THERE ARE EXACTLY three things I remember from the last time I almost died.
I’ll let you know when to start counting; this first part is just setting the scene.
It was a gorgeous day in December, just over a year ago, and a week before Christmas. I’d been trotting around all day, the absolute picture of health, taking photos of an apartment on Capitol Hill for a client who needed a brochure with lots of pretty pictures of the place and the street, which still seemed vividly fall.
I settled at my desk with a little glass of wine and downloaded the lot, turned up the Edith Piaf to get in a Photoshop state of mind, and my head fell off.
Not literally, just creepily, like a giant fist grabbed the back of my neck and pushed it forward with about a thousand pounds of pressure.
What the fuck, I said. I do recall.
Being alone in the house—who knows where The Prince was—I lurched out of the chair and fumbled downstairs and out the front door and hung onto the porch rail for a few minutes. Air, you know. As all appeared to be attached, I turned to go back inside, and said again, What the fuck, as my swollen head bobbled.
It seemed so dumb calling 911. I explained to the operator that I wasn’t sure there was anything wrong with me at all, and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time with what has to be nothing—after all, splendid day, yes? Peak of health!
She said something like, Sit tight.
So I did, and shortly my little living room seemed completely filled with very large male bodies all gathered around me as they hadn’t been in probably 30 years, and was I ever charming and witty and eye-batty and they said, Sit still.
So I did, fuzzily contemplating the wilting flower arrangement on top of the bombé chest in the foyer which, it occurred to me, needed attention.
Lights, ambulance outside, where was The Prince when I needed him? He’s always there when I don’t. I scribbled a pissy note: Have gone to a hospital, I don’t know which one.
That is true. Every hospital emergency room in the city was full and the EMTs didn’t know what to do with me.
Somehow he found me, though. And somehow he had me transported from the worst hell hole in D.C. to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I slept through it all, or thought I did. He claims that I yattered and ordered people around from the ambulance bed.
What I recall is that 24 hours later (which I thought was maybe an hour or two), a nurse gently shook me, and whispered: Your daughter’s here.
“Baby,” I said, cracking my eyes open, expecting to see her gorgeous face. Instead there was her soon-to-be mother-in-law, a lovely woman who just happens to be six months younger than I am.
This was not good. Actually, it was more distressing than finding myself in intensive care for a week. The Prince reminds me that I did not look well. I guess not.
Three things, I think I passed them . . . oh well, start counting now then:
Turns out a blood vessel popped in my head and spewed fluid around my brain. Nothing to do but lie there and take lovely pain stuff and not eat for the first time I can recall, ever. I could be running 105 fever and having convulsions and still crave fried chicken. So it was stunning to find myself forcing down an apple so I wouldn’t expire (fat chance anyway).
The other things I recall from what turned out to be a week’s stay, were that the nurses admired my mud-brown nail polish and several remarked—repeatedly and with a tinge of amazement—that I looked totally different when I sit up. I had no clue what they meant. It occurred to me to ask Baby, who did show up, as she does for my emergencies, and she said: “You look so sweet and innocent when you’re lying down.”
She didn’t complete the second part of that statement.
I’m now on a five-year plan with life-threatening events, none—the doctors assure me—that have anything to do with my drinking, smoking, lack of exercise, fried eating or genes. These events are inconveniently timed to coincide with major birthdays and holidays—though I’ve always sworn that people who up and die or almost die at such times are just being passive-aggressive, which I have never been accused of.
The previous trauma happened just before one of those rather major birthdays.
I thought I had indigestion and heartburn for a couple of months, plus a nagging cough. The doc said it was bronchitis. And then one day, after a night of pacing about rubbing my chest and moaning, I lucked into another doctor who slapped his iced stethoscope against my chest, listened and listened some more, and said: “Something’s hmpf” and scurried from the room.
It was another sit-down-and-shut-up moment. He phoned his buddy the ace cardiologist and, as this was late Friday afternoon, made an appointment for me first thing Monday morning. He also said not to move around much, or at all, until I got there.
What shall I wear, I recall remembering as I skipped home to tell The Prince, who was suitably alarmed, and almost immediately disappeared to grab the doctor before he’d quit for the weekend . . . and was instructed to keep me quiet and as motionless as possible, a state with tremendous appeal. I lay about limply and suitably pale (but with plenty of mascara) propped up on pillows with chocolates and books.
So Monday comes and we take Metro downtown, then run to the office, as we were a little late. And the cardio guy looks me over and doesn’t see anything in particular but on a whim orders up an ultrasound, which turns up a hole in the back of my heart “the size of a milk jug.” An ambulance was summoned.
This was alarming and very dramatic, as I like things, though it was a disappointment that there was no siren. The kindly technician who was monitoring my more-or-less-alive self said they do that when they’re racing to get someone, but not on the way to the hospital. I do not understand this.
And I was thinking, It’s a damn good thing I didn’t go to England with Maggie, to tour the bookstores of Yorkshire with her epic tome, “The Mish-Mash Dictionary of Marmite: An Anecdotal A-Z of ‘Tar-in-a-Jar’ ” (available on Amazon for $15 in paperback, though it’s out of stock but they promise to deliver it when it’s available).
Also. The timing sucked, being 10 days from a rather major birthday, and I do like my birthdays.
Anyway. Baby was called for, flown in from Austin where she was living for no particular reason, although the margaritas and queso are to die for, you should pardon the expression.
“This could be the last time you’ll ever see your mother,” The Prince told her.
Numerous hours later and thanks to the heroics of a rightfully self-congratulatory surgeon I was stitched back together with no pig parts and a sensational scar. There followed a week of drug-induced hallucinations, including hearing Marlene Dietrich repeatedly singing “See what the boys in the back room will have,” which, with its funereal, albeit jolly, refrain, seemed an odd song choice for a critical care unit. Baby said this wasn’t happening.
Meanwhile, I had about 500 tulips that needed to be planted in the backyard, which I find very boring to do though I admire the results. As I wasn’t allowed to bend over or lift anything heavier than five pounds for a couple of months, it was the perfect opportunity to order people around.
And Baby pulled together a fabulous resurrection party to celebrate my birthday, with queso and margaritas, and I marveled at still being alive.
I tell you this story because future stories will often hinge upon it, and I can stick an asterisk at the end so you can understand why.