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Guestwords: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Roiling Stones

Thu, 08/25/2022 - 12:35

In my life I've passed up a lot of opportunities, and passed down some things to my children. I've thrown some passes and, as I grew older, made some passes. I've passed some exams, received a pass or two when I misbehaved, got some passed-down clothes from an uncle, and saw some friends pass away. I've passed a car or two on the road, occasionally passed the butter and, at other times, passed along some gossip. But nothing, never, nowhere, compares to passing stones.

Yes, the kidneys' principal function is to cleanse the blood and transform waste into urine. But, when that waste hardens into "stones" and those stones stick in the urinary tract, that's when things begin to smart. A lot.

I've passed more than my share of stones. The pain usually comes on slowly, more of an annoyance than anything else, but, before long, you're stifling screams. When that happens, there's an ambulance in your future and some morphine at the end of the line. Indeed, once the stones get you stoned, the whole episode can seem worthwhile.    

I've had some amusing experiences while passing stones. Have you?

For example, last year the curtain rose on a familiar pain. It was "game on," and before long 911 was dispatching an ambulance that took me to the hospital. I was put in the general population and transported into a room to "share with another person." Now, that's a much-loaded phrase. In the event, one winds up sleeping less than a foot from a complete stranger, separated only by a thin cloth curtain, with all the attendant smells, sounds, and chatter. If one is prone to solitary pleasure, like reading, or is a light sleeper, the sudden intimacy is insane.              

My first roommate was Pete, a former baseball player whose young talent, one day in the 1960s, propelled him all the way up to the Yankees for a week of major league tryouts, before being sent back down to permanent residence in the farm system. The day before, his wife was about to "fall off the couch" when he leapt to save her, whereupon the family dog bit his elbow to the bone. It puzzled me that a pet would do that. When Pete called his wife later but quickly hung up to a chorus of not-so-loving screams, I wondered: Was that pet actually protecting the wife from further abuse?

Now a man in his 70s, Pete was as bent on conversing with me as I, buried in my iPad, was determined to resist. I would respond to each of his forays in monosyllables. But he knew a captured audience when he had one and took my grunts as invitations to continue. He pressed on with his monologue, a Homeric saga of alcoholic adversity, none of it his fault. For half a day his voice was like a Baroque continuo humming over my efforts to read.         

When he was released the next afternoon, Pete bid me a flourishing goodbye, acknowledging that our conversations had been among the best he'd had in years. Wanting very much to keep in touch, he gave me all his contact numbers.          

Within short hours, Pete's bed was filled by Howard, a mid-Island businessman who, he admitted to his nurse, had not urinated in seven days and had gained 13 pounds of water weight before suspecting something might be wrong and entering the hospital. When he showed up they inserted catheters in every available orifice Howard owned. I overheard the nurse explain that he'd already expelled nearly a gallon of water. Poor Howard couldn't move an inch without one or another catheter making his life miserable.

I hadn't slept the night before because Pete was a world-class snorer, and now looked forward to another sleepless night courtesy of Howard's catheters. Then the hospital's medical officer, Dr. Gesundheit, entered the room on his rounds. Gesundheit was happy to answer everyone's questions, but under no circumstances could he bring himself to look at you when he talked. Instead, he constantly rocked back and forth on his heels and addressed every object around you, but never you. When my turn came I explained that my stones had been purged by a procedure earlier that afternoon, and that I needed to go home because I couldn't sleep. 

"Under no circumstances," Gesundheit declaimed to the light switch on my left. Wanting to make an ally of him, I wondered whether we hadn't met before. Gesundheit queried the IV pole next to my bed whether I was from Brooklyn. I replied affirmatively. He asked the lamp on my right whether I knew Gene Gesundheit, who, he reminded me, in the 1950s played basketball for New Utrecht High, where he was known as "the Big Pump." I didn't think so, but replied that I'd played for Erasmus in the same era and thought maybe we'd crossed paths. 

Pandemonium. Believe it or not, the Big Pump was Gesundheit's father, and Gesundheit was ecstatic. Curiously, he chortled, not that many people remembered the Big Pump. I was one of the few. So, in a trice, I was Gesundheit's "landsman," buddies forever. He left, promising my bedpan sincerely that he'd supply whatever I needed to get to sleep that night.

Turns out Gesundheit came through with enough melatonin to nullify Howard's catheter complaints. I fell into a deep bedrugged sleep. That is, until 1 a.m., when I was jolted awake by two nurses who explained that I needed to immediately change rooms because Howard needed a sponging and the resulting spray might have Covid consequences. That was a lot to take in, asleep at 1 a.m. I was livid but powerless, and, in the next moment, was wheeled halfway around the hospital to another room, to be shared with yet another roommate. Now wide awake, I was left alone with most of the night remaining to get through. But I couldn't return to sleep. 

As if on cue, my anonymous roomie behind the curtain began to snore like a sailor. For what must have been an hour I lay there, inert, absorbing the din, tense and angry. Finally, I breathed to myself, "Shut the __ up!" Instantly, the snoring stopped. My roomie had heard every word!

"What did you say?" he growled from behind the curtain. "You __, I'm gettin' out of bed and comin' over there, now. I'm gonna mess you up. Shut the __ up? That's it for you!"

Oy vey. I'd awakened the dragon from his sleep. From the beginning of my stay I'd been dressed in a hospital gown three sizes too big that fell off every time I stood, leaving me buck naked. I couldn't just bolt. Although the room was pitch black, I threw off my gown and managed to get into my street clothes, feeling my way among buttons, zippers, and belts, all in under 30 seconds, then tiptoed away from my about-to-visit roommate to the lounge across the hall, where I sat, awake, until 8 the next morning. 

Exhausted, I had to escape the hospital and get back to my home bed, where I'd sleep forever. But I was in purgatory. I couldn't leave, because I had no release papers from a doctor, which, in that hospital, could take hours, if not the whole day. And I couldn't return to my room, for fear of disembowelment.

To the rescue rode Gesundheit. Making rounds, he passed the visitors room and was glad to see me. Immediately he began rocking and, looking at the ceiling, asked, "What's up?" 

I explained the whole story and that I was feeling great, my stones were history, my last vitals were perfect, and I needed to go home. Gesundheit thought for a moment. It wasn't the way things were done. But Gesundheit proved willing to bend a rule or two for a buddy. He whispered conspiratorially, to my chair, that he'd have the release papers sent around within the hour, proposed that we meet sometime in the future to reminisce about his dad, the Big Pump, wished me luck, turned, and waved goodbye to the floor.

Within an hour I was escorted down the elevator to the lobby and a waiting cab, in which I had time to recall my passing stones, the people to whom they'd introduced me over the past days, and my lucky escape. An open window elicited a sneeze. 

"Gesundheit," said the driver. "You got it right," I smiled.

Norbert Weissberg, an East Hampton resident for more than 60 years, is part of a memoir-writing class at the East Hampton Library.

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