Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Life's Accumulations

This has been a strange week. The "heart thing" surely has me thinking more realistically about mortality, and it has strangely mobilized me. Out with the clutter in my life! Toss the accumulated meaningless possessions! Focus on what matters!

And so it was that I discovered my mother's baby book in a stack of miscellaneous papers. I must have once intended to look through them, so maybe an interruption landed them on the top shelf of an antique cupboard.

At first glance, it had the look of an old-fashioned storybook, but it was titled, "Baby's Story - an Autobiography". As I picked it up and started to open it, the speakers spewing a random playlist began playing "Feels Like Home to Me", a Randy Newman song sung by Bonnie Raitt. I froze. It was the song I sang to her when she was near death, the song that somehow revived her and rekindled her life-spirit. And there in my hands were the details of her birth: the date December 12, 1912 (which I knew) and the time 10 PM (which I hadn't ever heard). More entries recorded gifts and noted the dates she crawled, stood and walked, and there, still unfaded red, was a lock of her hair. Several pages later, a description of the baby bore the words "Red hair, Freckles, No brain!" and another (First Words) said "Hee-haw!" - each in her own penciled grammar-school handwriting.

This is clutter I shall keep.


Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Unexpected

I thought I was going to die on Friday. It was a thought that didn't enter my mind in the morning, for the morning was lovely - if you overlook the second or two when I passed a critical eye over the two thin flakes of hay in my hands and bent to grab a third, lifting carelessly and awkwardly and causing a familiar twinge in my lower back. Some people get older and wiser. I'm just aging none too gracefully.

Dying and how I might die has been something I've thought about before. I was with my father when he took his last breath, and seven years later repeated the event with my mother, and in those two experiences, as a mixture of sorrow, loss and relief filled me, I noted my place at the head of the line. Heart disease once took my ancestors, but now modern drugs and procedures keep us going long enough to finally succumb to cancer. I've wondered which is worse: a life cut short and ended abruptly, or a long, drawn-out demise. Maybe the amount of pain is the same, but in one case intense pain and death happen all at once, and in the other they're drawn out and somewhat diluted by morphine.

On Friday I got cleaned up to go to town, organized the banking, grocery list, stuff to take to the Arts Council, my camera gear and bag, and for some reason thought I should take my blood pressure. During the height of my back pain I was on a medication that pushed it up to an unacceptably high level, and my doc wanted me to take daily readings until I see her again. I did it faithfully for awhile, but then grew tired of doing it and stopped.

The blood pressure monitor gave me a strangely low reading, so I waited a few minutes and took it again. This time it showed high figures, but my pulse rate was 32! Whoa. My mother's pulse got down around there just before she died... I placed fingers to my neck and quickly realized that the monitor hadn't exactly been lying: my pulse was skipping beats left and right. At first my heart was beating three or four times and then skipping once; then it beat five and skipped one; then two and one. I thought about my options, then called Husband for a consult, but he was out taking his noon walk/run/ski. I tried his cell phone but got his voice mail.

More thinking about what to do.

I took my pulse again, and now I was skipping every second or third beat. Should I drive myself to the emergency room? I gathered my things by the door and then placed fingers on neck again: a distressingly slow blup, skip, blup, skip, blup, skip. I dialed 9-1-1.

Although my neighbors are usually quick to respond (once I had to call the rescue squad for my mother at 5 AM, and the first medic arrived two minutes later, the ambulance and five more volunteers within ten minutes of my call), this was mid-day on a Friday, and apparently most people were at work or off on their sleds. I had nearly fifteen minutes to gather my things, feel that unenthusiastic pulse, and think.

Was my heart simply coming to a stop? On this otherwise pleasant Friday in March, had I come to the end of the line? There was none of the pain I had always anticipated at check-out time, but there it was: my heart was beating at half of what it ought to be, and I was feeling light-headed. Would the rescue squad folks find me dead on the floor when they arrived?

I never cry in the throes of tragedy. The old proverb (zen, no doubt), "Time is short, so we must proceed slowly" describes me well in what others might call a panic situation. It's not that I'm especially strong or brave (I fall apart later), but I am the person you want around in a crisis because for reasons unknown to me I try to act rationally and wisely.

You could say that "I might be dying" wasn't a particularly wise or rational thought, but there it was. When your heart slowly but steadily slows down or stops working, it did seem to me that DEAD can be the result, and the fact brought tears to my eyes, tears of disappointment, sadness caused by the realization that the grandson who has such a tiny loving family might lose one who is important to him, lose her without a goodbye or an explanation or apology. There must have been fear too, but sorrow was upmost in my mind.

There was no pain, so I decided to try pushing my heart to work. I climbed the stairs several times. (Where is the squad??) I thought of writing something to Grandson but then - since I was still right-side-up and alive despite the blup-skips - put my coat on and went onto the porch to wait for the ambulance.

What came first wasn't white. Tim, apparently knowing he would be the first responder, traded his pick-up for a fire truck as he passed through the hamlet to the north. I didn't wait inside for him to come to a stop, and a minute later we were standing in the road beside the vehicle as he slipped an oxygen mask over my head. Moments after that we could hear the siren as the white squad truck approached from the south, and soon I was strapped to a gurney, loaded and on my way, answering questions, having electrical leads attached and reassuring the nurse that her attempts to insert an IV needle on bumpy roads were not hurting me. By the way, the FEAR that I suggested must have been trumped by ration and sorrow was pretty evident in my blood pressure readings...

So obviously I lived to tell the tale. Twenty-four hours in the hospital, a battery of tests guaranteed to ensure the financial well-being of the place, and I was sent home. Apparently I am in good shape, although there's slight leakage in one of my heart valves. "Sometimes these things (blup skip blup skip) happen, and then they never happen again." On Sunday it wasn't happening, at bedtime last night it was, and now all is normal again. I will see my Burlington doc on Thursday.

Here's the point. The past three days have brought to my attention the fact that we never know how much time we have - or haven't. How sad for those who suddenly have their lives cut short. Even though doc's reassured me that my situation is not life-threatening, I wrote a short "goodbye" to Grandson. I hope he won't read it for many years, but it would have been such a tragedy to leave him without a goodbye or the words, "I love you so very much. You are the best. You are smart and you are strong, and you will have a good life without me, but I wish I could always be here to watch you grow, hear your laughter and go with you on little adventures. I wanted to watch you grow up. You don't need me, but I am so sorry to have to leave and miss all those times you will make me proud. I love you. Grandma."

...........................Climbing the hill alone