WHAT DOES LOVE LOOK LIKE?
I had been struggling for months with chronic pain that seemed to be getting progressively worse. I had positioned myself in my comfortable chair to watch another movie from my DVD collection. But my leg was swollen to a point that reminded me of the DVT blood clot symptoms five years earlier. I walked to the bedroom, sat down in the office chair, then bent over to put on the support hose I had worn since 2014. As I pulled on the hose my entire rib cage seemed to crumble, sending hundreds of tiny piercing bolts of lightning across my chest. My attempt to stand upright was futile. Hunched over, I slowly made my way back to my comfortable chair in the living room, holding onto furniture along the way. I had spent several nights sitting in that same chair because I was unable to lie down in my own bed. As I sat down, it felt like a sword had been plunged into my chest. I am sure that was the moment my sternum fractured. I was not quite sure I was dying, but I was sure I had never come that close before. I thought perhaps I could close my eyes, take a deep breath and it would all be over soon. But the will to live grabbed hold of me, forcing me to pick up the phone to call my neighbor Susan who had a key to my front door.
Susan dialed 911, then within minutes paramedics were standing before me asking questions. The gurney sitting in the middle of the living room looked insurmountable. I was terrified to move, because of the unbearable pain. I don’t remember how I got into the gurney, but the next thing I knew I was in the back of an ambulance watching the life I had built in Oakmont disappear through the back window. I didn’t have the strength to cry, but I knew instinctively that I would never return. By the time we got to Milita Road the IV was kicking in. I watched as the canopy of trees were slowly pulled into the distance until they were no more. Then there was darkness until I was awakened by the sound of a man’s voice. I heard the words bone cancer and blood clots in the lungs. Then there was darkness again.
I could not move. I felt helpless, but taken care of at the same time. I was assaulted by flashing lights and bells every time I did try to move. The IV and high pressure oxygen mask required that I remain on my back, like a prisoner tied down to a bed. People came to pull me up in the bed after I had slid down. Others came with gurneys and inflatable slide sheets to take me for scans and X-rays. I had a sign that warned: sternum caution. I had to place my arms across my chest each time I was pulled from gurney to bed or gurney to scan. I wondered how bad the pain would be if I were without the pharmaceuticals that numbed my entire body. Even they were ineffective when I was being transferred from place to place. The only recourse I had in those moments was to scream. It wasn’t even a choice. It came out involuntarily like a sneeze.
If asked to describe the hospital, I would be unable. I remember ceiling lights rushing by as I was wheeled through the corridors nearly flat on my back. I remember bumping into fire doors or the clicking of the wheels as I was rolled onto elevators. When scan rooms were in use, I was left in the hallway below nondescript artwork that always made me say to myself, “my photos would be better here.” It was a small recognition of my former life, forgotten as soon as I was wheeled into the examining room. The cold hard surface of the CT scan was almost unbearable on my ravaged spine. We had to devise new positions for my arms because I was no longer able to lift my hands above my head. I was always just a centimeter from scraping the sides as I held my breath on command, then breathed a big sigh of relief when the procedure was ended.
The morphine did its job in mitigating the pain, but presented a challenge to someone who was totally against pharmaceutical drugs. I spent the first few days watching the small light at the left side of my TV come to life. It morphed into a soldier in armor who walked back and forth at the edge of an ocean like a sentry. The blank TV screen served as the ocean. If I watched long enough, I could see the waves lapping against the shore. I found a meditation channel that played soothing music to the backdrop of nature videos that looked very much like my photos of Valley of the Moon. But most of the time I could not distinguish between night and day, except for the delivery of my three meals.
I almost died three time. I cannot tell them apart. They are memories of people hovering above me, frantically yelling at each other and occasionally yelling questions to me which could only be responded to by shaking my head yes or no. What was clear to me was that none of these people wanted me to die. It was like they were forming a tent above my bed to prevent my spirit from leaving my body. While they labored above me doing what they knew to save my life, I heard the voices of all the people who sent me cards and letters telling me to hang on, I still had work to do. In my opioid induced state, I imagined thousands of tiny electric threads that penetrated the walls then shot out across the earth connecting me to each one of the people who were praying for my recovery. I remember wondering if that was what that intangible thing called love looked like in a tangible form.