In July of 2007, I was living with my parents and spending many hours walking. I had quit my job in June and was still a few months away from moving here and being with Mike and all that awaited me in this happier phase of my life. That summer was one I remember as the healthiest I've ever had: I had turned thirty a couple months before and would lose thirty-some pounds by year's end. I had so much time just to think, just to sort, just to go for my long walks around town, just to be. It was a sweet summer and still one of my favorite and most memorable ones. How often as an adult do we get that kind of extended free time and freedom? My bills were paid, I felt truly alive, I enjoyed my days, I had things to look forward to. . . .Life just felt good that summer. I felt good that summer.
One evening after returning to my parents' house from one of my walks--to the thrift shop and back was eight miles, and that was the biggest chunk of most of my treks that summer--I changed into a t-shirt and my beloved "dog bone" pajama pants and sat down at the computer, intending to email Mike before climbing into bed with a book. We wrote back and forth a few times, but I began to feel sick and just strange--sudden backache, my chest felt strange, I just felt strange. I remember mentioning to Mike that I wasn't feeling that great, but I assumed I had just somehow pulled a muscle or something--although how I would have done that during what had been an uneventful day, I had no idea--and before I could write again to sign off or explain, the pain in my chest got so bad I found myself in the bathroom deciding to try a hot shower. Maybe the heat will help. I must have really strained something in my chest. The pain got worse by the second, and the feeling of the water hitting my chest was excruciating. I turned off the water and stood bent over in my parents' blue bathroom for a few moments, trying to think of something else that might help. Maybe if I rub it? Maybe I pulled a muscle and rubbing it will help? Even the lightest touch of even one finger against my chest made me feel that much worse, though. I couldn't believe what I was feeling, and although this is a rather crass way of describing the pain, it was what came to mind at the time, as well: It felt like something was trying to claw its way out of my body from inside my chest.
I was soon doubled-over in my parents' bathroom, still wet from the shower but struggling back into a t-shirt and the pajama pants--skipping bra and underwear and just trying to get covered up because I realized I could very easily pass out from this pain and I didn't want to be found in my altogether. Just bending my legs into the pants and lifting the t-shirt over my head was agony like I had never even imagined. I would try to raise myself back to a fully upright position, and the very act of trying to straighten out my body made my chest feel like something was being pulled taut and about to snap inside of it. OkaynomorestandingupVal! It was being squeezed tighter and tighter, and by then I couldn't breathe enough to call out to my parents or to make any sound at all--and I finally realized that I must be having a heart attack. And that if it was this bad and I wasn't able to call out for help, that I was likely going to die.
Before my "real" thoughts began, I thought that it was funny that I'd have a heart attack after I'd lost so much weight and adopted such a healthy lifestyle, and I was also glad that I would be found wearing clothes, even if it would be an "Attitude is everything" t-shirt and dog bone pajama pants. And I wished that there were a way to let everyone know what these final few minutes had been like for me. I wished there were a way to tell everyone, "Hey, don't worry about that. It hurt really bad for a few minutes, but that doesn't really matter." Because it didn't. I knew I was dying, and I just thought, "Well, some people get to pass easily, and some people have to experience some pain when they die. I got a heart attack." What I really wished, though, as I braced myself against my parents' sink that night, waiting, was that everyone I loved knew that I loved them. I thought of my parents and my brothers and poor Mike, still sitting there at his computer waiting for that "Sorry-I-left-you-hanging-like-that-I-decided-to-take-a-shower-to-see-if-that-would-help" email that would never come, and I hoped they all knew--really knew--that I loved them. I thought of Old Friend and hoped that when he heard the news that he would remember that I had truly loved him and that we had last parted on good terms. I thought of my niece and nephew and hoped they would grow up remembering somehow that I had loved them. I thought about my friend Sommer and how everyone would be shocked that she and I had both died so young--Som at eighteen and I at thirty--and how stunning it was to me that I was likely going to see her and my grandparents again in just a few seconds?! minutes?! I thought of everyone I loved and had ever loved and even the people I hadn't loved all that much, and I just wished them LOVE. It was all I could think about as the pain twisted inside my chest and now deep inside my back and shoulders too: I love you, I love you all, I wish you love, it's all about love, I love you, love each other, it's all about love. There were no grudges or hurt feelings, and there was no anger or sadness or regrets or fear. I just wished everyone love. I knew that that was the key to everything and that everything was truly fine. Just love each other. Love, love, love.
I don't remember what happened between those thoughts and my finding myself crawling from the bathroom into my parents' bedroom where my mom was watching TV, but I was now in front of her on hands and knees saying, "We need to go to the emergency room." She and my dad helped me into the car. . .Dad driving and Mom asking every few seconds, "Vally? Are you okay? Is it any better? Does it feel worse?" I stretched out on my back in their backseat watching the lights flash by in the dark out the windows around and above me. And somehow as I was shuttled to the hospital, I began to feel better. Whatever had been wound so excruciatingly tight in my chest seconds before seemed to be unraveling and becoming lighter. By the time I was answering the ER clerk's medical history questions, I felt fine. Tired but fine. The doctor assigned to me asked a bunch of questions and did whatever tests he did, and someone came in to take blood. An episode of "Jon & Kate Plus 8" was playing on my room's TV. I couldn't reach high enough to turn it off, so I got to hear them fighting [over the best way to store pine cones in the garage?!]. Eventually, the doctor and a nurse explained that I hadn't had a heart attack but instead just heartburn. Heartburn!? A near-near-death experience brought on by my first-ever taste of spicy brown mustard!? Mom and Dad were soon parting the curtains and saying they'd been told they could take me home now. Back into the July night air in my t-shirt and dog bone pants. Soon home and immediately getting in touch with Mike to explain why hours had passed since my last email. Taking the above picture of the Daffy Duck Band-Aid and pajamas that marked my ER visit. Sleeping with my bedroom door open that night so my parents could keep an eye on me. And knowing that something had shifted inside me that night that had nothing to do with stomach acid or muscle fibers.
The heartburn, if that's what it was, has never occurred again. My mom remembers seeing me crawl out of the bathroom toward her and doubts the diagnosis. Whatever it was that July, it brought peace with its pain. At a seminar in my field seven years ago, one of the speakers invited a volunteer to come join her at the microphone and tell us what she believed. That was the only instruction: "Would you please tell us what you believe?" I was awed by the volunteer's bravery as she listed item after item as though she'd known these things about herself forever and had expected to be asked about them. Older now, I myself could list some things off the top of my own head too, but I still don't know how many of them I would want to share with an audience. Something I can share without hesitating, though, is what I learned about love in July 2007: Love is The Most-Powerful. It is What Survives. It is Worth the Effort. It is What Matters Most. It Shows Up in Ways Big and Small. It is What You Can Take With You. It is--if not the entire answer--A Huge Part of the Answer. It is What You Need to Give. It is What You Need to Receive. It is So Much Bigger Than You Think It Is. Love, love, love. This is what I believe, even if it took spicy brown mustard to help me figure it out.