A few years ago, I was chatting with an old friend about this and that and the weather and other little bits of every day nothingness when, fifteen minutes into the conversation she said, “Well, I’m actually not looking for a new job anymore because I have lymphoma and am starting chemo soon. But, you know, maybe when that’s over I’ll start looking again.”
“Woah, woah woah,” I said, throwing my hands up. “Wait a minute. Back up. You have lymphoma?” After we established that she did, in fact, have lymphoma (she’s fine now), and yes, it was serious, but, yes, her doctors were on top of it and her prognosis was good, I advised, “You really gotta work on your delivery with that little bit of information.”
“Yeah,” she admitted. “I haven’t quite figured out how to say it yet. Too soon, and it feels too much like, ‘My house is on fire!’ But if I wait too long, then it’s weird that I didn’t say anything sooner.”
Yesterday I came home from a trip to visit one of my best friends in Seattle. Naturally, people keep asking me, “How was your trip?” I’m not really sure what to tell them. My house isn’t on fire. But to just say it was ‘fine’ seems wildly inappropriate. I haven’t figured out how to say it yet.
My best friend almost died on my first night in Seattle.
On the other side of the experience, I’ve realized how often we use the phrase “almost died” in our culture, but don’t really mean it. One person my friend told her story to immediately started discussing his ‘near-deathys.’ It just pissed me off. “First of all,” I wanted to say, “The very fact that you are using the phrase ‘near-deathy’ means that you’re not getting it.” People say “I almost died,” or “She almost died,” or any other variation without fully realizing how utterly untrue it is.
I really mean it. Almost died.
My first night in Seattle, my friend and I had decided on Thai food for dinner.
“There’s two places close,” my friend said. “There’s the hole in the wall place that’s cheap but good. Or there’s this other place that is less ‘hole in the wall,’ but is outstanding.”
“Let’s go with ‘outstanding.’ This is a vacation, after all.” I said.
We were seated in a booth in the back corner, nearing the end of our meal. I was looking down at my plate, pushing my food around and telling some stupid story that I don’t remember now, when I looked up, mid-sentence, and saw my friend’s face. Her hands were clamped over her mouth and her eyes were wide and watering. My first thought was that she had accidentally gotten a bite of something screaming hot.
“Jesus,” I said, “Are you okay?” She shook her head ‘yes,’ hands still over her mouth, but then started shaking her head ‘no.’ When she dropped her hands, her mouth open wide, it was obvious that she was choking.
We both jumped up from the table and moved out to the aisle. I grabbed her arm and started alternately pounding and rubbing on her back. (Rubbing? Why rubbing? I guess to be comforting? It’s what I do for my girls when they’re upset?) “Help! Help us!” I cried out, but I mentally I was thinking, she’s going to cough this up, and it’s all going to be fine. Denial.
She was not going to just cough it up. And this was not going to be fine. I moved behind her and, summoning everything I remembered from my high school CPR class sixteen years ago, started to do the Heimlich. “Please!” I screamed louder, “Someone! I need help!”
I’ve been obsessively watching Heimlich videos on YouTube since coming home. I actually think I was doing it right, although maybe not forcefully enough? The videos are all laughably calm. I don’t know that anything can prepare you. But, it had been sixteen years and it didn’t feel right and it wasn’t helping and I was panicking. “I don’t know what I’m doing! Help her!” I screamed. I’ve never felt more completely useless.
By that point a waitress had scurried up to us. As I turned to her and said, “Call 911,” my friend stumbled away from me to the table across the aisle from ours and slammed her fist down, hard. She later told me that she was angry they were just watching her. After a shocked moment, a man at the table stood up and started pounding my friend on the back as well. Somehow I could tell: He didn’t have any more idea what he was doing than I did.
I noticed the waitress had stopped only two steps away from us. “CALL 911!” I yelled at her again. She still didn’t move. My friend was still stumbling forward, the man from the neighboring table pounding her back when a man in a blue t-shirt pushed past me, grabbed my friend’s arm to stop her from moving, and slapped her back. Hard. I immediately felt stupid. “THAT’s how I was supposed to do it,” I thought.
“You need to call 911, NOW!” the man in the blue t-shirt said, and the waitress finally ran off to make the call. The man in the blue t-shirt started doing the Heimlich, and again I was assured. Everything about him said, “I know what I’m doing, and I’m not going to quit.” He never quit.
“He’s a doctor,” a woman beside me said as I mentally repeated variations on, “This will all be okay soon,” and “This is not really happening,” and “This can’t be it.” More denial.
The doctor in a blue t-shirt was working hard, but things weren’t getting better. He kept pounding her back and doing the Heimlich and every few thrusts my friend would stumble forward a little more.
“She’s fighting him. It’s not going to work until she lets go,” the woman beside me said. And then, “Try it against a table, Nate!” Was she a doctor, too? I don’t know. I became vaguely aware that, bizarrely, the guy in the booth next to me was narrating the entire event on his cell phone. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
My friend’s body went completely rigid, her arms thrown out and fingers spread wide as she made a terrifying inhuman sound that I keep hearing in my nightmares. She stumbled forward one more step and then she and Nate fell face-first to the ground. The whole restaurant was silent. “This can’t be it. This can’t be it. This can’t be it.” I thought over and over. I could see Nate, the doctor in a blue t-shirt, leaning over my friend. His hand on her forehead, pulling her head back, two of his fingers buried deep in her mouth, doing something back in there.
It was only a few seconds after she fell, but it felt like a lifetime. And then suddenly Nate was standing up, saying “I got it. She’s going to be fine.” I fell to my knees beside my friend and, once I saw her eyes and heard her speak I started to sob from fear, and relief, and helplessness, and joy, and love for my friend, and anger at the guy who was back to narrating everything to someone on the other end of the cell phone.
I don’t know how long it was from the time I first asked, “Are you okay?” to my kneeling beside her. Maybe five minutes? It felt like an entire lifetime. We slowly got up, cleaned ourselves up, and eventually went home. Just like that. Everything was fine. Except for I don’t think either of us were really fine.
We went on with our weekend as though nothing happened, crammed full of hiking and shopping and movies and museums and lots and lots of just walking around the city. My friend was, obviously, in a lot of pain. She has a sore throat that I suspect can’t compare to anything most people have ever felt. Her ribs were sore. There were bruises on her back. Residual fear. I continued to feel useless and kept replaying things in my head. Could I have gotten there faster? Done something different to end it sooner? I should have hit her on the back harder, done the Heimlich better. Our hugs were a little tighter. There was some very dark humor followed by comments of “Too soon?” And every now and then we would just stare at each other over a cup of coffee and say “Holy shit. THAT happened.”
It’s worse now that I’m at home. I think because I can’t just turn to her and see that she’s still with me. I keep randomly crying today. I’ll be in the middle of folding a load of laundry or putting some flowers in a vase and realize that tears are streaming down my cheeks. I’m distracted, can’t finish any task that I start. I spent a good amount of time this afternoon just aimlessly wandering around my house. And then I feel guilty for feeling anything because it didn’t happen to me. It happened to my friend. And how dare I make any of this be about me. More guilt. Which as I type I realize is a little dumb. My feelings don’t take away from hers. But, I don’t know. Feelings. My house isn’t on fire. But I’m not fine.
I keep trying to think that maybe this bad thing happened to prevent something worse from happening. Or that it was neither good nor bad, but just something that happened. Neither seems particularly helpful and, I suspect, it’s just going to take some time.
When my friend dropped me off at the airport, we gave each other a tight hug and I said, “I’m so glad you’re here.” An twist on what we usually say to the person visiting at the airport. But so, so fitting: I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’re here. I’m so, so glad you’re here.