I wish I were referring to an icy milkshake (even with the brain freeze), a sparkling bottle of riesling, or a lukewarm pint of port, but, no — in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve downed four liters of a mammoth cocktail of dread: sodium chloride, sodium bicarbonate, and potassium chloride.
Some of you know what I’m talking about: the god-awful colonoscopy prep drink.
For many, this procedure marks a milestone of a certain age deemed by medical practitioners as the time to scan for colon cancer. For me, this procedure comes at a much younger age — and as a bittersweet tie to my father who died of colon cancer at 63.
My father was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in his early 30s, which developed into colon cancer by the time he was in his 50s despite having his colon removed. I am 39. According to my doctor, I am ‘overdue’ for this very intimate scan.
As I rapidly swallow mouthful after mouthful of what tastes like watered down cigarettes stewing in a very salty ashtray — mixed with just enough of a tinge of ‘cherry flavoring’ that I will not eat anything cherry-related for months — I think of my father. He went through this procedure multiple times.
I text my mother to commiserate. She tells me, “Your dad was a trooper — but he was never able to finish the whole thing.”
I don’t think I will be able to either. Not without vomiting, passing out, or otherwise going insane.
I tell my daughter that I feel like Dumbledore in the Harry Potter scene in which he has to repeatedly drink the poison so Harry can get to the horcrux. Olivia unsympathetically huffs, “Mom, Dumbledore was drinking actual poison; he was in pain.”
True. Yet fictional. I keep waiting for some kind of pain to kick in, for some of the possible side effects (nausea, bloating, cramps, death) to occur, but the main aversion remains the taste. And the smell. And the feel of this foul liquid going down my throat and into my very empty stomach.
Over the course of the evening as I alternate between gulps of hell and gulps of Gatorade, I watch the level drop in the beastly container. By the time I turn in for the evening (I’ll spare you the other grisly details, only to say that imbibing the drink was far worse than what was going on at the other end), I’ve finished off three quarters of the solution.
I text-whine my friend, who’s been through this before. “Do I really have to finish the WHOLE thing?” She assures me that I need to fully follow all directions, or the doc may not be able to see everything and I may have to have this whole thing done again.
That’s enough to spur me on to set my alarm for 5 a.m. this morning to finish off the remainder of the rancor before heading into the outpatient center. I sip the last of the solution instead of my usual morning coffee. Sip by sip. Glass by glass.
I think of T.S. Eliot measuring out his life in coffee spoons.
I think of one of my mother’s favorite sayings which inevitably always ends up in song: ‘Little by little, inch by inch; by the yard it’s hard, by the inch it’s a cinch.’
I think of my father.
I try not to think about the violation to my body by a stranger that is about to occur in a few hours.
I text my mother to tell her how much I miss dad and to remind her that he wouldn’t have been such a trooper if it hadn’t been for her loving yet no-nonsense nursing during those difficult years.
Dad follows me to the outpatient center.
The man next to me in the prep room also waiting for a colonoscopy has his same birth month and year. The nurse, anesthesiologist, and surgeon each ask why I’m having this procedure so young, to which I respond with another telling of my father’s condition and recent passing.
As I sit waiting, I think about the time I broke my arm and how dad was with me through the whole experience: driving me to the hospital, calming me, reassuring me that I would be okay and be able to play the piano again, distracting me with his story of his own broken arm as a young boy and how it had completely healed.
As the nurse hooks up my IV, I remember all of the IVs, hospital stays, surgeries my dad endured. As I listen to the man’s wife in the area beside me chat nervously while they await the procedure, I am reminded of my mother by my father’s side through it all.
I find myself in a calm state. Though I am alone, I do not feel alone. I feel surrounded by a peace that only God, and the spirit of my father, can bring.
Post script: The procedure went well; while I did not lose the rumored (and let’s face it, coveted) 5-7 lbs. (more like 2) from the prep process, and my last view on my way out was the surgeon checking his email right before beginning my procedure, the taste of those saltine crackers upon waking was down-right heaven.