René Descartes, the 17th century philosopher, had a theory that the mind and the body were separate entities. I had learned this on an Open University course in the 1975. It is now 1980 and I am on the operating table, anaesthetised, out of this world, and due to a sort of Descartian mind-body dualism experience, out of my head.
I am afloat in nothing. I cannot describe my state in words. Words are things. Words cannot describe this. This is nothing. Not black or dark. I am just here, present, in this boundless space. I am calm, have no sense of fear. There is a muted cacophony; voices, not conversation, but short instructions, answers, the clatter and clink of metal on metal, a door softly closing. With a strange ambivalence I think, wonder: where the fuck am I?
Pain. An intense burning sensation in the side of my body. Progressively the pain heightens as I dispassionately consider what to do about it. I decide I must make myself speak, communicate with the disembodied voices. I try to orchestrate my mouth; the lips and tongue to form words, to construct a sentence to tell the voices about the pain. The awful pain that my mind is conscious of but doesn’t feel. But my lips are inert, like pieces of tripe on a plate. They fail to obey my commands. As I ponder on this problem my mind wanders, drifts away, a fine filmy cobweb in a gentle breeze………
Six months before this inconvenient Lazarus moment during my operation, I had spent a week at Killingbeck Hospital in Leeds undergoing unpleasant tests to establish the cause of persistent chest infections that had dogged me for thirty years of my life.
The hospital stood in pleasant woodlands and I shared a generously proportioned room with French doors opening onto a balcony. When I first arrived I stood on the balcony, looked around at the pleasant gardens, then looked down, at what I thought was a gravel path but was in fact a carpet of discarded cigarette tips. My roommate Jeff, was a worried man, he had been referred for assessment after coughing up blood. He swore that after this crisis in his life never to smoke again. In the long intervals between the unpleasant tests we read, played cards or watched snooker on the black and white TV.
One day, at the end of my stay a nurse bustled into the room, pushed my feet off the coffee table and switched off the TV. Hot on her heels was a self important consultant dressed in a suit and a bow tie and followed by a phalanx of obeisant junior doctors.
“Mr Wilson,” said the consultant, addressing the group of attentive young doctors, “ has a damaged left lobe of his right lung, which we shall remove in a procedure known as……”
He continued lecturing his audience, then looked down at me. “Did you understand? He barked, and, in case I hadn’t added, “we are going to remove the lower lobe of your left lung.”
He then turned to Jeff, told him he had had some unpronounceable ailment that would heal without surgery, would make a full recovery, and then marched out of the door his minions following in his wake. Jeff, a huge weight removed from his shoulders, opened the French doors, stepped out and stood on the balcony, hands on the railings, inhaled with relief on a cigarette, while I sat staring at the blank TV screen contemplating my fate.