Camilas Dream

The Common Dream

Now I lay me down to sleep ...

Article rank 8 Jul 2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Michael Carroll is a Philadelphia writer

When I was a kid in the 1950s and 1960s, I remember my father talking about family and friends who “never got up off the table” after surgery. It was a time of modern medicine, more or less, and things were advancing and improving dramatically every year.

But Dad’s view of medicine was formed earlier in the 20th century. He was born in 1912, before antibiotics, before sophisticated heart and lung devices, and in an age of more primitive anesthesia. He lived in the Pennsylvania coal region, hours from city medical centers. It was not rare to have people die on the operating table at the Shamokin or Ashland hospital, even from problems that didn’t seem life-threatening.

I recently had surgery. There was some pain for a time afterward, but nothing dramatic. It was not the sort of procedure that makes it onto the TV doctor shows, but something about surgery under general anesthesia drives home an awareness of mortality.

Going into it, I was sure I would wake up again, but there was still a tiny lingering “what if.” What if I were the one-in-a-million case where something goes wrong? What if, in the words of the Raymond Chandler novel, I fell into “the big sleep”?

Sleep is a metaphor for death, and the metaphor becomes stronger if deep sleep is induced by chemicals. One minute you are awake, the next you are under — far under. And you stay that way until they stop pumping one chemical into your lungs or blood or until they add another to bring you back, assuming that all goes well. It might be a little like dying in your sleep. You are dead to thoughts and even dreams. You would not know if you never woke up. Of course, that would be more a worry for stunned friends and family than for you.

Things were simpler when I was a child. I believed in the old prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Not only did death be not proud then, it held no conscious terror for me at all. I do not know what my childhood reaction would have been if death had been imminent, but I certainly thought and felt differently then. Now that I am an adult, and a mature adult at that, death is attention- getting, intimidating, and scary.

I sometimes try to deflect with Woody Allen-type one-liners: “My position on death is the same; I am against it.” Or, “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Or “Live every day like it was your last. One day you will be right.”

My operation left me relieved, but far from fearlessness. Things could have turned out otherwise and could turn that way tomorrow. That reminds me of another uplifting bit of my father’s wisdom — offered when he was not talking about who failed to get up from the table — “Here today, gone tomorrow.”

So I dodged a small bullet, which in a way we all do daily whether we think about it or not. Even though it was not the serious life- threatening surgery many brave and less lucky friends and family have borne, it was an event that got my attention. It was a blinking yellow light, if not a red one. It reminded me of my luck and the good people and things in my life. It reminded me that there is an end. We dodge throughout life until eventually we are hit.

I suppose we will all get plenty of rest at some point. After all, we are here today, gone tomorrow.

Michael Carroll

The Philadelphia Inquirer - Mon, 08 Jul 2013