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Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone

And because I love this life

I know I shall love death as well.

The child cries out when

From the right breast the mother

Takes it away, in the very next moment

To find in the left one

Its consolation.

— Rabindranath Tagore, from Gitanjali

For George and Mariam Verghese

Scribere jussit amor

PROLOGUE. The Coming

AFTER EIGHT MONTHS spent in the obscurity of our mother's womb, my brother, Shiva, and I came into the world in the late afternoon of the twentieth of September in the year of grace 1954. We took our first breaths at an elevation of eight thousand feet in the thin air of Addis Ababa, capital city of Ethiopia.

The miracle of our birth took place in Missing Hospital's Operating Theater 3, the very room where our mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, spent most of her working hours, and in which she had been most fulfilled.

When our mother, a nun of the Diocesan Carmelite Order of Madras, unexpectedly went into labor that September morning, the big rain in Ethiopia had ended, its rattle on the corrugated tin roofs of Missing ceasing abruptly like a chatterbox cut off in midsentence. Over night, in that hushed silence, the meskel flowers bloomed, turning the hillsides of Addis Ababa into gold. In the meadows around Missing the sedge won its battle over mud, and a brilliant carpet now swept right up to the paved threshold of the hospital, holding forth the promise of something more substantial than cricket, croquet, or shuttlecock.

Missing sat on a verdant rise, the irregular cluster of whitewashed one-and two-story buildings looking as if they were pushed up from the ground in the same geologic rumble that created the Entoto Mountains. Troughlike flower beds, fed by the runoff from the roof gutters, surrounded the squat buildings like a moat. Matron Hirst's roses overtook the walls, the crimson blooms framing every window and reaching to the roof. So fertile was that loamy soil that Matron—Missing Hospital's wise and sensible leader—cautioned us against stepping into it barefoot lest we sprout new toes.

Five trails flanked by shoulder-high bushes ran away from the main hospital buildings like spokes of a wheel, leading to five thatched-roof bungalows that were all but hidden by copse, by hedgerows, by wild eucalyptus and pine. It was Matron's intent that Missing resemble an arboretum, or a corner of Kensington Gardens (where, before she came to Africa, she used to walk as a young nun), or Eden before the Fall.

Missing was really Mission Hospital, a word that on the Ethiopian tongue came out with a hiss so it sounded like “Missing.“ A clerk in the Ministry of Health who was a fresh high-school graduate had typed out THE MISSING HOSPITAL on the license, a phonetically correct spelling as far as he was concerned. A reporter for the Ethiopian Herald perpetuated this misspelling. When Matron Hirst had approached the clerk in the ministry to correct this, he pulled out his original typescript. “See for yourself, madam. Quod erat demonstrandum it is Missing,” he said, as if hed proved Pythagoras s theorem, the sun's central position in the solar system, the roundness of the earth, and Missing's precise location at its imagined corner. And so Missing it was.

NOT A CRY or a groan escaped from Sister Mary Joseph Praise while in the throes of her cataclysmic labor. But just beyond the swinging door in the room adjoining Operating Theater 3, the oversize autoclave (donated by the Lutheran church in Zurich) bellowed and wept for my mother while its scalding steam sterilized the surgical instruments and towels that would be used on her. After all, it was in the corner of the autoclave room, right next to that stainless-steel behemoth, that my mother kept a sanctuary for herself during the seven years she spent at Missing before our rude arrival. Her one-piece desk-and-chair, rescued from a defunct mission school, and bearing the gouged frustration of many a pupil, faced the wall. Her white cardigan, which I am told she often slipped over her shoulders when she was between operations, lay over the back of the chair.

On the plaster above the desk my mother had tacked up a calendar print of Bernini's famous sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila. The figure of St. Teresa lies limp, as if in a faint, her lips parted in ecstasy, her eyes unfocused, lids half closed. On either side of her, a voyeuristic chorus peers down from the prie-dieux. With a faint smile and a body more muscular than befits his youthful face, a boy angel stands over the saintly, voluptuous sister. The fingertips of his left hand lift the edge of the cloth covering her bosom. In his right hand he holds an arrow as delicately as a violinist holds a bow.

Why this picture? Why St. Teresa, Mother?

As a little boy of four, I took myself away to this windowless room to study the image. Courage alone could not get me past that heavy door, but my sense that she was there, my obsession to know the nun who was my mother, gave me strength. I sat next to the autoclave which rumbled and hissed like a waking dragon, as if the hammering of my heart had roused the beast. Gradually, as I sat at my mother's desk, a peace would come over me, a sense of communion with her.

I learned later that no one had dared remove her cardigan from where it sat draped on the chair. It was a sacred object. But for a four-year-old, everything is sacred and ordinary. I pulled that Cuticura-scented garment around my shoulders. I rimmed the dried-out inkpot with my nail, tracing a path her fingers had taken. Gazing up at the calendar print just as she must have while sitting there in that windowless room, I was transfixed by that image. Years later, I learned that St. Teresa's recurrent vision of the angel was called the transverberation, which the dictionary said was the soul “inflamed” by the love of God, and the heart “pierced” by divine love; the metaphors of her faith were also the metaphors of medicine. At four years of age, I didn't need words like “transverberation” to feel reverence for that image. Without photographs of her to go by, I couldn't help but imagine that the woman in the picture was my mother, threatened and about to be ravished by the spear-wielding boy-angel. “When are you coming, Mama?” I would ask, my small voice echoing off the cold tile. When are you coming?

I would whisper my answer: “By God!” That was all I had to go by: Dr. Ghosh's declaration the time I'd first wandered in there and he'd come looking for me and had stared at the picture of St. Teresa over my shoulders; he lifted me in his strong arms and said in that voice of his that was every bit a match for the autoclave: “She is CUM-MING, by God!”

FORTY-SIX AND FOUR YEARS have passed since my birth, and miraculously I have the opportunity to return to that room. I find I am too large for that chair now, and the cardigan sits atop my shoulders like the lace amice of a priest. But chair, cardigan, and calendar print of transverberation are still there. I, Marion Stone, have changed, but little else has. Being in that unaltered room propels a thumbing back through time and memory. The unfading print of Bernini's statue of St. Teresa (now framed and under glass to preserve what my mother tacked up) seems to demand this. I am forced to render some order to the events of my life, to say it began here, and then because of this, that happened, and this is how the end connects to the beginning, and so here I am.

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