A couple of months ago, I took my son to the French cafe down the street, a lovely place full of coffee, brie, and accordion music. He had his usual croissant, I ordered a sandwich and soup, and we were well on our way to enjoying an atypically mild Philadelphia day.
Under my shirt, though, activity was brewing. The seal on my colostomy bag had come loose--and when the poop started flowing again, there was little resistance between it and the outside world. I heard a farting sound and looked down in horror as a dark brown stain spread across the front, the smell of shit muscling aside the aroma of green lentil soup that had made the cafe so inviting.
I quickly paid my bill, hustled Tobias home, and cursed furiously as I cleaned myself up. And I spent the rest of the day feeling sorry for myself.
Last week, my colostomy was reversed. Early Monday morning, I pooped in the regular fashion for the first time in roughly seven months. For me, 2011 has been the Year of Poop--with much thought given to how it's done, what it's made of, and what it means. I never really made my peace with the colostomy bag, but I'm far more conscious of my poop now, and I doubt that will ever really go away.
Let's back up to where it started. In mid-April, I started feeling lethargic--energy-less, and no appetite to boot. I started to neglect work. I thought I was merely depressed, but soon realized I hadn't pooped in days. Noticing made no difference--additional bran, coffee, water, and other natural aids did nothing to get the flow started. I made a doctor's appointment, even had an X-Ray done: Nothing was found. I was sent home with some home enemas and a particularly powerful laxative.
Instead of pooping, though, I began to vomit--a development that prompted a rush to the emergency room. I sat mostly unattended for a few hours, interrupted only now and again by doctors trying to ascertain my problem. After I was sent for a CT scan, though, I was suddenly surrounded by doctors prodding my midsection: My intestinal tract was swollen and almost entirely closed off; I was in danger of perforating. I needed emergency surgery, a colostomy, to relieve the pressure--and only after the inflammation subsided would doctors be able to search for the underlying cause.
I've already written about the colostomy bag, how it frightened and offended me. But I haven't really talked about the poop. Because the colostomy--situated right under my sternum--transformed my relationship with the stuff.
As a society, we're actually pretty good about making it easy not to think about poop. The process generally takes place behind you, after all, and if you're generous in your use of toilet paper, it's possible to take a good dump, cover it with the TP, and flush it down the tubes without ever really seeing it. Those tubes are something to think about, though: To a large extent, cities are built around the complex process of moving your poop somewhere else--countless tax dollars are spent on sewer systems, after all, and the intricacy of some urban systems must count among the greatest works of man. If we had to handle our own shit all the time, society would be a much different place than our flush-it-down-the-drain culture.
Well, I did handle my shit. Every day. I'd wake up every morning; soon--often after coffee--the bag would begin to fill. There was nothing subtle about the process: It became a nasty brown balloon that billowed under your shirt, creating social anxiety if you were stuck out in the city without a public bathroom nearby. Two or three more visits to the bathroom would follow during the morning, then usually pipe down in the afternoon and into the evening.
A couple of things to note. First: The placement of the colostomy had the effect of parking an anus directly under my nose. I could smell shit all the time, no matter how much time I spent clearing and cleaning the bag--a considerable amount of time, by the way--and even my wife became hesitant to be affectionate the way we usually were, with her parking herself in the crook of my arm and burrowing her face into my chest. The odor never went away.
Second: I became familiar with how much stuff there actually is in poop. This is partly the result of the colostomy--it expelled food that, under usual circumstances, might've been more digested. But lots of unexpectedly identifiable stuff came through: I learned that some foods were probably easier for my digestive system to process--and thus, probably better for my health. And plant evolution began to make sense to me, as well; seeds that survive digestion often carry their genes to new and unexpected places.
I did develop a gross, nervous habit during this time: I became fascinated with the transparent plastic colostomy bag. It let me touch the poop without getting messy. And so I began to thoughtlessly sift my shit with my fingers, feeling around the bag--the way one might with bubble wrap--in search of a seed, or a grain of rice, or a pea or a peace of corn, to hold between my fingers and crush. It was satisfying. It was awful.
The bag is gone now. There is a zippered line of staples holding my torso together. For the last two days, I have been pooping roughly once every waking hour. My anus, so silent for so long, has been experiencing a sort of fecal firework as the ship relaunches.
Already, I don't see the poop as much. But I can't stop thinking about it; I'm afraid that I'll fail to notice my health failing again. It's ok--good, even--that I won't be experiencing quite so directly anymore. Now, I know, though: Shit is real. And it really stinks.