To whom are we beautiful as we go?
There was an article (or maybe a meme) that coined a new adolescence–for sixty-year olds–healthy, solvent, childless and ready for new adventure–a couple on a bike was pictured, legs outstretched, careening down hill; or maybe I imagined that part.
There’s something freeing (or anxiety producing) about your first-born reaching 20.
Maybe that explains it.
Or maybe it was the combination of two favorites: peanut butter & chocolate;
or the familiar comfort of a potluck gathering;
or the long-awaited return of the sun on Winter Solstice;
or the welcoming words: love & gluten-free–in the shape of a cookie.
All of these came at the tail end of a month–an entire fucking month–of hormonal headaches.
Nothing happened. Not really. Which was always the way it was when I dipped into cannabis in my early twenties. (Except for that single cosmic kiss, senior year at the university, with one of the twins. Which one? I no longer remember.)
I do remember thinking that the ambulance ride over Hogback Mountain (20 years ago)–from our wooded road to the nearest hospital (in my final stages of labor)–was just about the distance it would take for this ambulance to transport me from the coast of my childhood–to the mainland–where my father still practiced.
Only now, time was moving in two directions. Back and forth. Back and forth. Folding over on itself, like the hard, ribbon-like candy that no one buys at the fudge store where we stopped before I began to feel the effects of my second-ever edible.
We were “home” for the week. Gathering with high school friends. All of our children grown, or grown enough to leave behind. We called it “Our Big Chill Weekend.” We neglected to recall that the gathering in the film centered around a funeral.
When someone reminded me that we partied together on this exact weekend almost 40 years earlier, I felt a chill. The same bitter cold. An equally bitter ending. The vacuum cleaner tossed out the second-story window. The gold fish tossed onto the bed.
But I missed that part. I left the party early to spend the night with my boyfriend, in an empty, ocean-side hotel, where whatever he had consumed that evening, unleashed a torrent of darkness onto me. Words, like daggers. Hurting still.
The absence of linear time makes the smallest distance–say from the beach to the bridge–play in a continuous loop–while in a moment of clarity, and with great effort, I determine that this distance could easily be covered in less than 5 minutes, particularly without summer traffic.
The sound of a siren jolts me from my reverie.
I look for the ambulance so that I can pray.
(Something I did with my children when they were little.)
And then I realize…
I’m the one inside.
Twenty minutes must have passed.
Even in the car, while we waited for the EMTs; even before our friends arrived and called 911; even as I sat there alone in the empty parking lot, I thought: “I can’t believe this is me.”
At first, I considered the experience another dud. We took group photos on the street mall. We stopped in the fudge shop. We decided on a restaurant. We chose seats. We ordered beers. My husband and I decided to share a cheese steak. But just as my drink arrived, I felt a thick, gray fog swipe the right of my forehead. A moment later, another came across my lower back, also on the right.
I pushed my drink aside.
A wave of nausea followed.
“Can we change seats,” I asked a friend who sat across the table from me.
I shimmied in beside my husband.
“Something’s not right,” I whispered. He was distracted. “Meet me outside?” I said.
The cold air was soothing. The ocean only a block away. Maybe I would walk.
“I feel weird,” I said. “I don’t think I can stay.”
Casey wrapped his arms around me, and for a moment, I sensed the pure, physical presence of his twenty-year old self. I exhaled into this tender reunion, and then felt its shadow. This boy had none of the substance of the man I knew and needed now, thirty years later.
“I have to get to the car,” I said.
He handed me the keys. We decided that he’d meet me as soon as he paid our check and grabbed our food. I moved on, relieved to have a purpose–but the further I walked from the restaurant, the less I was sure of where I was, or if I could find the parking lot, or the car, or the keys. Where had I put them? Where had we parked? How long is this street mall?
My next impression, after the sound of the siren, was just how many bays there were in the Emergency Room, and how they were only separated by curtains.
Had I ever been inside this ER as a patient? (Probably not as a doctor’s daughter.) Could I return to the privacy of the ambulance? Could they tuck me into some corner? Could I get a private room?
20 years earlier, when they wheeled me past the reception desk of the Emergency Room in Vermont, I overheard the nurses say, “She’s in labor?”
I imagined that same dismissiveness now.
A home birther.
A pot smoker (only I had eaten it.)
I lie there on the gurney shaking, just as I had after my cesarean. Only now, no one cared to keep me warm.
Waves of sensations, like labor, continued to overwhelm me. Hours passed before it was finished. Days within each hour. A lifetime within each moment. It would be 24 hours before these consciousness contractions ceased, and more than eight before they had grown far enough apart to leave medical attention.
Inside each contraction, time collapsed and expanded.
“What happened?” I asked my husband.
“How long has the nurse been gone?”
“How long have we been sitting in the car?”
“How long was I here alone?”
“How long have we been waiting for the ambulance?”
First the police; then the EMT’s; then the LPNs, and the RNs; and finally the doctors asked in a pacifying voice:
“What happened today?” as if this was show and tell.
I stared at their faces, impassively, and said nothing, except to say how fast my heart was beating or that my insurance card should be inside my wallet, or that I wasn’t allergic to any medication.
“Don’t forget my purse,” I said to my husband. “Remember to lock the doors of car.”
I was struck by how similar these thoughts were to my every day thoughts. How I felt a sense of relief when a friend told me that he drank the full beer I’d left behind; that it hadn’t been wasted.
Where was the transcendent consciousness that should accompany death or a high?
But this wasn’t a high. This was the lowest of lows. This was all my bad days poured into one. Stacked on top of each other.
(I made a mental note to meditate more.)
That morning, over mimosas, in the kitchen, where we had been as girls, I moved around the brunch table, offering a massage to each of my friends.
In the car, I tried to explain to Casey that somehow I was now chelating the grief and trauma I felt inside each of them.
“Did I just say something?” I asked him.
There was a strange pause between speaking and awareness or between awareness and speaking.
“Did you answer me?” I said. “How much time came between what you said and what I said?”
Someone wheeled in a cash register. Someone handed us a clipboard. Someone apologized for asking for billing information. Someone apologized for asking for signatures. “At a time like this,” they said. “At a time like this.”
Others took my vitals. My blood sugar. The hospital gown was pulled down to my belly. My bra was removed. Tiny pads placed hurriedly around my heart. A week later, there are itchy scabs in those same places. A day later, we were still finding sticky pads left behind.
My husband tells me that he was disturbed by the lack of attention to privacy. I remember looking down to see the familiar slope of breasts which had nourished two children. Attached to wires. Attached to a machine. I asked him to cover me. Not for modesty, but for warmth. He placed my shirt over me. (I wished I hadn’t worn my favorite one today.) He made a pillow from my coat. (I wished he’d used that to cover me.)
A series of professionals entered and exited my world.
“You’re a healer,” I said.
“I’m just doing my job,” the nurse said.
“No,” I said. “Everyone has been doing their job today, but you’re the first healer I’ve encountered.”
She kept at her work, brisk and focused, but she returned with blankets to keep me warm.
Gradually, my heart rate began to slow.
I let Casey leave my side to give our friends an update.
The gaps in consciousness continued, further apart, and wider, into which I fell–despairing and hopeless. All around were sounds of suffering.
On the other side of the curtain, was the barking cough of a young child. A nurse arrived, but instead of providing care, she asked the parent a series of questions.
“Warm water with honey. A chest rub. A humidifier.” I said, quietly, to the curtain, feeling my own mother’s clear and composed presence.
My mother would have been wheeled into this same room on the morning of her seizure. My baby sister called me first. “Hang up and dial 911,” I said. We were 300 miles apart. She was 14.
On my left, was the sound of a big man in his sixties. He just received the news that his hip was broken. He would need surgery.
Our anguish bled together.
I considered dying then, until I heard a loved one arrive and encourage this man back into the light.
I sent him Metta…
May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you…
I wondered why I hadn’t thought to do this sooner, and in this awareness, recognized, a turning point.
“Here now,” I said. “Here, now.”
This is how I steadied myself, alone, in the car, as the sensations magnified.
“May I be safe. May I be healthy. May I be…”
When even that was too much, I relied on Ujjayi breath, and then left nostril breathing. After that, I simply focused on my feet.
“I need help,” I said to no one. “I need help.”
I had rarely if ever said those words in my life. I had rarely if ever had someone to say them to.
I considered opening the door and yelling, which would be less embarrassing than dying, but the parking lot was empty.
“Casey will be here soon,” I said. “Casey will be here soon.”
But time had expanded infinitely.
I thought about people dying in foreign places.
Strokes. Heart attacks. Seizures. Overdoses.
My mouth was so dry.
My water bottle was so close
I thought about children with dysentery.
I was loosing motor control. Or volition. Or both.
“Casey,” I said. “Casey.”
I considered getting out of the car, but when I turned my head left, toward the summer stores, all the shades were down. And I couldn’t look right. For some reason, I could not look right.
I thought about knocking on the window, and mouthing, “Help,” to a passing stranger. But the window on the left was too far away. And there were no strangers anyway. There was no one at all. Anywhere. The world had been emptied of life, like the apocalypse films of my childhood.
I tried to look right again, but each time, the world would tilt, and something else was there. Everything of which I was terrified. The family who burned in the fire. The toll booth. A scary man.
Left. Right. Masculine. Feminine. I attempted an inquiry, but I was already moving from clarity to anguish again.
Later, I would tell Casey that the symptoms seem to move in a circle. At the top, there was a moment of stability where I could communicate, briefly, and sip the water that he held to my lips, but this was immediately followed by fierce trembling and pounding waves of nausea and a pulse that grew alarmingly high.
“Am I having a seizure,” I asked.
There was a truck parked on the road ahead of me, further away than it should have been, but in such crisp focus that it seemed to be right in front of me.
Later, Casey’s face would have that same disturbing crispness, as would the face of the first-responder, whose earnest gaze reminded me of my third grade student, Eric Davis, a boy scout, who wanted to be an EMT, and had grown up to become one, which I discovered, when I spoke at his burial, a decade later. Suicide.
The late afternoon light shimmered on that truck, but didn’t reach the one that sat across the intersection. Its mirror image. Shaded by Our Lady of the Sea–an oppressive, stone structure–where my friend married and later buried her parents.
But there couldn’t be two trucks, because there was no room to park across the intersection in front of the church; which must mean that I was seeing two worlds–one dark, one light–like Stephen King’s, Talisman, which 20 year old Casey convinced me to read.
I was the truck, seeing myself in the mirror. The mirror I had looked into as a child. My grandmother’s mirror. The truck that crushed her. The bridge that ended her life. The accident that emptied my world of love.
“Jesus help me,” I said.
I’d been a loving mother. A loving wife. A loving friend. It was okay to go. But what a stupid way to die.
“Ishvara Pranidhana,” I whispered. (May my successes and failures be of service.)
Hours passed or minutes. Casey was there. Or wasn’t there. I was there or wasn’t there.
His hand was on my left leg. “I need a trash bag,” I said. (But I wouldn’t let him move.) “I need a doctor,” I said. (But I wouldn’t let him leave.)
Out of the sinister angle of the sun, just past the shimmering truck, our friends appeared.
Later one would tell us that she had to say “Marijuana,” three times to the 911 operator; and she told us that the police officers, who were the age of our children, cautioned us about gateway drugs, and mocked my Vermont license plate and Bernie sticker.
“I let Bernie down,” I said to my husband. “I’m so ashamed.”
I knew how this was supposed to go. I was supposed to feel all chill and blissed out. People who panicked were mocked. I wasn’t supposed to need help. I wasn’t supposed to tell.
I had always been one of the cool ones.
I could hear and couldn’t hear the people talking around me.
The door on my right opened.
A police officer bent down to address me.
“I can’t look at you,” I said. “I’m afraid of right.”
Everyone wanted to be amused. Everyone wanted to laugh.
If this wasn’t funny, what was it?
Everyone said, “You ate a whole cookie?”
One professional suggested that I think back to the last time I smoked, and recall that feeling instead.
That was almost 30 years ago, in Steamboat Springs, before a Spyro Gyro concert, which ended up being sold out, so we went to the movies, but arrived so last minute that we had to take front row seats, just as the film opened in the jungle of Vietnam. Platoon.
Everyone gave me choices. Did I want to get out of the car by myself or did I need help? Did I want to walk to the ambulance or go on a stretcher? Did I want to let them strap me in so that we could get to the hospital?
I thought about my years as a preschool teacher.
I tried not to doubt their competency, their young faces. I hoped that their lack of authority meant that there was no danger; but I also suspected that few were capable of considering marijuana seriously.
“Do you live in the area. Do you have a doctor?”
“My father is a doctor here,” I said, in the tiniest of voices, hoping that someone would call him, but equally embarrassed to be 52, wanting my father, who I knew was out of town, and who always considered me the daughter he didn’t have to worry about.
“Your husband will have to ride in the front,” they said. “Protocol.”
I wanted to be compliant;
But then I spoke with surprising articulation
“Wouldn’t it make more sense to let the only person who is keeping the patient calm remain beside her?”
Later, Casey told our friends that I thanked each person who helped me along the way through the day.
I was surprised to discover that I was the same person I’d always been. Relieved to be no worse; but disappointed to be no better. Conscious. Gracious. Concerned for my friends. Preoccupied with being cool. Ashamed. Embarrassed. Attentive to belongings. Worried about expenses. Thinking of my children.
“I could die with you by my side,” I said.
“We can’t tell Aidan,” he said.
Aidan, our youngest, had been disappointed when I ate that first cookie on Solstice, and he had rebuked the plans I shared for Valentines weekend with my friends.
“You disobeyed me,” he said, when I sat him down to tell him about the ambulance and the Emergency Room, and then he hugged me, relieved and sad.
A week later, he is still hugging and scolding me.
My children and I have rarely traded roles. After growing up with an addict, I made sure of it. As the oldest of 8 children, I was the one that each sibling relied upon for steadfastness.
I suppose I’ve been more than ready to step out of that role.
We left the shore three days ago. In two cars.
My son rode shotgun.
Our attention was dulled by hours of highway driving until we saw an orchard flanking the highway.
“Imagine it in autumn,” he said.
“I like it right now,” I said, taking in the late afternoon light on the bare and gnarly branches.
(Click here for Part II: What’s so funny about… )