My Husband, the Other Survivor

I found myself caught up in the down-and-dirty Survivor finale, which my summer was coming more and more to resemble. There was Kelly, devious manipulator, who won points for soul searching. And Rich, the self-described Fat Naked Fag, the straightforward manipulator who gambled craftily and won. The outcome, a Mars-Venus parable if ever there was one, could be a metaphor for my marriage in its latest medical-emergency phase, my husband eluding the Grim Reaper once again through no effort on his part, while I scurried to cultivate relationships necessary to our survival.

Think of Rich lying in the sand, sucking oranges, opting out of the final immunity challenge while Kelly and Rudy compete in a stand-off. Rich, realizing he will never outlast Kelly, figures he has the visibly straining Rudy in his pocket (per alliance). With somewhat less aplomb, and certainly less payoff at the end of the road, my husband had been lying around more than usual since a June automobile accident. His walk seemed to deteriorate-a progressive rather than dramatic deterioration after a 1984 brush with death, I thought. He complained that his head “felt funny,” but that’s also a signal for high blood pressure, another chronic problem.

By the July 4 weekend, he felt he might be having a stroke or heart attack. I thought it was anxiety but took him to Southampton Hospital, where they gave him blood tests and pronounced him fine. Three weeks later, he seemed seriously worse, reaching for words, barely walking even with a cane. An internist in New York suggested we go straight to Southampton Hospital. This time they did a CT scan. Diagnosis: massive subdural hematoma.

We thought this was the end. He was to be transported to Stony Brook Hospital; I would have to get there on my own. I went home first, called a doctor friend in the city. “It was probably a slow accumulation of blood in the brain from having been shaken in the accident,” he told me, “and then it burst through. Stony Brook’s a good hospital, just make sure the neurosurgeon and anesthesiologist are board certified.”

Friends drove me there. I was already in a state of terror and guilt. Why had I not taken his symptoms seriously? I’d been mad with worry, but also just plain mad, urging him to walk, get his blood pressure down, stimulate his leg muscles. And why hadn’t they given him a CT scan his first go-round? Was it the routine refusal to perform expensive tests without a prescription from a doctor-and, with it, the assurance of reimbursement? Or was it that tendency among medical professionals, as well as family, of seeing anyone over 65 as a generic old person-a sort of mental triage whereby we relegate them to the category of “the elderly” and discount their complaints, not seeing beyond age to the sneakier symptoms of underlying illness?

As it happened, the neurosurgeon on duty at Stony Brook wasn’t board certified-he’d had six years of residency, but hadn’t gotten around to taking his exams-but as he explained, in a refrain we would hear from numerous doctor friends, “It’s the simplest of all brain surgeries. Anyone can do it.” Through a small incision in the cranium, a shunt would be inserted to drain the blood. For the next three days, the patient would lie immobile while the soft part of the brain, which had been squished toward the center, slowly expanded. Two-and-a-half hours later (not 20 minutes, as he’d said), the doctor emerged.

We’d been given a second miracle. It was déjà vu all over again, but in a more benign version. My husband was one day calm, making jokes, declaring his love (was he in shock, anesthetized to his predicament?); the next day, in fine paranoid fettle. “Where’s my pad and pen, I need to work,” he said. “Of course I’m going to go to Atlanta Aug. 5″ for a Turner Classic Movies gig. He had banished the nurse for trying to catheterize him, and when I suggested he relax, he exploded. His identity was his work; he needed to show he wasn’t just another geezer with time on his hands. His lips curled as he challenged me with leaving him and having fun.

“What’s the matter?” I asked. “You were so sweet yesterday.”

“Now that I know I’m not going to die, I can be myself again.”

“You don’t have to worry about leaving cherished memories, is that it?”

I could see we were already embarked on the seven stages of recovery. When he was in stage three, Cantankerousness, I was still running on adrenalin-fueled contentment with the Nursing Role, but I thought a little teasing might help. “If you don’t behave better, I’m going to have to write another book,” I said. “This time put in more of my one-liners,” he responded.

He called two nights later to describe his hallucinations. The next night, he telephoned at 3 a.m. to complain that the man next to him was screaming and beating on the bed with a spoon (no hallucination-I could hear him), and five hours later he called to say he was being released.

Back in New York one Sunday, we were doing reasonably well when he awoke with a rash. The visiting nurse, alarmed, packed us off to New York Hospital. “Is this the man who writes those film reviews?” asked the doctor on duty, and I knew that the moment my husband became a valiant Somebody instead of an anonymous malingerer, the medical personnel would snap to attention. The rash was a reaction to Dilantin, the anti-seizure medication that President Nixon is reported to have been indulging in.

My husband takes Cartesian dualism to an extreme: living in his head, not grasping that the brain is an organ and, if he doesn’t take care of the rest of him, there’s not going to be a head to live in. It’s now or never, I tell him, and he nods his head-that stubborn head now shorn of its Frankenstein staples.

At present we’re both in stage 61/2, Intermittent Normalcy, a general feeling of relief punctuated by moments of elation, depression and fear. Intimations of mortality overshadow our lives, but the game is all the more worth playing when the “accidents” no longer seem so freakish, when the odds are diminishing and survival is only temporary.