December 22, 1999
Nose to Nose with Death
At age 50, my ex-wife has finally come face to face with death -- that perpetual question mark in the back of her head as to "when" it might happen instead of "if."
Childhood deceives us. With life stretched out ahead of us, we tend to treat death as a concept that might or might not happen to us, one of the illusions we foster in order to get on with life. If we were so absolute positive of our own demise, we might choose to give up early -- a totally unacceptable to a society which has trained us to produce and consume.
But at some point, the illusion evaporates, and we come nose to nose with our personal demise. Usually some dramatic event causes us to realize our mortality. For a woman it is usually menopause, for a man, the aches and pains of middle age.
I came to mine early, at 37, after a foolish love affair. Others get it after a heart attack or some other near-fatal disease.
For my ex-wife, this moment came nine months ago when she suffered what appears to be a minor stroke.
"I was standing at work when suddenly I felt a wave of nausea hit me," she told me when I met her as the Delaware Water Gap yesterday. "The whole world seemed to start spinning. I could not catch my breath. Something happened to my thinking, too. I wanted to fall down, but I just stood there."
Her boss was no help, snidely telling her to go home if she didn't feel well.
"But I couldn't move. I was frozen to that spot. My boss just didn't understand I was having a problem. I had taken the day before off, so my boss thought I was looking for more time off or something.
"I ended up in the hospital and I've been in the hospital several times since. No one seems to know what exactly happened to me. At first, they said it was an infection of the inner ear that caused damage to the point where the ear connects to the brain. But the doctor said that unusually goes away in four months. I've had this over nine months, so they are treating me as if I had suffered a stroke."
My ex-wife looked pale, something she said happens frequently.
"I have good days, and bad days," she said. "Sometimes I have a bunch of bad days in a row and then I don't even get out of bed."
The problem is, she says, part of the brain seems not to remember things, like how to keep balance, or ordinary things like the pattern of a floor. When she comes to a new place, she is suddenly struck by thousands of impressions, all of them strange, all of them confusing. In times like this, she struggles to make sense out of a suddenly strange world -- a world largely comprised of ordinary, perfectly recognizable things.
"A new wall or floor pattern throws me," she said. "But a sudden noise does, too. I have to search a room for the sound of something just to see what it is that's making it. A hum that I can't explain drives me crazy."
She said it reminded her of LSD, too many images striking her at one time.
"I even see trails," she said. "And I haven't taken drugs in nearly 30 years."
Walking was a real trick. In the weeks following the event, my ex-wife walked with a list to one side, looking like a drunk or someone walking on a tilted floor.
"I had to learn how to walk again," she said. "The doctors taught me how to stare at something in a room and to keep my eye on it, walking straight at it, not allowing anything else in the room to distract me."
She said she's had to learn to do many, many things, as if she was a baby.
"The doctors told me to look at everything and study how they work," she said -- although not putting it in clinical terms -- this involves building new neural passageways in the brain, alternative routes that by-pass damaged sections of the brain in order to relay vital information from the other sensory organs.
One theory of thinking claims that memory and experience are stored in a sequence of interacting nerves, chains throughout the brain and the body. During the first experience, the body sends the message through a specific chain of nerves, each piece preserving the memory of that experience so that when the same experience occurs later, the same chain of nerves reacts.
When that chain is disrupted, memory loss occurs.
The body and brain is remarkable in its ability to build new connections, establishing new chains through which previously lost information can be stored. Often, however, it requires a similar process of testing that a baby first went through. For a 50-year-old woman, this is a frustrating experience. While in some ways, this is a rebirth of the original woman, it is also a haunting reminder of impending death, a lifting of a veil between her and her mortality.
While the bad days grow less frequent and the symptoms less severe, she fears that another stroke or an aneurism might strike at any time.
"I'm afraid," she said. "And I'm afraid for our daughter, who doesn't want to hear any of this. When I try to talk to her about it, she tells me I'll be okay, that nothing will happen to me. But I know better."
My ex-wife also has very few friends who understand what she is going though.
"People don't get it when I try to explain it. They think I'm high, drunk or crazy. They don't understand that when something happens to your brain, the whole world changes, even when I look the same on the outside."