"rather than waiting around for a new day to dawn,
I have to make my own new day."
Photo by Charlene Anderson
I have to make my own new day."
Photo by Charlene Anderson
By the end of September, I was better and figured a new day would begin. After all, I was turning 80 in a few days and that was a milestone. So, I celebrated that momentous occasion and waited for a new chapter to start.
Six days after my birthday, Sloopy died. She’d watched over me through my entire illness and then slipped away. That certainly wasn’t the new day I’d wanted and I wasn’t the least bit happy.
Later on in October, I developed asthma-like symptoms, an aftereffect of Covid, the doctor said, and prescribed inhalers. I don’t think they helped much but, by the end of October, my lungs had mostly healed on their own and I was once again hopeful that things could return to semi-normal or even evolve into something new.
I’d barely shrugged off the lung issues when I started having chest pains. They weren’t too bad but continued for a few days, so I called Kaiser and set up a telephone appointment for Tuesday afternoon, November 1. But an hour after the doctor was supposed to call, his office called. “Dr. X has been called away on an emergency and can’t talk to you today.”
That night, the day or Night of the Dead, which seemed ironically appropriate, I started feeling really bad and lay in bed struggling to breathe. I choked aloud to the empty room, “I could just lie here and die, I suppose, but that doesn’t seem sensible.” So, I dragged myself up and again called the advice nurse at Kaiser.
The nurse was very efficient, but considering the circumstances, I thought a little slow. “I may be having a heart attack,” I told her calmly, “so maybe you should hurry along a little faster.” She gasped, talked to a doctor poste-haste and he/she said I should hang up and call 911 right away. The 911 operator said they were sending an ambulance. I guess fear of death made me feel flip, so I quipped, “Couldn’t I just take a taxi?”
They were not amused.
As they presumably barreled across town towards me, the 911 operator kept me on the phone. “Take four baby aspirins.”
Luckily, I had some left from Sloopy’s treatment for congestive heart failure. “Okay, I swallowed one.”
“No, no, chew them. Chew!”
“Okay, I’m chewing. Hear me chew.” Crunch. Crunch.
They asked me to turn on the outside light and open the door. And I wanted to get dressed: I wasn’t about to entertain all those EMT guys in my pajamas, heart attack notwithstanding. But have you ever tried talking on the phone, opening doors, turning on lights, chewing aspirins, pulling off pajamas and dragging on clothes all at the same time?
Five minutes later, a mini-army of EMTs—all men as I’d expected—arrived and swarmed into my living room: EKG, health questions, Covid questions. Plus, over and over, they asked, “What’s your name and when were you born?”
Still striving for glib, I said, “Gee, you asked me my name and date of birth three times already. Haven’t you got it by now?”
One guy—standing in the middle of my living room a little apart from the others—solemnly declared, “You see, Charlene, the elephant in the room is that you’re 80.”
Oh, yeah, right. I should have thought of that. Geez.
“I—I see,” I stammered. Coming off a long career at UCSF, I got the message and got a quick grip on the quips. I’d better play it straight, I told myself, or they’ll be assuming I have Alzheimer’s or at least dementia. “Okay,” I said aloud. “Thanks so very much for reminding me.”
Finally, they decided they had to take me in.
“I can walk,” I told them and hobbled down the stairs.
“No, you have to lie on this gurney.” At the bottom of the stairs, they eased me down onto the lumpy cot-like-thing.
In the ambulance, they said they wanted to take me to St. Mary’s. “Kaiser isn’t much further and it’s my hospital.” They grudgingly acquiesced.
At the ER, there was a flurry: EKG, BP, temp. Then I was whisked to a cubicle and helped onto another lumpy bed. There were curtains around the cubicle—seriously ugly curtains—I shouldn’t have noticed and at that moment, certainly shouldn’t have cared, but somehow, they were that ugly, and I did.
BP again. Blood panel. X-rays. Dr. Laura Wen arrived at last telling me that, judging by the results of the blood panel, I hadn’t had a heart attack. “So, by process of elimination, and because you recently had Covid, you probably have chest wall inflammation.”
Whew. Great. Whatever that is.
“But”—Isn’t there always a but—“since you had Covid, it could also be a blood clot or pulmonary embolism.”
“So, to be certain, I’d like to do a CT scan.”
“Okay. Sure.” I squinted at the pale, slightly-floral, almost-shower curtains and said, “Doctor, I’m glad it’s not a heart attack. But since I have chest pain, doesn’t that suggest that if I have a blood clot, it’s already in the heart?”
“Yes, it could be. But we can give you Plavix, a blood thinner.”
“Good.” I sighed in relief. “But if it’s already in the heart, couldn’t I die before the blood thinner kicks in?”
Dr. Wen, who was a real person, not just a detached clinician, said, “I know you want me to be honest with you. So, yes, you could.”
Oh boy! Oh boy!
Around 4:00 AM—who could keep track of time since it may all be going away for me soon anyway—I was wheeled down the hall for a CT scan. “Lie down.” Leads were inserted in my arms and my arms were stretched back over my head. “Breathe in, breathe out.” Done.
Not so fast.
That was the idea. But in my case, it didn’t work that way. As the machine pulled me in and brought me out, I felt a strange liquid sensation on my right arm. Could it be blood? Is there something wrong? I’d never had a CT before, so since they’d told me it would be a quick test, I said nothing and let the sequence play out.
“Oh, no, the line ruptured,” the young woman-tech exclaimed when she came over to check after the test was done. “My God, I’ve never seen this happen before.”
The male-tech hemmed and hawed and agreed it was highly unusual. They set me aside on my gurney—yes, another one—and called the doctor. After a lot of back and forth, Dr. Wen said I should be wheeled back to my lovely cubicle, where I waited, it seemed like ages, until she showed up again. “The radiologist says it’s safe to do another CT scan today and I think we should, since this one is inconclusive.”
More waiting. Then the second scan. This one was successful and I figured I’d find out my fate soon.
No such luck.
Close to 7:00 AM, there was the inevitable staff shift change. Gone was caring Dr. Wen and her equally caring nurse, Dawn. When I rang the bell to find out what my results were, I was told by an orderly that only the doctor could tell me the results and he/she was in a shift-change meeting reviewing cases with personnel from the outgoing shift.
Okay. That made some sense.
I waited some more. “You know,” I said to no one, or maybe directly to those ugly curtains themselves, “if I’m around tomorrow, I could paint something using the floral pattern and do a better job. I mean, how could it be worse?”
Time kept moving along as it always does, ER and everywhere else. 7:00 AM, 7:30 AM. I rang the bell again. A male orderly with a long brown ponytail told me they were still busy with the information swap for the shift change.
Really? How long could that take?
After awhile, I buzzed again. Yet another person appeared who explained that there was now an emergency, a Code, which I understood meant someone was dying. “And all personnel are busy working on that emergency.”
All? What if one of the rest of us here has an emergency? We are all in the ER, after all. It would hardly be surprising.
Almost immediately after that nondescript, unmemorable person departed, a bell sounded.
It sounded again.
I assumed it was sounding to inform anybody in the ER who wasn’t aware that there was a life-and-death emergency that they should hightail it to the Code Room. Still, it was eerie, scary. Mournful. And it went on and on.
I stared at the wall outside my cubicle and listened to the monotonous evenly timed chiming. It went on for 15 minutes, a half hour, an hour, who knows.
I thought of John Donne. How could I not?
Each Man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For Whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
I thought of that man or woman dying not far away. I thought of my own yet-to-be- determined-if-imminent death. I thought of the plague for which the bells tolled back then in London. I thought of our plague—Covid—and felt we too should have a bell chiming when people die from it. I had no idea if the person dying down the hall had Covid, but it could certainly be.
I considered all of us here on earth, all here, all living, all dying, as Eliot so aptly if sardonically put it, “with a little patience.”
I tried to be ready, either for something or for nothing. I’m not religious, so if I believe in a life after death, it’s a secular one. But that’s unknown and how can you prepare for it? Even worse, how do you prepare for nothingness? Blank. Nothing. Gone.
I sat there in a kind of trance till finally, an hour, two hours later, the dinging abruptly stopped.
Almost immediately a nurse walked past. I called out and, frowning, she came in. “I’ve been waiting for the results of my second CT scan and was told that only a doctor can give them to me. I need to know. Please get the doctor.”
She went away, stayed gone a long time, then rushed past again. This time, with a little more finesse, I said, “I know you’ve been busy with a very sick patient. I hope that’s been resolved. I don’t mean to be rude, but I really need to get my results.”
She kept frowning, but said, “Uh, well, yes, it’s been . . . resolved.”
That bell rang on, only in my mind now, and I understood. That person was gone to wherever we go or don’t go to. The resolution was that they had not survived.
“I’ll get the doctor,” she said and rushed away again.
Several minutes later, a man in a white coat, presumably a doctor, jerked the curtains back with a flourish, and proclaimed, “The second CT is fine. You can leave.” He smiled broadly, yanked the curtain shut again and whizzed away.
So, with the diagnosis of chest wall inflammation and, thankfully, nothing more, after a visit to the pharmacy for mega-doses of Ibuprofen and acetaminophen, I staggered across the street to the bus stop.
It was now 9:30 AM, November 2, a continuing Day of the Dead, and interestingly enough, also the day of the Vistas & Byways Launch Party. I should have been there. But I’d had no sleep all night. How can you sleep when you don’t know if you’ll soon never be asleep or awake again? I’d spent the night participating in a possible wake for myself and certainly in one for the poor soul the bell actually tolled for.
So, I crashed out and missed the Launch Party. But I also missed out on mortality. And after recovering from the chest wall inflammation, I had no more Covid symptoms. So once again I hoped that still-elusive new day would dawn.
A couple of months later, a close friend became very ill and after a long hospital stay, had to move into assisted living. Since she has no relatives on the West Coast, I helped her find a place in a facility, then worked with other friends and her East Coast relatives to clear out her apartment of 50 years. It was a lot of work. It was exhausting. But finally, in mid-Jume, she flew off to her new home on the East Coast where she would be close to her family.
A few days after she left, I returned her equipment to Xfinity, had her utilities disconnected and was there for the last go-round in her almost-empty apartment with the1-800-GOT-JUNK folks.
Finally, a new day. Maybe not all that great a day since I’d lost my beloved cat and now my close friend was sick and far away. But still . . .
The day before Independence Day, July 3, I woke up with a fever, cough and sore throat. On July 4—Independence Day—when our country long ago became free, I was anything but. I took the test, had a phone chat with a doctor, had a friend pick up Paxlovid and was off and running . . . again.
Not as bad as the first case. I’m negative already, only a couple of weeks later. I still have lung inflammation, lurch around the room like a drunken sailor and feel like someone dragged the bulk of my energy out of the top of my head and stole it away. But this time, so far, that’s all. But you can bet I’m keeping the Motrin and Tylenol very close at hand.
Somehow, I keep thinking about those faded-out, trying-to-be-cheery curtains in that cubicle where, on that one night, it felt like I spent half my life. I still haven’t tried to do a painting from them. But since, unlike my neighbor down the hall on that night, I’m still here and have the time, I guess I should paint those sad curtains and try to make them look a little better.
I usually feel better when I write or paint too. So, I guess what I’ve learned from all this is that, rather than waiting around for a new day to dawn, I have to make my own new day.
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