There’s a certain alluring tyranny about the fish tank, all 100 gallons of it, and the lucky seven salt-water beauties put in there for our observation, or amusement, or distraction. The angelfish in particular has a crazed look about her, skimming ever so close to the glass wall before cutting back like a fluidly talented NFL running back, her bulging eye unflinching as it leaves a lasting though inscrutable image. Does she see me? Is that death watching? The mind plays tricks, eye to eye like that with mystery. It’s all so clear, and then again, ha!
The game here at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle is to have this tank as a centerpiece in a room where a collision of humanity shows off how impossible it is to choreograph the chaos of disease, tumors, rapid or slow but inevitable decline. There is a pretense of order, but then come the people in wheelchairs, the surgery candidates on gurneys clanking out of double doors. There are civilians who will become patients based on what the scans say, the biopsies, medical opinion. Odds, chances, it’s all on display as the humans in their myriad shapes, sizes, habits of movement saunter through, stumble by, shuffle along.
Somewhere outside these walls, a health care debate is raging, as if there was any orderly way to present each and every individual human being with their own set of mortal term limits the perfect, painless access to machines and medical professionals who will magically assuage all the potential horrors that cells and organs can and will muster. Policy, theory, politics … for some reason I find the saddest cases to be the elderly women chaperoned by baby boomer sons embarrassed in front of strangers who patiently wait to hold the elevator door. “This way, mom,’’ one says, sheepishly shrugging at the unfamiliar role of death-defying shepherd to the collection of strangers surrounding him. “Yeah,” he radiates in bemused dread. “It has come to this.” He has become a part of the health care theater, this latest episode taking place in the half-light of Buck Pavilion, where every colonoscopy recipient gets his or her garage ticket validated for 2 hours of free parking.
Unemployed as I am in a country where, as a journalist and like millions of the other unemployed, I have kind of outlived my technical purposes, so I’m getting used to a castoff’s life, complete with time to kill. This is why it was so easy for me to volunteer to pick up my friend who just had her third colonoscopy in four years. Being unemployed with so much time to kill does present some oxymoronic behavior, as in, not finding time to get important medical tests done.
I’m not ignoring the fact that at age 51, I’m now more than one year late for the prescribed procedure. “No one has to die from colon cancer these days,” was the warning my doctor gave me last time I was in for a physical. I totally agree. And it’s not fear that keeps me from booking the appointment, but there’s something. What’s the rush? That’s one form of denial, or some stupid, intractable, growing condition of somnolence.
The world itself seems to have rotated into a more than vaguely discernable death spiral, so what’s another day of not getting my colon scoped and, instead, contemplating the death of the oceans, the nuclear flow from Fukushima, the Arctic melt, the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas in deep shale beds, the hurricanes, the edges of nations sinking under the rising tides. Besides, there are chairs to count!
Along the walls of the waiting room, dozens of mismatched chairs are lined up: A lot of customers, the chairs signal in shabby fabrics of metaphor. In one, a Filipino woman is listening to something on her phone, through white ear buds, which she removes when the nurse comes to tell her that they took three polyps from her husband and that the test results will come in a week. Also, his blood sugar is high, she’s told, before he comes loping out, groggy from the anesthesia but looking happy, frisky.
I lose them as they walk away, their playful swats at each other bending behind the water-filled glass. In the center of this room, there’s the tank, radiating light, shimmering with silence and gravity-defying movement. It all comes back to the center, and the question: Are the fish swimming in free-formed fulfillment of their natural order or are they pacing in their own legless way? Are they serene and unattached to the commotion of the cosmos or are they bored, infuriated by the requirement that they be on constant display? It’s really a toss-up, depending on your point of view.
Is a former political and sports columnist who worked great cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. She lives New York.