The true story of my husband's collapse on the evening of our First Anniversary.
|It’s called the fight or flight response, and I have been reading about it in a book called “The Slow Down Diet.” I am currently on a health kick of sorts, doing Yoga, eating healthy and looking for more ways to reduce stress. The slow down diet explains the link between relaxation and diet, stress and digestion. It explores the sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous systems, the calm relaxed body and the body that lives in a constant state of stress. It discusses the consequences of a life lived in the fight or flight response even when no real danger is present. I feel I am living in that spot and have been taking anti-anxiety medicine to try to get a grip on it.
I read the description of the response and marvel at the beauty of its functionality, at the utility of the human body to provide us instant armor at a moment’s notice. The book explains that fight or flight is an innate function of the nervous system designed to improve our senses and bodily functions during a time of impending danger.
Our brain releases large amounts of adrenaline which instantaneously increase our mental acuity. Our vision sharpens and we can see better in the dark. Our hearing improves. Breath and heart rate increase to push oxygen and adrenaline into our muscles and vital organs, our heart, our lungs and brain. We can run faster, think clearer and react in an instant. We are at a heightened state of being, and we are to remain as such until the danger has either passed us by, or until we ourselves have succumbed to the impending threat against which our bodies had mounted such a tremendous fight.
I sit on the couch and try to convince my tight shoulders and thudding heart that I am not in any danger. The life stressors that have amounted to this panicked state have passed. I am no longer the single mom and the lone caregiver to my ailing 70-year old mother. I know where my next paycheck is coming from. My daughter is safe, and I have found true deep love and the peace and joy of having a life partner and best friend. Yet the tense muscles and churning stomach have yet to get the message. Getting back to a relaxed state will take time and practice according to the book.
I was a full 15 pounds lighter a year ago when Jim and I got married. Returning from our honeymoon in Costa Rica, we promised each other we would stop smoking, eat better and exercise more. Having fallen in love with the Rich Coast almost as much as we loved each other, we vowed to save money, take care of ourselves and retire there some day.
This Sunday morning I am drinking coffee, reading the local entertainment guide and trying to figure out exactly what Jim and I should do to officially celebrate our first anniversary which is not until Labor Day (tomorrow). What ever we do, it needs to be stress free. We had planned to have a nice dinner, but with finances dragged down a bit on car and home repairs we were working on a two-hundred dollar budget for the weekend. We had become very good at being practical, and I noted several things we could use the money on that would make it well spent but these were unfortunately not things you could call relaxing.
We could refinish the cabinets in the newly painted kitchen. We could buy some tile for the living room floor. We could buy some shelves for all the toys in Sam’s room. Jim pointed out we could go shopping for some new clothes for me. I pointed out we could buy Jim the medicine that he needed to help him quit smoking. What better first anniversary present? We could both quit smoking and live healthy lives for many more years to come.
Forty-three and thirty-seven respectively, people would not call us couch potatoes. Jim’s six foot muscular frame dwarfs my curvy 5’3 stature, and no one ever guesses his correct age. Usually they put him around 35. The doc has him on blood pressure medicine, but that is it. Our cholesterol is just fine, but since heart problems and cancer run in his family, I nag him as does most of his family to stop smoking. But who am I for him to listen to? I smoke right along with him.
So I am sitting on the couch at an impasse trying to balance being practical with the understanding that a first anniversary only happens once. That it should be properly celebrated. A couple should do something memorable enough that years from now, when recalling it to grandchildren the couple can smile and tell some story proving that one of them can remember something about what they did.
Jim is being of little help because he can see the pluses and minuses of everything I come up with, and his general response is “that sounds like a good idea.” I know he really only wants to do what will make me happy, and while I appreciate that, what will really make me happy is to know we are doing something he wants to do too.
We always approach problems from opposite ends and it makes for a great balance most the time. Other times it just takes us straight to a stale mate. They say opposites attract and we fit the bill. Jim the ever logical one, I the pie in the sky intuitive; all together a nice balance of creative ambition and heady discipline but problematic at times.
Last weekend I watched Jim fiddling under the hood of my old Jeep. I had witnessed this intimate act many times before. He worked with his shirt off as usual, which I always enjoy. A cigarette hung from his lips, as he grunted and leaned in for a closer look. Then backing up, he’d wipe his hands on a rag, run greasy fingers over the top of his head and exhale a smoky cloud of frustration. I could almost see the images of systems and pressures and cycles processing behind his darting eyes. In these moments he was not even aware he was being watched.
I sat on a toolbox in the garage trying to get a feeling for Jeff the Jeep – what exactly was he trying to communicate to us. The vibe told me he was old. I’d run him hard and then let my daughter run him harder. He needed rest. He wanted Jim to back off and call a tow truck and get him to a graveyard where he could rest in peace.
But Jim was not ready to give up so easily. Jim believed Jeff had more miles to go, as was obvious by the sound of the engine still strong and humming. But Jeff kept overheating and that was a big no no, according to Jim.
“Some kind of crap has clogged the engine.” Jim says more to himself than to me. “It’s gotten in there and clogged the cooling system.”
“What about the radiator?” I ask.
“Can’t be! Changed that last week. Changed the water pump too.” Jim motioned for me to come look. “See when you hold here, there should be pressure on this hose. But there isn’t. Tells me the coolant can’t get through, it’s blocked.”
I peered in pretending I saw a hose and nodded, marveling at Jim’s intense contemplation and clear understanding of what looked to me like an abstract art-project-gone-wrong rattling there under the hood.
I must admit however that on this day I was more interested than usual about mechanical things. I had just started reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Now I am mid-way through. In the book I am journeying with the narrator through the philosophical exploration of my limited ability to adequately understand the Zen of the world around me. The fun part is that the narrator does this from the seat of his motorcycle, and we ride along while he relates these invisible yet challenging concepts to the simple understanding of the motorcycle engine and the world around it. At least by comparison it seems simple.
The narrator explains that some people are romantic thinkers who focus on form (how things are), most of the time this would describe me; while others are classical thinkers who primarily see things in regard to function (why things are, how things work) and of course that’s Jim all the time. Romantics tend to value the whole, paying little notice to those pesky parts; classic thinkers tend to focus on the parts and only recognize the whole through the value placed on the role and function of each part.
Looking at Jeff, I saw an old truck that would not stop overheating despite several attempts at repair. It had given me what I considered my money’s worth. So in my romantic view that was enough. I did not really care how much more life we could strain from its guts, it did not seem worth all the extra pain and energy involved in getting Jeff back to health. He’d lived a good life.
But, Jim, well he knew there was plenty of good function to be had in Jeff’s parts, and he valued the investment he had in the machine both financially and physically. Jim was ready to press on - or to at least to part the old boy out.
So it is this motorcycle book I’ve been reading that has really been scratching my traveling itch. Now, sitting on my couch on Sunday morning, I can’t help but wish we were headed out of town. I know 200 bucks won’t get us far, and I scan the paper for some day-trip event. A chili-cook off, a small town fair, some traveling circus, anything and then I see it!
“I think I’m gonna slit my wrists,” I shout from behind the paper.
“What,” asks Jim a tad alarmed at the dramatics.
“This weekend is the Wine and Music Festival, Little Folk! How could we have forgotten?”
“Damn,” he smiles and keeps washing dishes. “We could have been camping all weekend.”
“So what, let’s go now?” He smiles that devilish smile I love and after doing the math on the gas, the camping fee and the cost of the festival we decided we can just afford it. “But we can’t take a bunch of crap,” I add. “This time its low maintenance all the way!”
“Hell let’s take the Miata!” Jim adds. “All we need is a tent and some chairs and couple towels. No food, we can eat there.”
Now I am getting really excited. We love the Kerrville festival, its home away from home tucked in the rolling Texas hill country. Neither one of us has been to the Fall Little Folk Festival. Usually on the way home from the main Folk Festival held in late May we’d moan about having to wait another year to come back and perk up and say, “Hey maybe we can make Little Folk in September?”
This year’s May festival had been quite the experience. We had decided to arrive post midnight to save an extra day’s charge on camping, but we never made it. Torrential downpours left us stranded in Kerrville proper and we spent half the night in Denny’s playing Gin and the other half in the Motel 6 - so much for the saved night’s camping fee.
We woke up to more rain, drove into the festival and put up our whole campsite in the rain. This was something to be proud of, but we were most impressed with our ability to pack a shit-load of gear into the Slimer, Jim’s 15-year-old slime green hatchback Mustang.
The campsite was a masterpiece. We put a tent-in-a-tent, set up a canopy, covered one wall with a tarp, tied another tarp over the gap between the tent and the canopy and basically brought it all under one roof. We had a nice table for cooking supplies, a BBQ pit that Jim put together when we got there, ceramic Tiki torches, a cooler full of food including lamb chops and gulf shrimp, two kinds of vodka, a bottle of tequila, beer, wine and mixers.
This was my sixth year at the festival, Jim’s third, and our first year with no kids. It rained all day every day for four days straight. The rain was actually a blessing, as we quickly realized that life had left us completely exhausted. We needed the break and kicked back in our water-proof abode, played cards, ate like royalty, slept a lot and listened to the wind, the rain and the music for four peaceful days. We even commented that had it been hot as it usually is in May, we probably would have had to pack it up – we were that tired.
Today I am not thinking about rain. It’s warm outside and we know it, but we’ll be getting there by about four. It’s just a two-hour drive from Austin; and with our goal to pack as little as possible, setting up camp will be a breeze. We both start running around the house pulling things together. We make it a game to see how fast we can get ready from concept to concrete under the tires.
We make it in two hours flat. It would have been faster if I had not decided we needed to watch our wedding video for the first time before we left. I stood there crying with Jim’s arms wrapped around my shoulders. After the ‘I do’s’ I did not want to turn it off, but a nice pat on my behind reminded me we were on a mission.
Suddenly we’re on the highway, top down, tunes blaring, smokes for the road, big Arizona Ice Teas between our legs and suntan lotion on our shoulders. “I love that we’re grounded,” shouts Jim over the wind “but I also love that we fly by the seat of our pants when we want to!” And he smiles a big smile and blows me kisses. I turn around and look out of the back of the Miata and my world is just overflowing.
Our next game is to get to Kerrville in two hours making the time from concept to concert exactly four hours. Strategy involves my eating an apple on the way and banning bathroom breaks. Jim says he ate two packages of oatmeal and a banana, so we just lean back and listen to music and watch the world turn slowly from gray buildings to green hills.
Right on time we are entering Kerrville. We turn down the main drag and Jim jokes about where all the water has gone. I suggest we stop at a little BBQ joint I’ve been eyeing for years, so he pulls in the parking lot and we get out and stretch our legs. Jim remarks he’s had to pee for the last hour and makes a mad dash to the restroom. Meanwhile I make friends with the jovial black lady running the place. I get the feeling this is a family business, and I’m impressed by how friendly she is.
Jim returns and tells her we're headed to the festival and I immediately feel like a tourist. She does not seem to mind one bit. Tourists I’m sure are her livelihood, and she goes on about how the restaurant supplies food for the festival and how she has festival friends she looks forward to seeing each year.
Jim comments on how hot it can get and that we are looking forward to the cooler temperatures. The woman nods thoughtfully and continues slicing our brisket.
“Ya know, sum lady, 56 I think, up and died out there in June. Hadn’t happened in years. Found her in her tent,” she says in a loud whisper making sure only we can hear her.
“That’s horrible,” I say.
“We’ll she died in a place she loved,” adds Jim smiling at the pile of food the nice lady is placing before him. “What do you have to drink?”
“Got some sweet tea. Just over there in that barrel,” she says. Jim smiles, pays the lady, lingers over to the tea and then joins me at the table.
“Nice lady. Great tea,” he smiles and takes a long sip.
“Yea, I bet they’ve owned this place for years. Food’s delicious.”
Jim agrees. For a long while we’re just silent. The food is too good to talk, and we are too hungry. I think about how nice it is to be this comfortable together. I used to watch some couples eat without talking and I worried about their relationship. 'Ah they have run out of stuff to say,' I would muse. Now I know that is not always so, for many like us they are just happy to sit and watch each other chew their food.
My mind returns to the woman who died, and I picture her husband finding her. “You know I see people every year there that I just can’t believe come out in the heat.” I am recalling one heavy set middle-aged woman in particular. I have seen her there every year driving her senior scooter up and down the dusty roads inside the camp. Her big flowery sun dress soaked with sweat clings to her body and the low arm holes expose the sides of her large breasts. I realize that alone is probably why I remember her. “Those folks just look like, like they’re gonna fall over.”
“I know,” mumbles Jim with his mouth full of BBQ. He swallows, wipes his face, winks at me and takes a sip of tea. In 15 minutes we’ll be at the festival.
It is almost 5 pm when we enter the main gate and see the sign “Welcome Home.” By 5:00 we have our spot picked out under a large tree toward the back end of the meadow. It is a nice location for the shade, and two large canopies nearby promise good music and good people will overflow into our campsite tonight.
Jim gets the tent up in a flash, and I blow up the air mattress. We return the car out to the far parking meadow, and by 6 pm we are officially “at the festival”. We sit in our camping chairs, smoking cigarettes and look at each other with a “whew” we did it sentiment.
I smile and put on my best whiny voice, “It’s hot, I’m itchy, there’s ants, we could be headed to a fancy dinner right now, I wanna go home.” Jim laughs and pretends he is going to spank me.
“Ok, pack the shit up, and let’s go!”
“Right on….” I laugh. “Now make me a drink.”
Jim obliges by stirring up Vodka and Cranberry juice cocktails in wine glasses, and we sit down and try to get into the Kerrville groove. To do that one must really really relax and let go of everything the everyday world hangs on you. This can sometimes take at least three drinks and sometimes four.
We are on our second drink when I pull out the Motorcycle Maintenance book and start reading it to Jim. He listens closely to a part about modern man’s dependence on technology, and after about three pages I get bored and put it down. This gets Jim thinking however, and he goes on for a while about things being made in China. By the end of our second drink Jim has pointed out that our chairs, his hat, his pocket knife, his sun glasses and the camping table are all made in China. And it is at this point in a dire effort to save our marriage that I take out a deck of cards and challenge him to a game of Gin.
Looking for a comfy place to deal, I muse that a nearby tree stump would make a great low table to play on if only it were not surrounded by weeds. Jim quickly jumps up like he can do something about it. I watch him saunter over, turn it on its side, and begin rolling it toward me. This catches me completely off guard. I thought it was rooted in the ground. Now I am laughing hard at my assumption and my husband’s superman strength to uproot a tree truck for me.
We finish five hands of Gin and I win them all, which never happens. I marvel at this and attribute my luck to the magic stump. We notice folks have started making their way up to the main stage for the concert, and I ask Jim if he’s ready to get something to eat. He nods and motions that the night is young.
Moments later I am regretting the strong drinks. I feel like I need to move around. That if I don’t I’m gonna fall asleep. I think food will help too. Jim says he’s ready to leave and he looks like I feel. Yes I think food is required. I grab a blanket, our flashlights for when it gets dark and we are off across the meadow.
“Are we gonna be okay?” I ask half joking, half not. Jim answers me and I’m surprised by his answer. “I don’t know” he says. He’s not one to show fear, or pain or to whine or complain and any other time this would have stopped me in my tracks. I would have turned around and asked him “Why’d you say that.” But I am feeling no pain, and instead I just plod forward. Thoughts focused on getting to the main stage to listen to music and to find much needed food. I can hear Jim’s feet crunching the high grass behind me, and his breathlessness when he speaks. But nothing much is registering.
We come up to the little dirt road that winds around the campground past the Kerrtree Store. It continues toward the main office and goes on up to the festival Main Stage. “Which way?” I ask, not really giving Jim a chance to answer. I’ve already calculated the distance in my head and decided crossing the road and climbing the hill to the Threadgill Theater is a nice short cut. We’d come out right by the KerrTree store and get there faster, find food faster and be able to sit down faster. Jim nods toward the road, and I cut him off short motioning that we should take the faster route up the hill. Just gotta put some energy into it is all. I start trekking. Again I can hear Jim behind me and we are up the hill and standing under the high beams of Threadgill in no time.
The open air amphitheater is beautifully constructed with wide earthen bench seating carved like layers into the hill. I have always found this place to be one of the most serene and magical spots at the festival. Back in May Jim and I had wandered out of our tent during a dry spell and sat over a ways just a few rows down from where we just entered. We had sat close together tapping our feet; his arm around my shoulder the whole night.
I look over and see Jim has sat down on the stone bench behind us.
“Need to rest?” I ask and sit down beside him.
“Yea, man, I’m tired,” he gasps and then lays back with his hands over his head.
I begin to laugh, “Hon, you’re laying in the dirt. Are you drunk?”
He rises up and I see something different about him, it’s the first time I’ve looked at him, really looked at him since we left camp.
Did I just hear him slur? I think he just slurred.
He reaches toward me and I see his body tilting and swaying. I jump up and grab his face. “Jim, you okay?”
I raise his chin to look him in the eyes. His pupils are dark and dilated and don’t connect with mine. Then I see it, a river of sweat running fast down his face. It’s running as though a faucet is leaking above his head. My god how could I not have noticed!
“Honey, “You’re sweating bad!” and then I know this is not good. He doesn’t respond. His eyes are black glass marbles – shiny and rolling around loosely. Does he hear me?
I hear the woman’s words, “She was 56. Died in her tent at the festival this summer.” And bam the adrenaline slams my body. It comes as fast as thought and brings with it a sudden intense knowing that this is fight or flight, a life or death moment. That what I do next can save him or end everything we know and love.
I let go telling him I have to get help, and he begins to fall. I must lay him back and doing so I kiss him on the mouth, “I love you, I’ll be right back!” I think he heard me? I think he looked at me? I think he understands? “Stay here!” I shout. Be still! I’m getting help!”
And then I am off. Like a bullet, I have never run so fast. Yet time seems to stand still, thoughts are crystal clear, everything is slow motion. Tomorrow is our first anniversary, this morning we are standing in front the TV watching our wedding video, now I see Jim’s sweaty face and vacant eyes, and I run even faster.
I am now midway down the other side of the hill. Just below is the Kerrtree Store. Help should be here. This is where I have seen Security. Year after year they stand around down here bandaging kids scraped knees, dragging away druggies on bad trips. Are they here? Please, please be here! I only see a group of kids. No red shirts anywhere? Where are they?
I shout down at them and gasp for words, “I need security. I need a paramedic. My husband. He’s ill. He’s about to collapse.”
The group scatters out a bit and someone responds, “I’m security. Where is he?”
“Up at Threadgill,” I point behind me, not willing to come too far down the hill, too far away from my husband.
One young man rushes up, and we begin to run back to Jim. I’ve only looked away for a moment to get help, but when I turn my eyes back up the hill I am shocked, Jim is walking. Oh no, my god, he’s stumbling around, he’s oblivious. He’s looking for me. My heart plunges and gut wrenches. I scream to him. “Jim sit down! Help is coming! Sit …” and then his knees buckle from beneath him and for a moment nothing seems real.
I watch him fall and it’s like I am watching the end of a tragic movie – the kind where the hero has gone as far as he can go, where he drops to the ground and the starlet screams and the camera closes in and her dreams fade away into a black screen and then the credits begin to roll.
But I know this is real, and I am terrified. The sky is cradling a vibrant red and orange sunset casting shadows across the theater and there is the love my life – a black outline, a dark ghost of a man staggering against the very backdrop of life. He falls as I cry out to him. I am sure his heart has stopped. And I’m suddenly at his side.
The boy from security is maybe 19, is of small stature, about my height. He is shouldering Jim’s weight and walking him back a few steps to sit down on the stone seating. But I am not sure how we got to this moment. When did Jim get up? What happened when he fell? I don’t recall. My psyche didn’t allow me to process that moment, when I might have found my husband face down in the dirt, shaking or not breathing. I’ll never know. I do know I am still terrified. This is not over yet.
The boy is standing with one leg raised up onto the bench, he’s propping Jim up against his knee. Jim sways forward then backward and side to side, the sweat still pouring off him.
“My son’s name is Sam,” Jim says weakly. I get that he is saying this in response to learning the security boy’s name. I missed that somehow. A tiny drop of relief hits my veins like morphine. Jim knows what’s going on. But my god, he is so pale. His lips are blue. Drops of sweat simultaneously fall from his nose and chin and ear lobes. This may not be getting better, at any moment this could get worse.
“He has high blood pressure,” I tell the boy. I put my face close to Jim’s and hope he understands. “I’m getting your medicine,” and I don’t wait for a response. Help is coming and they may need it. I don’t want to leave, but I am off again.
I feel my feet hit the ground three times, and I am down the hill. I am suddenly aware of my full-length skirt and I feel my hands holding my breasts so they don’t fly out of my swimsuit. Still, I have never run so fast. I am aware of and surprised at my speed. I know exactly where to find the bottle I packed this morning and grab it in a flash.
In an instant I am headed back. I sense my desperate flight breaking the peace in the lower meadow. I feel the alarmed eyes of campers following my mad dash. I can’t hear the jubilant music and high singing voices that linger in the air. My ears are filled with the boom of my pulse hammering against the eerie silence of the world around me.
I am running the race of my life. Any moment could be my last moment with my husband. Each step closer is a chance to get our years back. Half way up the hill, I realize that I don’t know what to do with this medicine. I don’t understand how this medicine works. If it drops his blood pressure, that could kill him. This won’t work. Did he take it this morning?
A voice rings out, “Where is he?” A woman standing at the top of the hill can’t find him. How did she miss him? I shout back pointing a few yards behind her. When I get there she is with him, and he is still sitting up. But he is much the same. Breathing hard shallow breaths, wet with sweat, shaking.
I open the bottle and pills spill onto the ground. “Did you take your blood pressure medicine this morning?” I ask him, once again bending down close at eye level. Jim nods yes.
I am obviously panicking. This could kill him. Don’t give this to him. The woman who seems to know something about first aid is by his side now. The woman asks Jim what day it is. He says “Sunday.” Is that right? Next his birthday and Jim answers 3/3/64. “Is that right?” she asks me. “Uh yes, I think, I mean, yes it is.” Next she asks today’s date and Jim says “September 2, the day before our first anniversary” and he smiles at me. I realize he needs me, they all need me, to calm down. She sends Sam to bring us both water. “It’s probably dehydration” she explains calmly.
“How long have you been here?”
“We just got here. Maybe two hours ago,” I explain. It feels good to talk. “We drove down here with the top down on the car.” As I tell the story I begin to realize the woman could be right. Sam returns with water and we urge Jim to drink.
“We had coffee with breakfast, then tea on the way down. We unpacked and sat down and had three vodka and cranberries.”
I encourage Jim to keep drinking water and look around expecting to see an ambulance or at least a golf cart to show up; someone with a blood pressure cuff, some oxygen, one of those portable heart shocking machines.
“Help is one the way,” the woman assures me. I don’t understand the sweat. Why would he sweat like that if he was dehydrated? I never take my eyes off him. He does not seem to be getting much better. I want him to drink more water, but he just keeps staring at the ground.
“Honey just a bit more.” He takes a sip. The water going in is not equaling what is coming out.
I remember something about how sweating cools the body through evaporation. But I realize this response is actually making it worse – draining his body of the fluid his heart needs to carry oxygen through his blood. If we don’t get fluid in him fast. Shock is next. They tell me to drink water too, and I take a few sips.
After what seems forever, I see a truck pull up the hill from the Kerrtree Store. A man gets out quickly and jogs over. He seems to be the one in charge as I note a stethoscope around his neck and a Walkie Talkie on his shoulder. I am not much impressed. Where is the fucking ambulance?
The man introduces himself as John. “How are you feeling?” he asks Jim. I know not to answer. He is trying to get a feel for Jim’s frame of mind. Jim starts talking and after I think Jim has talked enough to show the man he is not well - I start at the beginning.
I note the extreme sweating and pale color. I need the man to know we have not been out here all day sweating and drinking beer. I need him to know this came on fast, in the cool late evening. I am still not sold on heat exhaustion, and I don’t want them over looking something important by rushing to judgment.
I recite the exact details of how we got to this moment. John is eyeing Jim, and his gaze settles on Jim’s drenched clothing. He asks me how long this has been going on. I say about 15 minutes, and remind him Jim has high blood pressure.
“Yeah, his color is bad.”
The woman gives John Jim’s vitals again, which I don’t understand exactly. I can’t remember what a normal blood pressure should be, and I don’t want to ask and cause Jim alarm.
“His heart rate is very high” she says to me. I already know the pale color and fainting means his blood pressure is low and that makes immediate sense to me. The heart has to beat faster to move blood through the body when blood pressure and/or volume is too low. Jim is turning blue because what blood he has is being pushed to his vital organs. I feel the panic creeping back and the threat of shock is swirling in my gut.
The man in charge pulls out a small device and attaches it to the end of Jim’s finger. “Blood oxygen is 98. That’s very good,” he says and I smile. I hold my hand out and ask him to take mine. He attaches it to my finger and seems alarmed, “Her heart rate is twice yours!” Jim and everyone let out a small laugh to produce a bit of a tension relieving moment. We all know it’s the adrenaline. “I feel fine,” I say with a look to remind them who the patient is.
John listens to Jim’s heart with the stethoscope and says he wants to compare a sitting and recumbent heart rate. He explains this can tell if the high heart rate has to do with some real heart problem or simply dehydration. I grab the blanket we brought along and fold it under Jim’s head as he leans back.
With Jim on the ground I can see his face better. I realize he is really really not good. The situation does not seem to be getting better. He is beyond clammy and white, even his ears and hands and arms are grey. His eyes are dark and his lips completely blue. He just doesn’t look like my Jim at all.
“Honey everything is going to be fine.” I don’t know if I believe that, but I won’t let myself believe anything else. “They are on their way,” I assure him. Jim nods and smiles a slight smile I know is only for my benefit. I lean close and he raises his head to inch up to meet my kiss. As our mouths meet, my heart sinks and a sob bursts into my chest. His lips are like ice. It’s fucking 90 degrees out and his lips are like ice. I resist the urge to pull my mouth away, and I hang there on the chill. I hope he does not sense my terror.
He lets go, and I scan his face. This is what Jim would look like dead. If his eyes were closed and his chest was still, this would be it. For a moment it is June and I am in Houston standing over his uncle Wilce’s coffin. The family resemblance had stolen my breath and I’d had to turn away. Now I can see Wilce’s shell in Jim’s face, and I feel helpless.
John finishes with the heart rate test and tells Jim to remain down. I notice right away that John does not tell me the results of the test. He does not confirm its dehydration and this raises my concern. Jim’s legs have started shaking. He’s not sweating so much anymore. I stroke his forehead telling him for the hundredth time I love him.
“Let’s call it,” the man says. His helper nods.
“You’re calling an ambulance?” I ask dumbfounded that one is not already on the way. I had assumed that was the first thing they had done.
“Yea, with his heart rate and history of hypertension,” the man stops mid sentence to take the call on his shoulder. “Yes 43 year old male, history of hypertension, he is …..”
“Off call,” the woman shouts. I realize she is telling the man to walk away, shut up or talk code so I won’t understand what he is saying about my husband.
The man returns. “They’re on the way.”
“Shouldn’t he drink more water,” I ask.
“No,” he says. “When EMS is called they don’t like us to give them anything that could cause complications.”
Logic tells me to prepare myself. That at any moment they could be on top of Jim, pounding his chest; each second he takes a breath and blinks up at me is like Christmas morning.
I look out toward the Kerrtree Store and realize it’s almost dark. All the colors have faded into a dark purple sky. I can only hear the night’s creatures buzzing. I have been listening for sirens that have yet to sound. They must still be a long way off.
Finally I hear the rumbling of the truck and realize the ambulance is approaching. They never ran the sirens. I should realize this is good, but it only makes me feel like they don’t understand how critical the situation is.
The EMT runs up and John helps Jim sit up. While retaking his pulse, the EMT gives him a look over and asks all the same questions again. I notice Jim is back to drinking water, and I am relieved no one is stopping him. I learn the woman who had been helping us is an off duty ER nurse. She comments that Jim’s color is returning back to his ears and I confirm the pink is there and feel a dose of settling relief.
“Think you can walk sir,” the tech asks. I am surprised by the question and even more so by Jim’s answer. “Ok.”
As they help Jim up I see his shorts are soaked. Did he pee his pants? No it’s all perspiration. “Wow it feels good to walk. I’m feeling better,” he says weakly. Naturally I assume it’s an act. He does not want to go to the hospital.
He steps up in the ambulance and I follow after. I tell the whole story for a fifth or sixth time while Jim’s color begins to return. So do his smart ass remarks, showing everyone he is feeling a ton better.
“His vitals are good,” says the EMT. “It’s most likely heat exhaustion. Do you want us to take you to the hospital where they can check you out and plug in an IV?”
Jim looks hesitantly at me.
“If you don’t go to hospital tonight, we are not staying here.” I am not sure Jim understands I mean what I am saying.
“I’ll be alright,” he says.
“Drink lots of water tonight. You should be ok. But watch him, ok,” he adds looking up at me. They hand me paperwork to sign saying we declined the trip to the hospital. The paper shakes in my hand, as my gut tells me I’m not doing the right thing. I’m listening to my husband when I shouldn’t be, and I sign the paper.
“We’re leaving tonight and getting a room in town,” I assure the EMT and I thank the others who have been aiding us.
Jim is walking by my side slowly. I pull the flashlight we brought out of his pocket and light the way back to camp. I am now confused. A surreal feeling takes over. I can’t comprehend that everything is just OK. What has the last hour been about if everything is suddenly ok? I am not sure why we are even walking to camp? I suddenly hits me. I am the only one who can make decisions right now, and I’ve made the wrong one. Everything is not necessarily suddenly ok. He could still be very sick, he could get sick again. I just wanted to believe he was better. Now I really must get us out of here.
By now we are back at our very dark camp. Jim lights the smudge pot and sits down in a camp chair. The air is heavy with moisture, everything is wet and damp. The only light we have is the flame from the pot, and the shadows it throws on Jim’s face scare me somehow. I am still trying to reconcile the man in the chair with the man on the ground. Everything is unreal, mystical and the panic still lurks in my chest.
I drill him with my eyes. What is the next step? We have to leave, but the car is out in the lot. Don’t leave him alone again. Not to walk all the way out there, it will take at least 20 minutes to do that.
Jim grabs for the cigarettes on the stump in front of him. I saw them there and wondered if he would but doubted it. Now I see he actually thinks he is about to smoke a cigarette.
“Don’t” I growl at him and he looks offended. I am suddenly angry. He does not have a clue as to what he has just been through. What we have just been through. We argue about the smoke, and he puts them down.
“You know we aren’t staying here,” if he thinks he can smoke, I’m sure he wants to stay.
“I’m fine really. I’ll be fine. I’ll drink water.” Jim grabs the blanket from the chair. “Aren’t you cold? It’s so cold out here?”
I bring him a dry shirt. It’s not cold at all, and now I am dead certain. I have made a serious mistake. We have to leave as soon as possible.
“No Jim, damn you were on the edge back there. Don’t you get that? We can’t stay here.”
“Come on, it’s over. Relax, I’m ok now.”
Now he is standing up, and I am standing up in front of him and I am about to lose it.
I grab him by the shoulders and beg. “Honey seriously. I should have let them take you. If we stay out here and something happens. You get sick again? I can’t bear it. I can’t monitor you in that tent. Everything is wet. If you start sweating I’ll never know. Do you realize…it took forever to get help out here? No more decisions I could regret.”
“How can we pack it all up in the dark? I’m in no shape to pack.”
“And you’re in no shape to camp either. Just leave everything. Ok? And we’ll come back tomorrow to get it.”
He reluctantly agrees. I am feeling the clock in my head ticking again. And I’m rushing back to the edge of panic. This time it’s probably uncalled for, but it seems my judgment is horrible right now.
Jim tells me to calm down and focus. I find the car keys, tell him to stay put and start to run hoping to make the distance to the parking meadow as fast as possible. Fuck, I hate leaving him sitting there in a blanket with that horrid fire on his pale face.
Not far up the road I realize my energy is gone. I start to walk, my breath is heavy and my thoughts start to settle down. I see a security guard and stop him.
I explain my husband is the guy they called the ambulance for, that we need to get him into town. The boy nods and gets on the radio. Moments later another young man shows with the cart and we return back to camp. Jim has gathered what we will need to take and sits in the front. I climb onto the back of the cart, angry he’s been up walking around but relieved he feels well enough to do so.
By 11 pm we are in bed in a cheap motel. We stopped on the way to eat at Denny’s where Jim had more water and I had a better chance to look him over to make sure we did not need to head to the hospital. Jim ordered a chicken salad. I would not let him order anything fried or salty, which pretty much left salad. I however abandoned my diet and ate chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes and apple pie. I ate and cried and cried and ate some more. From the booth it seemed impossible that Jim was back, it was almost beyond belief. The shift was as swift as waking from a nightmare to find your self safe in your lover’s arms. I still could not keep my eyes off him as I tried to understand the lack of understanding he was exhibiting about what just happened.
We lay next to each other watching crappy TV. I stir beside him trying to get the horror movie that seems to be on a loop to stop running in my head. Jim thinks he just got a little dizzy and passed out. No biggie he’s better now. Let’s move on. Now on the edge of sleep it comes to me. The fog in my head shifts like the gears of a motorcycle and suddenly it clicks. When it comes to health and the human body I am the classical thinker, Jim the romantic. I see the human organs, I understand the vascular, pulmonary and nervous systems, I respect how they work together to serve the whole, why they work, what happens if you don’t take care of them. Jim regards his body romantically. He can only see the whole form – it either works or it doesn’t. It works? Ok let’s go have a smoke and celebrate. Ok its not that he is not able to understand it. He would just rather not think about it. Just like how I feel about Jeff and his abstract art shaped guts.
Wow. I really love that book.
I think about explaining my little epiphany and feel Jim’s breath has settled down into the deep rhythm of sleep. At some point the TV is turned off and I am up through the night feeling his head and his chest and curling up tighter. I awake surprised that I had pleasant dreams. Jim rolls over and the first words out of his mouth are, “Happy First Anniversary, my love.”
In the next week we will visit doctors. They will tell him he should have left in that ambulance. Next time, God forbid, I will know better and make him go. This morning I celebrate our full first year and think hard about making some important health changes.
We joke that this anniversary is one we will never forget. For me it was a spectacular gift, I was thrown into the depths of my love for my husband, I swam in the pain of losing him, and I ran like the wind to save him – in the end I walked away holding my husband’s hand having journeyed to the core of love.