Aging is an Attitude: The Shadow of Grief, & The Messenger

We’ve all heard or read the quote (a paraphrase of Friedrich Nietzsche’s) “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. If you’re one of the lucky people who’ve not yet experienced deep grief – the kind that steals your life force, dims all hope for the future, and lasts much longer than you ever imagined you could sustain emotional pain — then you probably haven’t taken Nietzsche’s philosophy for the “test-drive” it deserves. Of the many Life Lessons within the human experience, profound grief is a process that halts all but the most vital body functions needed for survival. Sometimes even food, water and sleep seem unnecessary and even absurd to the grief-stricken. In my experience, it’s not a matter of ‘becoming stronger’ in the aftermath, but more accurately, experiencing a metamorphosis.

Shortly after my son turned 18, I had a very strange encounter with this kind of grief. I became so distraught that I felt certain – and still do – that my entire body, on a cellular level, was altered by it. Like a lot of kids his age, my son had been weekend candle-burning (at both ends) as high school graduation neared. So, when he complained one March morning of a sore throat and fever, no surprise. My son stayed home from school a day or two, while I went to work after making sure he had juices and pain relievers at-hand. But by the end of the third day of illness, his fever still hovered at 103 degrees. His body was wracked with pain. He couldn’t sleep. I took him to the ER, but they were mystified. A dose of Cipro was given by injection. A few days later, we were back in the ER – at about 2:30 a.m. My son’s temperature was now 105 degrees and an Intensivist was called-down from the ICU wing to intervene. I was almost in full panic mode at that moment, but still not feeling the full brunt of what was about to come. Grief had not yet entered my heart, as extreme worry was still in charge.

There’s a special look that medical personnel give one another – it’s a signal transmitted by eyes, intensified by the half-covering of surgical mask — that telegraphs, “Uh-Oh.” Of course, I caught that look and there was no going back:  I made the leap from concerned Mom to hysterical She-Bear in a nanosecond. Stark reality was revealed in a high-speed jumble of “No-time-to-waste-your-son-is-dying” stream of words that shot out of their mouths (there were now four Intensivists crowded around my son) as they punched a thumb-sized hole in his right side and began draining his lung of what turned out to be three liters (go ahead, envision a Pepsi bottle, because that’s accurate) of infection. My horror was only surpassed by the instinct to comfort my son who was clearly in shock.

Lemierre’s Syndrome  is an “ infectious thrombophlebitis” of the jugular vein. It’s basically a sore throat that turns into an abscess that ruptures, sending nasty bacteria into this main vein and creating, very rapidly, sepsis throughout the body. It is almost always fatal, crushing the heart with fluid and causing its failure. Lemierre’s is extremely rare, typically affecting males between 18 and 25, and so sudden that the patient usually dies before a diagnosis is even made. My son had had this disease for almost 8 days and had begun the dying process while in the ICU for another 9 days.

In cases of massive, full-body infection, multiple bags of IV antibiotics are strung up on metal posts that look like aluminum Christmas trees, circa the 1950’s. As I lay in the lounge-bed (picture a sort of double-recliner) they wheel in for the family when things are really bad, I’d given myself over completely to Grief. My son’s skin was waxy white. He was totally motionless. A machine was breathing for him. The machines all around the room were indicative that his body was wholly dependent on them.

The thing about Grief is, it’s so personal. It’s like your shadow – it’s yours alone, an image created as light is absorbed by your body. But the shadow of Grief lingers, even when the light goes away: flat, clumsy, gray.

It was in this “shadow form” (as it felt then), in the early morning,  that I wandered into a hallway, a short distance from my son’s ICU pod. They’d taken him in to surgery. The ‘good’ outcome was the removal of his infected lung; the ‘bad’ outcome was the strain on his heart, then death. I was so deep in my sadness that I barely noticed a very disheveled man shuffling toward me. Dazed by sleep-deprivation, I still had the thought, “How did a homeless person get on this floor?” I looked up at the man who was about 20 feet away from me now, and gave him the ‘caution’ with my eyes:  “This is not a good time to hit me up for change”.  I noticed his eyes seemed bloodshot. An alcoholic, I thought. His hair was longer, sun-bleached, and looked matted. We were the only two people in the hallway – at about 7:30 in the morning – on this hushed, serious, people-here-die floor. I kept looking at him, resigned now, to hear whatever he was going to say (just get it over with and leave me alone!), too tired to resist. In fact, I was sure that I’d start crying when he spoke. I was still sitting, and now this man was right in front of me, standing over me, sort of swaying. Like he was coming off of an all-night bender.But I didn’t smell alcohol. I could see that his clothes weren’t actually dirty, just really baggy and worn. He leaned in close, maybe 18 inches from my face. I recall thinking, “This is very, very weird”, but didn’t feel the need to brace myself for an attack of some kind. And then he spoke. One sentence. Wait — no, he couldn’t have said what I thought I heard. Shocked right out of my stupor I said, “What? What did you say???!” The man backed up a little bit, gave a small smile with his lips, not a grin at all, and repeated, “Your …son’s …going to be …ok.” And then, he did a 1-80 turn and started walking back to wherever he’d come from. I assumed I had just hallucinated, but kept looking at his back as he walked away, knowing he was real and what I’d heard I had not imagined. Who was this guy and how did he know about my son???

When my ex-husband Tom (he’d come from out of town and stayed with us at the hospital for two weeks) got back from moving his car out of a Red Zone, I told him about the man. Tom jumped up to look for him, but no luck. I described him in more detail, thinking that maybe the man was one of Tom’s Vet (Vietnam) buddies ( a lot of them now looked like hard times). But Tom said he hadn’t shared our son’s illness with anyone but his side of our immediate family. So, where did this guy come from, we wondered? There was no way a stranger could’ve entered the ICU, or heard us talking with the doctor about our son’s critical condition. As we waited for the surgeon to let us know the outcome of the surgery, we spent over an hour trying to make sense of my experience, exhausting ourselves even more, mentally.

Four hours of surgery later, my son’s sweat-soaked and bleary-looking thoracic surgeon Dr. Kwajah came to where we still sat. He told us that our son was alive, still gravely ill, but used those magic words, “He’s turned the corner”. Tom and I looked at one another and had the same thought, which we’ve talked about many times since. We were both fairly sure that our son would die and that Grief would over-take us. But someone had appeared and assured us of a different outcome. Grief can be unbearable and feel enduring. But in the shadow of it, miraculous transformations are also possible.

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