By Lesléa Newman.
I have been waiting all my life to turn 58.
Well, not all my life exactly. Just the last 48 years, ever since I turned ten. That was the year my best friend, Vicki brought over a wooden Ouija Board with the alphabet, the numbers zero through nine, and the words “yes,” “no,” “hello” and “goodbye” painted on it in bold black script. I still remember the day we sat cross-legged on the carpet of my bedroom facing each other with the board and our future between us. We asked the Ouija Board typical ten-year-old-girl questions: Would we get married? (Yes for both of us which proved correct: Vicki married a handsome man named David and I married a handsome woman named Mary). Would we have children? (Yes for Vicki who happily raised three magnificent children; no for me, who happily raised a pride of magnificent cats). And then bravely and stupidly I asked the Ouija Board: “How old will I be when I die?
Vicki and I held our fingertips lightly against the wooden heart-shaped marker as it slid across the board slowly, stopping first at the “five” and then at the “seven.” “Fifty-seven,” I crowed, thrilled to learn I’d live to a ripe old age. At the time, fifty-seven seemed beyond ancient. Why, my mother wasn’t even that old! It was 1965 which meant that I wouldn’t turn 57 until 2012, a year that sounded so far off and futuristic, it couldn’t possibly ever arrive.
I don’t remember ever consulting the Ouija Board again. But I do remember how its premonition popped into my head when death almost came to call. I was home alone slicing a leftover baked potato into rounds to fry up for breakfast. I popped a piece into my mouth without thinking about it until it landed flat across the top of my windpipe, sealing it tight as the lid on a canning jar. But I’m not 57 yet, I thought as I leapt up, raced to a neighbor’s house and frantically pounded on her door. After my neighbor performed the Heimlich maneuver, and the piece of potato flew out whole and landed with a splat against the wall, I thanked her and calmly strolled home, as if she had just given me a cup of tea instead of the rest of my life. She didn’t understand how I could remain so unrattled. But I was only 23. According to the Ouija Board, I still had 34 years to go.
Over the years, there were other brushes with death: a car accident here, a bumpy flight there. And then there was that time when I foolishly followed an electrician’s advice and stuck a raw potato into the socket of a broken overhead lamp to see if the switch was on or off. It was on, the potato sparked and fried, and I almost did, too (what is it about me and potatoes?).
And then I turned 57.
I can’t say I spent the entire year looking over my shoulder, but I can’t say I didn’t either. Though how could the Ouija Board be right? I was extremely healthy; in fact, my perfect health was legendary. I was never sick. I never even caught a cold. As friends around my age kvetched and moaned about back pain and aching knees, I even became a bit arrogant about my sparkling good health. So much so that I didn’t get concerned when I had two fainting episodes three weeks apart: the first when I was teaching in Kentucky, the second when I was visiting New York. In both cases the day had been hot and humid, I had barely eaten, and I’d run in the hot sun to get to where I was going. It could happen to anyone. There was nothing wrong with me.
Well, as they say, pride goeth before a fall.
It was September 12th, and Mary and I, dressed in our finest, set out to celebrate our 25th anniversary. We drove to our favorite restaurant where we admired each other, toasted each other, and talked about our mutual bucket list. Was it time to start planning that trip to Hawaii? Or Paris, perhaps? I had just swallowed the last bite of roast duck on my plate, and was reaching for my wine glass when…..
Truthfully, I’m not exactly sure what happened. The next few minutes are forever lost to me. I didn’t pass out exactly. If I had, I wouldn’t have remained sitting upright in my chair. But I went away. Where, I can’t say. But the next thing I knew, Mary was calling my name over and over. At first I could barely hear her. Then her voice grew louder and louder, and her blurry face came into back focus etched with concern. “Are you all right?” she asked.
“What just happened?” I replied.
Before she could answer, my heart started pounding against my chest as frantically as my fists had on that day many years ago when I’d run to my neighbor’s house and breathlessly banged on her door. Mary came around to my side of the table and rubbed my back as I sipped some water. After a while I felt better, so Mary quickly paid the bill and we left the restaurant, shuffling to the car arm in arm, like the two old ladies I hoped we’d live long enough to become. I felt all right until we were about halfway home. Then my heart started pounding again.
And that’s when I thought of the Ouija Board. Was it going to prove correct after all? Suddenly 57 didn’t seem so old. I was nowhere ready to die. “When we get to the house,” I said to Mary, “call 911.”
She didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. She knew if I was asking for help—me, who balked at taking an aspirin—something was terribly wrong.
We pulled into the driveway and I carefully crept inside and lay down on the living room couch while Mary dialed the phone. Before the ambulance arrived, I yanked off all my jewelry, as I had seen my mother do so many times during the last year of her life when she had taken countless trips to the emergency room. My heart was revving up again and just as I unclasped the diamond necklace Mary had given me earlier that evening, the paramedics arrived. By this time I was nauseous and dizzy, my legs were shaking uncontrollably, every molecule in my body felt like a firecracker, and I was convinced that the Ouija Board was right.
“Pulse: 300. Blood Pressure: 200 over 105.” One of the paramedics barked out numbers which were hardly reassuring. I looked at Mary whose eyes were wide with fright. Having been a nurse’s aid many years ago, she knew what those numbers meant: I was in grave danger.
“She’s not having a heart attack,” an EMT said, and for a second, I thought she was talking about Mary. She couldn’t possibly be talking about me. Could she?
Before I had a chance to ask, I was bundled up and whisked into the ambulance. An oxygen tube was thrust up my nose and an IV jabbed into my arm. By the time we got to the hospital, my heart rate was back to normal and I felt fine. Still, I remained in the Emergency Room until midnight. At 12:01 it became Friday the thirteenth, not a good sign. An hour later I was admitted into the hospital and finally had to admit that there was something wrong with no-longer-invincible me.
Throughout the morning, I was given a barrage of tests. In the afternoon, a series of doctors paraded into my room, each one asking me to recount the same story. Some of them pointed to Mary and joked: “It was your anniversary? How romantic that she still makes your heart beat faster.” Some of them simply said, “Hmmm.” Each telling wore me out. Finally a tall young doctor wearing thick Clark Kent glasses came to see me. He must have sensed how tired I was because he said, “I’ll tell you the story; then you tell me if I got it right.” It was then that I realized that I was something of a celebrity on the cardiac unit. I wasn’t sure why until a very pregnant intern told me that I was a special case. “Most people with a heart rate of 5 beats per second lose consciousness,” she said, rubbing her hands over her bulging belly.
“And then what?” I asked.
“And then…..” her hands stopped moving, “….never wake up. You’re lucky to be alive.”
That evening yet another doctor came to call. He pointed out the window to a brilliant magenta-tinged sky. “Give me the Yom Kippur version,” he said, perching on the edge of a chair. “I have to get home before sundown.”
How could I have forgotten that it was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day every Jew’s fate is decided? As the Yom Kippur evening prayer says, “On Rosh Hashanah, it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall pass away and how many shall be born, Who shall live and who shall die…..”
Dr. Fox told me he had studied all my test results. “You didn’t ‘faint’ in Kentucky or New York,” he said. “The bad news is: you have idiopathic right ventricular outflow tract tachycardia. The good news is: I can fix that.” Dr. Fox explained that some cells in the lower chamber of my heart were causing it to beat erratically and no one knew why. “You were probably born with this,” he said, “but it’s very mysterious that you had no episodes until you were 57.” Mysterious? I had a theory, but I kept it to myself.
Dr. Fox told me that first thing Monday morning he would insert a tiny tube into a vein in my groin, snake it up to my heart and then “ablate” or destroy the troublesome cells. No, I could not leave the hospital for the weekend to attend Yom Kippur services. No, I could not go outside and get some fresh air. I couldn’t even take a shower, because that would mean being separated from my new best friend: a heavy gray health monitor that lived in the marsupial pouch of my blue flowered hospital gown and continuously measured my blood pressure and pulse in case my heart went haywire again.
It was a long weekend. As Saturday turned into Sunday, periodic glances in the bathroom mirror confirmed my worst fears: forbidden to bathe or wash my hair, I l began looking less and less like myself and more and more like a midnight hag from MacBeth. Vain creature that I am, I didn’t allow anyone except Mary to see me; I could barely stand to see myself.
And then suddenly it was Monday. D-Day. I asked Dr. Fox how his holiday had been, and reminded him that I had been inscribed in the Book of Life. Of course I had no way of knowing that, but at least I hoped it was true.
The procedure lasted three hours and I had to remain awake the entire time. To distract myself, I softly recited some of my favorite poems. The first lines that came to mind were Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me….” which I quickly replaced with Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” About 90 minutes in, Dr. Fox told me he had found the hot spot and was going to do the ablation. I felt no pain, just a strange burning sensation inside my mouth. Once the troublesome cells had been destroyed, Dr. Fox told me to prepare myself: he had to try to simulate an event to see if my heart would race again as it had five nights ago. He made several attempts, but my heart held steady. Triumphant, Dr. Fox pronounced me “cured.”
But I wasn’t convinced. I was still 57. And my birthday was a long six weeks away.
The night before I turned 58, Mary and I had a quiet dinner at home. Afterwards, I asked her to stay up until midnight with me. “Seriously?” she asked. I never stay up until midnight, not even on New Year’s Eve. “Can’t wait to be one year older and wiser?” she teased.
I shrugged. “Just humor me.”
At 12:01, Mary kissed me happy birthday and I told her the story of the Ouija Board. “Now that I’ve lived past my expiration date, I believe I’m cured,” I said. And not only was I cured of my ventricular tachycardia, I was cured of my arrogance as well. It was all too clear that like everyone else, I live in a body that can, and someday will, break down. When? God only knows. I certainly don’t, and won’t unless I grow brave enough and stupid enough to ask the Ouija Board again.
Lesléa Newman is the author of 65 books for readers of all ages including the short story collection, A LETTER TO HARVEY MILK, the novel-in-verse, OCTOBER MOURNING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEPARD, and the children’s classic, HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES. Her literary awards include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. From 2008-2010 she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, MA. Currently she is a faculty member at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Lesléa can be followed on Twitter @lesleanewma.