I’m lying sideways on a gurney in the radiology department of my local hospital. My bloated abdomen glistening with ultrasound jelly, I feel like a beached whale leaking ambergris.
“Take a deep breath and hold it,” the ultrasound technician says, pressing the transducer wand hard into my side.
Obeying her instructions, I suck up a lungful of air and clamp my throat shut. As I listen to the sonogram machine whir and beep, anxiety starts rippling through my stomach. Over the past several weeks my digestive system has been out of whack. At first I chalked up the belching, farting, abdominal pain, and spicy dumps to the excitement of the past two months. But, after doubling over in pain after a particularly heavy meal, my girlfriend finally convinced me to see a doctor.
“Could be gallstones,” my internist said after examining me. “Or a peptic ulcer. We’ll do some blood work to check your liver and get an ultrasound of your abdomen. You’ll probably need an endoscopy too.”
“Just lovely,” I replied.
“You gained some weight. Fifteen pounds since March?”
“I haven’t been eating well,” I admitted. “I haven’t been exercising much either.”
“How’s your stress level?”
“High,” I replied. “But it’s all good stress.”
“What’s good stress?’
When I tell the doctor where I was and what I did the day before, his mouth drops open.
“Really?’ he exclaimed.
The doctor shakes his head and laughs. “That is good stress.”
Suddenly the lactic acid bubbling inside my lungs snaps me into the present. The ultrasound technician hasn’t given me permission to resume breathing. After years of smoking, the odds are good I’m not going to be an abalone diver anytime soon. I let the CO2 out of my lungs and gulp down a breath of Lysol scented hospital air.
“Could you tell me when I can stop holding my breath?” I snap. “Please?”
“When you can’t hold your breath any longer,” the technician says, “Let it out.”
“Thanks,” I reply. “I like little things like oxygen.”
“Please roll onto your back,” the tech says with cool professionalism.
I roll onto my back. The tech squirts more goop onto my quivering abdomen and starts rubbing the transducer wand over where my liver should be. A wave of self loathing washes over me. What would the cute nurse with the StairMastered backside I passed in the hallway think if she saw me lying here like a middle-aged lump of adipose tissue? Who am I kidding? She’s probably banging some cop with six pack abs. I’ve had it. When this is all over I’m getting my ass back to the gym.
As the ultrasound technician leans forward to look at the monitor, I study her face closely. Maybe she’s seeing an inflamed liver, a gallbladder full of stones, or a burgeoning tumor preparing to snuff out my life. I once had a friend who had some abdominal trouble. He went to the doctor to get some tests done and three months later he was dead. People’s lives sometimes end that way. I search the tech’s face but her professional composure reveals nothing. Intellectually, I know the she can’t tell me anything. Emotionally, however, I want her to tell me everything she’s seeing. Not knowing has always scared me more than knowing.
“Take a deep breath and hold it,” the technician asks.
My anxiety level is ramping so high that the last thing I need to do is hold my breath. Of course Death decides to pick this moment to enter the room. Towering over me in his dreadful black majesty, he points to the ultrasound image of a tumor reflected in his polished razor sharp scythe. “I am Death,” his weary voice rasps. “And I have come to take you away.” Tears sting my eyes. Just as my life is turning the corner I’m going to die. I feel fat, alone, and doomed. I knew I should have pre-medicated for this test with Xanax.
“Are you nervous, sir?” the technician asks.
“Just a tad,” I reply.
“The test is almost over, sir. Hang in there.”
As the tech probes my body with sound waves I look over at Death. I know why he’s here. He’s the phantasmical remnant of my oldest fear – that when ever something good happens, disaster is always lurking around the corner ready to destroy me. Therapy, friends, love, and an ever growing confidence about life have reduced that fear to a shadow of what it once was. But my demon will never completely fade away. With all the good things happening in my life, I’m not surprised he’s making an appearance. There’s really only one way to handle this.
“So did you find that burrito?” I ask the technician.
For the first time, the technician smiles. “Not yet.”
“It’s probably been rattling inside my colon for years.”
“If I find it,” the tech says. “I’ll let you know.”
“If you look closely,” I say, “You’ll probably find some marbles I swallowed as a kid.”
“How much is the machine that goes beep?” I ask.
The tech smiles and shakes her head.
I look over at the Grim Reaper. “I’m terribly sorry Mr. Death,” I say, “But I didn’t eat the salmon mousse.”
Death stares at me, incredulously.
“Would you like a drink?” I ask. “I’m afraid we don’t have any beer. But the Stilton’s awfully good.”
Slowly, Death starts fading away.
“Let me tell ya something,” I crow, “I just wanna say this! Now look here! You barge in here quite uninvited and then announce quite casually that we’re all dead! Well, I would remind you that you are a guest in this house! Get out!”
Death disappears. I’m not surprised. Monty Python’s magic is powerful. Eventually the test ends and I go home. Two days later the doctor calls with the results. My liver is fine. Nothing catastrophic is happening. My gallbladder’s full of rocks and has to come out. It’s painful, annoying, makes me fart enough gas to fill a zeppelin, but it won’t kill me. After an endoscopy to rule out an ulcer, same day surgery is in my very near future. More machines that go beep! Just great.
Sure, gallbladder surgery is routine, but it still sucks. Oh well, I’ll content myself with a piece of advice from one of the greatest comedy troupes of all time - try looking on the bright side of life. Hey, at least I won’t feel guilty about not going to the gym. I’ll be convalescing!
If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
When you’re feeling in the dumps
Don’t be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle – that’s the thing.
And…always look on the bright side of life…
Always look on the light side of life..
When Death comes and he isn’t a demon, then I’ll know it’s my time.