So I’ve been thinking, over the past few days, about the bits and pieces of our selves that might constitute a life. The pieces that construct the story of who we are, how we think, what we do … things that, in essence, offer insight into our identities. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in hospital settings over the past week. Day surgery followed by a sudden spike in temperature and a return to emergency, followed by care for a convalescing child. And throughout these periods, I’ve reflected on the bits of the self that we left behind in each of those places and whether it might ever be possible – or even necessary – to recover them.
You see, I’m not so much interested in the stories we write down as I am in the other artifacts of life.
The intangibles, like conversation, laughter, facial expression – fleeting moments of both self-revelation and communion with the other. These, as so many thinkers in the eighteenth century have discussed, are the essence of social life. They define the space of our relationships with one another. And yet they can never be grasped. Wisps of clouds, they are not fixed; they are ephemeral. Moments gone before you even realise they happened.
But what of the tangible bits of self? The blood shed during my son’s operation. The tape that now covers his incision. The stickers offered to him by the lab technician, a reward for having his blood drawn. His hospital tag. And all the endless paperwork I had to sign. What do all these bits tell about who we are and what we are?
They reveal a medical history, for sure. A story of leakages and blockages occasioned, perhaps, by a premature birth. They reveal a blood type, and from that blood type a lineage that passes through my son to me and then, to my father … all of whom share the same rare blood. They reveal our religious difference, atheists in local world that is still largely shaped by (mostly) Christian belief. They reveal my son’s desires – two stickers of trucks – but they also reveal the limitations of the hospital’s vision: not only was he not offered any ‘girly’ stickers, but one of the nurses was reluctant to ask if he happened to be wearing nail polish or jewellery. I suppose she couldn’t have known that he’d come home with silver nail polish just two weeks ago….
But I found myself most intrigued by a display case in the pre-operative room. The cases houses all the things they’ve removed from children’s bodies over the past forty years or so. Some things are obvious: swallowed coins, bits of nuts that went down the wrong ‘pipe’ and ended up in the lungs rather than the stomach. Some are gruesome: a large chunk of wood removed from a child’s thigh; a fish hook removed from a hand … I can only imagine the pain these children went through.
And then, there’s the artefact removed from my other son’s body. Yes, it’s there, too, a small pink object glued to a piece of white paper with a typewritten description beneath it: PENCIL ERASER REMOVED FROM EAR. Yes, at some point in 2008, my older son managed to put a pencil eraser in his ear. We found it last year. And as I sat there, looking at it together with son #2 (who was fascinated), I wondered too about the bits of identity revealed in that small pink blob. Who is this child who puts a pencil eraser in his ear?
Like one of those amazing collections of strange and marvellous things gathered by wealthy men in times past, this display case fascinates, beseeches, and draws us in. Who are all those children who came through the pre-operative room, whose bits and pieces are now on display? What stories do all of these pieces have to tell?
In many ways, the letters I am immersed in are like this display cases. They offer hints of stories, moments frozen in time, tantalizing glimpses into lives lived, stories told.
Come into my parlour and let me tell you about my gallstones, my asthma, my migraines, my scars, my various aches and pains. Let me tell you about me.