Sunday, March 1, 2015

When Death Is An Option

Four people -- a family member, two guys I had dated, and the adult son of a close friend -- have died in the last four weeks. Only one death was anticipated. The others were sudden and unexpected. Two of the funerals were on the same day. So I am tapped out emotionally. And it's made me a little philosophical about death, LITTLE being the operative word. 

The longer I live, the more I appreciate how close I have come to dying. At the time these near death experiences took place, I didn't think I was that close to terminal, but on reflection, I realize that the Grim Reaper had tiptoed a lot closer than I ever thought.

The first time -- that I am aware of -- I was sixteen. One summer afternoon, my best girlfriend and I were hanging around at the beach in my hometown. I lived six blocks from Lake Michigan growing up and spent many summers on our suburban sands trolling for cute lifeguards and frying my epithelial tissue to a crispy bacon shade with baby oil. 

On that fateful day, a bunch of guys in a powerboat was hovering close to shore and asked if we wanted to go for a ride. Yes, we did. After tooling around for a half an hour or so, they drove us back near the shore to let us off. We planned to jump off the boat and swim the short distance to the beach where we'd left our towels. The boat was stopped, idling in deep water so they wouldn't get stuck on a sand bar. 

Except there was a hidden sand bar that nobody noticed. 

We spent about five minutes saying our thank yous for the nice ride. As we were executing the teenage girly giggle and flirt thing, nobody noticed that the idling boat had begun to drift into much shallower water. Finally we had worn out our welcome. My girlfriend stood on the stern of the boat and jumped out. I followed about a second after, but in a moment of teenaged stupidity, I had decided to dive, for no other reason than to show off.

I had been to camp. I had learned, long before, that you never dive off a boat, a pier, anything, unless you know exactly how deep the water is. Ever. Amazing how showing off for boys shuts off the synapses.

The only thing that saved me from a broken neck, total paralysis, or immediate death was that in the middle of my swan dive, which almost became my swan song, I saw my girlfriend out of the corner of my eye, SITTING in water that barely reached her chest.

In midair, I turned my head hard left so that my right shoulder -- not my head -- could take the brunt of the plunge into the sand just inches beneath the water. 

Thanks to that last minute move, I survived, albeit covered in heavy, wet sand. I rose from the water looking like one of the Clay People from Flash Gordon as I stood up. The guys in the boat took a gander at the monster I'd become and sped away. 

Initially, based on the amount and location of the pain, I thought I had broken my shoulder. Along with my shoulder, the ligaments, muscles, and tendons on the right side of my neck felt wrenched to the breaking point. My head was bent so far left, my ear almost reached my clavicle. Needless to say, it took awhile before I could straighten things out. 

I hurt for a long time afterward. But I never went to the doctor. Or told my parents. As I recall, I just took some aspirin and went to bed early. Years later, nerve pain revealed thinning discs at C6 and C7 on an x-ray. A small price to pay. 

The second time I could have died was one of those home accidents that usually happens when you're drunk. Drunkenness is a helpful catchall for stupid death tricks in one's home. But, like most of my life, I was stone, cold sober. [I may have told this story before. If so, my apologies ahead of time.]

I had come home from work early and, for some reason, decided to change the burnt out lightbulb which usually illuminated the basement stairs. I wanted to do this chore before I changed out of my work clothes, fed the cats, had something to eat, or even checked the mail.

I was still in my power suit, which included black patent leather heels. As I stooped down on one of the steps to remove the cover on the light, my slippery shoe slid out from under me and I was suddenly propelled down the rest of the basement stairs, head first, on my backside. Despite any effort I made, there was nothing to grab onto as my rear end went thump de dump, dump, dump on each stair, leaving me with spectacular black, yellow, purple and green headlight-shaped bruises on each butt cheek for weeks afterward.

As I continued down the stairs, unable to stop myself, I remember thinking, "People die from falls down the stairs. They break their necks." This contemplation of my imminent demise was something I considered as calmly as sipping a refreshing glass of water. Without a sense of panic or the least amount of terror. Like deciding whether to have a mushroom or sausage pizza.

I was still holding the new lightbulb in my hand, when my head made contact with the basement floor. To this day I don't know whether I was knocked out or not. I do know, once I'd come to a stop, I opened my eyes and saw lots of broken lightbulb glass around. 

When I tried to get up, I noticed I was physically impaired to the extent that I had to concentrate very hard to do anything. I reached for the stair railing and held on to it like Dorothy riding the tornado in the Wizard of Oz. I was conscious enough to know I needed to call for help. But the phone was upstairs in the kitchen. To climb the stairs, I had to think very hard and focus on each step, pulling myself up one at a time. Very. Slowly.

When I got to the phone in the kitchen, I remember leaning against the refrigerator to brace myself, while staring intently at the phone's keypad, trying to keep things from spinning, as I attempted to remember what to dial. NOTE: This was before my town had 911, so I had lots of numbers to input. After several tries, I got the police on the phone. That's when I discovered that I couldn't talk very well.  "Hell--loh. [LONG PAUSE] I. . .felllll. . .dowwwwn. . .the. . .stttaairs." Every word was spoken very carefully and extremely slowly, because no matter how I hard I tried, I couldn't talk any faster. 

The paramedics got to my house and found me sitting on my front stoop waiting for them when they arrived. They wrapped my neck in a collar, transported me on a stretcher, and kept asking me questions about two inches from my face. I kept wondering why they had to get so close.

I later learned that people usually fall down the stairs because they are drunk. Apparently the first responders were all trying to get a whiff of my breath. ["I don't know Al, what do you think?"]

At the hospital, they took an CAT scan of my head, gave me a tetanus shot, and tracked down all the places where broken glass was embedded in my skin, obviously a potential for infection. They were ready to release me when a doctor rummaged through my hair and found a large cut in my scalp that needed several stitches. I should have known that not finding this gaping hole in my head did not bode well for other cuts that may have been missed. 

I returned a week or so later to have the stitches removed, only to learn I was running a slight fever. Did I have a cold? No. I pointed out a cut on a pinky finger that was slightly inflamed, but no one panicked. Or did anything about it, for that matter. Me neither. 

Within days I felt like I had a horrible case of flu. I had a three digit fever, my joints ached, and my head hurt. I called my doctor for two reasons. 1] I don't get the flu 2] Jim Henson had just died of a systemic strep infection he thought was just the flu.

After escaping death from my fall down the stairs, the systemic infection I got from some leftover broken glass, festering in my pinky finger, could have killed me. 

Instead, Augmentin killed it, thanks to calling my doctor after reading a story in People Magazine about why Jim Henson died. 

My most recent brush with death was just a few years ago, when a woman ran a red light and nearly broadsided me, only to stop within inches of my driver's side door. I remember thinking as I saw her front end headed straight for me, "Hmm, I could die from this." For some reason I just stared her down as she got closer and closer. 

She was so close to me, when her car finally came to a stop, that I could almost read the keypad on her cellphone, which she was still holding up next to her left ear.

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