The spring had been wet and the summer hot and it had been a bad year for mosquitoes. After the water dried up and the mosquitoes died off, the dragonflies appeared. So, as I sat with my wife at the admissions desk of the hospital registering for today’s operation, I was not surprised to see a large dragonfly sail through the front entrance and land on the glass between the clerk and me. I watched it flex its metallic-green wings against its long abdomen, eventually realizing the clerk was staring at me. It had been two hours since I’d taken an Ativan to numb my anxiety.
“His name is Oliver Adler,” said Christine, leaning forward to address the clerk.
I looked at her, thankful she was there.
“Do you see the dragonfly?” I pointed, but it had already gone. I turned back to the clerk, squinting to focus.
He looked at his screen. “Alder?”
“No, Adler. A-D-L-E-R.”
“Right. Do you know where you’re taking him?”
Evidently, the clerk had given up on me and was now speaking only to my wife. The dragonfly had landed on her head, like a viridescent bow my daughter would put in her hair.
Viridescent —I liked the wobble of the word in my brain.
I reached out to touch the dragonfly, but it flitted out of sight behind Christine’s braid. She was glaring at me.
“Dragonfly,” I mumbled.
I think that’s when she gave up on me too.
“Go down that hall. Take the stairs to the third floor. Turn left and go in the door that says Day Surgery.”
I tried to say thank you, to show the clerk that I was all right, but he had already motioned to the next patient.
I kept up with my wife all the way to the third floor and turned left, sprinting a little to reach the door ahead of her, making sure to hold it open until she entered. She didn’t seem to appreciate it. We seated ourselves in the waiting room.
A woman was yelling into her cell phone. I looked at my wife and whispered, “Whoever she’s talking to has already had his balls cut off.”
Judging by Christine’s reaction, I might not have been as quiet as I’d thought.
I tried to recover. “I don’t think the Ativan is affecting me too much.”
Her eyebrow lifted. “You don’t?”
I chewed on my tongue. In my youth, I had discovered it was the quickest way to know if I was drunk. I couldn’t feel it. Better downplay things.
“Well, I’m definitely not like Dad.” I felt this was important to emphasize. After the Alzheimer’s had taken his mind, my dad’s care nurses had tried to sedate him with Ativan, but he’d had an adverse reaction to it. Instead of settling him, it cranked him right up. One night in the middle of winter, he’d escaped, breaking a wheelchair and going out the back door. He set off the only alarm in the place, but the nurses never caught him. A baker heading to work found him on the other side of town early the next morning, freezing in his hospital gown, and brought him back.
“You’re sure you’re not like him?” Christine asked.
“Of course. Why would I be?” I could tell I was supposed to be offended by the insinuation but couldn’t figure out why.
A nurse looked up from the desk. “Oliver Alder?”
“Adler,” my wife answered.
The nurse looked at her sheet. “Oh, right. Come along.”
I followed the nurse into an airy hallway with two curtained-off areas. She waved to the one that was open. A hospital bed waited within, its back raised to a forty-five-degree angle.
“Put your pants on the chair, climb onto the bed, and pull the sheet over you.”
Before Dad got sick, Christine and I had backpacked with the kids through France, Italy, and Greece, and I’d learned to appreciate the generally easygoing European attitude about the human body. I would later explain to my wife that it was this appreciation and nothing else that prompted me to disrobe in front of the nurse. She turned, unimpressed, and snatched the curtain closed. I hoped her disdain was only because she’d seen enough naked patients to last a lifetime.
I was relaxing on the bed when the doctor arrived. “Hello, Mr. Alder.”
I didn’t correct him.
“I’ll have a resident helping me today. He’s not here yet, but we’ll start your prep now.”
Men who have vasectomies apparently have a lower chance of getting prostate cancer, not as a result of the operation, but because any problems are likely to be detected early, thanks to a willingness to let the doctor get hold of the family jewels. Lying there, mostly undressed, watching the doctor prepare the anesthetic, I wondered how low the statistics were for prostate cancer in European men.
“All you’re going to feel is a little tug.”
I watched the needle slide under my skin. The lower part of my body felt very far away and I tried to recall a Bette Midler movie where the doctor gives a pregnant woman a needle and says, “All you’ll feel is a little prick,” and the woman responds, “That’s what got me here in the first place.”
Before I figured it out, the doctor had disappeared.
I opened my eyes to find the doctor staring at me. I had been dreaming of dragonflies, filling a brightening sky, stretching their wings in early morning sunshine.
“I’d like you to meet Dr. Adler.”
The resident stood behind the doctor, his humped back turned towards me. I laughed out loud at the similarity of our names, but couldn’t remember if I’d opened my mouth to do so.
The resident turned, and there stood my father, looking the way he had the night of the viewing at the funeral home. His hair was long and white, his cheeks filled with cotton. Wax-skinned. Stiff. Formal. He wore his suit beneath the scrubs. But there was life in his eyes, and when he smiled, I knew he recognized me.
The doctor punctured my scrotum with a hemostat. He drew the first slender tube out of the hole, formed a loop, and clipped it in two.
“Shit, I hate hospitals,” my father grouched. I couldn’t agree with him more.
The doctor stitched the ends shut. “It’s bleeding a little. Let’s clean it up.”
Dad handed him what looked like a soldering iron. There was a little hiss and a sharp waft of cooked meat as the wound was cauterized.
The doctor pulled out the second loop and glanced at Dad. “I’ll get you to do this one.” He pinched off the tube and handed my father the snips. He took them and looked at me. We stared at each other. Before the operation, before the funeral, before the Alzheimer’s, life had been a steady, unchanging course.
“There are some things we should never have to do.” He said more, but my mind fell backwards, and by the time he had snipped and stitched and sutured, I was looking up at him from the other side of thick glass.
On the ride home, Christine said I mumbled something about not wanting my mouth sewn shut for telling a lie. She said I slept for four hours.
But I didn’t.
I waited and I hid and never told her what had happened, that I had seen my father, that he had stepped away when I had reached for his hand. I never told her he had finally shed the white doctor’s coat, unfurled four magnificent viridescent wings—oh, the sheen of their flexion!—and then, with no goodbye, flown up through the ceiling and escaped into the warm morning sun.
Originally published Apr 17, 2012, in Briarpatch Magazine | Edited by Heather Nickel | Dragonfly Photo by Andre Iv