Ten years ago, “Run Jesse, Run,” notwithstanding I wouldn’t have imagined a black man (and one not much older than am I) would be a serious contender for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Ten years ago today I didn’t know what a blog was and Apple was still months away from making our heads explode in a sea of “Bondi blue” with the introduction of the revolutionary iMac when mine actually did.
Still basking in the glow of New Year’s revelry, my fiance and I were returning from dinner with friends when I had the feeling of something being “off.” Seconds later I was wracked with the most excruciating headache I’d ever experienced (and I had a pretty high threshold for pain). I liken it to an old-fashioned flashbulb going off — the blinding flash of light, loud “pop” and momentary disorientation. The “pop,” I would later discover, was an undiagnosed bubble aneurysm giving way in my brain.
Mercifully the pain was fleeting, which quelled my fears about what might be happening, thoughI spent the night throwing up. It wasn’t until we looked up my seemingly disparate symptoms (intense head pain, photophobia, nausea + vomiting, inability to touch chin to chest, sensitivity to loud sound, confusion) in the AMA Family Medical Guide that I sought medical attention.
We dashed to the nearest ER, explaining “I think I may have a sub-arachnoid hemorrhage” which was met with a smug “Okay, hon.” Hours later, after a CT scan, a spinal tap and the misery of bright ER lights, I was sent home with extra-strength ibuprofen and the advice to speak to a neurologist about pain management should the migraine continue. I knew it was no migraine, but was relieved to have a frightening diagnosis dispelled.
The next day the hospital paged my fiance, telling him to get me back immediately. Something hadbeen missed in the reading of the tests the night before. God, luck, time was on my side. I was transferred to New York Hospital/Cornell Medical and was greeted with the warm, bedside manner of the neurosurgeon (and department head) who would perform the carotid arterial clipping. My devout mother and sister took to their knees and spread word among the faithful to pray me up. Friends gathered for a pre-surgery bedside soiree. My man left my side only when the hospital enforced it, an even then, he remained just yards away, folded up in a hard waiting-room chair. I was enveloped in love.
That night I was immersed in a trippy dreamscape of travel to worlds unknown and in what could be described as lucid dreaming, I came back to my reality and awakened to the sun rising over the East River with tears in my eyes and peace in my soul. A nurse walked in and said “Oh honey, don’t be scared.” I shared that I was unafraid, just profoundly moved by the simple act of sunrise.
I survived. Surgery Saturday, home on Monday. During my follow-up visit, I learned that my surgeon’s other two aneurysm patients that week hadn’t made it–one a octogenarian pillar of her Bronx community, the other, a thirty-something father of two small children. The doctor stressed to me told me how lucky I was and that I should go forth and enjoy life–but no skydiving.
Mine was a remarkable recovery, though I lost my sense of smell. In a gesture that unbeknownst to him was the one of the best gifts I’ve ever received, a friend sent me, “in lieu of flowers,” Coltrane, The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings boxed CD. The flowers I’d been receiving, though beautiful, were painful reminders of my missing olfactory sense. The flashing images and loud sounds of television were more than my recovering brain could handle, and reading at any length was tough but I could sit and listen to music (with the volume on low). My man and my moms were wonderful through my convalescence; my landlord lowered my rent because she knew I’d not be able to work for a while; my colleagues and the community of artists of pre-gentrification Fort Greene, Brooklyn rallied to my aid, hosting a fund-raiser at local restaurant Two Steps Down. I am eternally grateful for their show of support.
In the last ten years, I have experienced unspeakable joy and heart-rending loss. I launched a freelance career, that by hook or crook, I still enjoy today. I have married and divorced. I found new love and the promise of motherhood. A baby, I believe to have been a son, lost.
On September 11, 2001 American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. On board was my sixth-grade teacher, Sarah Clark; on the ground, family-friend Peggie Hurt (who’d just relocated to the DC area for her new Department of Defense gig). On the 92nd floor of 1 World Trade Center, brilliant artist and dear friend, Michael Richards enjoyed an incredible view during his artist’s residency. He didn’t make it out.
But we who survive have wept bitterly and we continue on. For every tear I’ve shed, I too have pealed with ab-tightening laughter.
And I have traveled. I have been rendered speechless by the massive girth of El Arbol del Tule, the centuries-old tree that stands in the Mexican town of Santa Maria del Tule, rendered breathless by the monumental hike of the Pre-Columbian archeological site, Monte Alban and rendered blithely intoxicated by true Mezcal shared with Oaxacan artists in an Old City dried riverbed.
In southern India, I have traversed the backwaters of the communist state of Kerala by rice barge and have been trapped in the ominous tangle of the deceptively beautiful water-hyacinth. I have bathed in the Arabian Sea on the sunkissed beaches of Goa; fell in pachyderm love with a six-month-old elephant called Minna and went into sensory overload in the cacophonous mix of autorickshaws, painted trucks, free-wheeling scooters, pedestrians and proliferating livestock on any Mumbai street.
In Australia for the Paralympic Games, I was was awed by Marlon Shirley and the untold Paralympians who have, despitetheir varying disabilities excelled in sports. I found myself, with “Gumpian” serendipity squarely in the middle of the state funeral procession for indigenous Australian Activist, Kumantjayi Perkins. As the mourners wound their way through the city streets, smudging the air surrounding the hearse with burning eucalyptus, grieving gave rise to a rally for Aboriginal Reconciliation. I was honored to raise my voice against racial injustice alongside my black brethren of the subcontinent. I was wowed by a comprehensive exhibition of the so-called “dot” paintings of the Aboriginal Artists’ Cooperative Papunya Tula.
I welled up as I entered the acrylic underwater tunnels of the Sydney Aquarium, abundant with sea life. Encircling me, sharks, stingrays and the most graceful dancing sea anemones. In a public park I sat, thisclose, to a group of Kangaroo while my yidaki (didgeridoo) playing friend made primordial music.
As I reflect on my path since that pivotal day in early 1998, I am overcome with gratitude for the wonders of this journey I am on, the power and abundance of love, and the reminder from a dear friend, to “be like water.” To simply flow.