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 maybe…well, 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.