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 a hill; or maybe I imagined that part, maybe that’s how I wanted to feel or feared for myself.
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, took a few hits at the encouragement of friends who couldn’t believe I didn’t smoke. Hardly any results, except for a single cosmic kiss, my senior year at the university, with one of the twins. Which one? I no longer remember.
It was the second time that I ate a pot cookie when everything changed.
What I remember thinking is that the ambulance ride twenty years earlier over Hogback Mountain in my final stages labor–from our wooded road to the nearest town with a hospital–was just about the distance it would take for the ambulance to transport me from the islands of my childhood–to the mainland–where my father still practiced. Only this time, 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 Big Chill 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 of my friend’s parents’ bedroom. The gold fish tossed onto their bed.
But I missed that part of the party forty years ago. 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 toward me. Words, like daggers. Hurting still.
“Murderer,” he called me, “You killed our baby.”
Nine months earlier, I had. Two abortions, in fact.
The absence of linear time makes the smallest distance–say from the beach to the drawbridge–play in a continuous loop–while in a single 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.
For whom others like me might be praying.
Twenty minutes must have passed.
Even in the car, while we waited for the EMTs to arrive with the ambulance; 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 cannabis experience another dud. We took group photos on the street mall. We stopped in the fudge shop. We did not buy ribbon candy. 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. She took my seat and I shimmied in beside my husband.
“Something’s not right,” I whispered, but he was distracted.
“What?” he said, as he laughed at a joke said across the table.
“Meet me outside?” I pressed.
The cold air was soothing. The ocean only a block away. Maybe I would walk.
“What’s wrong?” Casey asked when he joined me in front of the bar.
“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 and I exhaled into this unexpected and tender reunion, but quickly 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. “I need to leave.”
Casey handed me the keys. We decided that he’d meet me as soon as he paid our check and grabbed our food to go. I moved on, relieved to have a purpose–but the further I walked from the restaurant down the street mall, a walk I’d done a thousand times before, 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 the keys? 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 once I was wheeled from the ambulance into 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 instead of a curtained bay?
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 dismissive-ness now.
A home birther.
A pot smoker. Only I had eaten it.
I lay 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 each was completed. Days within each hour. A lifetime within each moment. 24 hours would pass before these contractions of consciousness ceased, and more than eight hours 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 each asking in the same pacifying tone:
“What happened today?” as if I was at 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 the car.”
I was struck by how similar these thoughts were to my everyday thoughts. That I felt a sense of relief when a friend told me that he drank the full beer that I’d left behind; nothing wasted.
Where was the transcendent consciousness that should accompany death or a high?
But this wasn’t a high. This was a low, 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.
In the morning before this scene played out, we were all in the kitchen, my friends and I, where we had been as girls, only now we were drinking mimosas. I moved around the brunch table, offering a massage to each of my friends.
Later in the car where I waited with Casey for the EMT, I tried to explain that somehow I was now chelating the grief and trauma I felt inside each of my friends.
“Did I just say something?” I asked him.
An odd gap existed 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?” I asked.
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. My hospital gown was pulled down to my belly. My bra was removed. Tiny pads were 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 that 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 shirt. Now I don’t want to wear it again. He made me a pillow from my coat. I wished he’d used that to cover me. I didn’t like that coat.
A series of professionals entered and exited my world. Only one was true.
“You’re a healer,” I said to her.
“I’m just doing my job,” she answered as she went about her job.
“No,” I said. “Everyone here has been doing their job, 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, but further further and apart, and also wider, into which I fell–despairing and hopeless. All around me 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 comfort, she asked the parent a series of questions.
“Warm water with honey,” I said quietly to the curtain. “A chest rub. A humidifier.” I felt my late mother’s clear and composed presence in crisis.
She would have been wheeled into this same room on the morning of her seizure, just weeks before my youngest son was born. My baby sister called me first. “Hang up and dial 911,” I said.
She was 14.
We were 300 miles apart.
On my left, was the sound of a big man in his sixties. He just received the news that his hip was badly broken. It would require immediate 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 too sent him Metta.
May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you…
I wondered why I hadn’t thought to do it sooner, and in this awareness, I recognized, a turning point.
“Here now,” I said. “Here, now.”
This is how I steadied myself, alone, in the car, in the parking lot, waiting for Casey to arrive, 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 appeared chillingly empty.
“Casey will be here soon,” I said to myself. “Casey will be here soon.”
But time had expanded infinitely.
I thought of those 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 losing motor control.
“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.
I couldn’t look right. For some reason, I could not look right.
I thought about banging on the car window, and mouthing, “Help, Help!” to a passing stranger. But the window on the left was too far away. And there were no strangers anywhere as if the world had empties. As if I had returned to the apocalypse films of my childhood. Omega Man. And the other one. And the real one, the apocalypse of the accident that took my grandmother’s life when I was 14 like my baby sister was on the day her world changed.
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 cycling from clarity into the gap of 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 when he arrived to the car, but this was immediately followed by a 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 possible, but in such crisp focus that it seemed to be right in front of me. The truck from my grandmother’s accident.
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, when he was 18. Suicide.
The late afternoon light shimmered on the truck too far in the distance but it had a mirror image across the intersection, a twinner that was shaded by the imposing stone edifice of Our Lady of the Sea where my friend married and later buried her parents and where something evil was coming for me.
But there couldn’t be two trucks, I told myself, because there was no room to park across the intersection in front of the church; which meant that I was seeing two worlds–one dark, one light–like Stephen King’s Talisman which 20-year-old Casey convinced me to read even though I always avoided horror after the films of my childhood.
I was the truck, I thought, seeing myself in the mirror. The mirror I had looked into as a child. My grandmother’s mirror. The truck that crushed her under its wheels. 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 let go. But what a stupid way to die.
“Ishvara Pranidhana,” I whispered. May my successes and failures, my death, 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 the police officers, who were the age of our children, cautioned all of us about gateway drugs, and later 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?” as if a cookie isn’t the serving measure of itself.
One professional suggested that I think back to the last time I got high, and recall that feeling instead. There was no last time. Not really. There was that one time I smoked with Casey before the Spyro Gyro concert in Steamboat, but when it sold out, we went to the movies, arriving there late too, buying tickets to the only film that had remaining seats, taking those 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?” they asked.
“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 that he didn’t have to worry about, and also the daughter who was a writer who he didn’t want to know.
“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 and every person who helped me along the way throughout the day.
It turns out 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 at 15, had been disappointed when I ate that first cookie at my sister’s Solstice party, and he had rebuked the plans I shared for Valentine’s weekend with my friends and a second cookie.
“You disobeyed me,” he said, when I returned home and told 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 if ever traded roles like this. After growing up with an addict, I made sure of this. And 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.