30 September 2016


Within eleven days, I lost two things that were part of my life: my gallbladder and my wife's granny.

I've never had surgery before, not really. I had a broken arm once, I had stitches twice. I never even had my wisdom teeth out. But now I was losing a part of my body.

It's because part of my body had turned on me: I'd had three episodes of terrible abdominal pain, two of which sent me to the emergency room, where I was diagnosed with gallstones, little deposits of fat in your gallbladder that can block a duct if they end up in the wrong place. Mine did; that's what causes the pain. It's the worst pain I've ever been in. After the second attack, I was on the fence about surgery; after the third, which put me out of joint for the next forty-eight hours, I knew it had to go. In the meantime, I was on a low-fat diet, not that it always worked-- the last attack was triggered by a tofu bahn mi, which feels grossly unfair.

In one of my writing courses this semester, I'm having my students write papers about various forms of violence, often papers about how violence is written about. Once they were supposed to bring in writing where someone advocated for or justified violence, like a declaration of war. One brought in a general piece on self-defense, that argued self-defense was like surgery. You cut off a limb to preserve a body; you hurt a person to preserve the social body. I flipped the analogy around-- was it self-defense to destroy my gallbladder? Was it a form of violence?

The actual surgery was pretty anticlimactic, thanks to anesthetic. Anesthetic is weird, it's not like falling asleep. One second I was in the surgery room as everyone busied themselves getting ready, the next second I was somewhere else, in pain, and I no longer had a gallbladder. A part of me was gone, in less than a moment of time.

Some people say that when someone close to you dies, it's like losing a part of yourself. I'm not so sure. I've lost a part of myself. I destroyed a part of myself in self-defense. Watching my wife mourn, and remembering the two times I lost a grandparent, I'd rather lose an organ than a loved one. My gallbladder, according to the pathology report, was a small one, 6.5 by 2.4 centimeters. (Not to mention, "irregular [and] somewhat distorted.") A loved one leaves a much bigger hole. A hole that's possibly bigger than your own self.

Loss of a loved one can be anticlimactic. My wife's granny wasn't gone as quickly as my gallbladder, but she was gone fast. A few hours passed between when my wife got the text that her granny was on her way to the hospital and when she got the call that her granny hadn't made it. (By contrast, my grandfather died across the period of several weeks.)

But even a sudden death lingers. A passing thought (she said, she'll never get to know our children), a visit to her home (it feels strange to enter a space that so markedly belonged to someone, and know they'll never enter it again), seeing her body at the funeral home (I always find bodies weirdly lifelike, because of course they are our lives), can all spark the loss again. The only way the loss of my organ lingers emotionally is in the sense of joy I experience when I bite down into a hamburger again.

The loss of an organ occurs in a moment, and heals pretty quickly (my last steri-strip fell off the same day we heard about her granny), but the loss of a loved one remains an open wound much longer. And the hole that's left behind is the size of a lifetime.

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