The luminous Catherine Hawkins was one of my husband David’s childhood friends. Catherine and I became close in the spring of 2012, when I sweet-talked her into a lead role in Hot Mikado. We’re guest blogging for each other this week. After you read her beautiful essay below, check out her blog!
And for the first time in twenty-two years, she found a reason to plead for herself. Her blood, her gelatinous lungs breathing in and out. It was quick and suddenly she saw her hand – red and plump like Mickey Mouse’s – and she thought Oh my God, I am getting old. Look at these veins, and she hurriedly covered the purple spidery arm with a sweater.
You can only ignore for so long. The next morning the blood still pooled, the arm still hung heavy and without its customary strength, and she decided a doctor would know. If only to tell her nothing was wrong, go back to your little life of serving coffee and greasy eggs and feeling self-important. You are not so great as to be seriously ill. But that was a mistake because one place after the other, the ultrasound with its beat-beating and the reduction of her insides to a white-gray image from Mars. “Clot,” they said. “Small clot left shoulder swelling.” The emergency room was cold and the warmth from the heated blanket lifted too quickly. “I’m just putting an IV in, in case,” she said, her Indian accent thick. It burned going in, but not like the needle in her stomach, the one that was saving her life.
Tube after tube filled up with dark blood and they whisked it away. She didn’t tell anyone she thought she was dying (It’s over. Cancer. Over.) because they saw this all the time, what would they care? And when her family came they tried to joke, because unlike the doctors, they did not see this all the time. They did not see someone they loved in an ugly gray hospital gown with IVs in her hand. So they joked because they didn’t know how else to interact with a young woman who sprouted wires and wore a scared smile.
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This is what I wrote the spring after my clot. Till then, I’d been unable to write anything – when I tried to explain how it felt, how much fear flooded me, it read either trite and silly or cold and distant. It wasn’t until I allowed myself to fictionalize it that finally the words came: all of them true. Because, really, like some writer said sometime, all stories that pass through memory are fiction.
I wrote this in the spring of 2012, six months after my clot, and I was shocked by how scared I still was. The vascular surgeon, a man in his forties with children and probably a dog, was kind and understanding. His name was Dr. Minor, and I wasn’t sure if I should enjoy this relation to music or focus on the fact that minor keys are often fear-inducing, doom-declaring. He had told me I was about to get off Coumadin – that dreaded poison that kills even as it pumps life – and because no one knew what caused the first clot back in November, I could develop another one right away. Like the doctor said, so little is known about the blood. As I drove along windy 1-A, my mind wandered from thing to thing in an attempt at calm. There is something about driving alone that cuts my legs out from under me, leaves me raw, and right before I started crying, I looked at my hands on the steering wheel and thought: Even my hands are going to die.
It was such a strange thought, such an odd moment of clarity. Because it was true, my very hand, my very flesh was going to die and rot, and somehow this made the whole thing all the more terrible. Not only would I – my soul, my mind – die and leave this earth, but my flesh would die and not leave.
Even my hands will die.
I drove sobbing, gripping the wheel, my eyes moving from my clenched knuckles to the herd of cows in the green field along the road. They chewed their cuds and splayed themselves on the ground as I rounded the next bend. The sun flooded my car, and spring made it hard to despair.
But I did it anyway.
I despaired and I talked to God and I cried Why am I so afraid of dying? Don’t I call myself a Christian? Isn’t that what Christ conquered, death itself?!
I didn’t get an answer. I didn’t hear a booming cosmic voice through the sunny afternoon. What I did feel was a slow, filling breath. My breath. The breath of a young woman who thought she was dying but who was currently pumping blood through her heart, watching the young buds on overhanging tree limbs, driving a VW bug along a road that she hoped to drive many more times. The thing about crying for me, is that it is deep. It shakes my body. It rattles free all my deepest fears and forces me to see them, then the same deep cry lets them go. Maybe not forever – actually, almost never is it forever – but there’s a renewal, a burden being lifted and flung out the open car window and into that herd of cows.
I wasn’t in the clear yet, back in May of 2012. I could still find myself at the hospital with another clot. I could still be put back on Coumadin for the rest of my life, and I definitely would never have the feeling of “I’m invincible!” ever again. But what I did have? It was a moment of rhythm, the in and out of life, and a sliver of peace.