The year is 1969, and I am lying on the bed in my dorm after dinner, barely breathing. Some of the other students in the dorm found me wandering the halls, gasping for breath. A nursing student guides me to my bed, and tells me to tip my head back, to clear my air passages. I follow her instructions, and put all of my energy into breathing. I hear other students saying that they called the infirmary and were told that it is probably menstrual cramps, so they are going to get the house mother. I want to tell them to find my roommate, who is my best friend, but I can't speak.
As I lie there, it becomes increasingly difficult to breathe. I think: it would be so much easier just to stop, but then I would be dead. I think: it wouldn't be so bad to die, it feels peaceful, and I don't feel afraid, but I will try to breathe a little longer.
Men rush into the room and immediately place an oxygen mask on my face. It becomes easier to breathe. One of the men lifts my hand and examines my fingers. He says: she doesn't look quite as blue. With the oxygen mask on my face, they lift me onto a stretcher, and take me to the infirmary with the sirens blaring.
In the infirmary, the doctor looks to me to be annoyed to have been disturbed. He immediately diagnoses an allergic reaction, and gives me a shot of adrenalin. Almost instantly, I am breathing easier. They keep me overnight, but send me back to the dorm for breakfast the next morning. My dorm is on the other side of the campus, and I feel light headed and unwell as I walk along, annoyed that they didn't allow me to rest longer.
But for the first time, I understand the fragility of life.
I am about to celebrate my sixtieth birthday, and I have lived fully.
Because of my early brush with death, I plunged forward in life, without regard to convention. Less than two years after the incident, and before I had finished college, I was married. Three and one half years after that I was nine months pregnant, and attending my Law School orientation, with my husband waiting in the library in case labor began. By the time I was thirty, I had two children, a full time job as a law clerk, and a husband who was working full time and going to law school nights as well.
Those busy, rapid, giddy, joyful, years proved to be a blessing. By the time I was 34, I had had a hysterectomy, after suffering for years with acute pain from large, but thankfully benign, tumors. Thank God I had had my children before the pain began! At 56, I was forced to retire due to chronic illness, but I was grateful for the long career I had had up to that point.
I am not by nature, a perpetually cheerful person. I kvetch, I complain, I argue, I yell. I try to see my life in melodramatic terms: after struggling to build a career in a male dominated firm, I am felled in my prime by chronic degenerative illness. But to be honest, it's not that bad.
The truth is, the office politics were getting very aggravating, and the long hours were keeping me from taking vacations. I had a great disability policy (thanks to the firm), so the early retirement was not a financial burden. Thanks to a bevy of brilliant and compassionate doctors, I keep going with a concoction of prescriptions, obviously created by another bevy of brilliant and compassionate doctors and scientists. My family and friends have been loving and supportive, my husband is still the love of my life, and my kids grew up to be amazingly kind and accomplished adults.
I still complain, I even complain a lot, but happy surprises interrupt my gloom. My children-in-law are both such nice people that I would be proud to have them as friends even if they weren't married to my children. The biggest surprise is the sheer joy that being a grandparent brings. Somehow, it brings you back to a time in your life when life was full of wonder and joy. As the babies are delighted by a sunbeam, you remember to enjoy the delights of sunlight. As a child is excited by a museum display, you remember the joy of learning.
I have now stepped into the role as family elder, a little more tired, a little more warn, but perhaps, if I am lucky, a little more wise. Despite my best efforts to be gloomy, I find my self looking forward to what the next stage of my life will bring. That's me, the inadvertent optimist.