When I was in Europe in June, Haley and I visited four cities: London, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Paris. "Which was your favorite?" people asked me once I got home, and even though I loved and adored Amsterdam, I'm not sure I could have loved and adored anywhere else more than London.
In fact, when I arrived in London, just as we walked off the plane, before I had actually seen any part of London save a white cement hall in the Heathrow Airport, I started crying. Haley was all sorts of embarrassed and requested that I just please chill.
But I couldn't.
Because for this English Geek, London is a sort of mecca. Don't get me wrong: the pull of London (or even England in general) has absolutely nothing to do with the royal family. I don't care a whit how many babies Kate has or what dress she wore three hours after giving birth. I'm not obsessed with British royalty in the least. (Although we did walk to Buckingham Palace. When in London...)
No, for me, the pull of London has everything to do with history and books.
I hail from a line of people who lived in London (sure...during the 17th and 18th centuries, but still).
I am fascinated by British history, especially the ancient, pre-Roman part and the stories of the wives of Henry VIII.
How many novels set in London have I read?
How many poets and writers who have influenced me (as a writer and a reader and a human being) have lived in London?
Arriving in London felt to me nearly as magical as arriving in Narnia or Middle Earth might. A place I have imagined and wanted to see but wasn't sure how to get to. Well, OK, London is a little less magical than a made-up place, but look: C. S. Lewis and Tolkien both were British.
Loving London (and England) is part, for me, of being a lover of books and literature and so is fairly inherent part of my identity.
(The statues in the courtyard outside Buckingham Palace.)
When Haley and I came out of the Underground at St. Pancras station (which is right across from Kings Cross Station where, you know, platform 9 3/4 is) it was pouring. And I had forgotten my umbrella! So I was pulling my suitcase and carrying my bag and holding my cell phone so I could follow the Google Maps directions (I could not have managed this trip without Google Maps!) and getting soaked. So at the second shop I saw that had umbrellas (the first one had some for £50), I tucked into and bought one.
Looking back a month later, the memories of my first foray into London are so sharp. The rain, and trying to find a way to balance everything, and how odd it felt to look right-left-right before we crossed a road. The undeniably British feel of the buildings. The bubbling up of excitement: I was in London.
After we found our hotel—we stayed at the Swinton Hotel, which felt dowdy and comfortable in a British way, like the sort of place the Fossil sisters would stay—we headed round the corner to a tiny...I don't think it was a pub, but it wasn't a restaurant. A cafe? It was called Nivens, and they made us breakfast, and I still was pinching myself (and Haley was still telling me to chill!)
(Walking by the Thames. I sort of have A Thing for Walking by European Rivers.)
That was the beginning of our London adventure. Here's a list of the things we managed to cram into our two days:
The British Museum
The National Gallery
Walk through Trafalgar Square
Walk down Charing Cross Road (because books)
Buy a used copy of something from a book store on Charing Cross Road
Visit Liberty of London and buy some fabric
Sightsee: The London Eye, Big Ben, The Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Tower of London (These were places we walked past but didn't have time to go inside of)
Eat: Fish & chips (Haley had both, I just had the chips)
The British Library (quite possibly my favorite place in London)
St. Paul's Cathedral (Although, alas, we got there after it was closing, so I only got to do a quick walk through)
Shop at the Top Shop (Haley spotted this and wanted to stop, I'm definitely not cool enough to know this is a Thing)
Find the original place where the Globe Theater used to be (one bit of the circle can be seen in a parking lot between two apartment buildings
Visit the rebuilt Globe Theater
Cross as many bridges as possible (we did Tower, Southwark, Millennium, Westminster, and Golden Jubilee)
The list of things we didn't do is fairly long, obviously; I am saddest about not being able to tour St. Paul's or enter the Tate Modern. We got a late start on our second day—we got up and ate breakfast, but when we got back to our room we all crashed—and I didn't time things quite right (I should have left Haley shopping at the Top Shop while I went into St. Paul's because churches weren't her thing). But I think we fit in almost everything we could in the time we had.
(I will write more detailed posts about several of my London experiences.)
(The Tower Bridge in the background.)
Two days in London was definitely not enough for this English Geek. It was just enough to give me a taste and to let me know that I need to plan another trip, my fabled one: a grand tour of the British Isles, with hiking and museuming and architecture gazing and castle exploring and maybe even driving on the left side of the road.
(Outside of the Globe Theater.)
In a book I just finished, The Spellbook of Listen Taylor, there is a spell for making two happy people have an argument about absolutely nothing:
I don’t want anyone to have an argument over nothing, but I did feel compelled to write my list of Things that Make Me Sad (right now) (even though “sad” isn’t quite the right word to capture what I have been feeling).
In my head, I keep going back and back through time, trying to find the month or the year or the day I didn’t have this underlying sense of doom or anxiety. I think it started way back with Kendell’s first surgery, when he had his hips replaced. I have done much work and had many happy days since then, but still: I don’t think I’ve ever stopped worrying, that he wouldn’t make it through the surgery, and then that his post-op complications would never get better, and then that he would still be in pain. There was a tiny little respite, maybe, for about 8 or 9 months, when he was fully recuperated from the surgery, starting to exercise regularly, and really feeling like life could be normal. Then we found out about his heart and he had his first heart surgery. My clearest memory of that day was when his heart surgeon called me from the operating room and said “we just put him on bypass.” It was so surreal, knowing I was sitting at my house (his surgery was at a hospital just a half mile away from our house), curled up on our bed waiting, and his heart wasn’t, at that very moment, beating at all.
He recuperated from that surgery, and then 18 months later had his gall bladder removed.
And then a few weeks after that, we found out that Kaleb also has a bicuspid aortic valve.
And then we found out, a year later, that he has a bulge on his aorta.
And then Kendell’s dad died.
And then, a year later, my dad died.
And then, the next year, Kendell’s mom died.
And then my mom was under strict orders not to die, which she didn’t, but she did have an incredibly difficult back surgery and a long recovery that was muddled with family tensions and long-buried resentments.
Then, last summer, we found out Kendell had to have his valve replaced again.
And then in April he almost died. He should, but all logic and statistics and medical understanding, have died.
Mix in what for me has been the hardest part of parenting—raising teenagers. I love my kids and I am proud of them; they are good kids trying to find their way in the world, but it has still been hard. I have some mom friends who have loved this part, but for me it has been anguish, and feeling guilty over the anguish makes the anguish even worse. Add in the feeling that my extended family (my mom and sisters and nieces and nephews) is fracturing. There have been so many heartaches in my kids’ lives, friends and girlfriends and boyfriends who have betrayed them, mistakes and disappointments and the ongoing struggles of modern adolescence. And all of the every day sort of worries and troubles, car wrecks, stitches, bike collisions, broken bones, sprained ankles and twisted knees and smashed fingers.
Plus my back has hurt for 92% of those years.
I just feel like asking the universe for a break. But apparently the universe is not done with me. Because at first I started writing my List of Things that Make Me Sad (right now) right in the book, until I decided it was just too grisly and depressing.
But if I am honest, I can say: I’m in a bad place right now. So, as to avoid causing anyone to have an argument over absolutely nothing, I’m going to write my list on my blog instead. There will be no jumping jacks or bottoms of Kleenex boxes. But maybe if I write it down, it will remind the universe: Amy has had enough. Amy is at her breaking point. Please, give Amy a break. (Because…Amy is writing in third person!)
Or, to sum up: continuing medical troubles; terror at my child’s heart; betrayal; an emotion I don’t have a word for which is equal parts grief, regret, yearning, and self-loathing; failing God; and a kid without a cell phone or money in a foreign country.
And I know: this blog post is a great big pity party. It’s dark and sad and whiny; it fails to remember that during the years since Kendell’s first surgery, there have been a lot of good things, too. Vacations and high school graduations and birthday parties and holidays and delicious meals, running and hiking and learning and growing. I am stronger than I was when this started. My kids are all alive and in one piece and moving forward.
But oh, dear Universe. I need a little pause. A small one, but a real one. A moment when nothing is weighing on my heart. And maybe that isn’t possible, maybe a heavy, troubled heart is the universal condition of adulthood. Maybe I am asking for too much.
But still, I am asking. I need light. I need to not feel despair. I need to, for just a little while, feel like I did something right. Anything.
I’m not sure that is possible. But I need it, if it is. We all of us, in my family, need it.
I’ve been home from Europe for a week now. The jet lag is finally worn off; I am down to waking up only two or three times a night wondering how I fell asleep in my hotel room with the door open and panicked because certainly someone’s stolen my suitcase and don’t I need to catch a train? I’ve made a cursory pass through my photographs and I’ve sorted out my souvenirs (mostly post cards of my favorite paintings from the many museums we went to) and put away all of my travel gear—except for my suitcase which is still by my bedroom door.
(Maybe I should put it away and then I could sleep through the night.)
(Outside the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. Yes, I totally wore trail runners and skirts.)
People keep asking me how the trip went, and I have to be honest: I have some conflicted feelings about it. There were some really, really good moments: when Haley and I first saw our hotel room in London, and it felt like the very best kind of shabby British establishment. Braiding Haley’s hair for her before we left for the day, and the next day when I tried to fishtail it and it was a big fat mess. Eating fish & chips (for Haley) and chips (for me) in our room on the second night, thoroughly exhausted from all our walking. The moment it stopped raining and the sun came out in London. Walking across so many bridges. Belgian waffles (more than one!) in Brussels, shopping for souvenirs in little shops, a cruise of the river Seine, a meal in the late Paris twilight. There were tears of many sorts, and wet shoes, many wrong turns and not a few wrong buses. There were three distinct miracles—four, really—and one near disaster.
I learned many things, about myself and about Haley and about our relationship. I learned how to get around on a metro. I learned I don’t only get anxious about missing air plans, but about missing trains, too. I learned there are bathrooms that are dirtier than the filthiest Ragnar honeybucket. I learned that the keyboard on French computers are different from English ones, and then I laughed to realize I’d never thought about keyboards in other languages. I learned that even with wrong turns, stops closed because of construction, and a language barrier, I can figure out how to get around in an unfamiliar city. I learned I can survive for quite a while without eating anything much at all. I learned you should always bring a back-up credit card, photograph your passport, and print your boarding passes from home.
I learned I am quite the museum crier.
The museums! The art. That was my favorite part. Not seeing a painting in a book, or a print on someone’s wall, but the real, actual painting touched by the person who created it: that is, to me, an amazing thing. It’s sort of a time travel mechanism; the artist is gone but his (usually!) art is still here, a way to sort of experience the artist, except in some sense you know more about his (or, rarely, her) life than he did. I adored visiting the museums.
But it was hard to be the tour guide. It’s different to experience a city in real life, as opposed to plotting out your route on Google maps. Well, obviously, and of course I knew that, but I felt overwhelmed the entire time, and like I had to hide my overwhelmed feeling so the trip could feel smooth for my traveling companions. I had a moment at Heathrow, when we’d gotten our luggage and it was real: I had to get us from the airport to our hotel, which was luckily a straight trip from Heathrow to St. Pancras station on the tube. I wasn’t ready for transferring trains yet. I almost panicked right there, but then I took a deep breath, tried to remember what I learned from all the guide books I read, and followed the signs to the Tube station. Our Oyster cards worked, we could only go one way on the train, and we made it to the hotel (eventually…I had forgotten my umbrella and it was pouring rain, so I stopped at a random shop and bought one, but then I was trying to pull my suitcase, keep my carry-on bag on my shoulder, hold my umbrella up, and follow the navigation app on my phone).
And needing to be on time for four different trains really did give me a constant, low-level anxiety that ran underneath everything.
It was difficult for me to decide where to eat, between trying to keep a reasonable budget and feeding vegetarians.
And I think I was thirsty 90% of the time.
Still, it was a week in Europe with my daughter and her friend. I got to see a Van Gogh almost every day. I got to go running in Amsterdam and Paris. I walked all over London and sat in underappreciated churches in Brussels and walked through the red light district in Amsterdam. I got brave asking “parlez-vous anglais?” in Paris. I saw priceless, ancient statues in the Louvre and the British Museum; I bought fabric at Liberty of London and a used book at a bookshop on Charing Cross Road. I recounted British history and I bought a small (and likely not authentic) piece of Delft pottery and I wandered around the Grand Place in Brussels.
How was my trip? It’s hard to sum up. I keep thinking about how to blog about it, and I think I will have to break it down into very small parts. It wasn’t a relaxing trip by any means. But it was an adventure, one I will think about a remember for my entire life; one that made me hope for other European experiences (hopefully not so rushed next time); one that I was glad to share with my daughter.
When you read this, I will be in Europe. (You can follow along on my adventures on Instagram; follow me @amylsorensen.)
(My first time in Europe...wandering a street in Florence, my favorite Italian city.)
In January Haley decided to do a semester abroad in Spain this summer, and then in April she had the idea of going a week early, to see some of the sights in Europe. I decided to come with her because I was worried about her traveling around Europe on her own. (And because I wanted to see some of the sights in Europe too!)
I was talking to a neighbor about this trip, and she said "I can't believe you're brave enough to travel to Europe without your husband. Or even at all! I would be so afraid."
"What would you be afraid of?" I asked her, sincerely curious.
"Getting lost. Or mugged. The airplane crashing. All of those terrorist attacks in Europe!"
I thought about what she was saying. It reminded me of my mornings spent running up Squaw Peak Road, which is a steep, twisting, narrow mountain road near where I live, with narrow shoulders, and how whenever I start to run it, I am overcome with "what ifs." What if I got hit by a car? What if I accidentally fell down the mountain? What if I stumbled on the road and got injured? What if someone from the shooting range shot so wildly that he shot me? What if a mountain lion followed me?
Usually, before I start, I have to take a deep breath. I have to remind myself of my precautions: I only run with one earbud in, and the volume on my music extra low so that I can hear the traffic. I stick to the shoulder. I run with my cell phone so if anything But when I get started running up that road, I leave the "what ifs" behind. What I find instead is a running bliss that is unique to that place, inspired by the steep uphill, by being on a mountain, by the view around me (three different mountains I have hiked, and trees so close i can touch them if I want to, and wildflowers and the blue blue sky). It is a hard run, but it is beautiful, and if I let my "what ifs" stop me, I would never feel that feeling.
I listened to my neighbor and her litany of fears, and why she would never travel without her husband or, likely, with her husband, and I found words tumbling out of me. I hope I was gentle and not judgmental. "I decided a long time ago," I told her, "to not be limited by fear. To not let fear stop me from doing what I want to do. If I let myself be afraid, I would never do anything."
If I'm honest, I can tell you: I am afraid. I'm afraid that we will miss our carefully-scheduled trains. I'm afraid of getting lost and of losing Haley. I'm afraid of not knowing how to navigate the Tube or the Metro and of ending up somewhere dicey. I'm afraid our hotel in Amsterdam—right in the middle of the Red Light district—will be dodgy. I'm afraid of pick pockets. I wasn't afraid of airplane crashes, muggings, or terrorist attacks, but I am, a little bit, now.
But still—when you read this, I will be in Europe. Because you know what else I am afraid of? Never experiencing anything beyond the small confines of my everyday life. Never sitting at a street cafe in Paris while French is spoken around me and I don't understand anything but I am there. Not having any more museum moments, when you go to a specific museum to see a specific piece of art which is, yes, amazing, but you also find your piece there, the one that everyone else might overlook but that is a piece that changes something for you. The prospect that I will never see the great architecture of the world, or wander down ancient streets I don't know the name of, or stand on a bridge over the Thames or a canal or the Seine.
I want to be amazed by what is around an unknown corner, humbled by history, astounded by churches.
I want to run down cobbled streets or on a path through a garden or past storied monuments. (Yes...I am packing my running shoes!)
I want to go, and see, and experience what the world wants to show me.
I am afraid of the bad things that could happen. But I won't let my fears stop me from experiencing the good things that can be found only by stretching. By going out into the world anyway.
One of my librarian friends and I were talking a few weeks ago about what we were reading. She said "I've actually just finished binge-watching Veronica Mars, and now that I think about it, I think it's a show you'd really like." She thought for a second, clearly struggling to put a weird thought into words. "Part of it is about how she was date-raped and is trying to figure out who her rapist was...and that seems like, you know. Sort of your thing."
Another awkward pause.
"Not that..." she hesitated.
So I jumped in. It's not that I can say I like reading books about rape. That really would be weird. Instead, it is that I am drawn to books (and yes, TV shows and movies) that deal with women's issues in serious, realistic, and thought-provoking ways.
And one of those issues is rape.
"Interestingly enough," I told my librarian friend, "I just finished a YA novel about something similar, Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E. K. Johnston."
She and I had talked late in December about how, while everyone else thought the YA novel All the Rage (also a novel about rape) was this generation's Speak (ditto on subject), we both thought it was confusing. I read the last part three times but I still didn't have a clear vision of what actually happened. All the Rage takes a character who is already on the fringe—Romy Grey is from the poor side of her small midwestern town—and then pushes her out even further into isolation and doubt when she is raped by (and then reports) the sheriff's son. The book is about how people can turn victims into scapegoats and how girls need to take care of each other (but usually don't) and how the flaws in the system give rapists freedom to repeat their crimes. It's a harrowing, gritty book, but still: I can't quite exactly explain what happened to Romy. Maybe that's the point—and it is a well-established fact that I don't need clean, tidy endings—but I wanted to leave the book understanding what she experienced, and I didn't, so I felt a little...at odds.
But I'm glad such novels exist. Ones that are willing to look at what happens to a girl's psyche when she becomes a victim. Ones that examine how society itself enables such horrible things to happen. By writing fiction about rape, we take away some of its power, because it can become a thing to write about just like any other topic. It's not exempt and it shouldn't be hidden away without conversation, and novels can bring it into the light.
So while, no, I would never say that novels about rape are a genre I am specifically drawn to, they are novels I will usually read, because sometimes reading—even fiction—can be a form of witnessing.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear, takes a totally different approach than All the Rage. The main character, Hermione Winters, is the only daughter of wealthy parents. She's spending the last week of summer before her senior year at the cheer camp she's gone to since she was 14, but this time she is the captain of her squad. At the party at the end of camp, she is drugged and raped, and the rest of the novel is about her process of dealing with this violent experience that she has very little memory of.
I liked many things about this book. I liked that it challenged my I-don't-like-cheerleaders perspective. I liked that Hermione, even as a popular girl, had to grapple with people's stares, whispers, and assumptions. I liked the friendships and the relationships in the story.
I liked mostly that the author took this approach, started with a girl who wasn't a victim of anything, whose life was really damn fine, and then made her a victim. It changes the dynamic of the usual story somehow. Hermione has a strong support system: involved parents, strong friends, access to mental healthcare. It felt like a story that started with a "what if" question: What if a wealthy, successful teenage girl is raped? What does it do to her life? Does it cause her to lose any of the markers of her success?
What I didn't like is that the answer to the question felt like "no." Hermione changes, of course, as the result of the rape. But she never breaks. She is sad, she is nauseous, she is traumatized; she has a freak-out moment later on in the book, but she never crumbles. It doesn't feel like she ever truly reacts to the rape in a visceral, raw way.
And maybe the point of her non-reaction is that, with the right resources, a rape doesn't have to break you. Or that she was a strong character who refused to be broken. Who took control of her experience and acted the least like a victim that she could.
That is positive, of course.
But for me, it doesn't feel believable. It feels almost...glossy. Yes: many, many people are strong enough to survive a rape and not have it ruin their entire life. No victim needs to be defined as a victim for the rest of her life. But I don't believe there wouldn't be any dramatic choices, or any backlash, or any destruction. Dealing with the outcome, suffering through the backlash and surviving it—what a victim must plunge through during her recuperation—and coming out on the other side as a changed person is where the power of a rape narrative lies.
And it felt to me like Hermione never plunged anywhere. Like she never went through but went around instead.
I read novels about rape not as a voyeur but as a witness. As an act of solidarity and a refusal to let it be a hidden topic. Exit, Pursued by a Bear was an interesting story. A good exploration of "what if." But by making Hermione so strong, the writer made the process invisible. There was almost nothing to witness.
Checking out a library book is an optimistic action. It suggests hope in the idea that time will be found to simply sit somewhere comfortable and be immersed in a story. You check out a book because you love the idea of it, or the cover is appealing, or it’s written by an author you’ve enjoyed before. “Read this,” suggests someone whose taste you admire, so you hunt the book down at the library and bring it home. A NYT review, a spot on NPR, a review on your favorite book blog: It’s so easy to find books to read and then to fill yourself with anticipation, both for the reading itself and for the solitude, the quiet, the comfort.
And then life gets in the way.
I think my ratio of books checked out to books I actually manage to finish is about 12:3. I want to read them, every single one, but I also have to live. I fit in as many books as I can, but there is so much to be done with every minute of time. In any given hour, I could do 18 different things, each of them important, and quite often the thing I pick isn’t reading. I remember once, when I was about 15 or 16, sitting on the floor in a hall of my high school, a teacher stopped next to me and said, “You know, when you grow up, you’ll have to stop reading all the time.”
(Obviously not an English teacher.)
He made being a grown up sound like a desolate wasteland. A book drought. A literature void.
I’m reminded the most in the summer that maybe growing up wasn’t the best thing I could’ve done. Remember how, in the summers of your childhood, you had all that free time? I think most kids probably filled it with running around with other kids, or baseball, or tennis. I did some of that, too, but mostly what I did was recline in a lawn chair in the shade by the peach tree and read. Book after book after book.
Every summer I long to go back to those days. I illustrate this desire by checking out books, and there’s always a pile by my nightstand and a pile in the front room and a couple stacked on the kitchen table. I want to read all of them, I try to finish more, but eventually they are overdue, and then they can’t be renewed another time, and then I have to return them.
But I don’t want to forget them.
Here’s a list of the 14 books I’m returning, unread, so that maybe I will remember, in the face of all the other books that will grab my attention, to check them out again:
The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End by Katie Roiphie. An exploration of the dying days of writers and artists. I am a little obsessed with death lately.
Godforsaken Idaho by Shawn Vestal. I discovered this short story collection while looking for books to add to the library’s book group sets. I don’t think it would be a good choice for my library: short stories with a decidedly un-Mormon twist. (That’s Joseph Smith on the cover.) I did read the first story, about an imagined afterlife, and found it dry and witty and delicious.
Weathering by Lucy Wood. A multigenerational novel about a grandmother, her daughter, and her daughter. One of them is a ghost whose remains are swirling in the river near her home.
Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente. A reimagining of the Russian folktale of Koschei the Deathless.
We are Water by Wally Lamb. The story of a woman who, after decades of marriage and family life, falls in love with another woman.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I confess: this is now the third time I’ve checked out and returned this book, which is an exploration of contemporary marriage. Perhaps it is just not the right time and I should give it up for good? Until it comes into my life again?
The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan. A teen novel about a boy named Amadou, who is working on a cocoa planation in the Ivory Coast to pay off his inexplicable debt. Did I not read it because I was afraid it would make me give up chocolate?
The Radleys by Matt Haig. A vampire novel. No one sparkles. This is more about family dynamics than blood drinking, but the bloody parts might be an interesting twist.
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman. Some of the women in these stories are almost famous because of their proximity to famous people. Others because they almost make it. I’m kind of in love with short stories lately.
Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach. I loved his We All Looked Up, so I took this one home when I found it on the new YA books display. The description is sort of vague, a boy who doesn’t speak much and always avoids going to school meets an enigmatic girl.
Jimmy Bluefeather by Kim Heacox. The story of a Tlingit native, Keb Wisting, and the adventure he has with his grandson, whose injury at a logging mill ends his basketball aspirations. I got about twenty five pages into this but then got distracted, but the story is still tugging at me.
The Mare by Mary Gaitskill. I like what Maureen Corrigan said about it: “a raw, beautiful story about love and mutual delusion, in which the fierce erotics of mother love and romantic love and even horse fever are swirled together.” What more could one want from a novel?
The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wecker. I read the first chapter of this as an e-book and I liked it too much to not read the book-book. But then I decided to just order my own copy to take on my trip next week. Why haven’t I returned it yet?
The Year’s Best Science Fiction: The 32nd Annual Collection. I have no idea why I requested this. For three or four years in the early 90s, I bought this every year. Then I realized I would never get through them all and I stopped. I think there is a story in there I wanted to read. Hopefully I will figure out which one.
All of these, along with five books about traveling in Europe, two books about lupus, and one cookbook, are all finally being returned to the library today. Hopefully someone else will be compelled to take one (or five) of them home. And actually read them.
It was a fairly normal evening: we ran a few errands after Kendell got home from work, we picked up some dinner. We watched an episode of The Vikings while we waited for Jake to get home from his night class and Nathan to be finished at his friend's house; we tucked Kaleb in, we talked to the Bigs about a few different things.
We went to bed.
Kendell woke me up a few minutes after I'd fallen asleep, because his nose was whistling. I nudged him and he mumbled something and then we were back asleep, except maybe that whistle didn't let me all the way back. Maybe I was on alert, in some unconscious region of my brain.
Maybe I have never really felt at peace since his last surgery in October. Maybe part of my sleeping self is always partly awake, listening, because once your husband's heart has been cut open and been pieced back together, maybe you never stop worrying.
We went to bed, and then I hushed his whistling nose, and then he woke me again. I didn’t know what time it was, hours later it seemed, and again it was his breathing, but this time it wasn’t a benign nose whistle. This time it was a death rattle of a breath, a screeching, gasping breath with his face screwed up tight with the agony of trying to get air into his lungs (agonal respiration I later learned, the body’s very last attempt to save itself)
and I was shaking him as hard as I could, I was screaming are you OK? And I knew he wasn’t,
so I was grabbing my phone and calling 911 while I raced around our bed to his side
and then hours
or seconds later the 911 operator was walking me through giving him CPR, I was plugging his nose and taking a breath and then lowering to breath into his mouth and I thought
I can’t do this
and I thought
I’ve kissed his mouth one million times, I can do this
and then I was breathing into his mouth and feeling my own breath only fill up his cheeks
and then I was pumping as hard as I could on his chest
and I am pretty sure I was hysterically laughing and screaming all at once, this can’t be happening
but another part of my brain was calmly reminding me of the times I’ve watched someone playing a doctor on TV give chest compressions and I knew I had to push as hard as I could even though his chest seems so fragile to me, a thinly wired cage, and I actually had Meredith Grey’s voice in my head, or maybe it was the 911 operator
who told me after some indeterminate time—perhaps three CPR rotations of breathe and compress, perhaps five—to run as fast I could to the front door, where I let in a police officer who raced back down the hall with me.
He and I got Kendell onto the floor, and he kept up the CPR while I felt his pulse at his wrist, felt my husband’s pulse, which was a sharp blare and then nothing, sharp blare, nothing, sharp---
And then the EMTs were there and I stood in the hall by my bedroom, completely numb but still making that hysterical sound around the words I can’t believe this is happening now, because now has felt like it has always been coming, ever since that first heart surgery, because who can trust that life can keep going, right there in my hallway I didn’t, right there I thought it had ended and I couldn’t bear being alone so I raced downstairs to wake up my sons who had slept through it all, and they stood in the hallway with me, holding my hand, one of them, and another’s hand on my shoulder and I stopped making that sound.
The EMTs had to shock him four times before they got his rhythm back and because I didn’t have my glasses on or my contacts in, I also couldn’t hear any of the sounds they made (or maybe my brain didn’t let me hear) because in my memory that time in the hall is entirely silent until one of the EMTs said OK, got it, let’s move him and then I could squeeze past into the bathroom for my glasses.
(When I could see I completely melted down into an ugly, ugly laugh because if Kendell could’ve seen our bedroom—the vacuum knocked over, the tv askew, medical paraphernalia tossed everywhere and five men in shoes on the carpet—he would’ve been so pissed and it seemed ridiculous that I would never be able to tell him that.)
The EMTs took Kendell to the hospital. The policeman waited for me for a couple of minutes, while I raced to put in my contacts and put on a bra. Ridiculous what you think about in moments like that, but was I was thinking of was the night before my dad died, when the hospice nurse came to give him a sponge bath and change his clothes, and he dressed my dad in my mom’s t-shirt but I made the nurse go back and put on one of his t-shirts, because I knew my dad was dying and I didn’t want him to die in a woman’s t-shirt.
I didn’t want to go to the ER and be told my husband was dead without a bra on.
They didn’t tell me he was dead.
They took him into the same ER room where his mom died. They did medical things while I stood in the hall outside, while I sat in a chair, while some of the EMTs talked to me. I paced, I sat, I knew I had to call someone, a nurse stopped and brought me some water and asked if she could call someone for me, so I picked up my phone. I didn’t want to call or tell anyone because saying it out loud would make it real, because what even was this “it” that I needed to say out loud? I still didn’t know what was wrong. But I called his sister and she didn’t answer—it was 6:15 by now—and then I called my sister who answered by saying “what’s wrong?” and I don’t even know what I told her, but she came.
There are so many stories I could tell about those hours. The waiting. The way I flashed between calm and hysterical. The first conversation with the ICU doctor, who used terms like “possible anoxic brain injury” and “medically induced coma” and “base reflexes not responding well.” Conversations about what “DNR” really means. The moment I went back home to find our will, where our advanced directives are, and I couldn’t find it and I thought I’ll just ask Kendell, he’ll know exactly where it is and then there was a little bit more of that ugly hysterical sound.
There are so many stories and ways I could tell it, but reliving it will take time for me. Writing all of it down.
In the end, this is what happened: for unknown reasons (low potassium, slow heart rate, scar tissue build-up, congenital deformation in the sinoatrial node) Kendell’s heart went into cardiac arrest. He went into ventricular fibrillation but his breathing woke me up. The immediate CPR, the fast response of the policeman and the EMTs (they were at our house two minutes after they left the fire station), and, quite possibly, simple, inexplicable luck saved him. He was in a coma for two days, most of that while undergoing a cooling protocol to hopefully preserve his brain function. The doctor kept telling me bad news, that this and this and this were bad signs, and is it strange I am grateful he never gave me any false hope? But when they turned down the drugs and started waking Kendell up, he immediately responded. He woke up and he couldn’t breathe around the tube so he gestured until I figured out that he wanted a pen and he wrote (after a few attempts) I can’t breathe and then there was a different kind of hysterical sound.
Here is the terrifying thing: every nurse, doctor, EMT, and medical person we spoke with told us that most people don’t survive. One EMT said that Kendell was the reason he became an EMT, because 99% of people don’t survive, but Kendell did. Not only did he survive—he is OK. His short-term memory is a little fuzzy, but hopefully that will clear up with time. So, once we left the hospital—he had to get an internal defibrillator—I started looking.
And the statistics are dismal.
The highest one I found was 20%--meaning, 20% of people with cardiac arrest and v-fib live. (Eighty percent die.)
Another study said 5%.
Another one found that 1.79% of people with cardiac arrest and v-fib survive without any noticeable anoxic brain injury.
All of those numbers—they are terrifying. They make me look back on the entire experience and feel unable to understand why my husband is still alive, why he’s at work today and tomorrow he’ll go with me to Kaleb’s soccer game and he’ll be around for Mother’s Day.
It makes absolutely no sense that he is alive and normal. (Or, as I keep teasing him, as normal as he’s ever been.) I don’t understand it. He doesn’t understand it. But the fact is—the miracle is: he lived. He’s OK.
What is left is just filtering: trying to understand what happened, trying to let it change us in positive ways. I’ve learned that when something medical happens to someone in a family it happens, to some degree, to everyone in the family. I didn’t have to go through what he did, but it was fairly traumatic for me, too. (Ask me if I’ve slept well in the month since it happened. If I haven’t woken up panicked every night to make sure he’s still breathing, to make sure that I’m also still breathing.) My husband almost died. My husband should have died.
I can’t stay the same after that.