05/24/2008 By Shawn Burns

I flew to Burlington in the rain. I landed in the dark. I grabbed a taxi to my hotel and then tried to sleep quickly, since I had to be awake at 5am (2am, according to my exhausted body) to meet my mother, sister, and aunt at the hospital in the morning.

I slept restlessly, and felt abused when I woke. I slipped into some comfortable jeans, a t-shirt, and a sweatshirt from Wal-Mart that read "Massena New York", the town closest to my mother’s house, far upstate.

I walked most of the way to Fletcher Allen Hospital in the morning haze while rain clouds moved in over Lake Champlain. My sister, awake since 4am and driving for two hours picked me up on the side of the road and drove me the rest of the way to the hospital. It was a nice, but brief, rest for my legs and racing heart.

We met my mother and her twin sister in the lobby, and then waited for the pre-surgery consultations. Eventually we were sent in to the prep room, where my mother readied herself by changing into hospital garments behind the curtain. Once we were all gathered inside, we waited: for a nurse; for the anesthesiologist; for the neurosurgeon who had already been inside my mother’s head twice in the last ten months.

The easy rustling of an awakening hospital beyond the curtain seemed artificial and forced, as though the entire staff were doing their best to make the morning seem just like any other.

A head peered around the curtain. A blond nurse, who said "I’ll be right in as soon as I find a thermometer."

Really? There are no thermometers to be found in this gigantic, sprawling center of learning and medicine?

"Anyone seen a thermometer?!" came the plea from beyond the curtains; our nurse, enlisting the help of the rest of the staff in elevating the mundane to the level of the important.

The same head appeared again, a few moments later, floating in the opening between the two curtains. "Have you seen a thermometer in here? No?" She disappeared once again.

My aunt looked around at us. "What is this, a comedy act?"

I replied, in my best (read: horrible) Groucho Marx/Fozzy Bear voice: "And so I says to her, ‘Hey, anybody seen a thermometer? Wocka wocka wocka"

Nervous laughter turns into hysterical giggling, and we don’t stop for almost a minute.

Finally, a thermometer was found. A nurse, an anesthesiologist, and a neurosurgeon walk into a prep room. Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Finally, at 8:30am, my mother is wheeled into surgery.

At 10:30, a page to the waiting room, where the doctor informs us that they have discovered a new anti-body in her blood that makes it difficult to match. The anti-body was most likely introduced during her last surgery, since this same test prior to the last two revealed nothing of the sort. It’s a harmless protein, and the universal blood type will still be effective, but not preferred for a surgery like this.

More waiting.

Another page at noon. Another consultation. They have only found one unit of the rare blood type my mother now has. Not nearly enough for surgery. Do we want to proceed anyway? The surgeon recommends not. My sister and aunt think my mother would want it over with.

While they debate in my absence (my pager had not gone off and I wandered up after the conversation was already over) the blood bank calls back: four more units have been found.

The surgery proceeds.

I have my laptop with me, and some Netflix movies. One movie, really, on two discs. Schindler’s List, which I’ve never seen, and which seems to fit seamlessly into the allotted surgery time. I was in no mood for a comedy.

At 3:30pm the surgeon pages us again. The surgery went well, although a blood vessel had to be peeled away from the bulbous aneurysm before it could be clipped and the aneurysm popped. Peeled away like a sliver of orange rind.

More waiting until we can visit my mother in the ICU and verify with our own eyes that she is okay. She seems fine, talking a little, but very very tired.

I go back to the hotel at 5pm, hopefully to sleep until morning so I can be rejuvenated. After the last surgery my mother suffered a stroke in the middle of the night, and this fact prevents an easy slumber.

I wake, once again, at 5am, for no particular reason beyond the television still being on and too loud. I am encouraged by someone who was probably on "Road Rules" or somesuch to call quickly to receive both of the new "Girls Gone Wild" videos. I turn the television down and try to go back to sleep.

When I wake up again I feel a menacing presence. I look over at my laptop monitor and see a browser window open. And another. And another. I grab my computer and begin clicking the windows closed. But I can’t keep up, and the windows are not responding fast enough. Websites I’ve never seen before begin popping open. Eventually, I flip the wireless switch to off, but the windows keep opening. I close the lid and unplug the computer, trying to keep the malicious invader out of my personal data that way.

I feel the malevolence on the other end of the connection, and I try to ignore it while I drift off, but I can also feel someone outside my window, plotting. I blackout in a Nyquil haze.

When I come to this time I am fully clothed. My laptop is open on my chest and I am on lying on the submerged steps of the hotel’s swimming pool. The pool is heated, so I’m not cold, and my laptop is out of the water, and dry. But what the hell am I doing in the pool in the early hours of the morning, why am I fully clothed again, and why is my laptop with me? I blackout again.

And wake up once again in my hotel room, with the maid knocking at the door. "Housekeeping. Would you like your room cleaned today?" She tries to get in, but I have the latch closed, and as it arrests her progress through the entry way she relents, and closes the door.

Was I dreaming? I look down at the floor, and the pile of sodden clothes there, puddles forming around my shoes, and I am disturbed. I continue to feel the dread I’ve felt ever since I woke at 5am for no good reason, and I look around, verifying that I am alone.

I am not. There are eyes outside of my window. The window I was certain that I covered with the blinds, but which now stands naked and transparent, inviting the world to see me in my now terrified state. Whomever this person is, they are clearly involved in my computer’s strange behavior and my somnambulant submersion.

Another knock at the door. The maid again. I sit up out of bed and look over at the door. I see that the latch is not in fact closed. She begins to enter and I yell out "Occupied!"

My eyes dart over to the window, where the blinds are securely closed, just as I left them before crawling into bed the night before. I look at my clothes on the floor, dry as, well, as dry as clothes that have never been soaked in a hotel swimming pool.

My laptop sits open, inactive, wirelessly and innocently connected to the hotel’s network.

And there is no malevolence. I realize, finally, that everything that has happened since I woke to find a reality television castoff urging me to spend money on videos featuring exhibitionist undergraduates has all been a weird, and terrifying, nightmare.

Note to self: Under no circumstances should you, while attending your mother’s surgery, (1) watch any part of a movie like Schindler’s List, or (2) read any part of a Dean Koontz book you picked up at JFK before boarding a plane to Burlington.

My mother is fine. Her surgery on Thursday went very successfully, and she had no trouble in the night. The only real heart-stopping moment I had came this morning, when, for the third day in a row I was awake at 5am, but this time because the hospital called me on my cell phone. I answered, dreading what the person on the other end of the line would tell me, at this time of the morning while my mother was still in the ICU.

"We’ve moved your mother out of the ICU into a room upstairs. That’s all. She’s fine."

Wow. I really could have waited on that urgent freaking news.

My heart stopped racing after a  couple of minutes and I was able to sleep, dreamlessly, until 10:30 this morning. Tomorrow I go back home, and hopefully my mother will be home early next week. I miss my wife, and my daughter (who is walking everywhere now, apparently), and I miss my bed.

There are no nightmares in my bed. And I never have to wake up at 5am.