In the gap between desire and enactment, noun and verb, intention and infliction,
want and have, compassion begins.
Late March 2008
I’d survived a “major” heart attack with no damage to that muscle, with two pieces of plastic, tinier than the tip of a fingernail in my arteries, the only physical evidence. I’d recovered some of my energy and strength with exercise, rest, diet, and knowledge. I was slowly resuming my so-called life, making plans to fly again to California for school in a few weeks, to return to work two weeks later. I’d begun to drive again for short distances. Today I was returning to my solo apartment to gather clothes, take care of mail, and simply spend time getting reused to being alone there.
In truth I looked forward to the solitude. I’d hardly been alone since the heart attack. Even this short journey back to normalcy was book-ended by my promise to the friend I’d been staying with, a promise I’d be back, or call, in two hours. Yes, I’d been knocked down, but I was getting up again.
Yet throughout the recovery, despite my hardheaded intention to prove that others could stop worrying about me, a continual yearning made itself known. Since the day I’d awakened in the ICU, with a tube down my throat and my hands tied to the bed rails, I’d been involuntarily looking back, over my right shoulder for someone. I longed to see there someone with eyes full of pride, compassion and love, someone to envelop me in their arms, to softly tell me I was OK, to take my fear and weakness away.
Of course no one was ever back there. So here I was walking up to my front door alone, another step along this particular path.
Inside the apartment smelled of dust and stale air. I walked through, dropping my purse on the bed as I passed it on my way to the kitchen. OK – first open some windows and then water plants – take it slow and don’t try to do too much.
Old apartments have heavy windows, but the one in the kitchen slid up easily with my push. The window in the living room is larger, twice as big and equally as heavy. I leaned into it, bracing my legs against the bookshelf at windowsill height. The window slid up easily but my legs jiggled the bookshelf, knocking off a picture I’d placed on top. It fell between the shelves and the wall.
I tried to reach that picture, but couldn’t get to it. I was squatted down at the end of the shelf, preparing to reach around when I heard the phone ring, in my purse in the bedroom behind me. I turned my head to the right, as if turning toward the ring could answer it, and there, again, instantly, was the longing, the desire to be held and comforted. But this time it was overcome by my sharp intake of breath, by sudden heat in my chest and throat, a surge of acid in my belly, and the smell of rain on a hot asphalt street.
I slid to my knees, then sat, leaning against the bookshelf, the picture forgotten, not fighting the fear, not even thinking it was another heart attack, because this was somehow more familiar.
The heat rose in my throat and became tears. Between one breath and another I felt something coming, sliding up from my belly, into my chest, down my cheeks like salty rain. As it came, I wrapped my arms around my knees, pulled my legs in and cried open mouthed as a child.
What came, without preamble or question, was - I won’t be able to take care of myself, and there won’t be anyone to help me. It rooted me to the floor.
Through the open window early spring breeze chilled my neck as I sat, sobbing, wrapped in my own arms. My face felt tacky, sticky and swollen by the time I rose to my knees, lifted the picture and replaced it on the shelf.