I’m lying beside a window which blushes red, dark, red, dark. I’m aware of myself as a watcher, almost a listener for the first time. This is an awareness of consciousness, of watching rhythm, color, pattern, and silence. Across the hall lies another being in the dark–my baby sister just born. It will be years before I have a memory of her separate from her relation to myself.
What is it that makes us who we are? Years later, I will marry for the second time. On the first date with this eventual mate, we will argue about Lilian Hellman’s writing. Sitting in a spring Sunday restaurant, he becomes argumentative. Not harsh or cruel, just engaged. Now I remember only the general subject and the fact of each of us taking a stand and arguing about it. I am also aware of my continuing surprise that from this beginning we evolved into mates.
Why? Because my father’s arguments ricocheted through the house of childhood, leaving me stunned, with my back turned to him. I was a child then, and he was arguing with my mother about whether there was a spot on his uniform. Typical work-day anxiety but at exhorbitant decibels. He was racked with anxiety. Later I faced him in our Carolina kitchen and talked back, told him “colored people” were not massed outside our door, ready to murder us in our beds. Talking back–a crucial effort to sustain sanity and the worth of my own opinion.
Blood red. Not a color I would ever choose for a car, but my second husband has bought a number of red cars and drives one now. Recently it occurred to me to consider when I’ve encountered women writers describing the cars driven by men. Trish Hampl in A Florist’s Daughter considers her father’s Oldsmobile, a car for the wealthy, it seems to me, and in this case, also of a man edging toward death, and buying himself something fine. Women, as a whole, do not fixate on cars. So I notice my noticing of this red car parked outside our house.
I’m guessing it was six summers ago when I was yanked out of writerly solitude on the North Shore by my husband saying to me over the phone: “My left leg is swollen.” Remember how we argued on our first date. He has shown himself to be a man who almost reflexively responds with disbelief when I assert something. A form of argument. In this case I was so concerned that I phoned back the next day. The leg was more swollen.
You perhaps have guessed what I began shouting at him long-distance. Finally after several more days, I packed up and started the five-hour drive back to the Twin Cities. When I arrived, he was not at home. But I tracked him via cell phone to the emergency room where he was waiting to be seen. Quite a bit later, he appeared at home: he had a blood clot in that leg, he had a prescription for a blood thinner and a return appointment in a few days.
Thick blood. Blood is thicker than water. Thick head. Argument is thicker than assent. Three or four years passed without blood trouble, our pattern of assertion and denial, assertion and denial, with me insisting and he usually, though not always, taking the action I urge. Telling it this way makes me sound like a bully. I hasten to add that many times he will assert something, and I will argue back. Oddly enough, given the pattern of our first date, he is not as determined in his stance, or at least he doesn’t desire to pursue a point the way I often do. This makes him seem like a softie, which he is not. Result: we occasionally have quite bitter exchanges, arguments, fights–whatever you want to call them, because he has finally had it and let me know. Then I often capitulate. Or not capitulate but come over to his way of thinking. Or act as he wishes because it is he who wishes it.
Blood red. When blood hits the air it is rich, vibrant red, but it soon turns darker. Think of a scab, almost black on your leg. Two summers ago my husband and a guy friend took a baseball driving trip to Kansas City. They were supposed to be gone three or four nights, a long weekend. I invited some friends over for the dinner to keep me company the night before they were supposed to return. That afternoon my husband called and said he was not feeling well and they would be home around 5 p.m. Not to change my plans, he urged, he was going to bed.
He crawled through the front door. I could not believe my eyes. “My stomach feels terrible,” he said. “I was afraid to stand up because I might faint.” With his friend’s help he got upstairs to bed. I brought him some ice to suck on–all he wanted. And a basin in case he vomited. Then I went downstairs and had my little dinner party.
Over the next few hours, he vomited blackish stuff. Argued that his stomach was upset and it was probably the ribs he’d eaten in Kansas City. I went to bed. Around midnight I was aware that he was not beside me. Going into our large bathroom, I found him on the floor. He was not very articulate. I felt the rise of anxiety and decision. I called 911. The paramedics came within minutes and took his vital signs. “You know, his vitals are all normal,” one told me. “We usually don’t take someone in if that’s the case. Call us if things change.”
Two hours later, after sleeping and waking to sharp awareness, I found he’d vomited. This time it looked like blood. The paramedics worked upstairs while I gave all the pertinent information by the front door. I saw him carried out, so weak he couldn’t hold his head up. They had him in a sling.
I often wake very alert around 3 in the morning. The city streets were eerily lit and very dark. By the time I reached the emergency room, he was being pumped full of blood. He’d been bleeding internally. Various doctors had inspected him. But it was the team of emergency-room nurses that saved his life.Their concentrated and knowledgeable efforts, and the blood that replenished the many pints he had lost.
Several days later, after an endoscopy showed a tear in the esophagus, he admitted that he and his buddy had been drinking quite a bit during their baseball adventure–beer in the ballpark, then several or more shots of the hard stuff in the motel room at night. For someone on blood thinner, alcohol in more than one drink is very dangerous because alcohol also thins the blood. The tear in the esophagus probably resulted from various kinds of acid reflux and eventually vomiting. It’s a phenomenon common to hard drinkers.
Needless to say, we don’t argue about how much he drinks any more.