Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sibling Assignment #122: Into Thin Air Ties Me to Being on the Shore of Death

Silver Valley Girl posted this assignment:

Write about reading a book, and how you were tied to that book, by a certain character, a certain plot line, etc.

I will post my links to my sisters' posts as soon as they appear.

My brother-in-law, Brian Diedrich, hosted my stepdaughter, Molly, over spring break, 2000 and sent the book Into Thin Air home with her to read.

About four months earlier, I had been very nearly killed by a bout of bacterial meningitis.

Little did I know that a book about a deadly climb on Mt. Everest would tie into my experience with meningitis and my other experience with death so closely.

To put it simply, Into Thin Air is about life on the verge of death and in that state of existence the true character of a person most clearly emerges. Falseness dies. The core of each person rises up. In some it's admirable. In others it's nearly despicable.

I'd been on the shore of death before. In 1973, I was nearly killed in an accident at the Bunker Hill Zinc plant.

On the verge of dying in 1973, I relaxed. I saw my situation and I submitted to it. Trapped in a roaster filled with sulfur dioxide gas and toxic mineral dust, I laid myself down, make a pillow by putting my hands together in a prayer-like gesture, and closed my eyes to die. I didn't pray. I was stubborn when I thought I would die and remember deciding that I wasn't going to beg God for my life. I would just die.

That surrender saved my life. By lying down, I got underneath the gas and dust and, in the mean time, the error that has let the gas and dust into the roaster to begin with was rectified and I felt my way to a permanent ladder welded into the roaster and climbed toward the exit, where Roger Grosvenor shone a light for to see and climb toward.

Once at the hospital, I joked about the doctor being nicknamed, in our family, "Shakey". I joked about all the drinking I'd done over the weekend. My first response to crisis: joke about it.

Into Thin Air helped me realize that on the shore of death, which every climber of Everest passes through in the Death Zone as they approach the peak, one's perceptions of reality shift. The senses' powers erode. The brain works at a child's level. Moral or ethical decisions are impossible. If faced, a moral or ethical decision isn't made. It's already been made. A climber can only be who he or she has been.

No mental processing.

Just one's character. Who one has been. It's fated by one's past attitudes, decisions, and actions.

When I was in the Intensive Care Unity, one of the nurses asked the Deke, sort of jokingly, "What's the deal with your husband?"

"What do you mean?" asked the Deke.

"Almost all of our patients, when they are in your husband's condition...well..they curse us, flail around, are angry, even though they aren't fully conscious. Your husband almost seems thankful to be here. He's cooperative. He calls out for his mother. He wants it to be Christmas. I don't think I've ever seen this before."

When I came out of my coma, my first concern was whether I'd be able to drive to Portland on Thursday or Friday. I had told my family I'd come to pick them up. We had a trip planned to the coast. It never crossed my mind that I'd been in a coma, had been, if not in critical condition, in serious condition.

My first concern was that I follow through, pick up Mom and my sisters and Everett.

All through the first days of my recovery, once out of the ICU, the world seemed to have a fantastical veneer. I looked out my window at the fog shrouding Hendricks Park and I thought I'd been transported to a magical land, far from Eugene, and I nearly started to cry.

I don't know if I've ever felt so many surges of love as friends and former students came to visit me. I had no defenses. I was coming off the shore of death, but as long as I had a foot on that shore, I was vulnerable, exposed, without emotional protection.

Into Thin Air connected deeply with me because it gave me a framework to understand my experience having been on the edge, of tottering delicately between life and death.

I've had many struggles over the course of my life with temper tantrums, outbursts of what seemed to be rage. If they had happened at another time or in another situation, I probably would have been sentenced to Anger Management courses.

But it wasn't anger. Anger is not what resides at the core of my being. At the core, I'm soft, tender; I want those around me to be cared for; I want things to work out for my family, both the one I was born into and the one I married into. I'm the same way at my job. It's why I'm not political. I don't have the stomach for it.

When I was on the verge of death, it wasn't anger, but something gentle that I expressed.

The tantrums? Mental illness. That illness couldn't be managed with behavioral seminars. I needed medicine.

I regret every one of those tantrums. They've damaged relationships in the past and have had a lasting detrimental impact on my marriage to the Deke.

They don't happen any more. I can't remember the last one. Medication has helped calm me and on an hour to hour and day to day basis I'm much more like that guy who was on the porch of death and made jokes, wanted his mother, cried out for Christmas, was delighted by fog over a hill, and loved his friends and family for their attention.

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