Since coming out of the hospital about 5 weeks ago, I’ve been trying mostly to just get on with life. Aside from resting and booking follow-up appointments, the most effort expended has been on resuming the normal rhythms of my day. This has proved more difficult than I anticipated, mostly due to the fact that I didn’t receive a diagnosis in the hospital, nor was I cured when I left, so I wasn’t really sure how to treat my own body. Every miniscule pain or deviation from normal cycles was cause to fret. I wasn’t sure what limits to place on exertion: was lifting a 2-liter bottle of milk out of the fridge ok? How about carrying it a quarter mile from the grocery store up the hill to my house? Should I avoid walking long distances or walk more? I didn’t feel frail. Or did I?
The fact was, I hadn’t felt better in years. I had no headaches at all. No menstrual migraine, no ongoing sinus pressure, no waking up feeling like my eyes didn’t fit right in the sockets. No ice packs or pain relievers. Gradually I began to feel optimistic, but still I was waiting for some concrete answers.
In the last week, I finally had some. And my, what a week it’s been. If I previously thought I had contemplated the big questions while in the hospital, I was a child, and now I’m an adult. The diagnosis is simple, and it recalls the poetry of complex theoretical maths rendered into elegant equations. My kidneys are on the fritz, originally kickstarted by childhood illness. As a result I developed elevated blood pressure. This caused further damage to my kidneys, which caused worse hypertension, which damaged my kidneys, hypertension, damage, hypertension, damage, and on and on for nearly twenty years. Until now. Now it has spiralled so completely out of control that at age 29 I woke in the wee hours with all the symptoms of a heart attack. Fortunately I have a Husband who immediately catapulted from bed and took me into the ER. Alone I might have spent hours wondering if I should be worried before maybe making an appointment with my doctor for later in the week. What I understand now is that a lack of Husband could have been fatal.
In the hospital, I unsurprisingly spent considerable time thinking about my future life before death. Husband and I discussed seeing a solicitor about making a will. I thought about the possibility of a future spent in and out of the hospital, or more in than out, and I thought about my criteria for living a meaningful life. I wondered even if I should voluntarily remove myself from the human gene pool to avoid passing on bum genetics to future generations. As someone with a deep respect for biology, that is a serious and important consideration to me.
I thought this meant I was contemplating death. I thought it meant that I was thinking about life and death together. But I wasn’t. I was still only thinking about life. Now that I have a diagnosis, death has come to the forefront of my contemplation. But not in the way I thought it would.
For fifteen years I have had migraines. They have been mostly manageable: they respond well to simple medication, they are mostly regular and predictable, I can often carry on a relatively normal day with one. But every now and then I have an absolute clanger. One that leaves me splitting my time between hugging the toilet bowl and sleeping the deepest, darkest sleep. When I have had those ones, I occasionally thought, What if this is the one that never goes away. What if this time, it’s for good. How long could I put up with this before I went mad and topped myself? This last question wasn’t me being morbid; it was a practical consideration. The human body is capable of tolerating astonishing punishment. It could be a hell of a long time.
Last August I started with a migraine that would blow the rest of these bad ones out of the arena. It was a migraine that wasn’t. It did funny things. It made my neck stiff. It caused “visual disturbance,” as they call it. I saw the doctor every few days for two weeks. I was put on narcotics and was unable to eat or work. And I thought, It’s heeeeeere. This is the one that will never go away. Imagine my relief (!) when it turned out it was only the worst sinus infection in the history of mucus. Antibiotics were forthcoming. Oh, the wonder of medicine! Two weeks later it was back. More antibiotics. Then again. Bigger faster stronger antibiotics. Then I cashed in the antibiotics, and my acupuncturist started poking my sinus points with all her might, and that made an amazing difference. But it wasn’t going away; it was just firefighting. Now I know it wasn’t really my sinuses that were the problem at all. The inflammation and headaches were my head trying to cope with an overachiever of a heart. I felt like death throughout it. I was exhausted and lost a dangerous amount of weight. I was anemic. I felt often upon waking up that I was near the limit. But that’s just melodrama.
Now I understand that the reason I felt like I was on death’s door is because I was. That monstrous headache in August was the beginning of my end. My blood pressure was surging up into malignant levels. I was dying and nobody knew.
Now I do know, and I can’t help dredging up the tired dodged bullet cliché. But I fully understand it in a way I couldn’t imagine before. It isn’t just avoiding something unpleasant. It’s seeing and living an alternate reality. I don’t only think about getting things in order for my eventual death (hopefully now a long way off thanks to meds and close monitoring); I think about the death that wasn’t. My past death. My death that would have left Husband a widower burying his first wife before he was 26. My death that would have left my mother perhaps unable to make the life-affirming change she has recently made. My father perhaps seeing visions in his vegetable garden, my sisters looking warily at each other. Bewildered? Angry? Afraid? I don’t really know, and neither do they, thankfully.
I recently read an article about why writers write about grieving. It’s the best way they know how to process their feelings, blah blah blah. I don’t know if that’s what I’m doing here. I’ve processed these feelings innumerable times since last Tuesday. Why am I sharing this publicly? I typed it on a computer that doesn’t even have internet access. I had to transfer it by memory stick. There's no cautionary tale from which to glean a moral. But you, dear reader, are my friend, my family. When it comes down to it, once I’m dead, I’m sure it won’t matter to me anymore whether I was 30 or 98. But it will matter to you. My grandmother recently passed away calmly, quietly, surrounded by loved ones, aged 94, after leading what can only be described as an absurdly full and active life. We were sad. But we rejoiced in the memories of her life, and her peaceful passing. I want you, dear reader, to rejoice in the memories of my life when the time comes, and not to have a burden of shock and fear.
So I am publicly promising to do everything I can to give you cause to rejoice at my end. I promise to do all in my power to stay alive as long and as meaningfully as possible. Now that I understand that dying is so exactly like living that once I didn’t even realize it was happening, I’m not afraid of it. But I’m not ready for it. I’m not welcoming it. I’m not going to beat it; none of us are. I’m just going to slap it around and tell it to get lost for a while.