Lee Harper with sons Dale (l) and Jace (r)

The Day the World Turned Upside Down

June 24, 2007

“Lee Ann, can you come up here please?” I run up the stairs of our old house, wondering why Terry sounds so alarmed on this beautiful, lazy Sunday. I find him lying on the floor of our extra bedroom (which we refer to as the “media room” but “very large closet” could work for all the stuff we’ve crammed into it). He’s lying in the corner of the room, showered and dressed, ready for the day. That’s not like him.

“What’s wrong?” I walk over to see if he’s playing a joke; that would be like him.

“Something weird is happening,” he says, a little out of breath and staring at the ceiling. “I see the TV screen everywhere I look…and there are these lights. They’re spinning, like disco lights. And I’m dizzy,” he sighed. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Should I drive you to the ER?”

“No,” he says flatly, “just call 911.”

In the next room, I’m on the home phone with a 911 dispatcher when I hear thumping on the wall that separates me from my husband. I’ve been away maybe 30 seconds but when I turn the corner, I see the source of the noise. Terry’s feet hit the wall as his body quakes; it looks like he’s being electrocuted. His jaws are clamped tight and a humming noise escapes his clenched teeth; the noise gets louder, recedes, then grows again. His arms are curled tight into his chest and his toes are pointed as if they were wearing a ballerina’s toe shoes. When the voice on the phone tells me to describe what’s happening, I swallow the scream forming in my throat.

The phone says to hold Terry’s head and make sure he doesn’t hit anything around him. I sit on my shins, his head between my knees, hands firmly cradling his face. Up close, I’m shocked by the full magnitude of his body in utter chaos.

“Are you there?” the phone asks me. When I respond I realize I’ve been holding my breath.

A half-hour passes in three minutes, and then it’s over. The phone says, “Now roll him on to his side and make sure his breathing passage is clear.”

I remember this from a TV show, make sure he hasn’t vomited, but there’s nothing in his mouth. His breathing has slowed and lengthened to sound as if he’s in a deep sleep; his body is perfectly still and relaxed. I slowly roll him on to his back.

The phone says, “It sounds like a seizure. An ambulance is on the way but I’ll stay on the line until they arrive.”

A seizure? From a video game? He was playing a stupid video game! I could hear him from downstairs, the rat-tat-tat as he shot at German soldiers. A game the boys play, a game I delayed buying as long as I could, convinced that it was more violent to shoot animated people than virtual monsters and aliens (all I’d agreed to up to that point). But the boys are 15 and 11 and they want realism. Terry was the one who told me not to worry, it would be fine. And now I’m waiting for an ambulance.

Terry is fast asleep, snoring even, so I leave him for a second to yell down to Dale and Jace that Dad needs to go to the hospital; the boys haven’t come upstairs in all the commotion and I don’t know what they’re thinking.

“Dale, your dad needs to go to the hospital,” I say. “I need you to go outside and watch for the ambulance.” He’s 15, he can do this. And our old neighborhood streets are boulevards that can be confusing; he may need to flag down the driver.

“What’s wrong?” he asks.

“I don’t know yet but we’ll know more when he sees a doctor. Just send the paramedics upstairs when they get here, OK?” Do I sound as freaked out as I am, or did my mama instinct take over? Kids, everything is fine! (dammit, shit, fuck)

Standing at the bannister, I feel a tug in my chest wondering if I should run downstairs or stay upstairs. My children or my husband. This is a man who is always in control, never falters for words, confidently makes important decisions every day. Now, he looks like the helpless child who needs me. I kneel down beside him and stroke his forehead while I wait for someone who knows what the hell to do next.

This was just a typical Sunday a few minutes ago. Dale and Jace were helping me get flyers ready to mail for my family’s reunion next month. We were sitting in the living room and Terry was up here, whooping or cursing at the TV, depending on his virtual aim. That’s all! There was no big fall, no blood, no pre-existing condition to turn terribly wrong without notice. But here we are, waiting for a group of strangers to come tell us what bizarre new world we’ve entered. And hopefully lead us out of it as soon as possible.

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