By Cynthia Stock
I should have looked in the mirror July 21st, 2019, the day a seismic shift changed how I, an ex- Critical Care nurse two years into retirement, saw myself. Capitulating to my fetish for routine, I prepared for my morning swim as I did every Sunday. I downed two cups of coffee while I read the paper, finished the Sudoku, in ink, of course, foundered in The New York Times Crossword Puzzle, then put on my swim suit. I covered the crepe paper skin of my thighs and my “muffin” waist with an over-sized t-shirt sporting the logo from my adult son’s band. When I got to the aerobic center, I stripped, peed, and by-passed the full-length mirror without a glance. I didn’t want proof of age, didn’t want to see the thinning hair, the hollow, sagging cheeks of my once full face, the flaps of my upper arms, or the abundance of blotchy bruises, created courtesy of age and a daily blood thinner.
Maybe I did look. A five-minute make-over in front of the mirror had been my early morning ritual for forty years. With all that happened that day and after, I can’t remember for sure. If I looked, I memorized who I was before, so I could compare myself to who I was after.
At the pool, the between-cool-and-tepid water sent a shudder through my body, in fiction, a foreshadowing of things to come, in life, human biological defiance. I adjusted my goggles, ducked under the lane rope, and glided into my favorite lane. I loved the water. It loved me back, draping me in its exquisite fabric. When I pulled my arms through it, augmented with a lopsided, one-two kick, I jettisoned forward with ease. The first lap or two I’d focus on my shadow. The water formed circles around the drops of my splash reflected by round rainbows on the bottom of the pool. Once I found my rhythm, I struggled to keep count of my laps. After twenty minutes and one thousand yards, I was ready for the treadmill.
I sat at a poolside table to air dry. Despite the urban venue, the pristine sky glorified the day. The trees around the pool wove an intricate lattice against the aquamarine backdrop. I found it hard to leave such a sanctuary. My compulsive adherence to routine taunted me.
Back in the locker room, I dawdled. I couldn’t decide if I was feeling lazy or lethargic. The smallest things presented themselves as obstacles. My fingers fumbled with my shoestrings. I blamed my MS neuropathy. The best sports bra challenged me to a wrestling match as it stuck to my damp skin. I debated just going home. Instead I stepped onto the treadmill and hit quick start. What started was not the treadmill. Nor was it my body. I looked across the gym, overcome by a sense of the surreal. I could see everything and everyone, but only as they might appear through some drug induced telescopic world view. I stepped with leaden legs, a human dinosaur in a lethal tar pit. I’m only 68 for crissakes. Unable to catch my breath, I slammed the red emergency stop button and headed for the locker room. I grabbed my purse, hooked my membership card onto one handle, and pocketed my phone.
By the time I got to the lobby, I knew I’d never make it to my car. I didn’t feel faint; I just didn’t feel right. I headed for a circle of chairs over by a coffee table and sat down. Familiar things surrounded me. The club’s grill, closed on Sunday’s. The club’s spa, open, but not busy. A pleasant dark-haired young woman who worked the front desk. We chatted all the time like best friends, yet I didn’t know her name. I looked out the windows. In the pool, someone else already occupied my lane. After sitting straight up, I managed a deep breath only with the deepest concentration. Relax. How often had I said that to one of my ICU patients? I chided myself for being such a wimp, but remembered how many weeks I denied my shortness of breath before consulting a doctor and finding a blood clot. That was over a decade ago.
“Are you all right?” A ghost of a voice resonated from the front desk.
“Could you take my blood pressure?”
“I don’t know how. It’s the week-end. There’s nobody here,” the voice admitted.
She was a nice young woman, aiming to please. I heard the sheepish self-scold in her voice. Then the nurse in me began to assess. I remained awake, alert, oriented, but immobile. Cold numbness spread from my hands to my elbows. Was I having a stroke? Everything moved as I willed it. I tried to find my pulse, but my fingers were too numb to find even my carotid. I stood up and sat right back down. “I think you need to call 911. No wait. Give me a minute.” There is nothing harder on a nurse than admitting she is frail.
I lowered myself to the floor and put my legs up on one of the chairs. If I stand up, I am going to melt into the floor. Those black spots I’m seeing aren’t floaters. That guy who just walked by and saw me down on the floor is a doctor, can’t remember the specialty. Man up. Get up. Drive yourself home. Is that pressure in your chest? Are you perforating an ulcer? What was it like when you threw the clot to your lungs? What will happen to all your writing? Who will get your car? There is so much to take care of. Books to give away. Documents to shred. Why are my arms and legs on fire as never before? I need to call my husband.
Supine on the floor in the foyer of the gym. I noticed a crack in the less than two years old sky light. I noticed training shoes circling my head. A plastic cup of apple juice hovered near my mouth via an anonymous hand. I wanted to cry, but fear dried up my tears. I wanted to scream. It never occurred to me to be embarrassed. I told myself I could do whatever I wanted since I just might die. “I need 911.”
In the presence of fear, time chooses its own speed. It can either fast frame forward or wallow in slow motion. Waiting for the EMTs, I heard my heart’s slow syncopation. Lub dub, lub dub, pause. Words spoken by concerned voices conflated into a drone. An inner roar of white noise subsumed me.
“How much longer?” I thought I had disappeared. Then I saw the yellow framed gurney unfold from the fire truck. Navy blue trousered legs pushed through the club doors and hustled to my side. I recognized the monitoring equipment placed on the floor.
A strange voice and arm reached into my space. “Let’s sit you up,” came the voice as the arm assisted me to sitting.
I answered questions with as few words as possible. I recognized all the tools. A finger probe for oxygenation proved I was breathing. The electrodes documented my historically slow, regular heart rhythm. The blood pressure cuff revealed the extent of my fear. A finger stick refocused me.
“Normal blood sugar,” a pink-cheeked, peach-fuzzed overweight EMT announced.
Look at what’s happening to me. Get in shape. Take care of yourself. Then it hit me. I had done those things and still ended up on the floor at the gym. Why was this happening?
Apple juice, vital signs that affirmed my existence, and the resurrection of the nurse inside me, rallied my body. I convinced the EMTs to let me go to the bathroom. If I made it, I knew I could make it home. They insisted on escorting me to my car. I drove like a beginner, but arrived home, my body and my car in one piece, my identity fractured like a layer of Texas shale.
July 22nd, 2019
Not everyone trusts physicians. I trust my primary care physician. He is a testament to neatness. He glides rather than walks, wears his hair short, and wears perfectly fitted trousers that outline his lean body. A button-down collar long-sleeve shirt and tie suggest ours is a formal encounter, never routine. From my first visit with him, I recognized a mind that served as a repository of endless information. I told him I had anti-phospholipid syndrome; he immediately rattled off the range in which he would expect my INR to fall and asked who managed my warfarin. He scored more points when he failed to flinch at my words.
“I do. I have my own testing machine.” I handed him the typed copy of results from several weeks of testing. He reviewed them and placed them by his laptop.
During this visit, the nurse in me did not want to exaggerate. In all my years of nursing, I watched many patients dramatize the smallest things that eventually turned out to be part of daily living, not aging necessarily, nor illness, just living. I replayed what I wanted to say over and over. I tried to describe the facts in less literary terms, no purple prose at the doctor’s office. Things ran wild through my frightened nurse’s head. When it came to my own health, I knew too damned much.
I retold Dr. Z all that happened. I didn’t really have pain. I wasn’t short of breath, just sighed now and again. Who didn’t do that? On the treadmill, I felt off kilter, but the exact words for the feeling were as nebulous and free-floating as a dust mote.
“I was afraid, very afraid, by the time the EMTs arrived.” I didn’t tell him the new rules I was writing, blueprinting a new way to live life to the fullest. No, not to the fullest. I just wanted to be alive. I just wanted to be. Since I had been his patient for a while, I assumed he understood how difficult it was for me, ex-super nurse wannabe, MS patient extraordinaire, daily gym rat, a person striving to execute retirement with panache, to expose my vulnerability.
After the EKG, he whooshed into the exam, a cool breeze lagging behind him. “Everything looks okay, except your heart rate is only thirty-six. We’re dipping our toes in the pool here.”
What did that mean?
“If you have another episode, I think you’ll need to see a cardiologist.”
Another episode? If my heart gets any slower, I’ll be dead. I’d already survived a major blood clot. I pictured blood, those lovely round red disks, slowing to a stop, clumping, gathering like a group of protestors blocking traffic on a sidewalk. I remembered the shortness of breath, the relief when a pulmonary embolus was diagnosed, the relief that I wasn’t slipping into the category of self-absorbed hypochondriac. My flight of ideas segued to the day I almost passed out helping my husband lift a base for a plastic storage shed. I learned I could have died in that moment, and I didn’t want to be that close to non-existence again. Not yet. I wasn’t ready. Who is ever ready? How could I stay awake twenty-four hours a day and remind my heart to keep beating? Who or what would kick start my heart if it forgot its responsibility and didn’t beat? Panic infected me. I had so much left I wanted to do. I had so much left.
I wondered how I’d get to sleep. That night I fell asleep with my index and middle finger tucked against my neck, tracking my pulse.
When I look in the mirror, blue-grey eyes just like my dad’s appraise me. I grapple with the possibility that with one simple prolonged pause, I might be dead without a moment’s notice. Drab brown, unkempt hair atop an athletic-for-my-age body, crowns the husk surrounding a heart that lackadaisically participates in its sole responsibility, perfusion. My heart has become an unreliable employee. You know the kind, the one who shows up, but is not always present, the one who does the job only half the time, the one who is perfectly capable, but not committed. My heart is like that.
It’s hard to write when I am thinking about dying. Every “thing” takes on significance, even though that “thing,” more than likely, is superfluous. Angel Has Fallen is the big release this week. Does this mean something? Is it a clue to my fate?
A kitten wandered into our yard last night. I tried to bond with it. It hissed, splayed paws that seemed abnormally large for a kitten, and scooted into the shrubs. I put out a small bowl of tuna. The bowl stood empty by morning. Was it a sign? I asked myself. Stop putting off getting what I want. Get the two kittens posted on the animal control website. Stop using the birthday card your husband found that purrs and meows when you press the right spot.
I look at the bookshelves. I ordered my books into shelves for craft, feminist literature, short story collections, and, of course, books I’ve read with which I cannot bear to part. I’m thinking about the pacemaker I’m going to get Monday and try and pick which book I absolutely must read if something bad were to happen to me.
I pack up a box of things that accumulated in my work space and belongs to a friend. Every time she came over for dinner, I meant to return them, but they got left behind amid an evening of easy talk and smooth dry wine.
I shred papers I should have turned into confetti years ago, a 2013 deduction statement for my safe deposit box, a 2015 bank statement, a check register filled with my illegible scrawl. With that writing how could I ever keep the account balanced? I e-mail a high school friend I reconnected with a few years ago, just to let him know my status, my change of heart. My heart is getting lazy. He happens to be an MD.
I organize business so my husband can find things: the keys to that safe deposit box, the key and combination to our safe, my two sources for the umpteen passwords I created for my most frequented websites. If things go well Monday, I’m going to stop checking out as a guest at Total Wine. I think about the perfect thing to say when they roll me in to my procedure so my husband will know and remember he was the One.
I think of my son. Our relationship as unpredictable and infuriating and inconsistent as the stock market on tariffs and tweets. I want my son to never to doubt my love or my pride in the person he has become.
And then I have to face myself. Have I done enough? Have I given as much as or more than I have taken? I know I could have done better, but is what I have done acceptable? Would I be missed? Or would I be just like that kitten that scrambled into the bushes, gone in a flash?
Cynthia Stock boasts a forty-three-year nursing career. She pursued writing through UT Dallas, SMU, The Writer’s Garret, and Writing Workshops Dallas. The Final Harvest of Judah Woodbine was published in 2014. Her short stories have appeared in Memoryhouse, Shark Reef, the I Am Strength anthology (Blind Faith Books, 2018), on the Lunch Ticket a-la-carte site, and HerStry.