On Missed Opportunities, Anaphylaxis, and Waking Up Alive

Ambulance

On June 12th, 2014 I woke up alive. Not just breathing. Alive. 

This is significant because on the morning of June 11th, I missed an opportunity. That lost opportunity felt like a punch in the gut. It knocked the wind out of me. In fact, I was temporarily consumed with my feelings about it. But not for long. A couple of hours later, I almost died. And that’s when everything changed forever.

The morning started like most weekday mornings start in my house. My partner brought me coffee in bed. Then we moved to the deck and enjoyed each other’s silent company, the early morning quiet interrupted only by chirping birds, rustling leaves, and the occasional sounds of a car in the distance.

And then it was time for her to shower, so I flopped down on the bed and started my work day. Several minutes later, I stopped working to admire her while she got dressed, and she teased me, pretending to be surprised, because this is the morning routine. Too soon, she was dressed for work and ready to walk out the door, and she kissed me goodbye. I didn’t want her to go. I pulled her back for a second kiss. She went into the kitchen to grab her lunch, then came back into the bedroom to kiss me goodbye again. We laughed about the silliness of missing each other when she’s just going to an office less than fifteen minutes away and we know we’ll see each other again at the end of the day.

After she left, I goofed around with the kids for an hour, then shooed them out the door to school, with the little one popping her head back in to tell me “just one more thing,” at least three times.

And then, on this very typical morning, one that was until this point nearly identical to dozens of others I’ve had over the last nine months, I found out about the missed opportunity. It was something I had really wanted to do, an opportunity that felt significant and worthwhile. The worst part was that the only person I could be pissed off at was myself. Shortly after I had been asked to do this thing, some extremely urgent family matters had arisen, and my obligations as a mother totally eclipsed everything else. I hadn’t blown it off. I had good reason for not following through. But I was still mad at myself. Certainly, if nothing else, I could have found the five minutes to tell the other person involved what was going on and why I had disappeared, but I didn’t. I just disappeared.

And now I was wallowing. I decided to let myself wallow for fifteen minutes before forcing myself to get back to work. I went to the kitchen to pour myself a refill of coffee.  I noticed a small square of baklava on the table. We had ordered takeout from our favorite restaurant the night before, and they had tossed a few free pieces into the bag. I had been too full to eat mine.

I picked it up, and without giving it a second thought, popped it in my mouth. I chewed slowly, savoring the impossibly thin, flaky layers of pastry drenched in honey, layered with pistachios, crushed almost into a paste. It was delicious.

And within a few minutes, I knew that something wasn’t quite right. There was a horrible aftertaste lingering in my mouth. It tasted similar to a melted aspirin, and no amount of coffee or water would get rid of it. Soon after, my tongue and gums started to itch and burn. My lips felt like they were on fire.

At this point, I knew that I was having an allergic reaction. I recalled that several years ago I had an allergic reaction to pistachios, but I had eaten small amounts on several occassions since then with no consequence.

I wasn’t scared. I just thought it was a minor annoyance. A small blip on the radar of my day that would be remedied with Benadryl. I checked the medicine cabinet and realized we didn’t have any, so I decided to walk to the corner store a couple of blocks away to buy some. I sent Jena a text that said, “Ugh! I can never eat pistachios again. Not even a little!”

I made it to the end of our cul de sac. After walking just a few yards, my heart was beating like I had been running for miles. Adrenaline was coursing through my body. I had a vague recollection of reading something once about exercise speeding up or exacerbating allergic reactions… or something like that. Walking anywhere seemed like a terrible idea. So I headed back to the house and called Jena.

I told her that I might be overreacting, but I needed her to come home from work. I needed to be seen by a doctor. I must have apologized for inconveniencing her at least three or four times. She heard something in my voice that I was not yet aware of, the way it was getting higher, shrill and raspy at the same time. She said she was on her way and asked if she should call 911. I said no. Just get home.

I called her back less than two minutes later and asked how close she was. Apparently, I was no longer capable of rational thought, or I would have called 911 myself at this point. But I didn’t. I called her and she told me she was calling 911.

I sat on the porch, peeling off my jacket because I was hot and flushed, yet shivering almost convulsively from adrenaline and fear. My heart was slamming against my chest so hard and fast that it hurt. And now my breathing wasn’t just fast, I was having to think about it.

There were sirens drawing closer, and I felt a mix of relief and embarrassment as the ambulance pulled up in front of the house. I was relieved because I knew deep down that I was in real trouble. Embarrassed, because some small, irrational part of my brain was still certain that they were going to give me Benadryl and tell me I could have just waited to go to the ER on my own.

That isn’t what happened. Instead, they asked me a few questions and got me on a stretcher. They rolled me into the back of the ambulance while I wheezed something about my partner being on her way home, how she should be here any minute.  He reassured me that we would probably still be at the house when she arrived, that they were going to start an IV with Benadryl before we rolled out.

I was relieved when I saw her car pull up behind the ambulance. She climbed into the back and squeezed my hand and tried to ask a few questions, which I’m not sure I ever answered.  She asked if she should ride in the ambulance or follow in her car. The paramedics told her to follow in her car, so that she’d be able to drive home later.

I didn’t want her to follow in her car. I didn’t want her to leave my side. I know her well enough to know that had I said so, she would have refused to budge. But I didn’t say so, because all of my effort was going into breathing.

I felt a pang of despair as she climbed out of the ambulance and they shut the door behind her. I watched her get into her car. And then we pulled out onto the road, and I lost sight of her.

While we were rolling down the road, I glanced at the monitor displaying my vitals. My heart rate was astronomical and climbing. The paramedic sounded sharp when he told me not to look at it. When I couldn’t keep my glance from returning to the screen, he flipped it around so I couldn’t see it.

Time lost all meaning. Had I told her I loved her? I couldn’t remember. I hoped that I had said the words out loud, not just thought them. I wanted to call my kids to tell them I loved them. I glanced down and saw my cell phone, still lying on my belly where the paramedic had placed it when he put me on the stretcher. I wanted to tell them I loved them, but I didn’t want them to hear me like I was. And anyway, I couldn’t bend my fingers, let alone pick up my phone to make a call. I prayed.

And the man apologizing as he pulled down my pants and jabbed an EpiPen into my thigh was telling the driver to call the hospital. He was calling out my name and date of birth and the situation. His face was calm, but his hand was shaking.

And then he pressed his hands down over mine and told me to relax them, to breathe with him, and I did. And it felt like it took a very long time, but eventually my throat loosened, the air passed through with less struggle on each breath, and we pulled into the bay at the emergency room.

Several hours later, I returned home with EpiPens, steroids, my life, and a major paradigm shift. The Meaning of Life, revealed.

And what is the Meaning of Life?

Speaking only for myself, the meaning of life is that we GET to do this.

Life is not something that is happening to us, which we are forced to endure. It isn’t a slog or a burden, and even when it feels like it is, it is still an extraordinary privilege.

We get to be here. We get to live these days. This life. Not some life that has already happened to us and ended five years ago. Certainly not the imaginary ones we conjure up in our heads and call The Future. This life. Here. Now.

And when it’s all on the line, you’re not going to give a second thought to stressful deadlines, or the housework. You’re not going to feel sorry for yourself that your bank account isn’t as large as you had hoped it would be by this point in your life. You won’t be worrying that anyone will see your stretch marks or that hair on your chin that you forgot to tweeze.

The Meaning of Life is, “Did I remember to tell her I love her?”

There are a million opportunities to love. And for every opportunity, there are a million ways to blow it, too.

Honestly, my business didn’t cross my mind while I was in the back of that ambulance. The missed opportunity that has felt like such a big deal earlier that day left my mind entirely. But when the threat of imminent death had passed, I thought about it a lot. Over the past month, I have assessed and reassessed every aspect of my life, and what I realized is that I don’t want to miss anything that matters.

We can’t have it all, true. But we can have everything that matters. Life is fleeting. I don’t want to waste a single minute on things that don’t matter. I don’t want to strive for some ridiculous, fictitious work/life balance.

Your life is not a series of compartmentalized boxes. Your work is your life, and more importantly, your life is your work.

If you spend the vast majority of your hours doing something you hate, you are not loving the vast majority of your life. If the vast majority of your hours are not spent doing something you really, truly believe in, why are you doing it?

I am lucky that the vast majority of my work time is spent doing things I love and believe are valuable to other people. On occasion, I take side work that I feel are neither, because I value taking care of my family’s needs more than I value ’round the clock emotional fulfillment from my work. It’s a choice, and it is one that I don’t regret and I refuse to complain about.

We love to tell ourselves that we have no choice, but that is false, and it is self-victimization. Make no mistake, there is almost always a choice. Nearly every moment of every day of our lives is comprised of a series of choices.

Yes, there are things we can’t foresee. Yes, there are emergencies and tragedies that leave us with no choices, other than how we respond to them. That happens.

But these are exceptions to the rule. Most of our days are not comprised of series of tragedies and emergencies in which we are helpless to change our circumstances. And thank God for that.

The thing is, we rarely have any forewarning about when they’re coming. and in what form. If we did, I wouldn’t have eaten the baklava.

I won’t give you a long list of all the things I think you should or shouldn’t do, based on my experience. Most of it wouldn’t be relevant, because we aren’t the same person. We might have different value and hopes and dreams. As we should. That’s what makes this big crazy world so beautiful.

There’s only one thing that I learned from nearly dying that I know with complete certainty will apply to you.

This is your life. Your one and only life. This day is happening. Choose carefully.

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