It’s the first day of class. It’s the first day of the conference. It’s the first day of camp. It’s the first time in a new group of people and they’re all looking at you, expecting you to say something, expecting you to tell them two truths and a lie or an adjective that starts with the same letter of your name or what animal you would be or what your superpower would be, if people had superpowers. These games are the inevitable fact of a social life, as inevitable as breathing.
But every once in a while, a teacher, a counselor, a manager will lack any kind of motivation to inspire these conversations in people and they will fall back on the old reliable: tell us your name, and one interesting fact about yourself.
So, hello. My name’s Whitney, and I died when I was ten.
Laverne and Shirley on Nick at Nite, the TV’s volume almost nonexistent and the set itself perched on a moving arm that could pivot out over the bed or be pushed out of the way at need. That’s one of the things I remember about ICU.
I also remember my dad at the end of the bed, one of the only times I’ve seen him cry, his baseball cap pulled down low over his face and the cloud of cigarette-smoke-and-denim smell that still follows him around. The divorce had just gone through and I hadn’t seen him much in the last year or two; he was bad about being around for his weekends.
I remember a feverish dream about a dragon, but I can point to exactly where it came from: the Fire Temple in Ocarina of Time, because that’s where I was in the game and my ten-year-old brain wanted to see how that story ended.
I remember my mom, asleep in the chair beside my bed, where she was still when I woke up fully, out of the ICU, a day or two later.
The night I got sick, we had ordered Papa John’s pizza for dinner and something was on the television. I want to say it was The X-Files. Not that it matters. I remember the pizza because I couldn’t eat pizza for a while after that, and I specifically couldn’t eat Papa Johns for longer.
I remember the misery, how it sucked all the fun out of being able to stay home from school because I couldn’t keep anything down. My mom frantically funneling Pedialite into my mouth. Becoming an immovable, spewing force of horror that took up residence on the living room couch and refused to move. My dog – my childhood dog, the one I grew up with, the one who died my first year of college – keeping me company.
I don’t remember the day I actually went to the hospital, and my mom doesn’t like to talk about it.
My fourth grade teacher came to visit me once I got out of the ICU. She was young, although at the time she seemed old to me. She brought me a calligraphy set because I had expressed an interest in learning to write pretty a couple weeks before. Thinking back on it, I’m touched that she came — and even more so that she brought me something, that she thought about it before buying it. I wonder what she’s doing now.
Other people came to visit: neighbors, mostly, some family who were close enough to make it.
My grandfather called and swore up and down that God gave him a third kidney for a purpose and he was ready to donate it to me, despite being a 250-pound grown man to my 80-pound scrawny little girl.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to; my kidney kickstarted itself, the doctors had no explanation (that I’ve yet to hear, fourteen years later, anyway) and I was soon on my merry way down the road to recovery.
I still remember the first full meal they gave me as they weaned me off ice chips. I was more excited for that meal than I think I’ve ever been for any meal in my life.
It was hospital spaghetti and orange juice, and three minutes later when I vomited black into the bucket by my bed, I remember thinking that something wasn’t right with that combination.
The story, from what I’ve been able to cobble together from my own mixed-up memory and some second-hand accounts, is this: I got a bad stomach bug, a virus that was going around, and my mom got some bad advice from my then-pediatrician. I was violently ill for a couple of days and then, one day, my mom was taking me out to the car to go pick up my sister or something, and I passed out on the lawn.
This day is completely lost to me. And I don’t mean in the night-of-heavy-drinking kind of way, I mean completely, utterly, totally lost.
The local clinic my mom rushed me to carted me back and all my mom could hear was them muttering about how they couldn’t find a pulse, there was no pulse.
I was rushed to the hospital by ambulance — for some reason, I remember the back of the ambulance, the things on the walls of the truck and a face over me that looked like my hairdresser’s face (the hairdresser who was, coincidentally, also a friend of the family.) It wasn’t, but my brain thought it was.
I haven’t been able to get anything else out of anyone, and the next thing I’m conscious of is waking up two days later.
My mom says that at one point, I lifted my arms off the table towards the ceiling and told the pretty lady I was ready to go. I’m not sure if this is entirely on the level; I think at some point, terror for her child and faith in God lead my mom to believe that if I was going, I was going with angels. Even if she didn’t want me to go. I’m pretty sure I was just hallucinating about my hairdresser.
There are a lot of things that happened to me, through me and around me in my childhood that would be good fodder for fishing for pity and this isn’t one of those things. I hate talking about those things. This is a thing that happened to me that changed the course of my life because it almost ended it. This is the thing I use as my interesting fact because I like to be able to say it and have it mean something. This thing happened to me and because of it I am more motivated to try and try and try and try and find opportunities and experience regret and go hot air ballooning and get a hair cut in a foreign country where English is not the native language.
If I had gone with that pretty lady, I wouldn’t be looking at missed opportunities with regret — I wouldn’t be looking at all. I wouldn’t be tallying my good vs. my evil because I would be nothing. I would be a memory. I would be a picture on the mantel. I would be the thing that really broke my mother, once and for all.
But I’m not those things. I’m alive.