In my dream, a small cooking pot sits on the stove, rocking back and forth over the flames of the gas burner. I recognize it as the same small cooking pot in which I had earlier that evening simmered some asparagus for dinner. What pleases me most is that the little pot has a lid that fits it perfectly, a neatness of pot and lid that comforts me in both the dream and my life. In fact, I did not keep the asparagus covered while it was cooking as I had read somewhere that covering it would rob the vegetable of its beautiful green color. In the dream, however, the lid stays tightly on.
More than ten years ago, on May 11, a Thursday, I was rushed to the operating room for emergency surgery during which my entire large intestine was removed. A long plastic pouch was planted against my skin and around a small rose-colored and rose-shaped protuberance that shrinks and grows one inch to the right of my belly button. Since the surgery I have worn these plastic bags attached to my belly to capture the waste from my body that spills out from the mouth of the rose. It’s necessary to empty this plastic bag many times in the day and also several times during the night.
Peristalsis never stops. The rose opens and closes its little mouth.
Many surgeries followed, each one followed by many unpleasant surprises. It’s a long story. Suffice it to say my wounds, literal and otherwise, have not fully healed.
All that’s left is to grow some skin. Skin grows one millimeter a month.
Peristalsis never stops.
The rose on my belly, called a stoma, opens and closes when it wants.
I have no say in the matter.
When I think about natural disaster—bird flu, a terrorist attack—I worry that I will not have enough of the plastic bags to get me through the crisis. This worries me more than quarantine, more than flame and ash.
The cooking pot has a copper bottom and is made of stainless steel. A very ordinary pot, it nonetheless gives me tremendous pleasure.
Sometimes during the night the bag leaks or separates from my skin. Sometimes the clip that holds it closed at the bottom opens up and the contents of the bag spill out. Several times when I was walking around in my everyday life, it has happened that everything in the bag has spilled onto the floor, sometimes in a public place. When there is a leak or a separation or a slippage in the middle of the night, I wake up to a bad smell. Then I feel moisture. And then I am awake. I wake my husband who gets me a towel so I can contain myself until I get to the shower. In the shower I stand under the water for a long time. It isn’t that it takes a long time to get clean; it’s that I must wait until my husband has stripped the bed, cleaned up any parts of the floor I’ve soiled, put clean sheets and blankets on the bed, put towels over the sheets and blankets so that I can be propped up on pillows to put on a new bag. When everything is ready, I get out of the shower, lie down on the prepared bed, and begin the process of placing a new bag on my belly. Sometimes, early on, before my belly got flat, we’d repeat this procedure three or four times during the night.
How to put on a bag:
Get the box of bags, also called pouches. Get a plastic grocery bag. Get the wipes for the skin. Make sure there’s a clip for the pouch. Get the 4×4 gauze. Get the scissors. Pile up the pillows so you can see what you’re doing. Turn on the TV. This may take time.
Pull the gauze from its packages. Have ready for covering the stoma and cleaning the mess. Keep the grocery bag wide open to catch the debris. There’s always debris.
Remove the old pouch if it’s still attached by pulling away from the skin, exposing the stoma; cover the stoma with gauze so that nothing leaks. Peristalsis never stops. The new bag has a hole in it that must be cut exactly to fit around the ragged edges of the stoma. Learn to cut quickly; in fact, learn to cut the hole before you do anything else. Clean the exposed skin with the special wipe. Hope you’re fast. Peristalsis won’t wait.
Pull away the paper covering the adhesive on the back of the bag. Fit the bag around the rose on your belly. Tear away the little strips of paper that still remain. Tamp down the edges. Close the open end with a clip. Don’t ever forget to close the bag.
You keep the cats out of the room. They want to help.
Your husband does the laundry while you change the bag.
You hope you have enough sheets in case it happens again.
You do this for years.
Your husband does this for years.
You stay married.
In the bag, not my bag, old bag, bag it up, bag it.
When they took me to the operating room, they knew there was a chance I might die, though, oddly enough, I don’t think anyone knew how sick I was. I knew how sick I was. I knew I was in pain. A friend had given me a jagged green stone to hold in my hand and for days before the surgery I moved that stone in a snaking pattern across my belly. I was following a trail of what felt like barbed wire being pushed through my belly. As I traced the pain, I’d say quietly “heal,” and then again “heel” as if the illness were a dog to be trained.
When they took me to the operating room, we moved quickly through the halls. I could feel the wind rush by me.
One day I put on my red robe to sit in a chair. I sat in a chair. The green fluid from my bag was too heavy for the bag to bear. The clip broke and all the green liquid spilled out onto the floor, soiling my red robe.
Can I tell you the meaning of sturdy?
I love the sturdy little cooking pot. I had wanted such a cooking pot for a long time. I had pots that were too large and others that were too small and many with no lids at all. So I had an idea that a proper pot would make my life better at a time when not much in my life was going particularly well. I found the pot on a cold April day in an outlet store upstate where I had gone with my sister.
Some people are sick for a very long time, twenty years or more. They suffer enormously, then they get their large intestine out; they get a bag and life gets much better. Some people with very serious illnesses, say cancer, have the illness cut out of them, and when they get a bag, they say, “I am alive.” It is good when a bag can end suffering and save a life. “Good bag,” we say. We love it.
How can I tell what happened to me without violating the terms of the legal settlement?
When I say, in rage and frustration and exhaustion,
I hate the bag, the people who love me say, we love the bag because it keeps you alive.
And then I cannot hate the bag. Even the hating of the thing that causes such daily misery is impossible because no matter what else may be true, however small and cheap the pot, I love to be alive.
Ruth Danon is the author of the poetry collections Limitless Tiny Boat, (BlazeVOX, October 17, 2015) Living with the Fireman (Ziesing Brothers, 1981), and Triangulation from a Known Point (North Star Line, 1990), and a book of literary criticism, Work in the English Novel (Croom-Helm, 1985). New work is forthcoming in NOON: The Journal of the Small Poem, and The Florida Review. Her poetry was selected by Robert Creeley for Best American Poetry, 2002, and her poetry and prose have appeared in Versal, Mead, BOMB, the Paris Review, Fence, the Boston Review, 3rd Bed, Crayon, and many other publications in the U.S. and abroad. She is a professor of creative and expository writing in the School of Professional Studies of New York University and founding Director of the SPS Summer Intensive Creative Writing Workshops.