They had taken my watch, so I don’t know what time it was when I began to go under. It must have been shortly after 9 a.m. The anaesthetist held the syringe vertically and said, “Once I give you this, you’ll be gone in twenty seconds.”
And twenty-one seconds later I woke up in a strange room, surrounded by people who seemed to have other things on their minds. My body told me I had been run over by a tractor. For several weeks, conscious of the weight of the word “cancer,” I had been playing it down, and had persuaded myself more comprehensively than anyone. Slowly I began to comprehend that my sanguinity, in extending to the unconscious anticipation of the actual impact of the procedure on my body, might have gone too far. Somebody noticed my opening eyes, detached herself from the general detachment, and smiled down at me. A thumbs-up conveyed that the surgeon had cut away my malignancy, as well as four hours from the diminishing stretch of my life.
I had had a partial laparoscopic nephrectomy, to remove a carcinoma, slow-moving and self-contained, but still theoretically lethal in its own time. They had discovered it by accident when looking for something else, which turned out not to be there.
Once in my room, I seemed to be delivered more or less instantly to the nighttime. Things happened, people came and went, but almost nothing of it left an impression on me until the night shift was well underway. The night nurse, a young woman who moved without sound, seemed a constant presence in the room, and yet I knew she must also have other charges. She came and went, explaining in a whisper the things she needed to do: injections, drips, catheter, something about the drain from my side. I began to have memories of a different vigil, perhaps fifty-five years before, when my father sat at my bedside all night, keeping watch as measles complications threatened to take me. I recall that night in steps of hours, each one beginning and ending at a quarter past on the wall clock, so that my sense of things was that time had stopped, whereas actually it was moving without me. At a quarter past six I noticed that the light had begun to creep in the window.
This was similar, except the punctuation points were prods and pricks and pills. As I watched the nurse going about her tasks, a strange mixture of shame and gratitude came upon me: shame that she was required to deal with my bodily detritus; gratitude that she was there and did not seem to regard this as an imposition. It struck me that here I was in perhaps one of the last outposts of our dying Christian civilization, where a perfect stranger was prepared to treat me with something indistinguishable from love.
I had had something of that feeling since the whole thing began, back in September. I came to think of my surgeon, Mr. Barry Mc Guire, a man of half my years, not as some technician of the human mechanism but as a recently made friend with whom, in a short time, I developed a bond of trust that is at least as strong as any other forged in my lifetime. This friendship may be entirely unreciprocated, but it is none the less for that. I have no stronger friend than this man who plunged in and dragged out the would-be assassin lying in wait for me.
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin, used to be run by nuns, and it remains the best and most famous hospital in Ireland. It was founded in 1834 by Mother Mary Aikenhead, founder of the Religious Sisters of Charity, originally in the center of Dublin. In 1970, it moved to the south of the city, to Elm Park. Although Catholic, the hospital was open to everyone, irrespective of faith. Some years ago, an ugly row broke out when secularist politicians raised (abortion-related) objections to the proposed involvement of the Sisters of Charity in managing a new maternity hospital on the site. The upshot was that the sisters withdrew from involvement in the hospital, removing their last remaining representatives from the board of St. Vincent’s.
Back in the day, the core of the hospital comprised two basic beige blocks and a tower where the nurses lived. Now it is a vast metropolis within a metropolis, by night a floodlit postcard picture of a modern health campus. My room window framed the postcard, divided horizontally in half: below, the glittering lit buildings; above, the ever-changing sky—man’s world rising up into God’s diminishing territory. From my bed the postcard looked compositionally perfect, as though the city had been constructed with my window in mind.
In Ireland as elsewhere, we are treated to an almost ceaseless attrition of negativity about the state of the health services. Access is a problem, we continually hear. My own experience was of getting attended to reasonably quickly and to a high standard. A nurse friend told me years ago that the Irish health service had become bedevilled by the same syndrome afflicting every other: the unavoidability of bureaucracy. Some 70 percent of the financial resources are eaten up by the bureaucrats, and 70 percent of the 30 percent frontline staff’s time is consumed catering to the demands of the 70 percent penpushing cohort. This leaves roughly 9 percent for emptying catheters.
In the old days, the nuns had one boss, and knew what He demanded. There was relatively little call for paperwork. We might say, after Péguy, that the floor needed to be cleaned because it was natural, understood, an honor. The floor did not need to be cleaned in order to get paid, or in proportion to how much one was paid. It did not need to be cleaned for the government, nor for the inspectors, nor for the hospital’s board members. It needed to be cleaned for itself, in itself, in its own way. A tradition that came from, went back to the depths of the human race; a history, an absolute, an honor required that the floor be kept clean. And every part of the floor that was not visible was cleaned with the same perfection as the parts that were visible.
But in spite of the gruesome politics and the almost impenetrable shell of bureaucracy, the principles the nuns generated from their lives into the tradition of St. Vincent’s are still there. Some of the nurses were surprised to hear me put it like this; one explained her own kindness in terms of what she had learned of “interpersonal skills.” This is the bureaucratic explanation. The deeper one is that, at the frontier of a system creaking at the seams, one human being still looks upon another with affection, pity, and mercy, Heart of Jesus to Heart of Jesus, whether we know it or not, whether we admit it or not.
To lie in that bed that first night was to be regenerated by the thought that it remains possible for the human person to embody unthinkingly the injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The affection we crave in such moments is no ordinary affection—some forced sentimentalism or the ritualistic execution of duty. It is the affection, the one born of the need for a totality to equal the felt vulnerability of the situation. And this becomes possible only by virtue of Christ’s total gift of Himself, because only in Him and in the story of His earthly life is this total affection rendered visible. By coming and dying and rising again, He showed us the ideal in which we might find an echo of His grace, the model on which to base our own longing. This grace is what I felt, lying there. This was not Simon of Cyrene nor the Good Samaritan, but the spirit of Tabitha, raised from the dead following an intervention by Peter, because her charity was found to be indispensable.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.