Published in the Rains County Leader on May 12, 2020:
Has anyone ever asked you if you’re afraid of death? I think all of us have dealt with that question at some time in our lives, even if it was only in our own minds. My stock answer has been, “I’m not afraid of dying, but I don’t look forward to the process.” Twice in my life I’ve had a chance to test the validity of that answer, and I’d say it pretty much passed the test.
The first incident happened about fifteen years ago while we were living in Florida. I woke up around 4:00 am feeling really odd. There was no pain, but I felt as if someone was doing a very uncoordinated tap dance in my chest. David was dabbling in currency trading at that time and often rose very early to check the foreign exchanges before they closed. I lay in the darkness for a while, taking a mental inventory of symptoms and feelings, and finally went into the office.
“David,” I said, “can you check my pulse.” He had been a Navy Corpsman for a number of years, so I often took minor medical issues to him. He put his fingers on my wrist, and his eyes grew wide.
“I’ve never felt a pulse like that in my life,” he said.
We discussed options, and after waiting a bit to see if things settled down, I called the nurse hotline on my health insurance. She recommended that I go to the Emergency Room. I left cereal and juice on the table for Mom and Dad, along with their morning medications, and we headed toward town.
I still wasn’t in any pain, but I knew something unusual was going on. We were both quiet, and I remember thinking, I wonder if this is the day I meet Jesus face to face. I wasn’t afraid, but I knew I’d be leaving a complicated caregiving situation behind. As it turned out, I was having an episode of A-Fib with a very rapid heartbeat. After a couple of days of observation and some follow up tests, no contributing factors were found, so I was told to take an aspirin and call if it happened again. My life didn’t change a great deal, but I had confirmed in my own mind that I really wasn’t afraid of death.
Now, fast forward to a couple of weeks ago when I had the brief brush with death that I teased about in my column last week. We had just finished dinner, and I was finishing up in the kitchen while David scanned choices for our evening’s entertainment. I checked the dining area to see if I had missed anything and noticed I hadn’t taken my evening pill. It’s for some condition or another related to my advancing age, and David brings it to me when he gets his after-dinner meds. Swallowing pills isn’t a big deal for me, so I grabbed it, popped it in my mouth and took a swallow from my water bottle.
I’m not sure exactly what happened, but that pill didn’t go down. I’ve had pills or food “go down the wrong pipe” before. The process is usually a very noisy one involving lots of coughing, gagging, and sputtering, but this time was different. It was silent – deadly silent – because the pill had sealed off my airway like a Tupperware lid. I tried to take in a breath to cough, but nothing happened. I couldn’t cough, and I couldn’t utter a sound. David was leaning toward the TV, trying to read descriptions of movies without his glasses and totally unaware of what was going on.
I slapped my hand against the counter, but he’s used to me being noisy and didn’t look up. I ran over and slapped him on the arm. He looked up, and like the time when he took my pulse, his eyes widened.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
I put my hands to my throat and turned my back to him, and he knew what to do. He put his arms around me and jerked upward three or four times. The pill didn’t pop loose and fly across the room the way it does in the movies, but it moved enough that I could gasp in a little air.
“Did that get it?”
“I think so,” I croaked.
He squeezed a couple of more times, just in case, and I wondered what would happen if he broke a rib. When he finally released me, I retrieved my water bottle and sat down, shaken but breathing. After a couple of hours and some hot tea, I felt better but knew my throat and maybe my ribs would be sore for a while. I also knew that, even though I still wasn’t afraid of dying, I definitely didn’t want to die from suffocation.
The next morning I faced one of those times of choosing I wrote about in last week’s column. Although I take only one pill in the evening, my morning regimen includes a small handful of prescription meds and vitamins. I usually gulp down all of them at one time, but that morning, I wondered. Should I take precautions, breaking the larger ones in half or taking one pill at a time? Then, I remembered my own words – I had choices. Dwelling on the possibilities or getting on with my day? Fear or faith? After the initial hesitation, I swallowed them all at once. I chose not to live in fear but to remember again what David said in Psalm 23:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me; Psalm 23:4