I want to call this a near-death experience, but of course, it was nothing of the sort, in the end. I called it a kind of rehearsal. It was nothing short of the worst three hours I could ever remember spending, in terms of just pure physical pain, short of childbirth. Still, it was a wild, wild ride, and I did get a chance to imagine, for a moment, that that could be the end.
Monday, coming back from the weekend in snake-infested Rajganj, I came down with a fever that lasted all day. Everyone told me it was the abrupt change in temperature, coming up the mountain. Made sense to me.
Friday, I woke up feeling slightly, I dunno, out of kilter. The feeling built slowly over the course of the day. At 4 o’clock, it was too uncomfortable to sit at my desk. The pain started on the walk back, all 130 stairsteps of the way to the room. I sat for about half an hour in Ben’s room, talking about the day, but my back was stubbornly painful, short little spasms, so I went back to my room, took a pain killer with Codeine and lay down. For a few minutes, I was stabbed by a series of rolling pains that finally subsided. I began to relax. Back pain is an old adversary of mine; I know it well. I thought that I’d found the right pain-free position. But no.
One of my former colleagues, Sulo, came to talk about her new job and I motioned her to take a seat. As she talked the pain seemed to focus on my lower chest area, like a horrendous stitch in my side. It got worse and worse. Soon I could only breathe in small little gulps; taking a full breath caused a spasm of astounding pain. I took a couple more pain pills. These are the pills that can practically erase any of the pain I’ve ever felt—back totally out, neck in a pretzel, finger shut in a car door, anything. But nada.
This went on for over an hour. Sulo, of course, felt helpless, but she kept up a steady stream of patter that let me focus on the words rather than what was going on in my body.
I began to realize that this was not a back out of joint, that I was taking shallower and shallower breaths in an attempt to avoid the stabbing pains that kept coming, that it was breathing itself that was precipitating the spasms. About then I started wishing I’d read those stupid ads detailing the five danger signs of heart attack. As the second hour wore on, the pain seemed to get worse and worse. I couldn’t sit up or turn on my side. I did childbirth breaths—short and shallow—to get enough air into my system.
Finally, we managed to reach a doctor, a Rotarian friend who, when he heard me on the phone, rasping out symptoms between little gasps of breath, said he’d be right over.
The first thought was that I’ve had a very good life and that while I didn’t get everything done, I’d done okay. The second was that I needed to get the passwords to my Password Vault, laptop with the household finances and desktop computer to my husband. We got that task done just as the doctor arrived. (Yes, docs do make house calls! The disappearance of this service in our world probably signaled the end of civilization but we didn’t notice.)
He took my vital signs and said apart from a somewhat elevated blood pressure, everything checked out as fine. My heart behaving normally, pulse okay. About then, the pain killers kicked in and I could turn to my side and breathe. And, blissfully, sleep. By the next evening, it was as if nothing had happened. Absolutely no residual spasms. What the heck?
I finally diagnosed the whole episode as a result of my stomach so distended with gas that it was pressing on my lungs. And decided that yoga for digestive health should be on my workout schedule from here on out.
It turns out that while I thought I might actually be reaching the end of my days on earth, that possibility never crossed my husband’s mind. My insistence on giving him passwords didn’t make the light bulb go on in his head. (Sometimes, one’s culture protects one from disturbing thoughts. The French can’t dictate their passwords, since they are all about 24 letter/number combinations long—impossible to memorize, so they just keep them pasted to their computers.)
Two days later, out walking, I pondered on the lessons I learned from that terrifying two or three hours. First, of all, I’m not particularly afraid of death. I found the prospect of letting it all go not that difficult. I was afraid of more pain, of how I was going to get to the hospital. I kept hearing that the longer it takes to get help, the poorer one’s chances of survival.
Second, in spite of the pain and fears, I maintained a presence of mind—call the doctor, pass over the passwords.
And third, that sweet sweet taste of the preciousness of life that floods back in once the crisis is past. Everything about life coming in sharp, beautiful focus, even the warts.