Two days before I was scheduled to fly to Vermont for a four-day writing retreat, a beautiful friend of mine in her forties suffered an aneurysm on a plane ride home that took her life a few days later. I had also started a second of two post-apocalyptic novels and was keenly aware of that man in Texas who was confirmed to have ebola (and has since died). As the panic about ebola spread on the web, it merged with the shock at my friend’s death, my fear of flying, crept into the cells of my skin and tangled with my nerves. It set off an electrical storm inside my body that threaded out into the insistent pulse of my heart, left me walking around in a state of extreme anxiety.
These things, plus a serious drought in my home state of California, have put me in an apocalyptic state of mind, a feeling that death and cataclysm are just around the corner. Turning forty in August hasn’t helped. Yes, I’m still so young, but also maybe, possibly, at the midpoint—maybe only forty years ahead of me left (and who knows the quality of those?) Or possibly I’ll come to an end next week, in five years, nature finally rearing up and showing us how tired she is of our human abuse of her, or suddenly and unexpectedly, like my friend.
Four days before she died, I spoke to her in the weekly Zumba class we took, both of us often slipping in late where we’d chat at the back of the room. She had a voice like a valley girl and a face like a Russian Bride. On this last occasion of conversation, I told her of being bleary with nights of strange insomnia, my body running hot though with no measurable increase in temperature, my nervous system revved and reacting to normal noise and lights with heightened sensitivity.
“Hormones,” she said with wrinkled nose. “All hell broke loose when I turned forty. Maybe you should have yours checked.”
I took her words to heart and, despite a terrible fear of needles, had a blood panel run. The results turned up nothing of note, but the bruise on my left arm was still there the day I learned that she died. It was still there when I stepped on the plane to fly to Vermont, buzzing with anxiety.
I thought a lot about the imperceptible changes in our physiology—one day you are still young, and then you’re forty and you see the end of the ticker tape. One day your body is in balance, the next your hormones are rising and falling in minuscule formations, tumbling away your equilibrium. One day you’re coming home on an airplane, and your body undergoes the ultimate betrayal—an inner explosion, a combustion of nerve and blood and oxygen. Then you wander in the gray space of limbo, whose existence no one can confirm or deny, the in between of a body registering its potent pulses and electrical charges that have gone to sleep. Machines beep their confirmation of your existence, as your soul struggles toward…what? Is there really light? Or color. Maybe it’s the big, gaping door of a movie spaceship, Close Encounters of the Final Kind, awaiting you.
Or you wander through a landscape of literary apocalypse—as romantic as it is melancholy, people bonded together over the essentials—to love and survive, as starkly beautiful as it is terrible, a world in which the worst has happened. It’s always a virus; the unseen gets us every time. You read about a band of traveling Shakespeare performers, or you land in a world where climate change and flu have stripped us of our comforts, or you slice off the heads of zombies or you stay up at night wondering how it feels to die of ebola.
The night I left home to travel to Vermont, my husband offered me a stoic “be careful” and I held my son extra tight, drew my fingertips across his surfaces, memorizing, settling him into my neurons, kissed his tiny lips and promised him I’d return. I worried that I might be making a false promise, that for a few days of time to myself, I might—he might—pay a final cost. There was no logic at work here. My friend died, in essence, while traveling on a plane. I would be traveling on a plane. People die while playing basketball and after making love; they die suddenly of heart attack and protractedly of cancer.
Flying redeye in the strange mute world of airplane white noise, I could not sleep, a limbo of discomfort, neck pressed flat against tray table, hot pain up each vertebra. Was this how my friend felt in the moments after her aneurysm? A place of mild discomfort, uncertain where or when.
Did my friend know what was happening in the moment of her vascular collapse, did she catch a glimpse, a flash, a sudden surge of knowing in her heart, in the imperceptible landscape of her cells, of this impending transition? Did she, perhaps, feel a hint four days earlier, when we last talked, that these were her final days, that life was precious and wild, a riot, a symphony, an apocalypse?
While I sat and sipped wine and wrote about my dreams and fears with a room full of women, rain lashing our little farmhouse–rain I hadn’t seen at home in almost a year–I got news that one of my best friends had lost her father. Though as safe as I’d felt in months, I couldn’t find the words even there to speak the sorrow of these losses. Instead I settled it into my cells, held these losses as reminders of the brevity of life, of how quickly it may end by virus, disease or accident. Whether we consider it, or we don’t—it arrives too soon.
Jordan’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in: Brain, Child, Coachella Review, Medium–Human Parts, Modern Loss, Mommyish, The Nervous Breakdown, New York Times (Motherlode), ReWire Me, Role/Reboot, The Rumpus, The San Francisco Chronicle, The St. Petersburg Times, Sweatpants & Coffee, the Washington Post, Writer’s Digest Magazine, The Writer and more.
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Photo, “Eye Veins” by Steve Begin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.