Then the pain in my chest started. Heartburn, I thought. But the pain spread, then intensified. I dropped to my knees and doubled over.
I said to my wife, “I think I might have to go to the hospital. Get Norman.”
When I started coughing up blood moments later she agreed.
This might be it, I thought. Will it be Jesus welcoming me with open arms? Or just peace and darkness?
I thought about saying goodbye to Angelina, who started waking from her nap when I started retching; all I could hear was her crying as I coughed blood onto the floor. I remembered what Mom said about her father’s final words as he left for the hospital with chest pains: “You kids be good for your mother.”
As I staggered out the front door to the truck Katie called out, “I love you.” I paused to spit out some blood and in a hoarse voice I was able to call back, “I love you.” Those are good last words, I thought. The best. Norman and I left her at the house with the baby, who was already falling back asleep.
The waiting room was full, but the Richmond Kaiser admitted me quickly—chest pains and coughing blood seemed to grab their attention. After x-rays (clear) and a blood draw (normal) the ER doctor stopped by to interview and examine me. He seemed skeptical of my story at first (coughing, or vomiting?), then confused (mashed potatoes? Gilmore Girls?). Then he pushed on my torso with his stethoscope. Almost immediately I started gushing sweat, then retching, then vomiting blood.
They plugged an I.V. into my arm and dropped me off in Critical Care, where I spent the night flat on my back taking shallow breaths, trying not to swallow, drifting in and out of an uneasy sleep.
The murmurs of my roommate were occasionally disturbing. He was lying on the bed next to mine, hidden behind the yellow curtain. He tended to complain, and woke me up some. Too much, I thought, until I heard him mumble from behind the curtain, “No, not narcotics. Something non-narcotic. Been clean and sober fourteen months and I want to stay that way.” He chuckled at the nurse, “You know if I can do it now I can do it anywhere.” I felt ashamed.
By the morning I had stabilized; no more bleeding or vomiting—just constant, radiating pain that forced me to breathe shallowly, a pain that intensified and receded with every reflexive swallow. They endoscopied me—took me into another room, hooked me up to more tubes and wires, drugged me again, then pushed a small camera down my throat to see what they could see. I’m told they found nothing; I was conscious, but the drug cocktail erased my memory of the event.
I remember only one truly emotional moment: as the nurses wrapped oxygen tubes around my face, I started to think about the way Angelina’s fine blonde hair feels against my cheek, how her little hand grips my thumb, how she leans into me when I pick her up, and tears started leaking down my face. I was able to hide it at first by rubbing my eyes, but the tears flowed too easily and I couldn’t maintain the pretense. A nurse asked me if I was in pain. When I said, “No,” they said no more, and I can remember nothing else.
Later when I woke, Norman was talking to someone—the hospital chaplain, I realized, and so I pretended to be asleep. But he seemed the decent sort, so I opened my eyes.
I said, “Hello…” and read his I.D. and blurted out, “Is that your name? Mac Lingo?”
He said it was.
I smiled. “That’s the name of the guy who helped me become Catholic—my RCIA sponsor.”
“At the church… I think it was Magdalene?” he asked.
“Mary Magdalene,” I answered, nodding. “Yes!”
“You must be talking about my son!” he laughed. “You know he’s in seminary now…”
“… down in Menlo Park,” said I. “I had lunch with him last month. Is he still excited about the priesthood?”
The three of us chatted for a bit about serendipity and small worlds, and when he left I felt better. I passed the time by reading some of Jürgen Moltmann’s The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, assigned for one of my classes and especially appropriate for my situation. The sections I read in the hospital included “Where are the Dead?,” “Do the dead have time in the fellowship of Christ?,” “Do the dead have space in the fellowship of Christ?,” “The community with the dead,” and “Death, Mourning and Consolation.” I stopped at Section III: “The Kingdom of God: Historical Eschatology” because I was in no condition to get excited about my research. I needed to rest.
This isn’t the first time in my life I’ve felt close to death—it’s not even my first food-related brush with mortality. A few years ago I was in a serious motorcycle accident, and a few years before that I nearly choked to death on an unchewed piece of Katie’s
BBQ steak London Broil (I don’t think she’s made it since). That first silly brush with death triggered what you might call an existential crises, a deep reexamining of my life and purpose that led me into depression and fear, and out again through the other side to peace and joy; it shifted the course of my life out of carpentry and into theology, where I find myself today.
They never figured out what happened—the theory is that something tore a hole in my esophagus, causing me to bleed and retch and vomit. [I’m pretty sure I swallowed broken glass; I found the chipped Pyrex bowl several days later]. No cut, tear, or injury was ever discovered, but the pain became manageable. On Tuesday morning they discharged me with wonderful prescriptions and a horrific bill, and blessed Norman drove me home, where Angelina and Katie were delighted to see me, and I them.
This post has been updated to reflect the fact that yes in fact my sister Jody did come to visit me in the hospital (Thanks Jo-Jo!), and also that Katie no longer cooks her lethal London Broil. [and again to reflect my theory about the broken glass]