BY JUDITH WALCUTT
November 4, 2015
X marks the spot where I stand now. How different it feels from where I stood then, in the in-between room of sitting in the waiting room and waiting in the sitting room. I was perusing an old Territory Ahead catalogue in order to, ironically, metaphorically, avoid thinking about the real territory ahead, if X was Y instead of Y being X—if, then, being the operative term.
Meanwhile, my husband was in a room I never saw the inside of, having angioplasty for the 99% occluded artery discovered as the cause of the heart attack he had had earlier that evening. Or was it already the next day? In the middle of the night, it’s hard to know the time exactly, unless you are watching the clock, which I was trying not to do.
What they say about medical emergencies like heart attacks and strokes is that time is everything—how soon the event, relative to how soon ministrations begin–determining extent of damage and chances of recovery, with under ninety minutes being optimal.
After a lovely meal he had sweetly made for us, followed by a romantic comedy DVD during which we laughed, held hands, and felt romantic, David experienced the classic symptoms of a heart attack—a shooting pain down his left arm, shortness of breath, pain radiating up his neck and into his jaw, while turning grey in the face and breaking out in a flood of cold sweat, like a literal bucket of water had been poured over his head.
If this happens to you, do what we did—call 911 immediately. I called them, they answered, and in a calm voice told me exactly what to do to help him until the EMT arrived.
Five minutes later, those angels of the night–six of them from three different locations–converged in our driveway, which is not an easy feat to do. It is narrow and steep and hard to find in the dark and once found, our house is still sort of invisible at the foot of the hill. But they did find us—swooped in, their wings tucked into their parkas. They did an EKG in our bedroom and saw the “stemi”—that’s what they called it—a “STEMI” which is the heart event indicated by the spike on the graph. In some moment between finding the baby aspirin and getting some clothes on us that we could travel in, I had to get the cat, put him in a closed room, then open the door for the team to come in, while I stayed with my husband. This all happened very fast and very slowly, too.
They walked him out to the ambulance to save time—shaving minutes off the departure for the ferry to the other side, where the cardio unit at Providence was already prepping for him, aware he was on his way. Before they loaded him onto the stretcher and into the ambulance, we looked at each other, hard, spoke the word love with our eyes, and together we remembered a Buddhist chant we’ve said alone and together, when things were suddenly hard or obstacles abounded, or we just needed the comfort of the music of the syllables to lift us up, or sooth us down—prayer, one kind or another, has power we cannot measure, but only observe the effects for ourselves.
As we sped toward the ferry, we rode a flying magic carpet of flashing lights and the sound of the occasional blare of the siren, to warn the intersections we were coming or to urge sleepy drivers to the side, opening the road, removing all obstacles to the ferry boat, which waited for us and then went double time to get across in half the time.
Everyone was so calm. The driver, the attending EMT technician, a clear, direct-speaking, highly capable woman named Tiffany took another EKG as we arrived at the ferry dock. She was more than a bit surprised to see that the spike in the graph had receded to a considerably more normal looking wave. She was almost confused by it—thought maybe she should call the doctor again, this had never happened to her before, maybe this wasn’t a heart attack, maybe a wire was loose on his chest or something… I heard my husband in a soft voice say—“I’m chanting…I’m meditating…I’m pulling myself together.”
“Whatever you’re doing,” she responded, in her hearty way, “keep doing it!”
He did and in what amounted to approximately an hour from the 911 call through admission into the hospital, he was on his way to surgery. X marked the spot where I kissed his forehead before he vanished into the room they call “The Cath Lab.”
Fortunately I had remembered to bring my phone and let the cat out of the guest room before I left our house. I was able to call my friend Joni to tell her what was up and she called our mutual friend Gina. The two of them caught the 12:30 boat and found me—as I had been, studying the Territory Ahead mailer—without really seeing it. The three of us ate pretzels dispensed from a machine and just waited. I can’t remember what we talked about. I just knew that the two of them, angels in their own right, with the combined forces of their love and courage, were helping me hold the spot, the x-marked spot, where life prevails, and death passes by.
After the procedure was done—a catheter that climbed up into his heart from the artery in his thigh and miraculously released the tiny spring of netting, the stent, which reopened the occluded artery—the attending cardiologist gave me a diagram of the heart and, marking the spot with her pen, she showed me where the blockage had been. When we speak of the miracle of modern medicine, this is high on the list. Life or death—X marked the spot where the difference was made.
The mystery of death, how it comes and goes all around us every day, we acknowledge this time of year—with the Day of the Dead, remembering and honoring our beloveds on the other side of where we can and cannot see. We hear their voices in our inner ears, hear their laughter in a crowd and look to see where they might be—just over there, behind the layers of the opaque suchness we cannot get past, except at certain times of day, when the clouds frame a window in the sky and reveal the view behind what my mother called heaven’s sheep going home for the night—the sky masked in all its dappled glory.
In this transition time, when the leaves drip their colors to the ground and deer are splayed on the side of the road, having made a mad dash in the dark to get to the other side, the real other side, not that of the road, but of life, we witness evidence of the thinning veils, so easy to slip through and vanish from this world. What brings us back, what holds us here—let X mark the spot—is the buried treasure in such ordinary things as that enormous, pearly-pink, full October moon just past, so big it might have burst, or the slate-blue sheep roaming across the gloaming sky and the hand of the beloved pointing them out.
Judith Walcutt is a writer living on Whidbey Island with her husband and true love, David Ossman. This Halloween they went as a Pirate Queen and an Uncivil Civil Servant, happy to be alive and performing at their favorite Cabaret venue, Ott & Murphy’s Wine Tasting Room in Langley, Washington.
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