I’ve had some amazing birthdays. I’ve gone trail riding, hiked in mountains, lolled on beaches soaking up the sun. I’ve partied the day and night away in different cities, different countries. I’ve gone exploring new places, visited museums and shops, gone to dinner with friends and let them throw down way too much money on wines and champagnes we could have bought for half the price if we could have been bothered to go to a liquor store instead of drinking in an elegant restaurant.
I’ve had birthdays where I stayed close to home. I spent one birthday in hospital in Ohio. I’ve worked, I’ve danced, and I’ve given presentations and performances on my birthday. I’ve laughed as it—predictably—rains wherever I am on my birthday, even if only for five minutes. I’ve worried about small things, big things, silly things, on my birthdays. Whatever I have done, wherever I have been, my birthday has always been incredibly memorable.
This year was meant to be awesome, too. Lee and I had plans to book a holiday to celebrate both our June birthdays. Clearly, that did not go quite as planned. But then, collapsing and having the next thing I recall being a doctor I had never seen before an inch from my face, saying to me in that slow, precise voice people use in life-or-death situations because they don’t want to scare you more, “You’re having a heart attack; if we don’t get you transferred to the other hospital in less than an hour, you’re probably going to die,” wasn’t exactly part of the plan, either.
The days between then and my birthday are largely a blur (gods be thanked for that small mercy). But there are some moments, strikingly vivid, marvelously lucid, that bear mention here. A doctor telling me she owed me a coffee after losing a bet with me that cardioversion would be effective (never has been, didn’t see it would be then and said so) in breaking the relentlessly racing beat of my quickly-tiring heart. I remember her stroking my hand and telling me she was sorry it hadn’t worked. I remember a nurse that cared fighting to get a doctor to really see what I needed.
I remember my nephew stepping up to place a treasured childhood stuffed animal on my pillow. I remember my father’s face as he held my hand and was faced with the fact that his only living daughter might not survive, and the helplessness on the faces of both my parents when they realized that if I was going to lose the fight, there was no way they could do anything to stop my defeat. I remember the courage Lee showed in making decisions about my care when I could not make them. I saw the agony on his face through the haze of pain and sedation; I know what it cost him to take those decisions and own them.
There was a very real possibility that my heart was going to give up the battle and call it quits. And, cardioversion attempts aside, there were five occasions when I thought I was about to leave this life. The day before I had the second procedure was what I sincerely hope will be the last time my heart stops beating. In those forty-five seconds without a heartbeat, I found myself paused between two doors: this life behind me, the next existence in front of me. I could neither go forward nor back, and faced with the knowledge that I might not get back, I hovered there in the warmth and light, and I thought.
I thought hard about my whole life. If I couldn’t go back, if I were forced onward, were there things I regretted doing or saying? Things I regretted leaving unsaid and undone? If my actions in this life were laid in the balance, would my soul soar free or sink in despair? If I could do it all over again, would I change everything?
The medical documentation shows I was gone for only forty-five seconds on that occasion, but there was no sense of time in that place. It could have been hours or years or decades that I paused there and took stock of my life. There was no sense of rushing, no urgency. I had plenty of time to consider everything and, in a strange way, I am grateful I had that chance. I might not have the perspective on things I do now without it.
When I woke up, I was (undeniably and understandably) confused and scared but those feelings faded fast, blown away by the most profound sense of peace I have ever experienced in this lifetime. I had brought it back with me, the joy in the knowledge I found in that place between. Sure, I had been frustrated and annoyed that all of our big plans for this year have encountered obstacles that caused delays. I mean, who didn’t want that new Samsung Galaxy S8+ ASAP once it was out? (Unless you’re an Apple person, that is.) Who wouldn’t have been frustrated that the plumbing “repairs” someone did as a favor were now going to cost you over $1K to fix? And that that necessary expense delayed booking the trip to visit your new in-laws in England? Who wouldn’t be pissed that they had to keep putting off things they’d budgeted for because other things kept coming up?
In that place there where I waited to see if I would come back or leave this life, I realized I am that person who can see the true value of elements of her life; I had just been letting daily life intrude on the bigger picture. My in-laws will still be in England, and England will still be there to enjoy when we can make the trip together. And Samsung will keep putting out new phones—wonderful as it is, elegant and amazing as it is, the S8+ is, after all, just another device. (And if I jumped on the S8, whatever would I do in a few months when the new Note comes out?) Our computers might need updating to be up to optimal standards for what we do with them BUT they are still top-end machines and have a lot of life left in them.
I’ve heard that phrase about money not being able to buy happiness my whole life, but until I lost my heartbeat, had to stand outside and look back in at this life, I never really accepted—or understood—it. But in that pause, while my physical heart stopped, I understood and accepted. And I rejoiced in the knowledge. Poised there on the edge of life, what soul would choose to lie, to turn away from truth?
And here is my truth, what I brought back: Yes, I have some regrets, mostly that I wasn’t brave enough to take the decision I knew was the right one. Yep, I have been unkind sometimes. I’m human; I have faults. But would I change my life? Even if not changing one second of it meant I had to live all the pain, all the fear, all the long, lonely moments over again, would I leave things as they are? Yes, yes I would. Seeing the love and fidelity that is the foundation of the bond my husband and I share—oh yes, hell yes. This love is a gift, an honor, a privilege. Living in its light is worth the bumps and disappointments and hurt I had to live through to reach it.
I will still lose my fine red-headed temper from time to time; I was born a Whitis after all, so not much chance of shedding that part of myself. Just so, I will continue to value loyalty, to defend those who cannot defend themselves, to cut out of my life those who honor neither loyalty nor honesty. I came back changed—but changed more into myself than anything else. I will still call people out on bullshit and challenge them when they need it (doubt that, and you can ask the doctor who operated on me how I told him he needed a dictionary if he couldn’t understand the difference between “you will be sedated but coherent” and “you’re going to be totally out under general anesthesia.” If I don’t fear to confront the man about to literally plumb the physical depths of my heart, hold my life in his hands, no one is really likely to give me a pause.)
Little things are still going to piss me off. But I’m okay with that. I’m okay with me. Not perfect, no, not by a long shot but not a bad person either. I came back with the freedom of knowing my soul would soar, not sink.
So, this year, I came home from hospital for my birthday. I had a wonderful day, at home with close family. I even got to do some gaming with Lee and my nephew. I laughed when we all realized no one had gotten a cake and we ended up celebrating and making birthday wishes over tea and donut sticks. I cuddled Pocket Dog. I sat outside in the sun and watched the dogs romp and listened to birds chirp and I celebrated being alive.
Late in the evening, Ginger Two walked up to me carrying something which he deposited at my feet. He mowed, looked back down at it, and walked away. Joo had brought me a tarot card—The World. And, indeed, my world, our world, is full and rich and alive and I am so glad to still be in it.