend Chitra had driven six hours to see me. We needed to ascertain at a more developed hospital whether I could safely fly. I was diagnosed with gastroenteritis, whisked to the airport, and flown to Frankfurt. My father stayed in Germany for business and I laid over en route to Edmonton. I arrived soundly, though bent double.
My bed sentence in Edmonton was grueling and psychedelic. As instructed, I rested to recover from ‘gastroenteritis.’ I lost track of day and night. Feverish dreams implored me to deliver a parcel, or save some lost child. I would wake reminding myself I was no longer in India and sleep was all I had to do, but for days my intestines wrenched. Finally I went to the hospital, the delivery my night-visions may have been demanding.
This saved my life, as the beast in my belly turned out to be my appendix, contained by an abscess, but still breeding infection. The inflammation ruled out access through the abdomen, so the drain would have to reach the abscess rectally. Viewing each medical procedure as a sensation rather than an offense, I was able to appreciate needles and tubes as connective rather than invasive. This attitude held true despite the probe that installed a drain in my intestine. When the doctor told me to lie on my side and bend my legs, I thought, ‘this is going to be an unusual experience and I won’t miss it for cringing.’
Unconcerned with pain and discomfort, I enjoyed a week at the hospital like it was a spa vacation. I had a view of a tower that hurled steam into the sky and, sitting in my bed with nothing to do, I finished reading The Lord of the Rings. I waddled to the TV room and discovered the thrill of Olympic hockey, or walked the grand architecture of the University of Alberta hospital, my drain dangling by my knee. Bed time was early and at five AM I would give my arm to a nurse who replaced my intravenous line. The doctors arrived at seven and throughout the day I got check-ups, blood tests, and heparin shots. These reminders that ‘I am not my body’ were the treatments of the spa, the essence being care and intimacy. A peace flowed in me like the pillowy steam filling the sky, the peace I never had forgotten while the pain raged.
I had two neighbours in the hospital room. One was a wizened sir nearly discharged. The other was on a narrow stretcher, curtained between the elder and me. One day I heard this man’s sorry prognosis. When he relayed it to his wife on the phone, I could hear her sobbing, and his words to her were beautiful: ‘this is what our vows are for. We’re going to get through this together.’ He sounded more like a consoling father than this young PhD student with a future of debilitation, drugs, and a list of side-effects that sounded like satire. His integrity affirmed the joy that true well-being is unconditional. The warmth of that truth mattered more than my health, for which I was newly grateful.
But in the hospital loft, as in India, only the present was sure. I sat in bed with a tube hanging from my back side, and tubes for arms and legs. I overlooked the city from a crow’s nest far from the mainland of my life. My hair had been shaved as a Mohawk for a costume party. With raccoon eyes, I saw a derelict figure in the mirror, thin and hooked to an IV pole. More of a man in less of body, I was happy with my gains, which were knowledge of how I handle adversity and a relaxed regard for change. I used to ask myself how it would be if I were ever reduced to skin and bones, and my answer was: continue doing push-ups, working, and growing. No looking back. I was now living my own hypothesis and excited to carry it through.
My previous medical emergency in 2001 was less an opportunity to consciously grow. An arteriovenous malformation (AVM) ruptured in my brain, calling for a nine hour surgery and weeks at The Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital. I still marvel that my skull opened, my brain exposed to the light; yet my recovery was one less of comprehension and more a compulsion to live. I remember asking the doctors, ‘will I ever get my muscles back? When will I go back to school?’ My physiotherapist played ‘a game’ in which I had to keep my balance while she gently pushed me over. I ached to collapse onto the bed, but my father lay there, smiling as he warded me back onto my feet – the only way forward.
Besides some loss of eyesight, I recovered fully. Reflecting on that experience, I consider the lack of decision-making: what did I actually learn? By contrast, my appendix allowed me to understand the trauma and the healing process. Rather than pressing on by instinct alone, I was present in each detail of sensation and decision. And though wiser, I still asked myself the same questions at 25 that I did when I was twelve: ‘will I get my muscles back? Will I ever be the same again?’ I’ve known my whole life that it doesn’t matter either way.
I had lost ten pounds, having eaten almost nothing for a week. According to my friends, my skin was ‘greyish green,’ which I failed to notice as I savoured the sky, the wide streets, the melting snow. But no enthusiasm could contend with the abdominal damage. I remember taking the stairs at a run and slowing to weary steps. I felt like a wisp, yet content drifting along. Old avenues of expression went quiet. I hadn’t realized until then how faculties of my personality were functions of energy in my body. I became a simpler person when that energy faded, when inside a candle blew out. I could see and hear more around me, the kindness in people, delicate and beautiful things calling no attention to themselves. My appendix was giving wisdom by example: silence, even small deaths, can open worlds.
When a false alarm brought me to the cusp of surgery, I realized how much I valued my appendix. It had healed ingeniously only to be discarded. The doctors say the appendix does nothing, but perhaps this is its value. I picture the antenna of the abdomen, reading subtleties overlooked by the major organs. Plato says ‘there are three classes of men; lovers of wisdom, lovers of honor, and lovers of gain.’ The appendix would quietly be the foremost, a philosopher available for the transcendental.
However accurate that interpretation may be, a drama had flared in the intestines, where some innate wisdom held off disaster. According to the CT scan, my appendix had healed and to me its residual intelligence was precious. My appendix had been with me all my life, experienced chaos and held strong, was peaceful when the lights inside were out and, in the end, departed. As this evolution played out in one part, I grasped how natural it is to the whole of me. I did go on, working, doing push-ups, gathering all available insight, knowing that any moment it can all disappear – or maybe not all.