When I started to attend Ascension parochial school in the second grade my classmates and I went to Mass every morning before school. The school was overloaded with baby boomer students, and we filled the church. One morning on a gray winter day I knelt in a pew and listened to the priest drone on and on. I was groggy and bored and didn’t feel all that well, and I started to nod off. Suddenly I heard a booming sound. It grew louder and louder and began to beat a steady rhythm inside my head.
I was old enough to have absorbed some of the judgment theology of Roman Catholicism, and had keyed in on the possibility that some day my life would be critically examined in great detail. Woe to me if my record was found wanting. Eternal Retribution would soon follow.
The deep, bass thump seemed to fill up my skull, and I believed that God had taken some time out from His daily rounds to give me a preview of my heavenly trial. My Grandma Reger had already planted the idea in my head that I was a bad, devious child, and I thought that I heard the Gavel of God as He hammered out His judgment of me: boom boom BOOM! He had finally decided to rule in her favor.
Then I felt a trickle of something warm and oozy coming out of my right ear. I wiped some of it off my ear lobe and saw that it was bloody yellow. For a few minutes I thought that I was about to die, but then the sound started to get softer. The Mass ended and we went to our classes.
My Mom took me to our GP after I got home and showed her my ear. Dr. Kuhr treated me for an ear infection. The sound that I had heard was my pulse amplified through the swollen tissues around my eardrum. When my ear continued to ooze blood and pus Kuhr sent me to an ENT. I was diagnosed with mastoiditis. My ear canal was vacuum-suctioned and flushed by a hose connected to a bowl of swirling water, and I was given yet another round of antibiotics. I felt healthy after a few weeks went by, but the ENT told my Mom that I needed to have my tonsils out. Those little blobs of tissue were the cause of my troubles.
Several months later my parents took me to St. Elizabeth Hospital and checked me in the night before my surgery. They promised me lots of ice cream when it was all over. I could eat vanilla, strawberry and chocolate until I stuffed myself to overflowing. I believed in their promise, wasn’t scared at the prospect of surgery, and went along willingly.
A nurse woke me early the next morning and my parents arrived shortly after. Mom and Dad walked beside me as a man pushed me on a gurney down a long corridor toward the surgical suite. The orderly said, for the benefit of my little ears, that the hospital threw all the surgical mistakes, the dead bodies, into the Great Miami River that ran past the hospital. They floated all the way down to Cincinnati where someone else had to take the blame. Dad laughed, but I didn’t think that the joke was funny.
I was left in a pre-op room along with about five other patients. Most of them had IV lines attached to their arms and had been given drugs that made them stare blearily at the ceiling. Some of them muttered to themselves. One man moaned and complained to phantoms hovering overhead. They were all middle aged adults and older and looked like they were in bad shape. I came to the sudden conclusion that I didn’t belong there and that someone had made a horrible mistake. And I regretted every single Vincent Price horror film that I had watched on television, especially the ones about the evil Doctor Phibes, the madman who used his medicinal knowledge to kill his victims in creatively gruesome ways.
My turn finally came and I was wheeled into an operating room with yellow tiles on the wall. Every object in the room, including the operating table that I was told to lie down on, was made out of shiny metal. I felt very cold and more than a little scared. The nurses and doctors laughed, joked, told stories about their adventures over the weekend just past, and ignored me until the anesthesiologist put a rubber mask over my nose and mouth. I smelled something bitter and wanted to turn my head away, but the doctor tightly held the mask to my face. He told me to start counting back from 100. The last number I remember was 92 or 91, but before everything went black I started to see and hear the world around me in distorted waves of light and sound. The faces of the nurses and doctors took on an evil cast as if they were wearing Halloween masks. The last thing I heard was them laughing as they stood over me, and their har-har-hars sounded like the cackles of demons bent on torturing a poor soul caught in their clutches.
When I half woke up I was being wheeled in a hallway past a statue of the Virgin Mary. She stared solemnly and peacefully at me as I rolled by. I hoped that meant that I had passed through the valley of darkness and would soon be returned to my parents. Mom and Dad met me in my new ward room and handed me a toy matchbox car.
My throat hurt so badly when I took a sip of ice water that I wasn’t sure if I could get it down. I was surprised by how much pain could be concentrated in so small of an area. A nurse brought a bowl of vanilla ice cream, but I could barely swallow and only ate a few spoonfuls. It seemed like a very poor compensation for what I had been through that day.
I wondered as we drove home from the hospital how long it would be before my throat felt normal, and whether I had been right about God’s judgment back at the start of this misadventure when my ear suddenly went boom boom BOOM!