Every year, the sweet fragrance of decay rises from the fallen leaves, and a twinge of panic stirs inside my lungs. It’s on the edges, not a full-blown attack, but curled at the bottom right-hand side of my rib cage. It waits all year long, quiet, like a nodule of tuberculosis or a fiber of asbestos waiting to explode. A panic that sits in my lung like the scars that mark my skin. I don’t know if it’s the crisp air brushing my cheek. Or the shifting of leaves from green to yellow/orange/red, drifting to the ground, drying to crunchy brown, transforming their sugars into mold, and swirling around my feet. Or perhaps the sound of rakes scraping the earth, gathering those leaves, and destroying butterfly eggs for the following spring. But something about fall wakes it up. The quickening of my lungs causes my heart and brain to spasm from the memory of the year my Halloween decorations didn’t come down until December. A memory of the doctors telling me twenty minutes later and everything would have ended so differently.
That muscle memory, that twinge, it’s not ingratitude, wallowing, or even conscious. It simply is. I have always loved and dreaded autumn, the transition from summer to the cooler weather, and the awareness that soon winter will come, and we’ll button ourselves inside our homes away from the freeze. This is separate. It’s my body remembering the ER, the pain, and the words in my brain telling me, “you’re going to die.” I was already managing a long-term illness, and this emergency was one of the many damaging moments as a result of it. This was almost death. This moment was a whisper across an ear and a touch of a hand away from nothingness. But that didn’t happen. I got there in time for my veins to be pumped full of fluids, antibiotics, and morphine. The most morphine they were allowed to give me, and still, I gripped the railing a the side of the hospital bed. Still, tears streamed down my face. Still, I wouldn’t go to sleep. Instead, I watched the clock.
I’ve never been much of a clock person. Give me a watch and see the inventive way I find to break it accidentally. There are only a few clocks in my house. The alarm clock near my bed, which plays Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis as the alarm, is covered in a cloth. Seeing the numbers at night when I’m trying to sleep makes it too hard to relax and rest. One on the stove and one on the wall in the living room. It takes only a few minutes to change three clocks for daylight savings. But I dread it. My feet and fingers feel heavy as I fumble to “correct” the time. As he stood by my bed, I repeatedly asked Nurse Kevin, “Is this the real-time or the old time?” “Is this the real-time or the fake time?” He finally asked me why it mattered. It didn’t, I suppose. But it was all I had anchoring me. It’s why I stayed awake—worried what would happen if I loosened my grip on the bed, my consciousness, or the clock on the wall?
Maybe it was the drugs. The ones that didn’t stop the pain. Instead, they felt like an iron sheet spread over my body and weighting down my lungs. My brain swam through a pool of morphine or spiraled from the pain. Maybe it was my response to the voice in my head. But I was afraid to let go, much like the panic nestled inside my lungs. Why does it grip so hard? Does it fear my forgetting it? Maybe. But I won’t forget that evening and the week that followed. Nor the doctors and nurses that cared for me. Nor my hubby, who had to stand there and watch. Nor the friends and family members who came to see me. Nor will I forget that my health declined for years after the night I focused on the clock.
I don’t view the panic as my enemy. The panic is a memory to live, be, do, try, fail, and try again. It’s simply my body’s memory reminding my brain to take stock of everything that has come after. Everything that I’ve been able to do. To appreciate the little voice inside my head that told me when I needed to take action. That each breath is well-earned. So I pat my ribs on my right side and say thank you.