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Alan Robert Neal

Faces of Compassion, Faces of Hate

Three years ago, when I had my first gallbladder attack, the attending urgent-care doctor advised I’d self-diagnosed correctly and that gallbladder surgery would be a simple thing.  “They pop them out in the morning and send you home in the afternoon,” she explained.  She strongly urged I consider having it done.  Well, maybe that’s true for many with the modern techniques of laparoscopic surgery, but when my time came recently to actually undergo the procedure, it was anything but simple.  And my stay in the hospital was a whole week.

It was a Sunday evening and I was drinking a second cup of coffee while watching 60 Minutes when I first became aware of the pain.  I recognized it right away as gallbladder related, but at first it seemed rather mild.  Nevertheless, as the evening wore on, it intensified, and by midnight I could hardly breathe.  It somewhat subsided later, but the next morning I went to the nearby urgent-care clinic and from there was referred to the hospital ER.  The pain remained constant and I’d begun showing signs of jaundice.

After admission to the hospital Monday evening, tests galore were scheduled for the next morning—a sonogram, an MRI, extensive blood work—and I was hooked up to an IV and given morphine.  It appeared I had a severe duct blockage, precipitating pancreatitis.  All this as an array of different faces paraded around me: doctors, nurses, aids, assorted attendants.  And soon an odd phenomenon began to manifest itself—extremely vivid dreams.  Of faces!

Several weeks before, I’d viewed the PBS series on the Vietnam War and found it to be personally most unsettling.  I’d served in Vietnam in 1969 as a Red Cross man, and watching the battle scenes on the screen night after night resurfaced images for me I thought I’d buried for good long ago.  Mainly the faces of the troops I’d assisted and the Asians I’d encountered every day.

Following the showing of the series, I’d had the occasion at a Kansas Authors Club meeting of hearing one of the prominently featured veterans in many of the production’s scenes read his writing, the Marine and poet John Musgrave.  After the other attendees had departed, he and I shared experiences and emotions privately only those who “had been there” would understand.  It was a catharsis, yet it haunted me.

And so in the dim light of the hospital room, with the tubes attached, the medication, the frequent rousing from sleep by the aids to check vitals, the overall restless discomfort and strangeness, I commenced seeing faces in my sleep.  The faces of soldiers spilling out their anguish to me.  I was back in Vietnam!  You’re slopping through the goddamn muck and jungle steam when they spring the f’ing ambush.  The point man goes down, a bullet through the neck just above his flak jacket, his blood flecking your face.  And there—for a shattered second of eternity—there the shooter is, his face just above the tall grass, only yards away, sighting his AK.  Sweaty, smudged, adrenaline-pumped face.  Just like you, doing what he’s been trained to do.  The bastard is going to kill you.

The night nurse comes in and introduces herself.  She’s worried about my pain.  She keeps reassuring me I could have oxycodone if I wanted it.  She has three children and loves being a mom.  And obviously loves her patients too, and being a nurse, a face that’s the very definition of angel-like compassion and nurturance.

The next day the internist looks over my chart.  His face is serious, focused.  “We’re going to figure out exactly what we’re dealing with here,” he says, “and then we’re going to get you fixed up.”  The next thing I know I’m being wheeled to an MRI with the tech’s young face beside me as he pushes me along, gently reassuring me there’s sufficient clearance in the device that it’s not going to precipitate claustrophobia.  “We’re all about the comfort of our patients,” his youthful voice declares.

That evening on the TV news, I saw the reports of upheaval in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians throwing rocks and fiery objects through the smoke at the IDF troops.  A closeup shot of one face, partly concealed with a scarf, revealed the unremitting hatred in the eyes, burning with white-hot heat, emanating from the depths of the soul.  I kept thinking, when will it ever end?

By the next afternoon, the blockage had passed and liver functions were returning to normal.  The surgeon came in to discuss my case.  It turned out he was a former Marine, and soon we were exchanging war experiences.  He had a jovial but caring demeanor and suggested that, although I was now on the mend, it might be well to schedule surgery and remove the gallbladder as this incident might recur at any time.  We scheduled an operation for the next morning.

That night in my dreamy state, the faces returned in full measure.  Drifting before my mind’s eye, distorted and grotesque, hollow and sardonic—something like a collection of drama masks.  I felt more awe at their strangeness than revulsion or fear.  Just a thing to be endured like the tubes, tape and needles.

Coming back from the anesthesia the next afternoon took some doing.  Groggy head, queasy stomach and the inability to void on my own ruled the recovery.  Since it’s been said that a positive attitude and a sense of humor are great aids in healing, I tried to engage in both.  While being catheterized, I joked with the aid that this procedure was woman’s way of getting back at men for their deflowering women.  She laughed heartily.  And when the task was completed, she remained awhile offering insights about her own gallbladder removal, giving me encouragement with a wink and a pat on the arm.

When the urinary problem didn’t resolve in the next two days, they inserted a Foley, gave me instructions, and released me.  While being wheeled down the hall in a wheelchair and to my car by an older African-American lady, I was holding two vases of flowers in my lap, and I joked with those I passed by that I’d just won the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes.  Standing by my Chevy I told my helper that she was the most beautiful “Uber driver” I’d ever encountered.  She beamed and exclaimed, “That’s the nicest thing anybody ever said to me!”  Hers was the last face I saw upon my departure.  And it was smiling.

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Mark Scheel
Mark Scheel grew up in east-Kansas farm country. He attended both Kansas State University and The University of Kansas, majoring in psychology and English. Prior to writing full time he served overseas with the American Red Cross in Vietnam, Thailand, West Germany and England, taught at Emporia State University and was an information specialist with the Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. His stories, articles and poems have appeared in numerous magazines including The Little Balkans Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Cincinnati Poetry Review, The Kansas City Star, Heritage of Kansas, Samisdat, and Poet as well as many sites online such as Common Ground News. His literary activities have also involved membership in The Kansas Authors Club, a seat on the board of directors for Potpourri Publications Company and an editorial position with Kansas City Voices magazine. He co-authored the book Of Youth and the River: the Mississippi Adventure of Raymond Kurtz, Sr., and his collection of stories and poems, A Backward View, was awarded the 1998 J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award. His most recent book is titled The Pebble: Life, Love, Politics and Geezer Wisdom.

6 comments to Faces of Compassion, Faces of Hate

  • Mark,
    All those faces from the same species. But it’s good to see you back with pen in hand. Probably we’re all pecking away at a keyboard but we’re probably the last of a generation of people who started out with pen or pencil in hand.

    On another note I hope you took the Oxy. You are not going to get addicted at this stage of the game. But even if somehow you did, you could probably use the excitement.

    Don

  • mistermuse

    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    (I was going to send a smiley face for every year of your age, but I don’t have time) 🙁

  • markscheel1

    Don and Muse,

    Yep, you’re short a few faces, but I don’t mind at all! No, I didn’t take the oxy; the morphine was enough. Anyway, I’m finding I can eat about anything now with no ill effects. And yes, Don, I did start off with pen in hand–many years ago I’d write out a story or poem in long hand, then type it up. Wow. I remember my amazement the first time I typed on a word processor and could delete and edit on the screen. Seemed like a miracle. Ha.

    Mark

  • markscheel1

    Readers:

    Addendum. Several of those here who read the post inquired as to what happened to the soldier who told me about being in an ambush in Vietnam. Well, the facts are both the Viet Cong and the American soldier fired at the same time; the Viet Cong hit the American in the left arm while the American hit the Viet Cong in the chest and killed him.

    Just FYI.

    Mark

  • Mark,
    That sounds like Wyatt Earp and Curly Bill at Cottonwood Springs. Except the bullets went through Wyatt’s hat, coat, boot heel and saddle horn, none actually hit him.
    Don

  • markscheel1

    Don,

    Well, that wasn’t the end of the story. That soldier later was stationed in Germany, was drunk one night and got hit crossing the street by a Mercedes-Benz and was hurt worse by that than the Viet Cong bullet. But he survived both! And kept truckin’!

    Mark

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