This will have to be a three-parter.
I was at my sister’s house, for my mother’s 84th birthday party. We were about to do the cake and candles part. I was standing at the sink, washing my hands, looking at my face in the bathroom mirror, when I felt a tap in the back of my head. It was so distinct that I turned around to see if I had backed into something, like a pull cord hanging from a light fixture. There was nothing hanging behind me. The tap had been inside my head, and as I turned around to face the mirror again, a sheet of pain began to spread from the spot where I’d felt the tap. The pain (maybe a 7 or 8 on a scale of 10) moved in three directions—out to both sides and forward. When it reached my eyebrows, it moved up behind my forehead, so that within a few seconds I was wearing a kind of helmet of pain. Nothing excruciating but enough to make my sister ask me, after we sang “Happy Birthday” but before we cut the cake, if something was wrong. I looked a little funny to her.
Before I knew it, I was riding shotgun with my sister at the wheel and my mother in the back seat. I held a bag of frozen peas to the back of my head while we discussed where to take me—the nearest urgent care? A hospital emergency room? It was about 7:30 on a Saturday night. We decided on the ER at St. Luke’s, the hospital where my siblings and I were born and where my 84-year-old mother used to work. She still volunteered there once a week, pushing people around in wheelchairs. It was also the hospital where pretty much everyone I knew who was now dead had died, but that didn’t occur to me at the time.
The only really bad moment in the whole emergency portion of my health care experience was the CT scan. This is a procedure by which your much abated headache (so much abated, in fact, that I was wondering what the heck I was doing here) is transformed into the “worst headache of your life,” as described in all the literature.
“This is making my head hurt much much more!” I hollered to the technician who had tilted my head back at an excruciating angle and then scuttled guiltily into a little control booth in the corner. “It’s hurting more now than it ever has in my whole life,” I elaborated. A tinny loud-speakerish voice told me to “Hold on.”
“I think I might be ready to throw up now!” I warned. (In the ER, they kept asking me if I needed to.) No sign from behind the window in the little room.
“Remember rule #1,” I exhorted, add-ing, in case the technician was dozing that morning in Medical Ethics 101: “Do no harm!”
Afterward, I was provided with a no-splash-back “comfort” bag for the short ride back to the ER. (I’m happy to report that I didn’t need to use it.) Untilted, my head felt better already and things were looking up as far as I was concerned, when here comes the ER doc. She folded her arms on the side rail of the bed and announced, in a voice of portent, that the CT scan was positive.
I said, “Positive for what?”
Blood in the brain, she said. A very small amount, she added, but I could tell how impressed I should be. Suddenly, I remembered the way they’d sent us right in, ahead of everyone else in the emergency waiting room, when I strolled up to the counter and mentioned the tap I’d felt in the back of my head.
I said, “You mean I’m going to be admitted?” She said, “Oh yeah.”
Having delivered the bad news, the ER doc got out of the way and a young woman with a kindly face and colorful scrubs rolled a portable desk-like thing close to the bed. She handed me a pen. Here were the papers that would admit me as a patient to the Neurosurgical ICU, where they could poke, prick, and prod me at will, and even drill a hole in my head, if needed. They’d already photocopied my insurance card, so money would be no object.
Possible outcomes presented themselves to me like doors on “Let’s Make a Deal.” Pen in hand, I asked myself which would I rather be:
Door #1: Suddenly dead?
Door #2: A permanent vegetable? or
Door #3: Admitted to the neurosurgical ICU?
It was, no pun intended, a no-brainer: none of the above. Going home seemed like the obvious choice to me, especially now that my headache was almost gone. The trouble was that everyone else in the room—including my mother and my sister—wanted me to stay here and let them load me up with powerful stroke-and-seizure-preventing drugs, while we waited to see if there was a crucial line leaking and perhaps about to blow in my brain. To them, going home looked like choosing, or at the very least risking, Door #1.
Now for a startling confession. They say there are no atheists in a foxhole, but I can tell you that the brain works in mysterious ways, especially when it’s under attack. Here I was in a foxhole, so to speak, surprised to be hoping that the atheists, wherever one might find them, were right! After all, if there was no God, then I would simply blink out like a candle, right? As a person who had recently finished reading Dante’s Inferno with my World Literature class, and being possessed of a vivid imagination myself, I couldn’t help thinking there were fates far worse than going out like a candle. (Apologies to Dante, by the way; I don’t think this is what he was going for when he described all those sinners getting poked, pricked, prodded, frozen, hooked, and cooked in excruciatingly gruesome detail. And some of them were down there for nothing worse than lending money at interest! I mean, where would they be now?)
I was all but ready to put down that pen and take my chances on blinking out like a candle, unmolested by medical science, when something else occurred to me. About a month ago, my agent had called with an offer from a publisher for the novel I’d been working on for the past six years. We’d accepted the offer but I had not yet received the contract. Given the timing, I thought, it might be in our mailbox back in Iowa City right now, waiting for my signature to close the deal. What if the publishers were already regretting the deal (I fantasized darkly) and wishing they could take it back? There was no way they were getting out of publishing the book that I had spent the last six years of my life writing just because I died before I could sign the contract.
I signed the papers for Door #3.
To be continued:
Mary Helen Stefaniak is the author of The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, winner of the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction. She lives in Iowa City and teaches at Creighton University in Omaha.