“This is going to be about the not happy ending,” Sandra Gilbert says. She has just stepped to the podium at Roosevelt University’s O’Malley Theatre and the audience for her Chicago Humanities Festival lecture is getting its first good look at her: a middle-aged woman with dark, bobbed hair squinting into the spotlight. The seating in this small theater is steeply pitched, and the 50 or so people who’ve come to hear her see her from above–a small figure in a black well. Black floor beneath her, black drapes behind.
This year’s humanities festival is all about love and marriage, but Gilbert’s subject is the end of marriage–the breakup no counselor or change of heart can fix. In February 1991 her husband, Elliot Gilbert, entered a University of California hospital for a routine operation. Twenty-four hours later he was dead. “We discovered he actually bled to death in the recovery room,” Gilbert says. “But we didn’t know that at the time. At first they kept telling us everything was all right.”
Sandra and Elliot Gilbert were a husband-wife team in the English department at the University of California, Davis: she a critic and poet, he the department chair. His medical problem was the old man’s affliction–prostate cancer–but he was just 60, vigorous, with no symptoms. He expected good years ahead. On the day of his surgery he was rolled off to the operating room at 6 AM; in early afternoon the family was told the operation was successfully completed, though they couldn’t see him yet. The doctor suggested they relax–go out to eat, go home and take a nap, and (later) go out again for dinner. To Sandra Gilbert’s retrospective horror, they dutifully complied. It wasn’t until 9 PM, she recalls, “when they told us, ‘The doctor’s coming down to see you,’ that we knew there was a problem.”
Now, in the O’Malley Theatre spotlight, Gilbert reads from her account of that night. An elevator door opens on the hospital lobby, the doctor emerges briskly. “We’ve had a problem, luv, a big problem,” he says, taking her arm, steering her into a small room. “Dad’s had a heart attack.” In the background she hears her daughters screaming. The doctor is accompanied by an unfamiliar woman who comes toward Gilbert to take her hand. “I see that she is wearing a badge which says “Carolyn, Office of Decedent Services,’ and she is carrying a large folder labeled ‘Bereavement Packet.’…This is the room, I realize, where you don’t wait anymore. This is the room where they tell people that people are unexpectedly dead. And this is the room where you may begin to understand what ‘medical malpractice’…might really mean.”
Within a month, with the help of a friend who is a pathologist, the family learned what probably happened. Elliot Gilbert, suffering from postoperative bleeding, had complained of feeling “lousy” in the recovery room. The staff failed to pay attention, failed to check his vital signs often enough, failed to look for the cause of a sudden drop in blood pressure, failed to follow through on a critical lab test. When they finally decided he was in trouble it was too late to resuscitate him. According to the pathologist’s calculations, he had lost half the blood in his body.
And so began Sandra Gilbert’s abrupt education in grief, her life in the world of what-if. “Grief has much in common with speculative fiction,” she says. “The griever is always on the edge of an alternative universe. What if the surgeon’s knife hadn’t slipped? What if the residents had been more competent? The nurses had been more watchful?” It was six months before she could cry; there was no way to express her anger. She tried to hallucinate her husband’s presence, to incorporate him into herself. She talked to him in her dreams, broke the news to him there: “You’re dead,” she would have to tell him. And always the reel of the past would be running a loop in her mind: the elevator doors would open again, the doctor would come out. “We’ve had a problem, luv,” he would say.
And then, Gilbert says, “I decided to do something Elliot would have wanted me to do. To be his emissary.” She sued and settled (on the advice of her lawyer), but refused to be shut up. She began organizing her notes for publication and produced two books, both published this year. Wrongful Death is a factual account of her husband’s demise and its aftermath; Ghost Volcano is a book of poems. Along the way she discovered her situation was not unusual. As she notes in Wrongful Death, conservative estimates suggest that more than one of every hundred hospital patients suffers a catastrophic effect from medical negligence or incompetence; one of every 388 patients dies as a result; less than 2 percent of victims file malpractice suits.
Gilbert reads a few poems from Ghost Volcano: “These fields that hum and churn with life / are empty. There is nowhere / you are not, nowhere / you are not not.” At the end of the hour she takes questions. A man who identifies himself as a surgeon thinks he has the appropriate cap for her presentation: “There are no minor surgeries, only minor surgeons,” he says. Gilbert graciously allows that it’s a “great line.”
Another man raises his hand: “It seems that widows cope better than widowers,” he says. “Do you know if that’s true?” He settles back into his seat to await her answer–a slender, white-haired man sitting alone. His overcoat is folded neatly in the empty seat next to him. “There is nowhere / you are not, nowhere / you are not not.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Victor Parmentier.