Karen Ocamb

Signs of That Inconvenient Mortality

Filed By Karen Ocamb | November 29, 2010 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: inconvenient mortality

We Baby Boomers, we perpetual Peter Pans, we idealists who thought we could change the world - and did - we are facing an incontrovertible fact: the end of Being. "Be Here Now" now has a secret proviso: yes, be here now, right now, in this moment but please let me be here beyond that - tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and the day after that.

mortality.jpgWhen did I start worrying about the end of my future?

Intellectually, I grasp the inevitable. But truthfully, all my high-minded existential contortions just poof into shredded confetti when faced with very real signs of that inconvenient mortality.

And that's what happened Saturday night.

Three days earlier, actually the night before Thanksgiving, I was wrestling with an angry upset stomach, cramping and throwing up over something I ate. I didn't realize until sometime in the morning that the right side of my head was throbbing and a sizable knot at the base of my skull was shooting daggers into my brain. When quiet, the bump unrelentingly radiated searing pain. It felt like a serious hangover after a whopping bender with a lot of stumbles and falls - or at least that's as I remember them from 30 years ago when I was still drinking and using as if there was no tomorrow. But I didn't remember falling and hitting the back of my head three nights ago so I chalked the bump up to a spider bite during the moment or two I caught some sleep. It would go away on its own.

I got myself together and went to a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner at Diane and Bernadette's house, mentioning nary a word lest someone worry and badger me into going to the Emergency Room to have it looked at. Distracted by this loving extended family of choice, I just endured the headaches.

But Friday was a waste. My head hurt too much to move around. I stared at football and movies, with the sound on mute. I kept waiting for the damn thing to go away. My poor dogs had to accept that their time outside would be limited to the green space just down the stairs from the apartment - no walk today. They snuggled next to me as I tried various pills: Excedrin didn't work. Tylenol Sinus worked for a minute. Advil PM helped by knocking me out.

By Friday night, I was thinking about the neighbor down the street who had an unexpected stroke and died shortly thereafter. Just as I'm entering a new stage in my life - I could be stopped short by a short-circuit in my brain, I whined - though still trying to tough it out.

By Saturday afternoon, the headaches had eased up - the shooting pains were intermittent and I'd grown used to the uncomfortable throbbing at the base of my skull. I relented a bit and decided that if the damn thing didn't go away by Monday, I'd go to the doctor. I called my friend Sam, who handles the insurance policies for Frontiers, to get an update on our plan. He told me to call my primary care doctor ASAP - which I did. When she called me back, her tone was a rude slap awake: Go to the ER RIGHT NOW!

Whoa. OK. This isn't just a hypothetical threat, nor is waiting-it-out a smart choice. I immediately shifted into calm, action mode. I fed the dogs, took them out and called my friend Adina - she's a dog whisperer - who blessedly dropped everything and agreed to come over to hang out with my two rescues. I had no idea how long it would take for the tests or if I might have to stay overnight. I knew my young Carin terrier would just howl with the abandonment.

I grabbed my cell phone and charger and "The Promise" by Jonathan Alter about President Obama's first year in office and headed for Cedars-Sinai, which is not far away from where I live in West Hollywood. I wound up watching the USC-Notre Dame game, turning to the book in the third hour of my nearly six-hour stay.

It's cold in the ER, especially with only that flimsy gown, a thin sheet and thin blanket. It's cold and frightening listening to patients in nearby beds crying, complaining, arguing as machines grind and swirl and pound and the staff talks office politics. Every now and then a nurse would pull back the curtain to come take my blood pressure and ask me questions. We had determined early on that my symptoms ruled out me having a stroke - vision was OK, no numbness or tingling. I started feeling embarrassed, as if I was taking up precious space and time with a headache.

And yet - how explain that bump?

The nurses, doctor, technicians and support staff were all very nice and helpful. But in the hours when they were not engaging with me, I felt like a product to be shuffled down some assembly line.

With all the cacophony on the other side of that curtain, I felt still, quiet and useless. If I wasn't in imminent threat of dying, what was I still doing there with so many others in worse shape? I felt embarrassed to be taking up space and ashamed of my vulnerability. Where earlier I fought with myself about going to the ER - now I fought with myself to stay.

But while it is deeply humbling to compare my situation to the gravity faced by others - it is nonetheless my illness and if not faced squarely, could deteriorate. I remember having this conversation with my friends with AIDS when sitting in the waiting room watching others far thinner than my friend, as if his less ravaged being was akin to wellness. That the other was worse off was not somehow inherently more tragic and ennobling - it was just worse off.

So I stayed, feeling like a meat-slab with a mouth when going through the cat-scan, imagining SAW IV-like blades suddenly breaking free from the machine and slashing through my strapped-down face. I stayed, pushing away the small TV Cedars smartly offers as a distraction and picked up the thick Alters book, trying to dive into the saga of Barack Obama. I stayed, making myself responsible for my own amusement and inner well-being. I smiled a lot when someone popped in.

I'm glad I stayed. It turned out I had an infection - Mastoiditis. I'm taking antibiotics and ibuprofen for the infection and the headaches - and I'm extremely grateful I have health insurance.

It's ironic, really - this suicide survivor grateful for health insurance and another shot at life. When I was in college, I was haunted by Albert Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus" - especially the question why not suicide if life is so absurdly devoid of meaning? And yet - the sheer act of endlessly rolling that damn boulder up the hill was an act of defiance, a determination to make for himself meaning in action. Camus called it a "revolt." And Sisyphus smiled when the boulder rolled back down again because he got to do it all over again. "The struggle itself," Camus wrote, "is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

I embrace that imagination. And I go one step more: I get to choose my rock. I have the ability to die with no regrets - whenever that is - defiant of that inconvenient mortality.

So, yes, it is absurd to fully Be Here Now and also to wish and plan and hope for more moments like now. And it is absurd to be grateful for this little infection that caused me so much pain that now I can chose to laugh and surrender and fall into the absurd like a huge feather bed. Now and again.

(Crossposted from LGBT POV)


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I'm glad you're still with us, and hope mortality keeps its creepy head out of the rest of your business until you're ready.

Long-ago suicide attempts and The Myth of Sisyphus are two things we have in common, Karen. Occasionally the thought of suicide enters every seriously pondering brain; but when the suicide ghost haunts me so persistently that I hunt down my copy of Sisyphus and work through that essay one more time, I know it's necessary for me to do something different, something focused and sure to steer my thoughts toward the positive.

When I was getting clean and sober - 30 years ago (!) - I had to say, "I will not drink, use or kill myself one minute at a time." Eventually that changed to, "Don't kill yourself five minutes before the miracle." Sometimes the "miracle" was just something that made me laugh. Now when I find myself with those dark thoughts, I seek out something to make me laugh and surrender to that.

Someone once said something to the effect that laughter is the highest form of intellect because your mind makes a connection before the consciousness does. If that's true, it's almost spiritual. I think Camus would have laughed at that absurdity.

Be well and thanks for sharing.

Yes, I relate to this, Karen, as my advancing age makes me think about mortality against my wishes. I'm glad you're feeling better. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

I love you and I'm glad you're feeling better, Karen. Let me know if I can anything at all to help.

Thank you, all. I really appreciate all your kind words.