Voices

On the last Sunday in July, 2019, my husband went to the gym after church. He had a great workout on the stationary bike (always proud of accomplishing five miles in fifteen minutes).

He got in his truck to come home.

That is the last thing he remembered for a long time.

At the house, our dog went crazy, barking. Someone in the driveway. Police officer: Your husband’s had an accident. Do you have a way to the hospital… truck ran off the road into the woods…appears to have been a medical event…sorry, I don’t know how bad it is. EMS was working on him when I left…

Both of our grown boys happened to be home that afternoon. We rode together to the ER, not knowing what we’d find.

My reeling mind wondered if their black suits were clean…in case…

At the hospital, a nurse was waiting for us. She ushered us into a side room.

Massive heart attack, said the ER doctor, but he’s alive. He wasn’t when EMS got to him. He was in cardiac arrest. They did CPR, defib…they are heroes…heroes…

Heart attacks killed his father and grandfather in their fifties.

After emergency surgery, he underwent induced hypothermia to allow his brain time to rest from the trauma. No one knew how long he’d gone without oxygen. EMS had arrived on the scene quickly, as the station is just up the street from where the truck ran off. My boys and I learned that their dad endured forty-five minutes of CPR and ten – TEN – shocks from the paddles. We would learn that his sternum was broken. Attending CICU physicians warned: After hypothermia, we’ll do a waking test. There’s no guarantee he’ll wake, or how extensive the damage will be to his brain…

As we endured those long hours, we learned that his truck was barely dented as it ran off the road, that it stopped just short of a deep ravine in the woods. We were told that he swerved into oncoming traffic and back into his lane before running off on the right. He never struck another vehicle. People behind him called 911. One thing different, and all would be different…

As one doctor said: Everything aligned for him. Everything.

He did awaken. He knew us. He was soon able to ask, in a raspy voice after coming off the ventilator: What happened?

It would be a long recovery involving another hospital stay and more surgery…but he recovered.

He could remember leaving the gym, but he could not recall anything from earlier that month, or from many months before. All of his long-term memory remained intact; all his stories, all his sports trivia and stats. There was just a period completely erased, leading up to the heart attack. He could not recall a thing from our family vacation to the beach earlier in July, the glorious time we had.

The brain’s way of protecting itself from pain, our oldest son said. I had a professor who told us about this in class. It’s not good to try to make a person remember…

He didn’t recognize the scenery on the way home from the hospital: Why are we turning here? Everything looks so new…have I seen this before?

The doctors said, Some memories may return as he heals. Some may not. It’s hard to say; everyone is different.

After a couple of months, he returned to his work at the church. He’s a minister. The number one question people had after he began regaining strength: Did he see anything? when he was… you know… ‘gone’? I mean, he IS a pastor… such curiosity tinged with hope, in that questioning.

All he could remember, much to people’s disappointment: It was just like going to sleep. No pain, just fading into sleep. So peaceful.

Then one day he saw pictures of our family vacation and recognized the giant tortoise we chanced upon at a roadside display: I remember that!

Random bits returned to his mind, here and there.

Then on another day, much later, he told me: I heard voices.

What do you mean, you ‘heard voices’?

When my truck ran off the road. When everything was going dark.

What did they say?

They said, “He’s in trouble. We have to get him off the road.”

Did you…did you recognize the voices? Do you think that maybewell, it could have been just the EMTs…

He shook his head. All I know is, I heard them when I was driving and I thought, if I can just get over there to the grass, to that little hill… where that sunset is…everything will be okay.

He left me staring after him as he headed out to the park for the eight-mile hike he makes now, several times a week.

He’s in trouble. We have to get him off the road…

Everything aligned for him. Everything.

I ponder the mystery of memory, and the miraculous…in ceaseless awe that he is returned to us, restored, rejuvenated, whole.

In his own words, with his characteristic wit and big, contagious laughter, as “a member of the Lazarus Club.”

*******

Photo is entitled “The Day Black with Night” and is in the public domain on Creative Commons with this verse: “Go for help to Him who makes Orion and the Pleiades, by whom the deep dark is turned into morning, who makes the day black with night; whose voice goes out to the waters of the sea, sending them out over the face of the earth: the Lord is His name.” —Amos 5:8.

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 22, I am writing around a word beginning with letter v.

To today and the tortoise

In an instant, life changes. Without warning, parameters close in. Existence is not what it was or ever will be again, for one can only endure each moment in the moment, with no sense of what lies beyond the shell, the shadowy vignette of Now, the eternity of it, the temporality of it. There is no turning of Earth, no movement of Time, no tortoise-crawl into tomorrow where Now could ever be snared in the net of memory…

Until all of a sudden, it is.

For five months Life As We Know It has been suspended by COVID-19. We’ve yet to crawl beyond its grasp.

For my family, however, today makes a year since the borders of our being were reduced, abruptly, to a sand-like speck floating in minutes as vast and endless as the sea.

One year since the Sunday afternoon that my youngest and I took our last routine walk around the church, talking about life and the future as he prepared for his final year of college.

One year since we came back home, hot and tired, and the dog went crazy barking at the patrol car pulling into our driveway. One year since the officer asked if this is where my husband lived, because he’s been in an accident, ma’am, and do you have a way to the hospital…

One year since my husband, coming home from the gym, suffered cardiac arrest while driving and his truck veered off the road, into the woods, stopping just short of a ravine.

One year since not knowing what our boys and I would learn when we walked into the ER entrance, where we were met by a nurse waiting for us, who took us into a side room…

One year since the attending physician told the boys and me it was a “big” heart attack, that their dad was alive because the EMTs were heroes, because he was not when they found him.

One year since we learned that EMS in this county happens to have the second-highest resuscitation rate in the nation.

One year since the night spent sleeping on chairs in the cardiac ICU waiting room as hypothermia was induced to give my husband’s brain time to recover.

One year of not knowing how much could be, or would be, recovered.

Time slowed to a crawl so infinitesimal that it could never really pass.

But it did, and it has, and it is.

Today makes one year, somehow. A compromised year, one in which I didn’t start or end the school year normally, a year of resuming life only to hit another prolonged pause, a year of no traveling beyond the necessary, first because of my husband’s mending heart and then the pandemic. A year of time outside of time, or time folding in on itself… I am not sure which. A year of near-implosion, of living and dying strangely, epically. A year of not knowing, globally or nationally, how much recovery there can be, or will be…

My husband has recovered remarkably well, in all ways except for a span of memory for the month or two prior to his cardiac arrest. The brain seeks to protect itself from trauma; it’s a survival mechanism. All my husband’s long-term memory, all his beloved sports trivia and history lore, remains intact for instant recall. But for a vague recollection of leaving the gym on that fateful day one year ago, my husband’s brain erased last July. He has no memory of our last family vacation to the beach, of long walks on the shore, of plunging into the bracing, beckoning ocean, of trying new restaurants, of the little Guatemalan shop he loved and visited several times, where he encouraged the rest of us to buy whatever handmade items we wanted because a portion of proceeds supports the native artisans. We ask him: Do you remember the putt-putt game? How you got beat by one point? How you demanded a rematch? Do you remember the storm blowing in on the 4th, when we ate at that new place in the enclosed deck by the marina and you said it was the best fish you ever had? Do you remember the music and dancing in the square? Don’t you remember buying this tapestry bookbag and the belt?

He looks as if we are speaking a different language, one we have created, one he has never heard and can’t grasp. No. No. Really? That happened?

One night last week he and I were watching a nature TV program. The camera zoomed in on a tortoise. Instantaneously, my husband said: ” I remember that.”

“What?”

“The tortoise. We saw one like it on the beach trip last year.”

He is right. We did. We saw a giant tortoise on the side of the road while driving. We pulled off to encounter several tortoises owned by a man who had them out for visitors that day. Tortoises, we discovered, enjoy having their heads petted; they’ll stretch their necks out to you for more.

And I know, looking away from the tortoise on the screen to the intent expression on my husband’s face as he watches it, that the return of the tortoise in his memory means that what is good remains, even if hidden. It is never just gone. Despite the extent of trauma, pain, and suffering, endurance is possible, and healing more than possible.

Here’s to today. And the tortoise.

Last July. I could not have imagined the significance of this moment, one year later.

Traction

Summer.

It brings to mind vacation. Travel. Beaches, ocean, sand. Rest. Living, loving, luxuriating . . .

Until the sands of life shift suddenly.

As they did it this summer when my husband landed in the hospital twice for a collective nineteen days and two heart surgeries. Existence as we knew it changed in an instant; just as we felt we’d gained a foothold, the sands shifted again. There was no time to think of the sun or even a chance to see it deep in the fluorescent-lit maze of tiled corridors and rooms. No taste of salt on the ocean breeze—oh, and salt is taboo from now on. Savoring life converged to a pinpoint, a prayer, many prayers, for staying alive, every day an uncharted vista with its own unfamiliar seas and long, long shores of loose, uncertain sands.

But he is home at last, convalescing. I grapple with new regimens—dressing wounds left by chest tubes, administering medications, a different diet, slow, slow walks in the driveway. Extra doses of patience. New priorities. The word traction comes to mind. We are on solid ground. We are moving forward, bit by little bit.

Perhaps that particular word returns to mind from childhood. My mother suffered with several health issues, one being injury and surgeries on her back. Her convalescence involved sitting in a chair beside a bedroom door with a rope-like contraption thrown over the door itself and a cup in the dangling loop for her chin. Each day she was to tighten this rope and sit in the chair for a given amount of time to stretch and align her spine. It was called traction.

I love words, their shades and nuances, so once traction got hung in my mind I kept spinning it to see its colors and facets. Traction as a foothold, as aligning, as momentum. Grabbing hold, finding a place of solidity, setting things in motion, in the right direction. I can say that my adventure this summer gave me new spiritual depth and traction.

And when I wrap myself in such metaphor I tend to see what else this blanket enfolds . . . school. I have missed the beginning of school, and while I wonder how I’ll gain traction with so many new programs and systems I’m expected to learn and teach this year, my mind doesn’t linger there. Perhaps it should. But perhaps not. I think of the children and the growth they’re supposed to make. They never will if all the sands keep shifting, if things are not aligned or set in motion in the right direction.

The lesson of my summer was restarting. My husband’s heart was restarted twice. Once during CPR which fractured his sternum and once after bypass grafts. The surgeon repaired his heart and his fractures. Healing is underway. We have new priorities. Life is restarted, with new traction. Why should it be any different for our schools, for our children? It is time to restart, to find a place of traction in shifting systems, opinions, policies, and priorities, and do what needs to be done for their sakes. Too much is at stake. It took a medical team—several, in fact— to save my husband this summer. And so it will be a collective effort to meet the needs of children on their educational journey. We shall seek and find solid ground. We shall move forward together, bit by little bit.

To me the story is the same, no matter how you slice it or apply it. This is life. It all begins and ends with the heart. Start where you have landed and find your traction.

4:00 a.m. In hospital.

Dearest…

Long, long ago, your mother sat by your hospital bed, not knowing if you would live or die. Acute bronchitis, emergency tracheotomy, impossibly high fever… I can almost envision your little four-year-old self inside the oxygen tent, packed in ice to get your temperature down, and your mother in the chair, wiping her tears as she wrote you a note. Her beautiful penmanship remains vivid on the inside cover of the Bible story book she bought for you:

4:00 a.m. In hospital.

Dearest . . .

When you are well and safe at home again, I’ll read you this little note I’ve written to you during the hours I sat by your bed and watched you sleep so soundly . . . Mommy and Daddy have been so scared . . . We love you so much, our little son . . . Little angels have been all around your bed since you have been sick and Jesus sent them to watch over you and keep you . . . soon all the suffering and fright you have had will pass from your little mind but Mommy will always remember and thank God for giving you back to me.

Your Mother

*******

Five decades later, Dearest, I sit by your hospital bed, typing this note in my phone. When you are well and safe at home again I will tell you how the EMS responders were angels sent to save you, how the doctors repaired your heart, how the nurses watched over you and kept you safe, how – for the second time in your life – your body was chilled in an effort to save your brain. The boys and I have been here with you the whole time. At last you woke and knew us … we will always remember what the doctors said, that everything, everything aligned for you.

At 4:00 a.m. in the hospital – today and every hour of every day hereafter – we thank God for giving you back to us.

❤️ Your Wife

Update 8/6: After a week in the hospital, five days of which were in cardiac ICU, he is home. Weak, sore, struggling with memory, and amazed by his own story. We tell it to him over and over again.

Medical professionals continue to describe the actions of EMS responders – who administered CPR for twenty minutes with defibrillators – as “heroic.”