Life is uncertain. Love is not.
By Susan Moon
Iwasn’t at the hospital for the surgery, but Melody and her husband, Mischa, sat in the lobby beside the operating room for the whole three hours while Dr. P. threaded a tube from Friedel’s groin up through the artery, all the way to her neck, and put in a stent. When it was done, Melody called me to say that it had gone well, that Friedel came out of it smiling, and that Dr. P., also smiling, declared, “I’m proud of her!” Melody said, “Friedel’s powerful life force triumphed!” Death receded.
When I got to her hospital room twenty minutes later to celebrate, there was a bustle of activity around her bed and nobody was smiling.
She had had a stroke immediately after returning to her room. The entire left side of her body was affected, her face was slack on that side and her speech was slurred, but she was conscious. A clot had lodged in the new stent. The Grim Reaper approached again.
The back-and-forth was terrible: getting ready to lose her, getting ready to have her back, getting ready to lose her again. I made myself imagine it. We won’t go to New York together next summer after all, I told myself.
We have only metaphors to talk about death, but the Grim Reaper metaphor is all wrong. Forget I said it. It makes us think we’re separate from death and that death is our enemy. On my bureau, another metaphor: A Mexican Day-of-the-Dead diorama, a scene in a box just a couple of inches high, in which a skeleton doctor delivers a skeleton baby from a skeleton mother while a skeleton nurse stands by. It reminds me that birth and death go together. Death keeps giving us life, killing old cells to make room for new ones. And what’s hiding under my skin? My skeleton, who lies down with me at night and gets out of bed precisely when I do in the morning. Still, it was harder to remember that death was not my enemy when I feared that it would come for Friedel.
The Grim Reaper metaphor is all wrong. It makes us think we’re separate from death and that death is our enemy.
I just had time to squeeze her hand before they wheeled her back into surgery. During the emergency angioplasty, the second one in a day, Dr. P. shot massive doses of anticoagulant into the artery to “melt” the clot. It worked. Over the next few days, all the symptoms of the stroke disappeared and Friedel’s speech went back to normal. Her vitality returned. She practiced walking up and down the hospital corridor. She became exultant. She was going to be discharged in a couple of days. She called her brother in Germany to tell him the good news. Her friends visited, brought take-out food, all of us celebrating that she would be going home to her cat, Mitzikatzi. She thanked us for being a real family for her, for sticking by her no matter what and helping her pull through. And she reminded us over sushi, “Don’t forget, I don’t want to survive a serious stroke.”
Early one morning I was preparing to visit her, putting into a bag some things she had asked for—clothes for when she was discharged, and a novel—when my cell phone rang. “Friedel” came up on the screen.
I answered. “Hi, Friedel, I’m just getting ready to come and see you.”
“I’m sorry. This is not Friedel. This is Dr. P.”
My heart lurched. He told me, gently, that Friedel had just had a massive stroke. There had been extensive bleeding in the brain and she was now completely unresponsive. He said, “Do I have your permission not to intubate her?”
I managed to ask in words I don’t remember whether she could possibly recover, and he said no. If she lived, she’d be completely helpless. Even though there was no question in my mind about what to say, even though any one of her dear ones would have said the same, still, in that life-and-death moment of accountability, my mind searched wildly for an overlooked escape route for Friedel, as if there might be a passageway through heating ducts in the hospital basement. How could I break the spell that had been cast upon her and get her, alive and laughing, out of the hospital and back to her lentil soup? I was alone in my bedroom, holding on to the telephone, with no one else to refer to…