Who let the reaper in?
If I should ever die—God forbid—I’d rather not know about it. Death and public speaking, both very scary.
I don’t remember where I was or how old or what I was doing when I realized that one day I would die. Nor do I remember how I reacted. I doubt if I ran screaming out of the room, though that would be a reasonable thing to have done. Good health is the slowest rate at which you can die, said someone, somewhere.
Five years ago I was in very good health, for a near septuagenarian. I’d been training all spring for a five-day group bike ride in Portugal. In April I’d taken my bike with me when I drove to Martha’s Vineyard for a writers’ retreat, and during that fortnight I cycled to the island’s hilly west coast several times.
It was likely during a walk in the woods with friends that I was bitten.
One morning, after returning home to Niagara, I noticed a golf-ball-sized lump on my left instep. It was painless, so I rode my bike all that day and by evening the lump had disappeared.
Next morning it was back again. My doctor checked it out and said it was some kind of infection. He prescribed a mild antibiotic, okayed my travels, and I was off to Portugal.
In the Algarve I stayed with my friend who had organized the trip, and we did a couple of practice runs to get me used to the hills and the heat. When my swelling re-appeared he took me to his doctor, a pleasant English expat who examined my foot, took an x-ray, then prescribed another mild antibiotic. “You should be good to go in a couple of days,” he said.
Instead I got very much worse.
I woke up that night, my whole body feeling compressed, like I was lying under a boulder. I took my temperature. 104 F. I had no nausea or headache, no pain in my foot, just a temperature at a potentially brain-damaging level and a feeling like death.
I did what any clear-thinking person suffering from delirium would do—I took a cold shower in my pyjamas and went back to bed. I didn’t want to create a fuss because it was 3 AM, and I didn’t want to wake the household. It was a huge house and I felt disoriented, and suddenly very tired. Eventually I fell asleep.
Next morning my temperature was down to a hundred, so I said nothing at breakfast. Final plans were afoot—so to speak—for our expedition: hotels booked along the way, the route mapped out, the cyclists arriving that day. That evening we sat down to a lovely meal, everyone laughing and sharing stories, and all very excited about the start next morning.
I was feeling apprehensive but joined in, already sensing I was in no condition to cycle for five days.
That night I woke up again feeing that horrible compression, my temperature once more at 104. Another long cold shower brought it down slightly. There were way more people asleep in the house now, with the expedition setting out after breakfast. Addle-brained with fever I slid into oblivion. But I’ll never forget my last thought that night.
Wouldn’t it be simpler not to wake up again? It seemed reasonable enough.
But I did wake up. Feeling like death, yet somehow not dead. Downstairs I asked to be taken to the doctor again. I’m afraid I won’t be cycling, I said. I didn’t mind anymore. To be honest I was kind of wishing I was still asleep.
My wish was soon granted because I passed out in the doctor’s office. When I came to I was on my way to hospital in Faro.
In the intensive care unit, a doctor informed me that my circulatory system was thoroughly poisoned and he was kind of surprised the sepsis hadn’t already killed me.
After six days of scans, an MRI, serious antibiotics and expert care, my fever finally subsided and my temperature returned to normal. Two days later I was released. My host, back from the cycling trip, drove me the two hours to Lisbon so I could make the only available non-stop flight to Toronto later that day.
A week later I had surgery on my foot to scrape out the infected tissue and replace it with antibiotic foam. I couldn’t walk for two weeks and spent six weeks in home care, attached to a bag a day of vancomycin, the “drug of last resort.” I still don’t know what bit me during my walk in Martha’s Vineyard.
It was surely a summer to forget.
But I’ll never forget wanting to go to sleep and to not wake up. And being too sick to be afraid.
These days it’s hard not to be afraid. With the apocalypse apparently on the horizon—be it by climate change, or terrorism or, most recently, the coronavirus epidemic—we’re inundated by things to fear.
And yet we go about our daily lives. We know that one day we’re all going to die, we just don’t want to be reminded of it. “Die, my dear?” said Groucho Marx. “That’s the last thing I’ll do.”
Many find consolation in the afterlife. Their faith in God carries an insurance policy providing they keep up the premiums. For others there’s the comforting belief that we all come back to earth as something else, though hopefully not as an endangered species. Comedian Richard Lewis claims to suffer from reincarnation anxiety—he’s afraid he’ll come back as himself.
As a non-believer I’m working on my gratitude for the years I’ve been given and the joys that so far have outweighed the regrets and losses. Arthur Miller said the most we can do in life is end up with the right regrets. Groucho went further and declared we should learn from the mistakes of others because we won’t live long enough to make them all ourselves. After all, getting older isn’t a problem—you just have to live long enough. And be grateful for it.
Virginia Woolf described to her sister, Vanessa Bell, the beauty of Holland, “the architecture, and the awnings, which are all colours, and the canals, and the tulips, and flowering trees, weeping their reflections into the water—can such a thing be said?”
What a blessing it can be said, and she did. Not long after, she walked the half-mile from her Sussex home to the River Ouse, where she filled her pockets with stones and submerged herself the water. Did she fill her head with remembered beauty as she sank, I wonder.
But she reminds us there is much beauty in our world. In nature, in humanity and in all the arts that celebrate it.
Still, when my time comes I hope not to be aware of it and as Keats put it, “cease upon the midnight with no pain.” As I nearly did one night in Portugal.
If that’s not to be, I’ll try to remember Groucho’s one-line autopsy—Either this man’s dead or my watch has stopped—so I can go out with a smile. ♦