Now providence fills center stage: a ruptured brain aneurysm brings three weeks of my fog while friends were storming heaven.A priest-professor friend e-mailed me this summer sympathizing with my recent condition -- a ruptured brain aneurysm on April 7 and its attendant coma, days on a ventilator, weeks in the intensive care unit and as foggy a mental state as I can ever recall experiencing. "I went into a coma three years ago," he wrote, "only no one has noticed yet."
I am still laughing, though most of the past four months has hardly been a joke. I feel as if I was cheated out of three weeks of living, as I have barely any memory of anything that happened to me or transpired between April 7 and April 29 when I was transferred from Englewood (New Jersey) Hospital to Helen Hayes Hospital on the shores of the Hudson in West Haver straw, N.Y., for five weeks of physical, occupational, cognitive and recreational therapy.
Some of my friends can't understand why I feel such a need to know what went on during those 22 days in Englewood Hospital. These friends assure me it's probably better not to know. I have a bright future ahead of me, they tell me, and should only enjoy it and be grateful I am making such a fine recovery. Grateful, f most certainly am, but that makes me no less curious about what these three weeks of utter mystery meant.
I recall a friend's mother once telling us to pray for the sick, because when one is ill, one hasn't the energy to pray for oneself. In my case, I had not only no energy for prayer, but no cognition. Still there was a hand-decorated, poster-size card of Jesus' Easter triumph on my bedside table, signed by 22 local Missionary Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception with whom I am an associate member.
"We are storming heaven for you -- pray in a circle every a.m. after we fold the laundry. Keep up your heart. Love, Helena," was just one of the greetings from sisters named Nora, Christina, Justin, Marian, Carmel Rose and others. When my memory began its return journey, bringing with it longer and longer periods of clarity, it was this card with its handmade bursts of glitter bounding from Jesus' tomb that led me back to prayer. While recuperating at Helen Hayes, I wondered: Were these women the angels encircling the tomb, and what was Jesus' own state of cognition during his three days of enclosure?
In Mankato, Minn., the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who had educated me in their Minnesota classrooms, once more kept vigil via prayers, letters and phone calls. Closer to home my folk choir colleagues and tennis partners prayed in local churches and Buddhist temples.
In the weeks since this sudden event, I enjoyed a steady stream of visitors at Helen Hayes and more recently at an assisted living facility near my home. Many of the callers have recounted seeing me in Englewood Hospital -- how I looked, my movements, my words and most prominently my smile. I have reports of my sister-in-law feeding me soup, of a friend putting my socks on and of receiving kosher macaroons and Passover wine from the ex-wife of my ex-husband.
My pastor, Carmelite Fr. Leonard Gilman, told me he twice gave me the last rites -- once while I was in the coma and later. I thanked him. For surely the sacrament strengthened me. But why do I remember nothing of these encounters? And why was my smile the best predictor of full recovery for so many?
"Twice?" a Jewish friend inquired. "What's the matter? It didn't work the first time?" Thank God for a brain aneurysm, I mused. Any chance to impart some interreligious information is welcome. But when I told her that over my accident-ample lifetime I'd had the last rites at least five times, I could tell it did nothing to convey the power of the ritual in her mind.
In contrast to the optimism of friends and not unaware of their prayers for me, which they'd communicated in cards, e-mails and phone calls, I felt somehow ungrateful to feel so down, foggy and as unsure of the future as I was of the recent past. My fear that I would become an invalid had overpowered my consciousness while in the ICU. Although I experienced a huge disconnect between consciousness and being, while at Engle-wood, I sensed my fear was almost obsessional in nature. It had the power to overwhelm the fog phase of my illness and to rise up like a specter and capture all of me. Whether my visitors saw it or not, apparently I verbalized my high anxiety to several onlookers.
On June 31 learned from my neurosurgeon, Dr. Paul Saphier, that only 30 percent of persons with burst aneurysms survive. The rest die in their sleep or within six months. "Your mother was the sickest person in Englewood Hospital in early April," he told my daughter, who sat next to me in his office where we watched a film of my brain in surgery with the site of the ruptured blood vessel indicated.
When I thanked him for saving my life, he instantly gestured towards Katelijne. "Your daughter and your family support system saved you." What mother does not puff up with pride hearing such news and recalling that for 30 days Katelijne had e-mailed nightly reports of my condition to family and friends around the world, requesting their prayers.
In the doctor's office, I realized anew how lucky I'd been--given that I'd paid attention to a prominent voice (whose voice?) urging me to go to the Faith Sharing book discussion evening at our parish April 7 though I had a headache that made me just want to pop two Advil and dim the lights. Even as I was entering the Elijah Room of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Tenafly, N.J., where the discussion was to occur, I heard that voice again telling me, "Speak up, Patricia. Get the help you need." I knew too that Marianne Reilly, a topflight hospital nurse, would be at the meeting, able to assess the situation and summon aid.
In the weeks since my brain blew its borders, I have had much time to utter thanksgivings and to wonder why I escaped death and disability. "Miraculous" is the often quoted word I hear when friends see me in a state of repair just weeks later. "Everyone who saw you in the hospital thought you were going to die," declared friend Eileen Donovan, a hospice volunteer for 25 years, a fervent prayer and the leader of the book discussion -- still miffed that my aneurysm knocked the wheels off the evening that she had so well-prepared.
Four months on I dare to think it too: I nearly died. Others have not been so fortunate. If one can preview one's ending, then this was a good death -- almost painless, surrounded by the prayers, love and presence of so many. I was wished well, dispatched into the care of the Divine and had my life celebrated around my bed and in hundreds of sent messages.
"Providence" -- that big word that keeps me present -- now fills center stage. I trust my life's unfolding will continue. I will bring gratitude and compassion to each new day. Meanwhile it's time to savor the psalmist's refrain: "I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made" -- and to dance to Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here."
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[Patricia Lefevere is a longtime contributor to NCR.]