My first panic attack struck when I was fifteen. It was March and my father had taken my brother and I out of school to accompany him on a business trip with my mom to London. No school, The Grosvenor House, going with just my brother to the newly opened Hard Rock Café, a driver to visit Stonehenge, jimmying the lock on the driver’s car with a wire hanger in the rain after he’d locked the keys in it with the motor running in Bath (he bought my brother and I Empire Mugs in gratitude)… and The Old Operating Theater.
The Old Operating Theater was located in a garret atop a church adjacent to a hospital. It harked to the 1820’s and the decades before anesthesia had been introduced. The emphasis back then was on speed, and the most frequent operation was amputation—often in a matter of a minute or two. It was a theater because of the 1815 Apothecary Act requiring apprentice apothecaries to attend public hospitals: they needed to watch.
The operating theater was not in the hospital proper because of the distress caused to other patients in the hospital should they hear the sound of patients receiving amputations and the like without anesthetic.
Backstory to my London panic attack: my best friend, Jonathan, was killed when struck by a motorcycle in Chicago when we were kids. His funeral was my fourteenth birthday. One thing I knew about his death was that in the time between when he was hit, and when he died on the operating table, I was gripped by unspeakable dread even though I was a couple of hundred miles away at the time.
Jonathan was a very sporty guy, loving hockey, soccer, football and bicycling. Apparently, or so I heard via secrets whispered and overheard by Jonathan’s brother Michael and shared in the bedroom in Jon’s house where we surviving kids huddled… the doctors had been trying to save Jon’s leg and it may have been the focus on the leg that contributed to the loss of Jonathan.
And so it was, a year and a half later, that talk about amputations and agonizing minutes and no anesthetics hit my unguarded brain and caused the return of complete dread, with absolutely no conscious awareness about why. Links so obvious to me now were as obscure then as the 1800’s viewed through London Fog.
I met Wolf Pascoe online, a friendship born of a love of words, and solidified through complementary métiers. Wolf, being an anesthesiologist, works by day to take patients on the night sea journey and then bring them back safely. He does this so that they can be operated on without pain, and every time he faces the risk of no return. As a psychologist I climb into caves of despair and traverse mountain cliffs of terror to locate my clients and then do my best to lead them back to the group, to safety and happiness and the realization that even with all their “issues,” they are lovable. My worst nightmare as a clinician is when despair runs so deep and flies so impulsive that a person may try to end their own lives. Wolf’s worst nightmare has all to do with going fey, but you must read his book to learn what that’s about, I’ll suffice to say that the taproot of Wolf’s being is his deep caring, it is what, in my view, defines him (and perhaps tortures him as well, a curse/blessing to which I can at times relate, and part of the glue, perhaps, of our bond).
Wolf and I always have a lot to talk about.
In Breathing For Two, Wolf takes us along on the night sea journey, only our eyes are not taped shut. Like Ishmael, we find ourselves in the watery part of the surgical world and we are at once fascinated and slightly afraid.
My pitch for reading Breathing For Two is this: read the first paragraph and see if the current of Wolf’s writing, his humility, his humanity and his compassion don’t sweep you along.
As I used to tell the five-year-olds at the school where I consulted as a psychologist when I was about to read them a fairytale: it may get a little scary, but everything is going to be okay in the end.
Breathing For Two is a deep and resonant book; in writing about what he knows Wolf follows that age-old writing advice, but in having written much and long, Wolf layers subtext and raises profound questions. A natural story-teller, Wolf engages us immediately and the book’s current runs swift and steady and before we know it we are done—awake, abruptly stepping back into the light of day like kids after our first time on Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland.
As of this writing Wolf’s book is only available for download, and I prefer reading this way, the glow of my Kindlefire echoing the dying embers in the hearth or in the cave when all the great stories are told in that liminal space between night and day, between awake and asleep, between fiction and non-fiction, between private reality and the dreams, stories and adventures shared and made collective—the universal give-and-take of hearing and being heard, seeing and being seen, the weaving of the great tapestry.
It has been said that education is life, and in being a story-teller and an honest and compassionate travel mate, Wolf educates as he recounts, teaching us the history of anesthesia, of innovation and of an ever-evolving medicine.
It has also been said that company is the best medicine, and on this count I can affirm that Wolf is good medicine indeed—over lunch and around the story-tellers circle. It’s been a long journey from two sticks rubbed together in a cave to fingers brushing a glassy tablet, but the effect of enchantment and transformation remains eternal.
It was in AP English, two years after my London panic, that I first came across the words of T.S. Eliot: “Let us go now you and I, with evening spread out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a table…”
Those words immediately gripped me and have never quite let me go, and in the tapestry that weaves Jon’s death, with 70’s London, with modernist T.S. Eliot, with Wolf’s friendship and writing… we seek our place, that harmony between freedom and security, between awake enough to fully savor life, and asleep enough to never lose the magic, the poetry, the faith and the reason we bother to sedate and revive, the reason we care if the other makes it through that night sea journey… Love in all its fluxing incantations and incarnations, through epiphanies and moments alone in the wine dark sea.
Wolf tells us about how he preps his patients for their own night sea journey, and while it varies on how much info a given patient desires, Wolf writes: “But I always end with the same words to everyone:
I’ll never leave you while you’re asleep. I’ll be watching over you the whole time. But you won’t have any sense of time passing. You won’t believe when it’s over. When you wake, you’ll be asking when it’s going to start.”
In a world where extraversion and egotism have grown like dinosaurs thundering stupidly over the earth, Wolf runs with a pack of mammals, compassionate quiet creatures who you might not hear much about but for the web of word of mouth. Psssst, I say, read this noble creature’s tale of someone who watches over you when you are utterly vulnerable.
Wolf Pascoe is a writer with a lot to say, he’s one to watch and I know a little bit about some of the other stories he has up his sleeve. If you do not yet know his voice, read Breathing For Two, subscribe at the end to be informed when he releases new work and it will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.