One of my favorite short stories is Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” and no matter what class I’m teaching, I’ll almost always find an excuse to use it. The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who’s anxious because a blind man—a friend of his wife’s from before he knew her—is coming to visit them. Our narrator isn’t a bad guy, but he doesn’t get out much, either, and he’s uncomfortable (to say the least) with anything that exists outside of his own narrowly-defined boundaries. Anyway, this changes over the course of the story in the unlikeliest of ways. After the narrator’s wife has gone to bed, our narrator and the blind man, Robert, are smoking pot in front of a television documentary on cathedrals. The narrator, in the first of a series of small but significant moves outside of his comfort zone, asks Robert if he knows what a cathedral is. He doesn’t, so the two of them decide to draw one together. Or rather, the narrator will draw it while Robert goes along for the ride. Whenever I talk about the story, I always spend a lot of time on two lines that Carver writes to capture this moment:
“He found my hand, the hand with the pen. He closed his hand over my hand.”
I love these lines and how their repetition of the word “hand” shows how much this moment of connection means to the narrator.
I thought of this story and scene today. I was back in the hospital for two procedures—having a mediport installed (which I'll cover in another post) and getting a biopsy done of the growths in my abdominal cavity. We did the biopsy first. This involved me climbing onto a narrow table, lying face down (while protecting my still-tender incision from Monday’s surgery), and remaining as still as possible while they ran CT scans, inserted biopsy needles in my back (thankfully, I couldn’t see this), ran more CT scans to check their position, repositioned the needles, and took samples. I was sedated for this, but I could still feel movement back there. It wasn’t painful, exactly, but it was uncomfortably noticeable, and I started to visualize a long, sharp needle poking organs and arteries and other tender pieces of my insides.
I must have winced or had some kind of a distressed look on my face, because one of the nurses, a woman named Julie, came over and bent down by where my head and arms were sticking out of the CT machine, and as the doctor fooled with the needles in my back, she took both of my hands into hers. She didn’t say anything; she just held my hands through the rest of the procedure.
For these last few days, I’ve been moved at whiplash-inducing speed through doctors’ visits and tests and hospitals, so when someone reaches out—in Julie’s case, literally—to slow me down, I’m grateful beyond words.