I am a tube of flesh; a hollow reed made of meat. At the center of my body is a slimy, vacant void; a duct running the span from anus to mouth. My outer eyes have now seen this inner truth. I have peeked into my body and traveled through the emptiness of my own intestines.
What better way to celebrate turning 51 than by having a colonoscopy? Reaching the half-century mark in my life was to be punctuated by my own body being punctured with a two-foot-long endoscope inserted into my rectum. My insides would be inspected for polyps and tumors, which, if discovered, could be removed by means of a sharp cutting loop attached to the end of the snake-like device. Happy birthday to me.
As it turns out, the most unpleasant part of the entire procedure was the preparation. The operation itself was scheduled for Friday, but on the preceding Tuesday I was instructed to start eating a low fiber diet. You might think that a high fiber diet would better clear the colon, but the logic here is that high fiber diets also leave a lot of residue behind that could obscure the doctor’s view of any abnormatlities, while low fiber diets leave little residue. Dutifully, I stopped eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains or anything containing more than 1 gram of fiber. Instead, for two days, my meals consisted of white bread, egg substitute and bowls of cream of wheat. Within a day I was already feeling out of sorts, like a cranky baby subsisting on pabulum, logy and stopped up.
And yet the worst was still to come.
One day before the colonoscopy I stopped eating altogether. Since my appointment was on a Friday afternoon, I went a day and a half without any food, which I initially didn’t think would be so bad, but it soon became apparent that fasting for such a long period of time was making my brain malfunction. At work I was in haze. I was chronically distracted, I kept forgetting things, and I just wanted to lie down and sleep. To make things even more unpleasant, this was also the point at which the consumption of coffee was forbidden.
The evening before the procedure I started drinking half of a gallon-sized jug of polyethylene laxative called Gavilyte. The medication comes as a powder that is mixed with water before use. It has an optional lemon flavoring packet, which I included in the solution but later wished I had omitted. The flavoring is not strong enough to fully mask the salty/metallic taste of the laxative itself, and yet it adds just enough of a recognizable essence that one’s awareness of drinking something unnatural and unfamiliar is amplified. Imagine ingesting seawater mixed with Gatorade that has been laced with something vaguely citrus-like and you’ll get a sense of the revolting nature of this concoction. And while drinking one glass-full is bad enough, the instructions require that you continue drinking glass after glass for a total of two hours until half of the jug has been consumed. The second half of the jug is consumed the following morning, and needs to be finished at least three hours before the colonoscopy is performed.
Shortly after starting the laxative, the shitting began. The instructions advise you to stay home and close to a bathroom. Good advice. At first I felt an uncomfortable sensation of pressure building up in my lower regions; the sort of feeling you get when you start to develop diarrhea. I rushed to the toilet, and a torrent of loose, watery stool came gushing forth. Initially there were bits of solid waste contained in this brown, brackish fountain of filth, but after repeated visits to bathroom, the flow became increasingly free of solid matter. The stool became more and more liquid and less brown, taking on a yellow-colored tinge. Yes, it was like pissing out of my ass. This continued for a couple of hours the first night, and then for a couple more hours the next morning. Repeated wiping left me raw and irritated, but I was also relieved that this part of the ordeal was over.
Upon arriving at the clinic, I started to experience a sense of anxiety that I had not felt before. Up until this point, my discomfort was mostly physical and related to the uncontrollable current of fluid passing through my body. Now that I was at the clinic, stripped naked, pierced with needles and tubes that introduced intravenous medications into my system, my mind started to wander toward thoughts of mortality. Though there was no reason to suspect that I had any serious medical problems at this point in time, I started to imagine what it might be like, sometime in the future, when I was admitted to the hospital under more dire circumstances. I remembered visiting my father, my mother, my wife’s mother – all of them toward the end of their lives when they were treated at the hospital for various maladies and conditions that ultimately ended in death. This is what it would feel like. I would be lying here, vulnerable and passive, while doctors and nurses buzzed around me and my loved ones waited to hear the prognosis.
“Your hands are very cold,” the nurse said to me. “Are you nervous?” “No, not at all,” I lied. In fact, I was thinking about how this was a prelude of coming events. My body will continue to age and there will be more and more visits to the hospital until the visits stop altogether. That is when this reed of flesh, this meat-machine, will finally cease to function, lying flaccid, slack and lifeless once and for all.
Wheeled into the procedure room, I was encircled by three strangers: the gastroenterologist and his two nurses. I was instructed to curl up on my side in a fetal position, the entryway to my internal mysteries exposed for convenient access. “I’m going to give you your medicine now,” one of the nurses said as she injected a hypodermic syringe full of clear liquid into the IV stuck into the back of my hand. Almost immediately, I felt relaxed. All of my anxiety was gone and for an instant, my eyes shut. When they opened again I was staring at a video monitor, and was in the midst of a journey down a slimy tunnel of flesh. I was looking at my own insides. I felt nothing – either physically or emotionally – but simply watched, detached and unconcerned by the images in front of my face. The images remain vivid in my mind now, but they seem unreal, as if I dreamed them. I recall the convolutions in my intestinal walls, the appearance of blood vessels and the gooey strings of mucus. In the distance I remember hearing the doctor say, “It all looks pretty clear,” and then “Oh, there’s a polyp.” Even now I can see the cutting loop on the end of the endoscope encircling a flat, whitish bit of flesh, being pulled taught, and then red fluid oozing from around the edges of the excised polyp.
Just as I did not feel the endoscope enter, neither did I feel it exit. My wife, who years before had also had a colonoscopy, commented on the unsettling ease with which this kind of intrusion is made. “It’s as if you could be standing on the street, waiting for the bus, and someone could come along and slip a tube right up your butt without you even knowing!” That’s how permeable our bodies are. Inside and outside are separated by a mere fabric of skin.
As I lay there on the gurney, I did have the presence of mind to ask if I could see the lump of protein that had just been removed from me. The nurse held up a small liquid-filled specimen jar, and there, floating in the solution was a tiny, pin-head sized white nib. Nothing much, really, but enough that if left to grow and flourish in the sticky, feces-filled environment of my colon, it could become cancerous and result in the death of the organism to which it was attached. This little tag of skin, this little trouble-maker, could be enough eventually to infect all of the other cells and organs in my body with malignancy. Because of one poisonous polyp, all of a person’s projects, aspirations, and hopes could be undermined. What power! What quiet destructive potential this fleshy little rascal had!
I decided that his name would be Peter. Peter the Polyp. My doctor assured me that though Peter was a little hooligan, he would not cause me any further problems. He had been removed and detained, and I need not fear any further contact with him. In a letter I received a week later, the doctor told me that Peter was benign.
It is a strange and unsettling experience to see yourself from the inside, to be shown your interior voids and messy contents. How a skin-encased bag of pulp can give rise to all of the hopes, dreams and aspirations that a human being harbors is an amazing mystery to me; one that I find both disquieting and wonderful at the same time. Like a stem of grass, a body grows from its source, stretching higher and higher until the materials out of which it is constructed fail, and the sprig collapses, dies. We all know that death of the body is an inevitability, and yet from inside this stalk of flesh, an inner voice somehow develops, making us wish that there was something more. In our private depths we imagine that the empty tubes and conduits inside of our bodies must contain something – a soul or a spirit – more permanent and lasting than this physical enclosure of flesh and meat.
But I have peeked into the interior of my body with my own eyes, and I can confirm that there is nothing there but emptiness.