Monday, January 7, 2008


Cause all I really want is to be with you
Feeling like I matter too
If I hadn't blown the whole thing years ago
I might be here with you
Tomorrow we can drive around this town
And let the cops chase us around
The past is gone but something might be found
To take its place...hey jealousy
-- “Hey Jealousy” Gin Blossoms

On a spring afternoon on a Saturday in 1984, I got a telephone call from my ex-girlfriend. She’d just broken up with her current flame and she wanted to talk, It seems he’d said something about “maybe seeing other people” and that was it for her, because she was always as possessive and jealous as a stereotypical Latina or Southern Belle, without being actually Hispanic or Southern.

That had been more or less the reason why we’d broken up, in fact. One of the phrases you can almost always count on as a hit in a cold reading is to suggest that someone “wants love but has a fear of commitment.” At least that works for anyone who is in his mid-thirties and has never been married. So sue me.

We spoke for a while, about all manner of things. Neither of us had any strong urge to get back together; that wasn’t what the call was about. But we’d been in love at some point at least, strong feelings linger, and we’d worked at staying friends, so there we were.

Then, after maybe a half hour on the phone, she said, “Uh, Jim, you’re going to have to help me out here. I’ve suddenly got a splitting headache,” Then I heard the phone clatter to the floor, and there was nothing but silence on the other end.

I like to think that I’m capable of rising to most occasions, but on this one I think I failed more or less completely. I couldn’t call her aunt and niece who lived in the same house with her, because the phone was off the hook. I should have called 911, but it didn’t occur to me, partly because I had no idea what had happened. I could have called a friend of mine, who lived only a few blocks away, and asked him to check up on her, but I didn’t think of that at all.

All I could think of to do was to run out to my car, hop in, and drive over. If I thought of any of the other things on the drive over, I didn’t think to stop the car to try to find a phone. Once you commit to a particular action (drive over as quickly as possible), you’re loathe to change direction.

The drive took about half an hour. I got there just as they were loading her into the ambulance. Either her niece or aunt had tried to use the downstairs phone and had gone upstairs to see why it was off the hook. They’d found her and called 911, like I should have done.

I pulled into what turned out to be an illegal parking space, thereby earning my one and only San Francisco parking ticket. I rode with the ambulance to the hospital. I don’t have lot of reliable memories of that evening but two stand out: watching the CAT scan results as they appeared on the screen, and, earlier, just as she was about to go into the MRI, holding a bedpan to her lips as she vomited into it.

The technical term for what I watched on the CAT scan is “hemorrhage of a sub-arachnoid aneurism.” The sub-arachnoid arteries are in the skull, but not in the brain, as such. A hemorrhage of one of these arteries produces the usual: pressure on the brain which causes extreme pain and nausea. An aneurism is a bulging weakness in a blood vessel, which makes hemorrhage more likely.

It turned out that it had happened to her once before, in college, when the only treatment was a week in a dark room, hoping that it would get better. It had, but it was still a ticking time bomb in her skull. It’s amazing how much people don’t tell you about themselves; she’d never mentioned it to me.

Since her college days, a surgical treatment had been devised: a metal sleeve to put over the aneurism to keep it from rupturing. I happened to know a neurologist who gave me the statistics on the matter. About 50% of patients never make it to surgery; they die either in the initial bleeding or from subsequent short term complications. Of those who manage to make it to surgery, the survival rate is 50%. I hope it’s gotten better in the intervening years.

I did not share those statistics with her, or anyone in the family as we all waited for her to stabilize sufficiently for surgery.

The boyfriend was there the next day, and he didn’t leave her side during visiting hours during the time leading up to surgery, nor during the week after it, while she was recovering to go home. Actually, that’s not quite true; he did leave whenever I was around. By the time she went home, he’d convinced her to get back together again.

They lasted about another year, as I recall, but I might have that wrong. By the time they broke up for the second time, I’d gotten my own illness and wasn’t paying much attention to the outside world.

His motives for the bedside vigil are too obvious to be worth analyzing, but I will note one thing. He’d always resented me, the ex-boyfriend, which is hardly a news flash on anyone’s terms. But it took me a while to realize the new element that the crisis had added. I’d been the one who held her head while she vomited into a bedpan. And he was jealous of that. It was an intimacy that he had been denied.

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