Surgical Strikes

[strike (n.) A sudden achievement or valuable discovery, as of a precious mineral.]

My husband and I were in Houston for a week for his spinal surgery at Houston Methodist in the Texas Medical Center. Two days before the scheduled operation, we had an afternoon to ourselves in between the pre-op procedures that morning and the imaging appointments in Radiology the next day. In the midst of the stress and apprehension that accompanies any major surgery, I suggested we visit the Rothko Chapel in the Museum District of the city, not far from the hotel at the medical center where we were staying. I thought we could use some peace and tranquility in a prayerful space.

The chapel houses fourteen canvases painted by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. That particular movement in art had never appealed to me, but I, along with my husband, was willing to be persuaded to a different opinion by the experience. A quote from co-founder Dominique de Menil in the chapel brochure in the foyer impressed me from the first moment.

The Rothko Chapel is oriented toward the sacred and yet it imposes no traditional environment. It offers a place where a common orientation could be found-an orientation towards God, named or unnamed, an orientation towards the highest aspirations of Man…

It is a place, then, where each visitor can create her own meaning, can be led to serenity by his own pathway, art, God, architecture or the integration of the three.

There’s no doubt that the paintings are meant to dominate. The octagonal design of the chapel’s architecture merely creates the space in which the art reigns. Rothko’s fourteen works are massive and monochromatic, colossuses which the painter said he wanted to overwhelm the viewer. About the “color field” technique of abstract expressionism, Metropolitan Museum of Art educator Stella Paul says that these artists held the sublime as a goal in their paintings, not the beautiful. They wanted the viewer’s experience to transcend pure aesthetics (as with just a pretty representational picture) to the level of spirituality through the emotional power of color and size.

I had read, too, that the abstract expressionists were heavily influenced by Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious and believed that humans share a hard-wired catalog of meaningful images and that these can be exploited by artists to express universal human conditions. And, I swear, the longer I gazed at Rothko’s paintings, the more archetypal visions I could make out in his overlapping subtle shadings of black and inky plum. The canvases looked almost like they’d been loosely upholstered with crepe de chine; they flowed with color. By the end of our thirty-minute visit, I could see biblical beards and Mosaic robes, multitudes of upturned human faces, crosses, slopes of spruce forests, rippling river water, seascapes, all merging and transforming with the shifting cloud shadows through the skylight overhead. Dominique de Menil said further about the chapel, “It is a place where a great artist, turned toward the Absolute, had the courage to paint almost nothing.” The more I let myself see, the more I saw. And so did my husband, his own perceptions. We left quietened and calmed, strengthened, I feeling the presence of God, he trusting the potential greatness of human ability, in painters and surgeons alike.

Two mornings later when we checked him in for surgery at 10 a.m., we were stressed again now that the time had come. Even though we had confidence in the neurosurgeon’s stellar reputation (and the people who had recommended him), in the excellent hospital and all the careful pre-op, it was nevertheless alarming to know that my husband’s spinal canal would be cleaned up and repaired during the upcoming decompression surgery to relieve pressure on two spinal discs and their attendant nerves, thus ending his pain. “What about the spinal cord?” I wondered, silently so as not to multiply my husband’s own worries, hoping there wasn’t a thought balloon visible above my head with images of Christopher Reeve swirling around in it. “What if it’s severed or damaged during the procedure?”

It wasn’t until he was actually in the OR and my cousin (my official hand holder) was googling around on her tablet in the waiting room that I began to feel faith in those surgeon’s hands, long-fingered and supple as Van Cliburn’s. An image of spinal anatomy showed that the cord ends at vertebrae L1/L2, while my husband’s surgery was in the spinal core well below that, at L3/L4 and L4/L5. All would be well, all would be well, all manner of things would be well. The surgeon confirmed this when he came in later and reported to me, although the procedure had been “a hard one,” he said.

The large waiting room was jammed with families anxious, like me, for information about their loved ones undergoing surgery. During the hours I was there, some received good news, others did not. One young man sat at a table with his head in his hands while an older woman—probably his mother—consoled him. The man from Waller, Texas, sitting next to me learned that his wife’s brain surgery had revealed an abscess, a deep infection from a prior operation. The surgeon held little hope of her recovery. As I headed out for supper (and a glass of wine) at about 6 p.m., the man requested that I pray for her. I asked his wife’s name. “Virginia,” he said, “and I am Jackson.” When I returned to the hospital later, I saw him entering Post-op, finally called to see his wife after her seven-plus hours in the OR. As a point of comparison, my husband’s procedure had lasted one hour and forty-five minutes from the time of incision, forty-five minutes after he’d entered the OR.

At 9:15 I called the hotel. The next day I would brave Houston traffic and scarce medical center parking to pick up my husband from the hospital in our rental car upon his release, but for now the hotel shuttle was the best mode of transportation. My husband and I had been using it to and fro for the past three days and appreciated its convenience and efficiency. The van arrived fifteen minutes after my call and I was the only passenger. I sat in front with Coleman, the driver—a man probably in his early 80s—who had brought me over earlier. “How’s your husband?” he inquired. “Good news, Coleman,” I replied. “The surgery was a success and he’s doing fine. But some people didn’t get such good news today, and I feel so sorry for them.”

Coleman pondered that for a moment or two and then spoke, his Texas drawl patient with words and the spaces between them too. “You know, it’s a myth we all have that we don’t have to suffer grief if we’re right with God. But we all have to lose someone someday.” He went on to say that sometimes the truth comes out of the mouths of babes, and to illustrate he told the story of kindergarteners who were asked what you have to do to get into heaven. Among their answers were, “You have to say your prayers”; “You have to go to church”; “You have to always be good.” But one child spoke up, “You have to die!”

Coleman next told me that the only passage he knew in the Bible that passes on Jesus’s advice on loss is the story about Lazarus being raised from the dead. He quoted the Lord as having said to the two grieving sisters, “Let him go, let him go!”

When I got to the room, I went immediately to the Gideon Bible there and looked up the Lazarus story, John 11:1-44. Coleman was right, Jesus did say, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Coleman interpreted that Jesus was instructing Mary and Martha, the sisters and his dear friends, to accept that death, to grieve, to go through the pain in faith and let the loss transform them. And I found I agreed with my new philosopher friend, even though he had taken the quote out of context from the Bible’s story, where Lazarus indeed experienced resurrection, foreshadowing Jesus’s own and affirming Jesus’s identity as the Christ with this final powerful act in a series of miracles. Coleman’s perception instead made of the story a parable, a teaching tool: death is a part of life too; we will suffer loss; and through this suffering we can be transformed, a keystone precept of Christianity.

I then knew how to pray to God, thanks to Coleman, for Virginia and Jackson, and I said, “The darkness can’t be lightened or eliminated, but their fear of it can be. Be with them.”

And be with us.