On the Grassy Sprain Parkway
A few days before The River showed me its flow
It's not knowing how it will pass but that it will. It's not about when or where, but right now, right in front of me.
What's in front of me is surgery on a brain tumor that introduced itself to me on New Year's Eve. One minute I was in the left lane, trying to make time driving from Westchester to our church celebration in Queens. The next minute I felt a tingling in my right jaw, and an ominous sense of something funny going on, something I couldn't explain to my wife Florence and 10-year old daughter, Grace.
It was easy enough to guide the car to the right lane and savely stop on the shoulder. The hard part, I found after switching seats with Florence, was giving her directions to the hospital. I remember everything: the creeping panic she had as she adjusted the mirrors, the nearly furious Pentacostal rebuke she administered to the Devil with her right hand on my head as we drove off. I remember my Grace getting 911 on her own cell phone and, as only my Grace can do, summarize the situation in perfect context and in complete sentences.
But neither of them were composed enough to say exactly what highway we were on (though Grace did pick up on the exit sign for Central Avenue as we passed it). And when I tried to put the GPS in my mind into words for them, I couldn't push them out. It was as if I couldn't coordinate my vocal chords, tongue and breath to form them, though nothing felt numb or paralyzed. Florence said it sounded slurred and mumbled "We're heading south on the Sprain...we want the westbound Cross County Parkway...coming up on the right soon...."
I remember it well enough not to have experienced it as an eternity; the whole thing played over a three mile stretch past the darkened Grassy Sprain Reservoir driving at least 1 mile per minute. Before we reached the exit ramp, I was able to take the phone from Grace and direct the cops to where we were. My speech was back, and I had never left. When they arrived--cops, fire truck, and ambulance--I almost felt embarrassed to come striding out of the car and swinging my 6'7" frame onto a somewhat smaller stretcher cart almost unassisted.
Inside, the EMT--I think his name was Higgins--gave me the first of what would seem hundreds of neurological baseline drills to come. Feel one side versus the other, grip left hand, grip right hand, raise, lower, follow my finger with your eyes. When that went well, we talked about my day. It had started with me deciding to walk a mile and a half in the snow to the train station because my bus didn't show, and it stayed that type-A all day.
And somehow I hadn't eaten in 8 hours. "Could definitely be hypoglycemia," said the EMT, "I've seen it happen before." He drew the first of many bloods to come in the following week and tested it, but it was only 79, low but not alarming. So, as he proceeded setting two IV lines like an expert plumber at sea, we talked about stress. Somehow, for the first time ever, I was actually willing to listen to the part about how you must build downtime into your daily life...or else.
His thing was motorcycles--he rides and he builds them with a partner. I told him that was funny, the director of nursing at the hospital we were going to, Donovan, was also into bikes. He knew, he said, they had been buddies. I had first met Donovan just 5 days earlier, on my first ever visit to St. Johns Riverside Hospital in Yonkers. I was there with my mother who, visiting from from her retirement in Florida, had quickly developed pneumonia and was instantly admitted from the ER. Donovan helped get her a badly needed ICU bed that first scary night. Turns out he's family, from the old country, Jamaica.
In a few hours I would find myself in that exact same ICU bed (my mother having moved upstairs) after two more episodes of speech loss in the ER. I brought in the New Year with my wife and child doing their terrified tired best to cheer me. You could watch the ball drop on a dozen of the ER cable channels. But strangely enough, all I wanted was to hear the once stroked-out 79 year old Dick Clark, beating out his good old "Happy New Year" goodies without quite getting his tongue and the roof of his mouth together. He still looks good...and so did I.
If what I had was a stroke, it was nothing like what he had, I thought. But that, as it would turn out, was not what matters in this storm.