THE FIRST TIME I THOUGHT I WAS DYING BUT DIDN’T DIE
It was 1995 and my father was about to have open-heart surgery. It came out of the blue. Apparently he had a small stroke without noticing much, which led him to going to the doctor, and they found a ton of blockages in his heart.
Before his surgery I also went to the doctor. She noticed a sound that went along with my heartbeat and scheduled an ultrasound for my chest the following morning, even though I had gone to check my stomach. I was nervous and throwing up like I used to do when I was in the third grade, before math class. I wanted to make sure I didn’t have an ulcer, but instead she ignored my stomach and said there was something wrong with my heart.
On my way home I stopped at a fruit stand on the side of the road, by a farm. I was sorting through fresh flowers- lilies, and for the first time in my life, considered the fact that at one point or another, I would die. Up till then I hadn't considered that life-threatening medical problems could occur to me or those around me. I was unreasonably terrified. I drove home and told William.
“I have to go tomorrow morning to this lab, for a test on my heart.”
“What? How much is it going to cost?” he asked.
“I didn’t ask. It’s my heartbeat, something’s wrong... What if I’m dying?”
“You’re not dying.”
“I’m scared. What if I need surgery? If something’s wrong then I can’t get insurance now, they won't let me have it if I’m really sick, right?
“Maybe you shouldn’t go,” William said.
“William, she said I had to go. She had this concerned look on her face. She got spooked, and stopped talking about anything else.”
“She probably has a deal with this place," he said, "if she sends patients there she gets a kick-back. Come here, let me feel your heart.”
I walked over to him and he put his hand on my chest at first, then his ear. “I hear it, it’s like a lub-swish-dub.”
I took a deep breath.
“We’re still going to that lecture at the college tonight, right?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Do you want to go? I could get this project out of the way tonight if I keep going.”
“No, we need to go. I want to go.”
“What is this thing about?”
“It’s a lecture on particle physics. I found it in the weekly, and thought you’d be interested in what they had to say. We need to do things like this and we never do.”
“What about particle physics?”
“I don’t remember.”
I understood that electrons were particles, or at least part of the particle world. William and I had been together for nearly four years and I spent nearly every one of those days assembling electronic circuits and had studied a bit about how they work. I learned what things like resistors and capacitors were and it all seemed like a dance. There are these positive electrons searching for their negative mates. Humans place resistors on their path to slow down the dance like great disciplining gods in control of a natural order far grander in design than any of the single-minded elements could possibly imagine. Capacitors hold the hungry microscopic beasts, one at a time, like a lover held back from what they want for some tragic yet unavoidable reason, until the hands of fate finally set them free to pursue Mr. or Mrs. negative in their circuitous journey. That’s part of how I attached myself to the world I was in, and this lecture was something relative to our work-life that related to something important.
I didn’t understand exactly what we were going to hear or learn at the lecture but I didn’t really care. Now that I was dying I wanted to go for one reason; it was night and I wanted to see the sky. I wanted to sit on the back of William’s motorcycle and feel it on my face, and I did. If I was going to die, then this mattered most. Not him, not the house, not even the lecture– only the moon, the sky that held it, and the particles it was all made out of. Being given a death sentence, even if there was a chance that it was only in my head, was suddenly the same a being born, maybe even better.