THE WALL BARLEY
Written by: Siniša Tucić
Translated by: Aleksandra Stojković
DECISION AND MEETING
By mid-July 1991 the pain hadn’t stopped. The wall barley was still hiding in my lungs and the battles were getting bigger, about 50 km west of the hospital I was in. Father mentioned this when he was in the hallway, talking to a man whose son was staying in the room next to mine. The army was stockpiling weapons around the city in the valley across the river. My parents didn’t talk to me about the war. They wanted to spare me from any knowledge of the outside world. Even so, I listened to the conversations of the adults.
The doctors were still helpless. They followed my condition in disbelief. They would enter the room I was staying in and they didn’t even have to look at the charts any more. It was enough for them to see me writhing in pain on the bed. The grass in question was destroying my right lung, although my charts still said I was suffering from a lung infection. They had to do something as my breathing was getting more and more difficult. The expert, primarius Fejzulahi came to see me in my room more and more. He wanted to take over my case and he spoke to chief Rebic about it every day.
By mid-July they had reached a decision. They would operate. They would open up my chest in surgery. They invited my parents to an office in a different wing of the hospital to inform them of the next steps in my treatment. Although I was told nothing of this, I realized something big was happening by the whispering in the hallway.
There were two surgeons sitting at the table next to primarius Fejzulahi. Chief Rebic was standing at the side and didn’t contribute to the conversation. An older surgeon was present as well. Although he had retired a few years before, he was invited to return on account of the difficulty of my case. His specialty was removing foreign objects ingested by children. He removed fruit stones, needles, buttons, marbles… He was invited to assist in finding the wall barley. The youngest doctor present kept log of the conversation.
Mother and father sat in armchairs across from the surgeons. They were offered refreshments. Father refused a drink. Mother accepted a sip of cognac. I was told of this later. I am acquainted with every detail of this meeting, as if I had been present myself.
Primarius Fejzulahi introduced the older colleague who had worked in the hospital before retirement. Then they moved on to the main question. Fajzulahi repeated that the situation was quite serious and that the latest results indicated my lung capacity had greatly reduced. Something had to be done or my life would be in danger. My parents froze. It was the first time he had said something like that. They kept quiet, not having any courage to ask questions. They would open up my lung on the side and through that hole they would attempt to locate the foreign object. In my case it was a wall barley. During the procedure they would attempt to clean as much as they could on the inside.
Mother and father were terrified to ask questions. Each new sentence added to their tension and dread. Nevertheless, mother was the first to dare and ask:
– Does this mean that the problem would be solved and Oliver would get better?
The youngest surgeon began talking. He spoke of new advances in the field of thoracic surgery. He spoke of just how much it was possible to reach inside the lungs and clean them. He mentioned he had recently attended a seminar. My parents though, weren’t particularly interested in medicine. They wanted to know what would happen to me. Father wisely kept quiet, and mother tried again.
– But doctor, we want to know something. Our son has been in hospital for two weeks, and we don’t know where all of this is going. He’s getting worse and worse…
The tense situation lasted for a few moments, and then primarius Fejzulahi took over again. He cut mother off mid-sentence. It seemed as if he wanted to get into an argument with her again. He moved the conversation to how the most important thing would be to clean my lungs and for me to start breathing properly. He avoided the question of whether the wall barley would be removed. He only mentioned that the intervention would happen in a few days and that I would have all the tests redone – bloodwork, urine analysis, X-ray, EKG…
Mother drank her cognac and left the office with father. They descended the stairs in a daze, towards the pulmonary wing. They didn’t tell me everything right away. They only mentioned I would have more tests done. Drawing blood, EKG, lung X-rays. I knew something was happening. I listened to the conversation of a nurse just outside my room in the hallway.
They were talking about surgery. I was smart enough to understand that something was happening. Father told me it wasn’t anything scary. Still, I asked that in the future they tell me the truth, whatever it may be.
I traveled through the long hospital corridors for a few days. I went to tests. I was pushed either in a wheelchair or in a bed with wheels. Lying on the moving bed, I watched the hospital ceilings. Doctors in white coats passed around me. When I would raise my head, I would watch children sitting on benches in front of offices. The children were cured and were waiting on discharge papers to go home. I stayed in hospital.
The hardest day was the one just before the surgery. Zdravko came to visit me that afternoon and stayed for just 10 minutes. He brought me an Alan Ford comic. He thought of me every day. He wandered the city. By going out of the student dorms he tried to get away from himself and the situation he was in. Any moment he could be conscripted. His two friends from his home town had already been mobilized while they were mowing their lawns. Zdravko was tense, so he left soon after. Any moment he could go to war.
The afternoon was hellishly hot. The wall barley wasn’t still. It pierced every breath. My body was losing its last atoms of strength. My temperature was 103 so the nurses rubbed alcohol on me. I felt a chill and tremors mixed with pain. The nurses and my mother and father as well as an on-call doctor were in the pulmonary wing, they helped me try and find a comfortable position on the bed. They would turn me on my side but that never worked. In my suffering, I discovered the names of painkillers. I started remembering their names. Novalgetol was a fantastic drug. It was the most amazing thing that would happen to me in those times. When they would inject it up my arm it would start burning. Nevertheless, that small inconvenience was a sign that the pain would die down. I suffered without pause. The wall barley wasn’t still. It battered my left lung from the inside. The hospital couldn’t ease the pain. Novalgetol wasn’t enough. Something had to be done from the outside. Primarius Rebic sent my father to the pharmacy to buy tramadol. In my worst moments of pain I remembered Pera and Lemi who would take Tramadol with alcohol. The images from the outside world were the most vivid when I was in the most pain.
The medicine from the outside world helped for a short while, but the pain came back a few hours later. Although it was getting dark, the surgery preparations were underway. In the morning they would open up my chest. For the first time in my life I would go under the knife. Raca pushed me to the ground floor for one last X-ray of my lungs. They were collapsing. The surgery was necessary in order for me to breathe. They called my parents into primarius Fejzulahi’s office. Mother gave her permission for a bronchoscopy to be performed. To go under the knife, my father’s signature was necessary. Surgery,after all,was a man’s business. The entire night before the surgery I writhed in pain. I was on an IV drip. They put lemon on my lips.
– Oliver, Oliver, Oliver! – I listened to the voices of my parents and the nurses.
I woke up from the anesthesia while I was being moved onto a bed. I had no idea which room I was in. The bed was spacious and much larger than the one I had been in before the surgery. I realized I was no longer in the pulmonary wing, but I didn’t know I had been moved to intensive care and that it would be my home for the next few days, but mother and father couldn’t be next to me the entire time. Mother had, standing at the door, told me that they cannot come in as I was in the shock room.
The surgery was a success, but the wall barley was not removed. The surgeons did everything they could. Right under my underarm they set up a drain to drain the puss from my left lung and it was connected to two glass bottles. I no longer felt pain when breathing. I breathed even though the wall barley was still in my lungs. Primarius Fejzulahi devised a strategy. He thought that once I started breathing that the puss would drag with it the foreign object through the drain. Still, those were just the theories of the surgeons who performed surgery. They never had a case like mine, so they could not make an accurate prognosis. For them it was important that I was no longer in pain and that I could breathe normally.
I stayed in the shock room surrounded by nurses. I tried to turn but one of the nurses stopped me. She told me that because of the drain I couldn’t sleep on my side. I had to lie on my back. My first night at the hospital without my mother. There was a special procedure for visitation in the ICU. Parents could visit only once a day. For me this was an entirely new experience. I watched the neon lights in the shock room. Time passed strange. I could not say if it passed quickly or slowly. I don’t remember time. I was bound to a few IV drips on my right and left arm because I had to take several antibiotics at once. On my chest I had electrodes which monitored my heart rate. My body had received extensions. I was embedded. Tied to the bed of the shock room. My body was in the hospital, the hospital was part of my body. The wall barley was still in my left lung.
The day after, my parents came to visit. Visiting a son in a shock room was a new experience for them. They couldn’t come visit me together. They had to come in separately. The hospital took me under its wing. I was isolated. The wall barley had created a distance between us.
First to come in was mother. She was told to come into the preparatory room which was right next to the shock room. She received a green uniform made from special material. She gathered her hair in her hands and pushed it under the medical hat. Then she put hospital shoe covers over her shoes, then washed her hands in disinfectant soap. She came into my room looking at that odd medical contraption called a drain. It was her first encounter post-surgery with the son she had given birth to. She immediately hugged me and kissed me. Then she sat down on the chair. She tried to look relaxed. She even made a joke that I can’t remember anymore. She tried to tell me everything would be fine. The doctors had told her the surgery was a success and that they are just waiting for the puss to push the wall barley out through the drain. She communicated this very believably. As if she were a hundred percent certain I would get better quickly. She advised me to try and sleep as much as I can as I would need strength for my recovery. While she was exiting the shock room, she looked at the two medical bottles in which puss from my right lung was draining in. She was hoping to see the wall barley. In the bottles was her son’s fate.
Then father came in. He had to go through the same procedure. He dressed in the sterile light green uniform in the preparatory room and washed his hands with special soap. As if he were preparing for a friendly boxing match with his own son. It was a meeting of two men in the shock room. He hugged me and kissed me, helping me up into a sitting position. He told me about his work, in an attempt to entertain me. He told me how many toolboxes he had in the stockroom. He passed along a greeting from his comrade Mitar with whose sons I waded in the waters of the Cambodia before I put the wall barley in my mouth. He acted as if my illness wasn’t an illness. He informed me that he and Mitar agreed we would all go fishing again once I got out of hospital.
The time allowed for my first visit in the shock room had passed. Mother and father waved at me by the door and I laid in bed. I stayed in hospital. The battle with the wall barley continued…
Siniša Tucić was born February 22nd 1978. In Novi Sad. He graduated with a Master’s degree in Serbian literature and language from the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Novi Sad. His Masters Thesis was Slika sveta u delu Dositeja Obradovica. His published works include poetry collections Concrete Coma (1996), The Bloody Teat (2001), New Homelands (2007), Bullet (2012), and Abandoned Passwords, an anthology with an English translation (2012). He is one of the editors of Nesto je u igri (2008)–an anthology of contemporary poetry from Novi Sad. He is also included in several anthologies and poetry collections like Iz muzeje sumova, an anthology of contemporary poetry 1988-2008, edited by Nenad Milosevic, published in Zagreb 2009; Ulaznica – eintrittskarte, Panorama srpskog pesništva 21. veka, Panorama der serbischen Lyrik im 21. Jahrhundert, in collaboration with the magazine Ulaznica from Zrenjanin, edited by Dragoslav Dedović, published in Drava, Austria in 2011; Prostori i figure– an anthology of contemporary Serbian poetry, edited by Vladimir Stojnić in Belgrade in 2012; Van, tu: Free – an anthology of contemporary Serbian poetry, edited by Vladimir Đurišić and Vladimir Stojnić, published in Cetinje in 2012; and Restart, a panorama of contemporary poetry in Serbia published in Belgrade in 2014. He is also the editor of the short story volume Iza barikade published by the Kulturanova organization. He is an activist in the Novo kulturno naselje association.
Translator Aleksandra Stojković, born August 23rd 1995, lives and attends University of Belgrade. She is currently in her final year of studies in the Faculty of Philology of the University of Belgrade, department of English. She works as a freelance translator and voice actress. She loves stories in all their forms, whether they be comic books, video games, movies or television shows.