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November 21, 2013
I look nicer in my hospital gown than I have in any of the many others I have worn, though I suppose that's not really saying much. But I am in a mellow mood, as are most repeat customers when we appear on the day of the actual test. We are not afraid of the colonoscopy we are about to undergo: we are just thankful that last night -- one of the longest of our Iives -- has finally come to an end. And we know that, whatever they may be about to do to us with that hose thing, at least we won't have to be there for it. Good night, says the anesthesiologist cheerfully, and we are gone.

I was especially looking forward to my little twilight sleep, brief though I knew it would be, because I did not sleep a wink last night. It was not insomnia that kept me up -- oh no. It was sheer busyness. The purgative, vile-tasting as ever, had to be mixed at 6pm and great quantities of it drunk at 15-minute intervals. In a disconcertingly short period of time, it began its alarming work, and did not stop until past dawn. Personal hygiene had to be maintained, which is no mean feat in this situation: eventually this required my simply taking up residence in the bathtub for the night, in between many trips to the laundry. When it was time to leave I looked like hell, a cross between a zombie and a raccoon: white as a sheet of paper, dark circles under my eyes.

We all say the procedure is nothing. It's the prep, someone says, and everybody else groans sympathetically. Such humbling intimacy with our own digestive tracts is not of our choosing -- we prefer to present a more poised image to the world. But poise has little to do with this night and its urgencies. This is a night of knowing what it is to be a baby. What it is to be overruled by your body -- "mind over matter," the optimistic maxim you used to hear people say a lot in the 1950s and don't hear much at all now, just doesn't always apply. There are things in life you can't control by the exercise of your own will. The results of your colonoscopy prep is one of them.

"Brother Arse" was the term St. Francis used to refer to his own body. Francis had a sprightly sense of humor. In the 13th century, people had fewer ways to conceal their bodily indignities than we have; they were confronted with their own creatureliness at every turn. Pedestrians turned aside in the street to pee in the gutter, squatted to defecate by the roadside. The contents of chamber pots flew from second story windows. The cries of a woman in childbirth issued from the next door neighbor's house. People breathed their last and were laid out in their own homes, carried through the streets at eye level to their final resting places. Everybody had seen someone die.

It is not so today. We conceal our anatomical selves from one another, along with the evidences of them. We conceal them from ourselves, too, if we can. We are disembodied. More able than the citizens of any previous age to preserve health and survive disease, we are also more able to deny our mortality.

The occasional reminder of it is good for us. We must give Brother Arse his due. He may not be the governor of our eternal life, but his is the last word in this one.


Colorectal cancer is very curable if diagnosed in its early stages, and rarely curable if it is not. The prep is annoying -- but educational, in a way. The test itself is performed under light anesthesia and is not painful. You recover in an hour or so, though you can't drive a car for eight hours. Most insurance pays for it. You should have this test if you are over fifty. Learn more at:
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