Several times a week, I drive past a building that, until about a year ago, never stood out.
I guess it blended in with the menagerie of buildings and bushes in that part of the city, or maybe I didn’t care about it enough to notice. But I see it now on its perch at the side of the freeway, standing there as a looming beacon of life and death, a sort of way station of joy and grief, hope and loss, a place of second chances, or curtain calls, all bound together and ensconced in steel and glass.
It’s a complicated place. Some people are born there, some die, others pass through. In my case, I was neither born nor died, at least not in the literal sense, but something happened beyond just passing through. And, for a time, I had the big corner room on the top floor, with the best view in the building.
The journey that brought my pen to this paper is still evolving. But there is this one instance, the second time I went there — to that building, without an appointment — that feels trapped within me, its meaning seeping out only when I let my guard down. It weighs on me in a way I’ve never known.
We have all probably cheated death a time or two; in that regard, I am no different. Two times, death was at my door, and I fled to that building. And it is undeniable: I would have died had nature been allowed to run its course. Twice, drastic medical intervention by surgeons saved me.
Here is my story:
February 2010, I’m making decent bank as a credit manager of a large manufacturer, raising a couple of teenage boys. Life’s been better, and life’s been worse. I seem to be existing more than living, but that’s okay.
The previous November, my colon had ruptured. It was deadly serious, and I went to that building. I had a couple of surgeries. After a few months of difficult recovery, I was back to the grind. I had shaken off that brush with death and its ass-kicking recovery like a dog shaking off water after a bath. My resilience and perseverance had been confirmed. It was not such a big deal, after all. That ugly shit was over. Now: next.
It’s my third day back from the colon-rupture mess, people at the office still welcoming me, congratulating me on my recovery and asking questions about the experience. In the meantime, I’m trying to get back into the work groove. I still don’t feel so hot. By the end of the day, people are asking if I am okay. I am, sort of. But the happy face I’ve put on is getting heavy, and that best foot forward, well, it’s not as steady as I’d like. But that’s all I’ve got, so I figure that if I can just make it through today, tomorrow will be better.
It isn’t. Day four rolls in, and I’m feeling sick, like I have the flu, and sore in my stomach, big time. But the economy is in the tank, I just took three months off, and I’m no pussy. I’m going to make it through this day, just like I make it through everything else. This is what I tell myself as I head off to work.
I’m not there long before I notice that this whole working thing feels like a huge burden. People notice that I look pale and say I should go to the doctor. I blow it off, at first, but then I start thinking that this seems a lot like the last time my colon ruptured. Something serious is happening to me, and it’s happening fast.
To chill out my coworkers, I tell them I’m going to see the doctor. One thinks I should go in an ambulance. When I say, “No way,” she pulls my truck up to the front of the building, so I don’t have to walk far. I tell her that I’m fine, I’m going to the doctor straight away, and I will see everyone tomorrow.
Alone in my truck, I don’t have to pretend. I’m sick. OMG, I’m really sick. I need to do something. I feel so weird. It dawns on me that I’m dying — I’ve begun a journey that will end in my death. It’s unreal, a feeling like what you see in the movies, when someone knows they’re about to die, and then they do. Suddenly, that’s me. I get to script my own ending.
It hurts so bad as I drive, and with that odd feeling creeping on me, I’m not sure what to do. I don’t want to go to the hospital. Been there, done that. I think of cowboys and Indians. I think of dogs and pyres. I embrace myself, realizing with the clarity of reading a fortune cookie that if I take no action: all that I had ever done, everything I ever thought I was, was everything I would ever be. For the first time in my life, I accept myself, in my entirety. All the good of me, all the bad of me. Forty-six years of living life my way is over. Regrets, forget about it. Soon I’ll be forgotten, too; that’s how life works. I need to go home and hold my children before I leave Earth. Yes, I tell myself, man up. It’s the final hour. No time to punk out. Stay strong. Tell those boys you love them. Lie down and die in your own bed. It’s been a good life.
When I get home, the kids are scared. I don’t look good, and they know something is wrong. I tell them I’m fine and that if can just hold them, I will be even better. I need to kiss their heads, to feel them in my arms so I can remember what love feels like. I hold them, tell them I love them, assure them I’m fine. Then I lie down on my bed, feeling at peace, if not for the incredible pain. But my story that I am fine is not holding up. The boys call my sister, and she rushes over.