BY: VALERIE GILBERT
Tap dance with Valerie on her raucous journey up steep inclines and down sudden drops with pedophiles, weird witches, day court, night nurses and plain old crazy New Yorkers at her side. Her insight and silliness will tickle your funny bone while lightening your load with irreverent and magical perspectives on the sad, the wonderful, and the inexplicable.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Swami Soup by Valerie Gilbert, the journey continues with new episode from Gilbert’s fascinating life. I loved the book. It was sad, funny, and thought-provoking all at once. Like her first two books, Raving Violet and Memories, Dreams, & Deflections, Swami Soup is a collection of essays about events in Gilbert’s life and her thoughts and reflections on these events. We run the gamut the hilarious to the heartbreaking. Gilbert tells all in her sassy, intrepid, New Yorker style.
I loved the one about the naked guy who doesn’t understand why she didn’t react. And then there’s the one about…Well, you’ll just have to read the book.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: It’s hard to know what to say about Valerie Gilbert’s new Swami Soup, except “Yeah!” I didn’t stop laughing from page one to the end. She has a way of describing things that happen in her life in a way that makes you go “Hmmm…” I thoroughly enjoyed her first two books, and this one did not disappoint.
Swami Soup is a riot. Gilbert’s honest, insightful, and self-depreciating appraisal of events in her life help to put many things in perspective. At least for me. I find that when my world has gone to s**t and I am miserable and depressed, I can pick up one of Gilbert’s books and pull myself out of the dumps.
Revelations Part One: Reveal
I’ve been a somewhat squeamish person since youth. While practicing piano as an adolescent, I sometimes wore gloves because the veins popping out on top of my hands grossed me out. While in deep depression as a young adult after my mother’s death, I managed to deeply cut my thumb while washing a glass that broke in my hand. I only realized the severity of the cut when thick, goopy stuff started pulsing out of the wound, which looked like nothing so much as blackberry jam. After dialing a friend in medical school (the closest thing I had to a doctor since I had no health insurance) I fell to my hands and knees and enacted my death scene while attempting to speak. I choked back sobs and gasped for air until my friend picked up. “It’s Valerie!” (sharp intake of breath, pause for sobs). “I cut myself!” (I’m guessing now her first thoughts were of self-harm, perhaps attempted suicide?)
“What happened?” my friend pressed with deep alarm.
“I cut my thumb and there’s stuff coming out of me–it looks like–it looks like–JAM! Waaaahhhh!”
My friend explained that the “blackberry jam” was something called clotted blood (yes, I’d heard of it, but clearly I’d never seen it) and that it was a good thing. “Your body is trying to prevent you from bleeding to death.” I was instructed to buy butterfly Band-Aids to hold the cut together. I couldn’t find any locally. Once I determined I wasn’t dying, I jerry-rigged a tourniquet on my thumb and went out for dinner with another friend at an upscale southwestern restaurant. I was trying to act normal as I relaxed into my dinner, but my friend said the neighboring restaurant patrons were none too amused by the bloody white gauze engulfing my right hand. Sort of like a patron sitting there with a bloody head wound as she drank her margarita.
Walking home from the restaurant, I swung by my medical school friend’s dorm just to say hi, since it was on the way home. She and her beau took one appalled look at my wound and escorted me quickly to their teaching college’s E.R., eliciting more fear and trauma on my part. I thought the jam debacle was behind me, that there was no problem that three Band-Aids and a week couldn’t take care of. My friends waited with me an hour. The admitting desk attendant asked me hideous questions regarding where I was from and who my parents were. Since they were both dead, and I was born at this very hospital, the interrogation inflamed my already frayed nerves. I was in a dentist’s chair without Novacaine.
As soon as my friends left, I accosted the lady at the front desk. “How much is this going to cost? How many stitches do you think I need? How do you charge, by the stitch?”
Needless to say, I got a “look,” but did not get an answer. I sat back down to learn my lines for Alice in Wonderland, the Andre Gregory Manhattan Project version at the Sanford Meisner Theater on Twenty-Second and Tenth in Chelsea. I was playing the Cheshire Cat and the Red and White Queens.
Since the bleeding had stopped and I wasn’t in any pain, I walked out. A large, redheaded male nurse I had touched base with earlier ran after me and threatened loudly. “Listen to me, young lady, you get back here, you are next in line! You had your hand in filthy dishwasher. You have not had a tetanus shot (I’d not had an inoculation of any kind, my mom was a nature freak) twenty-four hours from now, you — could — be — dead! You get back here or I am writing in my report that you willfully disobeyed my orders.”
This was scary. Forget the blackberry jam, a large redheaded male wearing white was taunting me from the lobby of New York Hospital’s E.R. I kept walking.
The fact was my dishwater was not filthy, how dare he insult it? The afflicted hand and guilty glass had been under clear, running water. If the tap water’s filthy, blame the mayor. Second, I had been next in line until a load of drunk, severely damaged teenaged boys fresh from a car crash were rushed in. You think my script-memorizing cut thumb was gonna trump their stretchered asses? Not on your life.
This was around the time that the movie Poltergeist came out. I was so disturbed by the male nurse’s vitriol toward me as I exited the E.R. that I worried about him calling me in the middle of the night. He had all my personal information, after all. Mr. Nurse Ratchet seemed to take my departure very, very personally for some strange reason. He was less concerned that I get better than that I comply. Or perhaps, obey. I anticipated him phoning at 3 a.m. and screeching, “You are going to DIE!” just like the decrepit old man whose yellow teeth filled the TV screen in the Poltergeist ad. I did not develop tetanus, and, despite his dire prognostication, I failed to die. I do, however, have an interesting, raised heart-shaped scar on my thumb. It’s kind of a keloid, quilted heart.
I have had over the years two deep-seated physical fears. One (from childhood) was of childbirth. I must have brought that one over from a past life. That phobia has faded over the decades. My other fear was of surgery. Given my squeamishness, you can imagine my receptivity to the idea of IVs, catheters, breathing tubes, and oxygen lines in my squishy parts. Gave me the heebie jeebies all around.
My friend Laura, an artist, thinks the body, inside and out, is a magnificently designed work of art. I agree with the outside part, but I believe the inside parts should be kept inside. The interior is just too goopy and inscrutable with pipes and tubes, levers and ducts, lubricants, waterways, rods, cones, stiffeners, washers, expanders, drainpipes, sprinkler systems, and release valves. How doctors keep on top of all the mushy bits and pieces, I have no idea. That realm holds the same mystique for me as car mechanics or Tekserve.
A friend of mine at the gym was both a funny gal and on the hysterical (as in very nervous) side. She was studying to get her certificate to teach dance to children and was required to take an anatomy class. This got her flustered. I sympathized (and laughed) as she reeled off everything she had to remember for her test. “The hip bone is connected to the thigh bone and the thigh bone is connected to the pussy bone!”
Sounded about right to me.
Another comrade found out her husband had been bleeding rectally for quite some time. He had neglected to mention this medical tidbit either to his spouse, or his internist. Incredulous, she was compelled to spell it out for him: “Honey…blood inside, good. Blood outside, bad!”
By the time I found out that my uterine fibroids were the size of baseballs, some inside, some outside my uterus, and that my uterus itself was the same size as a woman who was six months pregnant, I was gearing up for action. I go to the gym assiduously, and while I was not at my all- time thinnest, I wondered at the seeming beer gut that enthusiastically jutted out with little encouragement. “Am I that fat? Why bother going to the gym? I’m not even drinking beer.”
It all started adding up, and after trying natural approaches for years (nutrition, acupuncture) the growths reached critical mass and so did I. I could even feel a vein throbbing on one of them. This, needless to say, grossed me out. Those who have been following my literary uterine saga know that all signs were pointing toward this very inevitability: surgery. As the growths grew, surgery appeared less distasteful and more appealing. I set up an appointment with the Grim Reaper and faced my lifelong fear of being cut open. Having avoided even subjecting my thumb rent asunder from being sewn together in the past, I was now considering revealing my ooey gooey parts for all the world to see.
First I had to procure health insurance. Once procured, there was an eight-week wait to see a primary care physician and a ten-week wait to see an ob-gyn. I was hoping to have surgery within ten to twelve minutes of being insured, but while I was now on the Yellow Brick Road, Emerald City was nowhere to be seen. The ob-gyn turned out to be a lovely nurse practitioner who referred me for internal and external pelvic sonograms after examining me. I wondered before my first surgical consultation if there were any female surgeons, especially in the field of obstetrics and gynecology. Surely there had to be a few.
A few weeks later I met with two surgeons, one Russian, one Indian, both male, to discuss my sonogram results. I was faced with two men who both strongly advised a hysterectomy. This was not my plan. I restated this firmly when I met with the Russian doctor again, along with the (male) head of the department.
“I want a refurbished uterus. I want a reconditioned uterus. I do not want a hack job, but a working, viable, ‘fully-loaded’ uterus at the end of the day.”
“Yes,” said the head of the department, smiling. “But will it be up to factory specs?”
I shook his hand enthusiastically. “I’m counting on you to do the job right. I expect all to be up to spec, Officer–I mean, Doctor.”
The Russian doc said he was doing my surgery and that he would carefully remove the internal and intramural fibroids in order to leave me with an intact uterus. I was grateful and massively relieved that I was able to get them on the same page with me and that all would be well. While many people think some body parts are extraneous, I am not of that ilk. Unless there is a dire situation, I believe there is value to each and every organ, and that the holistic total is greater than the sum of the body parts. Men are very comfortable suggesting women trash their uterus and/or ovaries. Clearly gynecology was still a male dominated field.
D-Day approached. It had been six months since I’d applied for insurance before I was able to schedule the “big event.” I was mostly excited. I’d be losing my beer gut. And that weird pulsing vein on one of the tumors. Or, if not losing the actual vein, at least it wouldn’t be jutting out prominently from my abdomen. Whatever was going on inside was just all too weird for me. Baseballs. Oranges. Tumors. For someone as squeamish as I am, to have all that irregular stuff finally removed from the inside to the outside was ultimately a relief. Tumors trumped squeamishness.
Life provided me with the perfect distraction before surgery. I was in a theatrical, old time “radio show” style production of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I played Rudolph’s girlfriend Clarice, his mother, Mrs. Donner, a misfit doll, and an elf. Our closing show was the night before surgery. Friends came to see the show and I hung out with them afterward. It was an unnaturally hot global-warming December New York night. We had a festive walk to a restaurant, and later to their car. They drove me home. This same friend, Kristen, a midwife with her family, had dropped off a bag of groceries at my home the day before, along with some homeopathic arnica pills, to help with the pain after surgery. Despite living alone, I felt very loved and cared for. In an effort to keep my spirits high and my doctors entertained, I considered drawing a smiley face on my shaved crotch in the morning.
All attempts at amiability aside, I was still petrified about the surgery. Add to this drama/trauma the fact that my cat Angela was dying. She’d been not right for about two years, but for the past two months, she’d been unable to keep down food, and I was still paying off her considerable vet bill from a year ago. Going to a doc to try to find out what was wrong, again, and trying to fix it was just not an option at this time. I told her she’d have to figure it out on her own, either get right quick, or die quick. She hid for days and neither ate nor went to the bathroom. I sobbed. Could there be worse timing? I could barely take care of her, and would be even less capable when I returned alone from the hospital. I was grief-stricken in anticipation of her passing. I begged her to reconsider her exit strategy.
I told my dear young neighbors Frank and Michelle (who took care of my cat and dog while I was in the hospital) that I held them in no way responsible for my cat’s life. I had purchased an assortment of baby foods and cat foods to tantalize her. She voraciously gobbled a tablespoon of chicken baby food but then refused the rest of the jar, back to not eating. Then she came to life one night and screamed for food like someone declaring war. I opened up a can of something or other and she ate like someone who hadn’t eaten for a year. I was elated, convinced she was going to live. I’ve lost people and pets before, and once they were “going,” they proceeded directly to “gone.” This was my first reprieve. Once I was in the hospital Mimi (dog) and Angela (cat) were out of my hands, and in God, Michelle, and Frank’s. I had to let go.
The hospital informed me of the time of surgery the afternoon before. I had prayed to go early, so I didn’t have to starve too long (no food or drink after midnight) but not too early (I’m not partial to arriving anywhere at 5:45 a.m.). I was told to arrive at 11am for 1:30pm surgery. How perfectly civilized! I ate a big piece of cheesecake at 11pm to tide me over. My friend from high school, Laura, had generously taken the day off from work to accompany me until I returned to post-surgical consciousness. She had been through her husband’s cancer trauma just a year ago. At the same hospital. She knew the ropes.
I was my surgeon’s third surgery of the day. I figured if I were his toughest case, I would have been first, not last. Here I was bravely facing my fear of surgery. It was now that I came face to face with my other greatest fear. Missing a meal. I abhor hunger. I don’t think in all my years on the planet I have missed even a snack. I am very fond of food and drink and revel in my ability to indulge in that very simple pleasure thrice or more daily.
Between that and having low blood sugar, I’ve settled on the sensible habit of eating small, nutritious meals every few hours, which keeps both my metabolism and my peace of mind steady.
In high school, a friend’s (uptight) lawyer dad left their weird (but fun) mom for another woman and her kids. He took his new gal and their combined kids on a trip to Peru or Patagonia or some such exotic locale. My friend and her sisters complained on their long rickety train ride to nowhere that they were starving and her rich, jerky dad yelled at his first family, saying, “You have no idea what actual starvation is! How dare you use that word!”
Right, Dad. Not the point. Your kids are hungry, okay? I’m a reincarnation person, so whether we’ve starved to death or starved for uncomfortably long periods of time in other lives, who wants to repeat the exercise? Being really hungry is no more fun than having to go to the bathroom badly when you can’t.
The hospital’s area for patients awaiting surgery had a sign posted: “Please do not eat or drink here out of respect for the (deliriously hungry and petrified) patients.” There were a plethora of friends and family waiting with the patients to enter surgery, or waiting for patients to come out of surgery. They did not all follow the rules. One tall old man unabashedly pulled a huge bran muffin out of a waxed paper sandwich bag and challenged me with his eyes as he chomped down on it. I glowered back and thought about reporting him, but I was too weak from hunger. Son of a bitch. My friend left to eat her lunch outside (both of us need not starve) and I changed seats, when a group of gals loudly returned to the waiting area with a large bag of deli fare.
“I have pastrami here…”
In the next room I was startled to see someone hiding behind their open umbrella. I eventually confirmed that she was surreptitiously eating behind her jerry-rigged screen. At least she had some courtesy. Another old man plopped down behind me and, while not eating, had the nerve to say the word “soup” to his companion. I relocated again.
My surgeon’s second surgery ran hours longer than scheduled. My fantasy of being unconscious on a stretcher by noon was shot to hell. I was still conscious and starving at 4:30, when they finally took me in. I had now missed two meals and several snacks. After all my attempts at humor and good will, suddenly, my bell was tolling. Laura and I jumped up. We were led to another wing at whose threshold Laura now froze in her tracks. “This is exactly where my husband was last year.”
I grabbed Laura’s arm and said, smiling, “Buck up. It’s just me this time. Heal that memory and rewrite history.”
She took a deep breath and forged ahead. When we got upstairs it was my turn to freeze in my tracks. There was a stretcher, or whatever the hell you call those rolling carts. Black padding and chrome bars on the side doesn’t read “patient” to me. They read “body.” My eyes huge, I told Laura and the executioner, the escorting nurse, “This is the green mile.”
They were at a loss for words.
I was being escorted to my death. Forget surgery. I tapped into a past life memory of the guillotine or firing squad or wherever/however it was they were gonna off me. My reaction was as visceral as Laura’s had been when revisiting the scene of her husband’s recent trauma.
The nurse left us alone in a corner and told us to wait. It was cold. There was a loveseat, a window (hence the cold), a maintenance cart, and a jumbled pile of medical equipment.
Laura got angry. “This is no way to treat a patient.”
I told her it was okay. “We’re not in a five star hotel.”
On the bright side, the maintenance cart was labeled “Labor and Delivery” not “Morgue.” I started getting jumpier and more skittish. When the nurse returned she brought my prison garb, the layers of stripes identifying me as a patient, not a person. The sense of being stripped of self was palpable, as it must be for people in concentration camps, prisons, heck, what does it say about anyone wearing a uniform? I guess it’s how you feel about the job. Air Force pilot clearly trumps concentration camp victim.
In a fit of nervous rebellion, I pulled my shirt off in the hallway. Both my friend and the nurse were startled, but big deal. All they saw was my bra. I needed to strip on my own terms, not in the ugly nurse-approved bathroom where she would help me get the stripes straight, one gown facing forward, one gown facing back, long baggy blue pants, and non-slip, corpse gray socks on. Now I looked like every other scared slob in the hospital.
From here Laura was left behind. This was the hour of do or die. I thought about running around frantically like Woody Allen in one of his earlier movies, “Only if they catch me! Only if they catch me!” I left Laura in the messy cold corner with the maintenance cart and dirty loveseat and walked with the nurse to the firing squad.
What happened next was most surreal, and no one I’ve ever described it to has heard of a similar circumstance. I was walked into a room filled with medical personnel. Surgeons and nurses were scurrying about, preparing for surgery. No one seemed to notice me. Something was wrong with this scenario. I was on the set of E.R. yet what role was I playing? For a few seconds no one said anything. I was invisible.
Then a nurse ordered, “Get on the table.”
What? I had to jump on the table myself? Whatever happened to being wheeled in unconscious like everybody else? It was kind of like being told to put the noose around my neck on the hangman’s platform.
Nurse brought me a step stool so I could hurl my tiny person onto the operating table. Did they want me to hand them the scalpel, too? This seemed a bit too “do- it- yourself” for my taste.
A friend later suggested this was perhaps the definition of “ambulatory surgery.” I assured him it was not. It was more like self-service. I propelled myself onto the table just as unfortunate souls walk to the spot where they are to be shot by the squad. I was utterly bewildered. Equipment loomed above me. I asked what something was. No one answered me. Suddenly, the surgery lights turned on, et, voila! I was home. The myriad bulbs were a beautiful mix of blue, green and white. They were bright. They were warm.
I shouted out, “I’m an actress, I love spotlights!”
My lovely Indian anesthesiologist (my whole team was Indian) started to draw blood from my arm and I exclaimed, “You’re drawing blood now?!”
He said, “I’m putting in the IV.”
I was baffled. “I thought it went in the wrist?” I’d heard how excruciatingly painful the insertion of the IV into the top of the wrist was and had been dreading this, too. I was back to wishing I had a pair of gloves to cover up my veins like when I was a kid playing the piano.
The anesthesiologist said, “I can put it in your wrist if you like.”
“No! NO! I want it there! I want it there!” I turned my head away as if it were a blood test, another phobia from long ago which I had since conquered. But today, I just didn’t want to look. I barely felt a thing, and from there, it was all a blur…
I awoke in the darkened recovery room to the dim vision of my friend Laura looming over me. I don’t remember what she said. She told me later that I looked startlingly beautiful. Apparently, unconsciousness is good for my visage.
My throat was sore from the breathing tube inserted during surgery. I was very thirsty from the anesthesia (and not having imbibed anything for almost 24 hours). I asked for water and the attending nurse, Jeffrey, said I could have an ice cube. Which he never brought. When I asked later for the ice cube, he brought a cup of crushed ice which I consumed in slow motion desperation. I followed up with orange Jell-O, two cranberry juices, and another cup of crushed ice. Hospital fare in Styrofoam had never tasted so good.
Some transport guy then banged me around as we wended our way from the recovery area to my room. He was nice, and I was just grateful to be alive, so I was as jovial as I could muster as we wended our way through different floors, wings, elevators, and corridors, like in the opening sequence of TV’s Get Smart. A bit like bumper cars at the amusement park, just slightly less amusing.
I had worried about getting a noisy room with bright fluorescent lights, loud neighbors, boisterous guests, blaring TVs, and ringing cell phones. As I always do, I prayed for a most benevolent outcome all around, for surgery, recovery, roommates, and room. There was not one detail that I did not request a benevolent outcome for. I brought a sleeping mask and earplugs anyway.
Amusement park guy delivered me to a silent room with a quiet roommate, no lights, and no TV. My bed abutted a huge window, which provided a million dollar view, an unobstructed vista of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. I was filled with awe, gratitude, and joy. I was also filled with morphine. I kept thinking, “thank you, thank you, thank you,” over and over again. Despite being swollen and generally fucked up post surgery, I could tell that something wonderful had happened. I had made it. And best of all, I still had my very own uterus (its survival had been threatened if I bled too much).
I was grateful to God. I was grateful to nurses Zofia, Joy, Caroline, Carolyn, Doreen, Alexcine, Marilyn, Denise, and Neenah, angels all. They were so kind and caring. I was grateful to the doctors. I was grateful to the hospital. To my insurance. To the world. To the silent night. The beautiful, silent, December night. The Empire State Building was lit up in blue.
The nurses gave me all the water I wanted and filled the little cups since I could not sit up to do it for myself. I had not been cut off at the knees. I had been cut off at the abs. Smack dab in the middle of the body. I had a myomectomy, fibroid tumors removed via a cut above the bikini line. Essentially, a C-section with no baby. No sitting up. No lying down. No getting up or sitting down without painfully slow, excruciating wrangling, shifting, and adjusting of the body to get where I was going at the speed of turtle. Or slower. While unnecessary, I put the earplugs in and the sleeping mask on and slept the sleep of the angels. I pressed that little button all night to keep the morphine flowing. Homeopathic vitamin girl was in happy land.
I was allowed one dose every six minutes. I’d float off, come back hours later, look out the window at the glowing blue skyscraper, smile, and dreamily press the button again. I didn’t want to wake up in pain, so I didn’t wait for it. I kept pressing. If you were entitled to a dose the machine reassuringly beeped twice and administered the dose. If it hadn’t yet been six minutes there was a pause, then one beep (it felt like a honk) warning you to back off, junkie! I was convinced hours had passed when I pressed that button. Honk! No sense of time when you’re high on morphine. Better yet, I had my first catheter (yet another fear faced) and what a pleasure that was, and I do mean pleasure. I couldn’t feel it, and it meant I could drink all the water I wanted with impunity. There was no consequence for drinking. Between the morphine and the catheter, I had redefined heaven: a hospital bed, a silent room, a piss bag, and some painkillers. I spent the night in bliss and gratitude.
The next morning my Russian surgeon was joined by a Haitian doctor. I buoyantly joked with my international Olympic team while they viewed my incision and offered a corset for my comfort (amazingly, it provided it). My squishy parts were now held warmly in a structured Velcro hug. All seemed fine. I bid the gentlemen a good day and turned to inspect my breakfast, newly arrived. What good fortune was this? Raisin bran and a bran muffin of my own! My thoughts turned to the old creep yesterday scarfing his bran muffin in my face while I starved awaiting surgery. I beamed like little Cindy Lou Who from Whoville on Christmas morning. Who’s eating bran muffins now, jerko?
© 2014 by Valerie Gilbert
I absolutely LOVE Valerie Gilbert’s books. She has a terrific writing style and a delicious sense of humor that makes her books so enjoyable to read. She takes you on the journey of her life experiences, and does so with such wonderful humor, grace and spiritual wisdom, you just keep wanting more. The level of honesty and sincerity that Valerie shares with the reader will make you fall in love with her. You will identify with the plight of being human, you will love her sense of humor and will be simply delighted to go along for the ride. You will not be able to put her books down until they are finished! I guarantee it! HIGHLY RECOMMEND. ~ Nicole Gans Singer, channeler, teacher of The Masters