Kage Baker used to say she wanted to go “all of a piece”, like Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Wonderful One-Hoss Shay.
If you, Dear Readers, are unfamiliar with the famed 19th century American jurist and poet Holmes. it would do you all good to get to know him. Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica or any poetry anthology worth its ampersand will give you information on him. His career on the Supreme Court is especially interesting; he remains one of the few Supreme Court Judges known for his scholarship. As a poet, he displays a rather dated voice, often hilariously so by modern standards. But he is a decidedly American poet, sometimes excruciatingly folksy but also heroic and emotional in a manly way. Kage liked him.
(When we went aboard the U.S.S. Constitution on a trip to Boston, Kage stood on the deck and recited Holmes’ Old Ironsides. The crew was unperturbed; they are are used to it. In fact, though there was no tour then scheduled, they invited her below decks for one anyway.)
The point here is that the carriage in the title doesn’t wear out: it is logically designed so that no one part is any stronger than another – so it continues on and on, not subject to decay because it all ages at the same rate, and thus no part can fail.
This struck Kage as a good way to age, personally. Her goal was to have all major bodily systems quit at the same moment, allowing her to fall gracefully dead or at least into a pile of dust. That, you see, was the eventual fate of the Wonderful Shay – at precisely 100 years to the day from its completion, it gave a dreadful lurch and was reduced to a pile of shavings and splinters.
This was also the day and moment, historically, of the Great Lisbon Earthquake in Portugal. This is an event rarely remembered to day, except in Portugal, and associated islands like Majorca and the Azores – this despite the fact that it was a humdinger of a 7.7 complete with fires, gaping fissures and a tsunami. But it was recent history for Holmes, and a disaster of such astonishing magnitude that he considered it appropriate as a death-knell for the Wonderful Shay.
Anyway, that was what Kage wanted to do when she died. I wished it had been that way, too, instead of the relentless months-long deterioration of her last months. Though she bore it with astounding courage and cheerfulness, it was hard. But that last day, at least, it did happen almost as she wanted. She fell peacefully asleep in the literal arms of her family, in her own bed, with the sound of the sea in her ears. By the time her poor tired body stopped, she was long gone into the West, and there was nothing else for her to do. It was as close to a quiet crumbling as she could manage.
I, too,wish to go like the One-Hoss Shay – and for decades, as I bounced evidently unharmed from disaster to disaster, it seemed that I might succeed. I healed with inhuman speed; I either recovered from diseases with insouciant ease, or never caught at all plagues that felled everyone around me. I entered my 60’s confident, content, and probably fairly arrogant.
Well. I fell from grace and health with a speed and thoroughness more suited to some classical Greek king bad-mouthing the gods. Whole systems failed en masse, or in chorus-line sequence; things went wrong I had never even heard of in a lifetime of care-giving at other peoples’ beds. I did not know, for instance, that you could break two valves at once in your heart; or that a hole could then be torn in your heart by the valves acting up like pistons in a cartoon. I never knew that after heart surgery, it was common to have all your hair fall out. (That alone made me almost reconsider the benefits of surviving, for a little while.) I had somehow never learned that going on a ventilator was considered a permanent disability – but when I woke up 3 weeks after heart surgery, I was not expected to walk, talk or breathe on my own again. I was expected to stay in a nursing facility, like a good little turnip …
Wonderful Shays are not consigned to the back of the stable and left to rot. I was having none of it, and with my family’s support, and by being both stubborn and a really bad patient, I made it home. Since then. I have been working at returning to something approaching normalcy. It’s been ridiculously hard, Dear Readers, which is why these blogs have become few and far between. It’s like climbing a cinder-cone: climb 13 inches and slide back 12. Days go by with small but definite improvements – then some minor thing exhausts me or trips me up, and I sleep for days. I want to be part of my household again, but all too often I am merely a piece of furniture.
I am neither drivable, nor a pile of dust. It’s freaking depressing.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a bad patch – fell down 3 times in as many days, one of of them a nose-first bash into the living room floor. Not only did I scare my poor sister, I bruised most of myself, and then wrenched the rest by the contortions required to get me upright again. It’s still difficult to type, after scrunching my hands.
Then today, I encountered a new problem. While dining on leftover Chinese food – s one does; the only thing better is leftover pizza – I realized that my mouthful of barbecued pork was simply not going down. I had chewed it thoroughly, swallowed it properly, I had not inhaled it: but apparently my throat is now narrower by some tiny but crucial amount, undoubtedly due to unsuspected scar tissue. It was bizarre, surreal – I couldn’t talk or make a sound, had (somehow) nothing to throw to get attention … and it was suddenly getting harder to breathe …
So I Heimliched myself. I had no idea if it would work, but no one had ever told me it wouldn’t, which is always enough for me … I clenched my fists together and punched myself as hard as I could just below my sternum. That moved things enough for me to croak “Help!”, and then explosively vomit everything I’d eaten that morning. I hadn’t eaten much, but I couldn’t stop. It was disgusting and messy, but it worked! I could breathe again!
I fear I scared my family half to death, but it worked! Within 20 minutes, I was pretty much fine – clean, in fresh clothes, breathing easily. Shaking like an aspen and really wobbly, but it was a vast improvement. Kimberly made me some lentil soup when I was up to it, which was warm and wonderful – one is always so hungry after throwing up, once one finally stops.
Anyway, Dear Readers, I Heimliched myself successfully. I am inordinately proud of this. I am also exhausted and vow to eat soft food slowly for the next several days. And it was really good Chinese food, too … sigh. Kimberly observed what an interesting blog post this would make; what occurred to me was how Kage would have yelled at me for the entire silly incident.
But, you know, I just have to resign myself that the elegant fate of the One-Hoss Shay is not to be mine. Probably I won’t even manage Kage’s dignified departure. I am just more the pratfall type, the person who stands under the falling safe, steps on the banana peel, is mistaken for fresh salmon by a hungry bear … decapitated by a nutjob with a thrift-shop katana. Badly. Kage was the One-Hoss Shay, but I am the unfortunate city of Lisbon.
It’s going to take an earthquake hour to make my end. And in consideration of the last two years, I think that is how I really want it.