Seth Godin asks “Would they miss you if you were gone? What would have to change for that question to lead to a better answer?” This prompt took me aback. I’ve been thinking about it since it landed in my mailbox last week. It jarred me so deeply that I ended up having to skip another prompt earlier in the week in order to ponder this one and come up with an answer.
You see I’ve already left the planet once. From what I can piece together from all the information I have, my heart stopped on the surgical table after I was attacked in 1987. The surgeons familiar with the case during rounds would tell me I was a miracle, that I should have died, that I was a lucky girl, that I was a fighter. Their eyes would shine as they smiled at me while teaching my case to the medical students. The EMT guy who held the artery closed with his finger in the ambulance told me he’d never seen anyone cut as deeply as me survive. He fully expected me to be a DOA case in spite of how hard I’d screamed at him to keep me alive in the ambulance. So, death has jumped up at me out of the dark suddenly, and I’ve lived to tell about it.
Almost dying changes you, in such deep ways there is no way I can address it in one small blog post. At twenty nine, I instantly knew things many people at that age didn’t. I knew that much of what everyone else wanted didn’t matter to me. Right after that incident, I didn’t care about most things a normal twenty nine year old woman would typically care about in the United States in the late 80’s. What I cared about the most was that I was still alive, still walking the planet, still here. It was that simple. I cared that the sun still warmed my face in winter, that I could still stand in front of a mirror and dry my hair, that I could still eat, laugh, dance, and make love. I didn’t think about who would have missed me. I didn’t care. What I cared about most was that I still had a body with a heart that was still beating.
I wrote a series of prose poems to the attacker and in one of them the speaker marvels at simple things: the tomatoes and avocados on her plate, the shimmering of the tallow tree leaves outside her Houston apartment window. And truth be told I wasn’t thinking about who would miss me if I’d have died, although I can list them. The truth is, is that my closest friends in Houston at the time this happened, split. It took a few years of therapy to get why: I was a mirror to them. When they looked at me and looked at my scar I reminded them that anyone can die at anytime. It scared them, so they ran. No one wanted me to talk about it except my therapist. Many people wanted to shut me up. I wrote and wrote and wrote about it, using my pen as my mouth because I kept getting hurt when I’d tell people the story in the early days right after it happened. I’d get victim blamed, harshly. And that lead to another insight, folks were secretly asking themselves what could they have done differently so this wouldn’t happen to them? And when they asked me to tell them my story, many times I got a response that went something like: Well I would have done xwz, instead. And I’d blast back at them telling them that in truth they really didn’t know what they would have done, and in truth what I did do saved my life. I fought, I screamed, I got up and ran to the nearest apartment after the attacker pushed me down. I did all the right things. I used to rail at the unfairness of being blamed for something I had no control over. Now at fifty seven, I’ve stopped railing. The Robert Frost poem “Out Out” about a sudden death comes to mind
The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside them in her apron
To tell them “Supper.” At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. “Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!”
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.