My husband had an operation, and for a while afterward he thought he would die. Because of circumstances he had to go through the ordeal alone. He returned from the hospital with a bag attached to the outside of his stomach for the feces to collect in and he had to empty this bag several times a day, as well as three or four times during the night, on his knees in front of the toilet bowl so that soon big, hard callouses had formed on the skin there. But in hospital he had seen that worse things happen to other people.
With these nightly disruptions, for the first time in his life he lost the ability to sleep. I told him that years before, when I myself first lost the ability to sleep through the night, I had adopted the practice of retracing a journey to try to find my way back into unconsciousness. It was always the same journey: from the house in the English village to which we had moved from the United States when I was a child, to the local market town. This journey of seven or so miles was one I had observed regularly through the windows of the back seat of the family car in the period immediately following our arrival. At a certain point we moved to a different house in another village and no longer took that road to the town. But when I thought about it all those years later, I found that I recalled it perfectly. Each time I went over it, lying awake in the dark, I exacted more detail from myself. I traveled more and more slowly, partly because I knew that if I ever reached the market town it would mean my strategy had failed and that I was still awake. But no matter how slowly I went, my memory was always able to supply the matching images. It was a kind of test, as though of the significance of my own history, like the lists of important dates or the names of kings and queens that a schoolchild is required to learn by heart.
My husband was surprised to hear that I had done this, and so for the first time I considered why, in fact, I had. The journey from the village house to the market town had no particular interest or point of exception: it was boring, and this must have been the reason I had thought it would send me to sleep. What I had never considered was the quality of the attention my child-self had paid to it. I had known I could rely on that attention, all those years later, as on a space or location inside myself where the details of the journey were stored.
Pain and fear, as well as self-disgust, had changed my husband’s character. He no longer felt the benevolence that once had flowed from his trust in life. That phrase—“trust in life”—was one he had used. He no longer contained the beneficence and joyfulness that for him had generally arisen from the condition of being alive. The memory of his time in hospital, and of the anguish he had experienced there, oppressed and exhausted him. Certain details—the frightful noises made by the patient in the next-door bed who refused to get up and simply soiled himself where he lay, the leather trousers worn by the surgeon on the morning after the operation when he came to deliver fateful news at my husband’s bedside, the male nurse who had stayed awake with my husband all night after the surgery, rocking him to ameliorate the effects of the anesthetist’s mistake and talking of the Sicilian village from which he came—were, it seemed, indelible. Had he not been alone, had I been there to see it all with him, their power might have been less. For me, these details adhered to the recognizable pattern by which life attains its neutral balance—a general debt of mediocrity, failure and malfeasance, all redeemed by one outstanding action—but for him they represented an awakening into darkness, where, without the light of partiality and belief, everything looked the same.
I got used to the bag on his stomach, while at the same time never actually believing it was there. Its horror was insuperable: in the panic and disorder of the operation they had located it in an inconvenient place, far from the X the nurse had drawn beforehand on the skin to show the surgeons where it should go; it leaked its contents everywhere, and the site continually bled. He wondered why he had met with such affliction, and I saw this as the corollary of that misplaced trust in life, which I had never had. In the time before this turn of events, he would often say that we were living in the last era—the death throes—of the bad white man’s power, but as far as I could see, those men were going from strength to strength, while he—tolerant and kind—suffered.
It was hard to know what meaning to assign to these events: their meaninglessness was continually threatening. Both of us had been brought up in the Christian religion, and that belief system had a tendency to show through at moments of doubt or strain, like old wallpaper showing through the subsequent efforts to paint over it. But very quickly I came to feel a new admiration for my husband, for the dignity and self-restraint with which he was coping with his misfortune. A spiritual explanation came to seem less important; had the same thing happened to me, I would not have managed it so well. In the hospital he had seen other men lose their self-control and their respectability, yet his own strength was not an inspiration to him. For perhaps the first time in his life, the moral value of his conduct was outweighed for him by a sense of nihilism. He had been shocked to see the depths of self-relinquishment to which others fell but even so the question remained: Why had these things happened to him?