I felt comfortable calling myself a writer after being published for the second time in a national magazine (the first time, well, that could’ve been a fluke). The piece in question was about enduring a run-in with bed bugs, an event that I noticed activated the ‘writer’ part of my brain – a distancing, observational part that realises what’s happening to me will make for a good story. I write mostly autobiographical stuff, so experience trumps imagination, and when I fret about my place in the memoir landscape, I compare my clutch of life stories to those who have triumphed over greater odds than me. Bed bugs? Try losing your bed down a sink hole.
I watch as memoirs come out about a writer’s fight with <<terminal illness>>, how they grapple with race, deal with a legal system set against them – all of the “journeys” imaginable – and I go over my own positioning in this field: white, male, Australian, gay, brushes with depression and anxiety, many broken bones, that colonoscopy-as-a-result-of-haemorrhoids-but-getting-in-early-because-of-family-history-of-bowel-cancer, travel-savvy… It’s not too middling, but not so unique, either. There hasn’t been any adversity beaten down to a satisfying, sympathetic round of applause, nor lofty height of achievement that people might be curious about if I deign to share what-goes-on behind the curtain. I never witnessed a murder, nor sued big business; I’m too… timid? Lazy? Broke? Boring? Sometimes the things I’ve done that my friends call “brave” aren’t anything compared with the stories of soldiers, or barefoot mothers, or karaoke singers on reality TV. I tend to keep my head down. What I’ve achieved that has been anything like conquering a mountain is getting published, which is a redundant story arc if shared on a shelf with other writers.
“You seem stagnant. I hate seeing stagnant Sam,” a friend said. We hadn’t caught up for a few years.
“Yeah,” I said. I was happy. We were at an all-you-can-eat Korean buffet in the city.
“This is just a waste,” he continued. “Just look at you.”
I shovelled down my third plateful of bulgogi and japchae, glorying in the low, low price of $13 per person. “Are you going to get more?” I asked.
He had a point.
“Wait… what’s wrong with me?” I asked.
“How are you not with someone, or at least breaking hearts all over the place?”
I filed away the compliment.
“I’m not a self-starter,” I joked. “I don’t know,” I added.
I got up, I went to work. I cleaned, I exercised, I ate. I repeated. Sometimes I slept badly. Sometimes I got overwhelmed by frustration. But bad days weren’t too bad. I had recently given my heart a workout by allowing myself to fall for someone when the bungee cords weren’t all attached, and I was still repairing the elastic strings. My heart felt weak, and I was annoyed that I had allowed a power imbalance because I was bored and frightened that I couldn’t make my life interesting alone.
My friend hugged me goodbye. “Go overseas. Remember yourself. You’re more than this.”
“Okay,” I said, and walked home. And cleaned. And slept.
I have theories. I’m more than happy to concede their arbitrary nature, but when they are supported by cold, hard facts it only reinforces my conviction in them. Maybe because my life isn’t leaping off the page, I notice a rhythm to my working week. Mondays aren’t so bad. Tuesdays are the worst. And: something surprising always happens on Thursdays.
I don’t go looking for something outlandish on Thursdays; I’m no televangelist. Some Thursdays don’t toe the line, that’s cool. Sometimes surprising things happen on, say, Sundays (don’t be absurd).
But it happened on a Thursday.
Around the time Venus nestled next to Jupiter in the twilight sky. Love and luck!
I woke up and felt it. Something was going to happen today. Something good.
I went about my day – exercise, clean, eat. I decided to go to the city early and browse books, but by the time I got there my feelings of positivity were muddied by the usual synapses of stagnation: apathy and nihilism. My mind worked overtime running away from this grey swirl to the point of distraction. My centre – or my calm, turquoise lagoon, as I like to think of it – ran in and out of doorways like the Benny Hill chase, making illogical leaps through time and space, sometimes the pursuer, otherwise pursued. With stagnation comes boredom. With boredom comes an overactive imagination, which, if not stimulated, attacks my mind.
As I was making my way out of the bookstore, I reached into my bag for my phone with my right arm (cursing myself for looking at it, again, like it was some magic 8 ball directing my life), and suddenly felt nothing. I looked at my arm. It moved from my shoulder like a mannequin – I noticed a dissonance in my circuitry: I didn’t know how to make my arm function. And that’s when my right cheek twinged. It felt droopy. It felt numb, without the pins and needles.
I knew the signs of a stroke. Mum’s a nurse.
I thought: what the fuck?
I could still walk, so I started walking. Up ahead on the street I could see traffic police booking jaywalkers, and decided that if I was about to pass out, I would do so at the feet of responsible people.
I think I was “quietly panicking”. I sat down at a bus stop and called my boss. I explained the symptoms to her, and without second-guessing me, she said she’d call the paramedics, and hung up. I sat there looking at my arm, which was regaining feeling. Oh man, I thought, this is embarrassing. People suddenly rushed around me. A bus had come. I got up and moved to a seat opposite, outside a coffee shop. My phone rang. It was the emergency operator. She wanted to know my situation and where exactly I was. “On the corner of Park and Pitt, outside the Gloria Jeans, I’m wearing blue shoes.”
The paramedics arrived. My right hand was still half-numb and looked a little blue – though I could’ve been projecting. I could move my arm. A paramedic asked me to squeeze her hands and push and pull her arm. “Does it feel the same on both sides?” she asked and tapped me on both arms and along my cheeks. “No? Yes? Sorta?” I felt awkward. I couldn’t tell if one side was slightly paralysed or not. By now, having not fallen over and losing my speech, I was doubting the whole episode. How much was psychosomatic, born of my overactive imagination?
I followed them to the ambulance, upright, seemingly coherent. Curious pedestrians didn’t know what to dramatise. I felt like a drug addict, or worse, a fraud.
They took me to St Vincent’s hospital in Sydney’s inner east suburbs. I sat in emergency between two meth junkies who hadn’t slept for a few days, while my paperwork was being processed. I was then transferred to a bed where one doctor after another spoke to me asking for the story. I was told to undress and then nurse after nurse came and connected me to a monitor, and inserted cannulas in both arms, while I squeezed, pushed and pulled the stroke ward registrar’s limbs. By this stage, my thoughts were now observational. A disembodied voice bemusedly started the narration, “Well, this wasn’t expected. Thursday surprise indeed. Nothing to do but ride all this out. I’m sure it was nothing.”
I had a CT scan, where they inject a contrasting liquid into you so your juices reveal more on the screen. The nurses warned me it would feel like I’d peed myself. It actually felt like being filled with adamantium. I was now a mutant! And then it felt like I’d peed myself. I returned to the emergency ward and was joined by my friend, Sam, who greeted me with, “Way to end up in hospital, ya dickhead.”
We waited for my results, rating the attractive staff, and repeating how random and strange it all was. I posed for hospital bed selfies. The registrar came and in her “I’m-just-on-my-way-out” demeanour told me the scan revealed nothing out of the ordinary, but that they’d like to keep me for an MRI.
“OK,” I said.
“You can have hospital food, or your friend can go get something else and bring it back for you, which is what I’d do.”
“What? I’m staying the night?”
“Yes. We can’t get you in for an MRI until tomorrow.”
“I feel normal now, though. Can’t I come back?”
“It’s best you stay. The scan isn’t conclusive. We’ll move you to the stroke ward in a bit,” she said, and left.
I called my parents. My mother was not nonchalant.
Sam brought us burgers and as soon as we were finished eating, I was wheeled away to the stroke ward. I was parked in a section with three other bays, two of which were occupied with much older men. One quietly watched television, while the other noisily mumbled in his sleep, occasionally thrashing around and attracting the attention of the nurses.
I continued having my blood pressure taken every hour or so and I was given a portable heart monitor, the wires of which stuck to five points on my torso. I called out wildly for a phone charger, the nurses hearing the rising desperation in my voice as the night wore on and Masterchef started to seem endless. Around nine o’clock a nurse attached intermittent pneumatic compression sleeves around my calves and for the entire night they inflated alternately, squeezing my leg for ten seconds, then deflating. It felt kinda nice to begin with – little hugs for your legs – but by morning, after absolutely no sleep, it was like torture.
The night was also punctuated with hourly check ups: “What is your name? Can you tell me where we are? What year is it? When were you born?” My blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, and temperature were taken, and my pupils checked. Some time during the night a phone charger was brought to me and I stared at the last few messages on my phone tempted to send replies even though it was three in the morning. “Oh that’s interesting, take a seat! Hurrumph!” said the sleep-talking man opposite me, then started snoring.
In the morning I saw a physio, bug-eyed, completing all the tasks she asked me to do without trouble. I gave blood and had another cannula inserted for the MRI. Besides the tiredness, I felt fine. I laid upright in my bed watching the Noisy Captain (as it transpired he had been in the navy) have his family fuss around him (they’d brought a humidifier that pumped out lavender to “help him sleep”), and the physios helping him with walking practice. My irritation with him changed to compassion, and watching professionals do a good job gave me some hope for humankind, which the news cycle can all but destroy in me.
Around lunchtime, I went to get the MRI. It was almost relaxing in a way, but I was getting impatient – I’d told my story so many times that I felt like a hypochondriac, using the hospital setting to start complaining about the poor circulation in my hands and knees, and Seasonal Affective Disorder – I just wanted to go home, get back to normal. Max waited for me in my bay as I was wheeled back from the MRI. He’d brought a laptop, a charger, magazines, and some food. After a while, the registrar, a nurse, and an intern came and closed the curtain around us. They asked if I minded my friend hearing the news, and I said it was fine, I felt fine.
“So the results show that you did have a stroke. It’s called a Transient Ischemic Attack, which isn’t too uncommon among young people. It can happen once, and then you can be fine for the rest of your life. But we want to do more tests to find out what caused it. We want to do a TOE – send a scope down your oesophagus to look at the back of your heart. Sometimes there’s a hole there, which could’ve released a clot, and instead of going to your lungs and dissolving, it went to the left hemisphere of your brain. We can’t get you a TOE until Monday, however.”
“That’s okay, I can come back,” I said.
“Uh, no, it’s best you stay here so we can keep an eye on you. We just don’t know what caused it at this stage. We’ve got a private room you can stay in. Get your friends to bring books, it could get boring. Okay?”
“Yeah… okay. Guess I have no choice.”
“Huh,” I said to Max. “I had a stroke.”
My housemate brought my clothes and toiletries, another friend brought me books and chocolate, my cousin came, and my parents drove across from Adelaide. Sam and Max returned a few more times, keeping me company watching movies and getting takeaway (the hospital food lived up to its reputation, but I looked forward to its health-conscious precision by the end). It wasn’t boring at all, and I barely had any time to myself, let alone privacy. I got to know the nurses by name, and was low-key upset to overhear some of them bitch about a coworker one time, breaking the illusion of a stroke ward utopia.
The TOE wasn’t possible until the Tuesday, so I stayed another night. My parents made sure to come in the mornings, and while it unsettled my independent “I’m-a-big-boy-now” sense of self, I was grateful nonetheless. Everyone empathised with my mum’s inflated concern, but I was trailing behind, keeping myself buoyant by dismissing the seriousness of what had happened. I felt fine.
After the TOE, the registrar and her cohort came again.
“You have a small hole in your heart. One in five people have it. We’re all born with it, but for the majority, it closes as our bodies develop. I don’t think it’s necessary to close it up – there’s no evidence that the plastic we put there won’t assist another clot forming. But we have to check with the specialist first. You’ll have to stay another night.”
The next morning dragged. My parents and I played games and my mum told me about an old lady she once nursed who had a massive cyst on her neck. Not being squeamish about such things, my mum asked permission to squeeze it.
“Well!” my mum said, gesturing dramatically. “It hit the wall. It just kept coming.”
“And the funniest thing,” she continued, “was she died a few days later. Poor, old dear. She was on her last legs anyway, but I think I squeezed out the last of what was holding her together.”
Soon my parents and I were asked to vacate my room and wait on some couches near a nurse’s station for aspirin and B12 needles (my blood tests revealed I wasn’t absorbing it), and my discharge letter. We were soon joined by a middle-aged lady who looked very tired. She made some small talk, and then noticed that of the three of us, it was me with the plastic bracelet. I told her my story. My mum asked hers.
“My son-in-law is here. Has been for four months now. He was surfing and had the stroke on the board. He was without oxygen for too long by the time they resuscitated him. He’s in a coma. Permanent brain damage.”
My parents gave sympathy. I felt dumbstruck. I mumbled something along the lines of being lucky.
“My daughter and the kids are grieving him, but I keep saying he’s not dead. And it could’ve been worse. He could’ve had the stroke driving them somewhere, killing them all and another family on the road.” She looked at me. A dart of profound hope and accusation hit me between the eyes. “But you’re young. You got better!”
I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
An intern came to discharge me.
We said goodbye and left the hospital.
I got into my parents’ car. We were going to have lunch in a restaurant to celebrate, but as we pulled out of the hospital car park, a wave of anxiety hit me. There were too many people outside, too many cars going too fast. The controlled, comfortable environment of the hospital slipped away from me. My heart beat faster, my breath got shallower. I gripped my seatbelt strap.
I tried pulling myself together. We sat down at the restaurant and I wanted to fold in on myself. I covered my eyes with a hand and leant on the table.
“I can’t stop thinking of that woman. That awful hope.” I’d found the root of my panic.
Mum held my free hand and told me to breathe.
My brother and I grew up with mum telling us never to think any of this stuff couldn’t happen to us. Life’s random. Terrible things happen to good people. Those words had stuck, and had helped me cruise through the six days I spent in hospital. The reactions from friends on social media to my news (which, honestly, I relished telling) seemed overblown: sure, I’d had a stroke, but it was a “mini-stroke”, I felt fine, I was otherwise healthy. I couldn’t help feeling attention-seeking and morbidly thrilled to add the events to my writer’s cache.
And I knew it then, in the restaurant, how perfectly timed the interaction with that mother-in-law had been. I was dealt my mortality moment right at the end. The seriousness of the stroke, and my blasé response came to a point. It became real.
Tears plopped onto my napkin.
Sam and I listened to a podcast on the saturday night in hospital, in which, coincidentally, the presenters talked about stroke sufferers who ended up with special abilities after rehabilitation. There was a guy who started playing piano, several cases of newly found artistic talent, a change in accent, and language acquisition. I’d gladly take any of them, but it seems more severe brain damage needs to occur first, and I’d gladly not take that risk.
To summarise that the event has instilled in me a “seize the day” mentality, and a deeper appreciation of my time on Earth would be trite, and a lie. I was already aware of how well I spent my time, and a lot of that – sleep, clean, exercise, eat, work, repeat – was for my health. I am healthy. Perhaps my special ability is that I’m a little less clueless about my heart now I know that it is physiologically disabled. It would explain why I find it hard to push through a certain amount of cardio; why my knees and hands get cold and achy; why I’m vampiric when I’m despondent – the red stuff drains and I look for the source elsewhere. I have to create that font within me, constantly. That’s clear now. Heart health is as figurative as it is literal.
Or something. Life writes itself differently for each of us. The consequences of all these moments get clearer as we move away from them. Or they don’t. What can that man with brain damage learn from his experience? In a coma, he keeps breathing. Why? Is he deeply hopeful he’ll live, or deeply afraid he’ll die? Or simply, neither? Where’s his chance to write a happy ending? I’m just glad I’ve got mine this time.