I was at a dinner party this weekend, and bizarrely, all four women at the table had endured the same emergency surgery. We each had a story. Pretty sure mine was the worst.
My tale begins at Hever Castle, Anne Boleyn’s family estate 30 miles southeast of London. Mr. Oliver and I were visiting our eldest daughter and her family. We had decided to do a little sightseeing that morning when I felt suddenly odd but in an indefinable way.
The 13th-century house and gardens proved to be a distraction for a couple of hours, although I was becoming vaguely more uncomfortable. Even so, I was absorbed by the framed letter Anne had written to King Henry the 8th the night before her beheading. Knowing she was going to die, she transmuted all the rage, injustice, and terror into unconditional love. I got it. Maybe because I was feeling increasingly ill, I could empathize with the feeling that when you can no longer save your body, you can save your soul. The only room to stand in was compassion and forgiveness. I felt a new sympathy for Anne and a bit of envy that she was at peace. The fact that I was now envying a dead person should have been a clue that something was seriously wrong.
By that night, I was in so much pain, I asked to be taken to a hospital where I was examined by what is known in the UK as a Junior Doctor. Young and very pretty, she failed to perform the one test that would have quickly led to a diagnosis and sent me back to our rental with a charming shrug.
A day later, still feeling awful, I hauled my luggage to Heathrow and boarded a United Airlines flight back to the States alone. I struggled to lift my overpacked suitcase onto the scale at check-in, to hoist my carry-on over my head, and to endure the 8-hour flight.
I landed at BWI after dark, where my son met me at baggage claim and drove me home in a blinding thunderstorm. I don’t think I mentioned feeling ill. I hauled my luggage inside the musty house and bumped it up the steep wooden staircase to the second floor. There, I threw worn clothes in the hamper, delighted in a warm shower, and laid down. (Hello, my own bed! Hello my pillows!) It was midnight by then, and I felt dreadful, but I was home. I arranged myself on top of the covers, fully clothed, and waited to die. If I didn’t, I’d make a doctor’s appointment in the morning—whichever came first—didn’t care.
At 9:00 am the following day, I lay on the crinkly white paper of an exam table, and my very American doctor plunged his fingers deeply and quickly into my abdomen in a rebound test to see if it hurt. I yelped, he nodded with satisfaction and told me I had a ruptured appendix. “Go get an MRI to confirm it,” he said, “then come back here.”
I walked slowly back to my VW and drove myself to the radiologist, where I’d have to be worked into the schedule. Sagging against a chair, I waited my turn. An elderly lady in a wheelchair was taken back. Someone with a broken wrist was called. I wondered if I should explain (again) to the receptionist that my appendix was leaking toxins into my abdomen—and maybe in this one case belly trumped broken bone—but I didn’t want to be rude. Americans do one thing nearly as well as the English. We queue. We are not line jumpers. We are very democratic about waiting our turn. I like us for this.
Eventually, I was called back. A kind radiologist said, “How are you doing?” then quickly looked from my face to the screen in front of us and said, “Never mind, I know how you’re doing. You’re one sick girl.” She then showed me the shadowy rupture and the little leaking river of poison.
Having confirmed that my appendix had ruptured sometime between feeling odd at Hever Castle and now, I drove back to the doctor to get a referral for surgery, then drove myself two miles to the hospital. Upon arrival, I wondered if I could make it from the parking garage to the entrance. I decided to try valet parking for the first time and pulled up in front. But the valet wasn’t there.
Somehow that was the first unfathomable obstacle I’d encountered. I stared at the empty podium where he usually stands all zippy-helpful, got out, and looked around. Perhaps he was behind a pillar having a smoke. I walked into the hospital. “I need surgery. I can’t find the valet,” I said, as mystified as if they were hiding him. A kind and intuitive volunteer in a pink smock held out her hand. “Just give me your keys,” she said, and a wheelchair appeared.
Up on the surgery floor, I was offered a landline at the intake desk to contact a friend or family member. I called my son at work in Baltimore.
And that’s when I lost it. The instant Andrew said hello, the dam broke. Abruptly I could no longer speak. I tried to choke out my story, but it was such a terrible story I couldn’t articulate it. I think the only understandable thing I said was, “Andrew, it’s Mom.” And all I heard, all I will ever hear in memory, was, “I’m on my way.”
I lost it at the sound of the cavalry.
Why is love our undoing? Why is it that love breaches our defenses when no obstacle could? Later, he said the call was horrifying. I was unrecognizable.
The surgery was a success, but I was hospitalized for five days. I guess it was a close call. But was it?
I wonder if the end is written into the beginning. I’ve fallen through ice on the river as a child, and been held underwater so long by a breaking wave at Cape Hatteras that I could only feel detached surprise that this was how I was going to die.
I’ve been fired upon by someone with a rifle while exploring the woods with my best friend as a girl. We dropped to the ground in a hail of gunfire as tree bark exploded shoulder-height around us, then stood up and ran. Did the shooter think we were deer? We were 14. We were lucky. Or were we?
If my time of departure is on a calendar somewhere, already marked, it means I only have to drop my resistance to love. How much I love will equal my reluctance to leave when it’s time to let go, so I parse it out. I think I live avoiding heartbreak which is such a waste because I know deep in my soul there is no end to avoid. It’s safe to go all in. I won’t be leaving; I’ll just be walking into another room of the same house.
So, I could die today, tomorrow, or decades from now. All I ask of grace is that I find the courage to live a life I don’t want to relinquish. All I ask of Love is that I get home first, where I’ll be waiting for you.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.e