(This is an open letter my 23-year-old self exactly 5 years ago. CW: medical procedures, discussions of death.)
I see you, laying there in the sleeping bag on the hotel floor with your first stuffed in your mouth, desperate not to make any noise even though tears are streaming down your face. All you keep thinking is that you haven’t had enough time. Mads has just turned 5 – is that all you get to see? Is that all the time you get to spend with her? Is that all she gets of you? There are so many places you want to visit, and so many people you haven’t met, things you haven’t done, and 23 years doesn’t seem like enough.
It isn’t. You know this, sure as you know your own name. There’s a whole wider world to see and you’re less than eight hours away from being flat on your back on an operating table. You’ve signed the papers. You know the side effects. Hell, you asked the surgeon to walk you through the entire surgery process, start to finish, because you have to know what you’re getting into.
It’s scary as fuck, and you’ve spent the last month trying keep calm and carry on. The less worried you seem, the less worried everybody around you seems. So you don’t buck up and bury it down for you, you do it for your mom. Your sister. Your friends.
You could die.
You. Could. Die.
But you don’t. Well, you do – you flat line in ICU – and you don’t get to be one of those people who doesn’t remember what happens before and after surgery. You remember everything. Waking up in ICU. The breathing tube.
You remember everything, and even 5 years later it still makes your breath catch.
Yes. Five years later.
You survive. You survive.
Twelve days after surgery you help Mads with her homework. She calls your scar your “hole” and she never lets you be far from your cough pillow. You don’t take your heavy pain pills because they give you nightmares – you gave it up in the hospital, a full day after you were out of ICU – and you wear support hose to help with your leg circulation. Your fashion sense, what little of it there was, takes a nose dive because you can’t really dress yourself. Hell, you can’t bathe yourself, either.
But you’re alive, and it’s enough.
Putting a t-shirt on feels like you’ve climbed a mountain. Ditching the support hose feels like another step back to normal.
You move out about 6 months after surgery – you got a job! – and a little after your first surgery anniversary, you get green-lighted to play soccer again. Almost 3 years on and you ride rollercoasters again. Mom gleefully kicks your ass at bumper cars.
You write more books. You visit Savannah, GA. You move to Buffalo.
You publish a book.
And sometimes, when the night is long and dark and the air is still, you remember that person in the sleeping bag, sobbing silently because she feels like she’s out of time and there’s so much she wants to do. She knows life isn’t fair, but this? This feels cruel.
I wish you knew this, going into that morning. You’ll feel like you haven’t slept (and you really haven’t) and you’ll scrub with that weird soap they give you at the hospital, and you’ll put on an expression that says I’m okay even when you’re really not because it makes everybody else feel a little bit better. You’ll struggle for something to listen to on your way to the hospital, and you’ll put on a brave face for Mom & Dad in the pre-surgical room until they sedate you because you’re so busy trying not to upset them that you’re upsetting yourself and they don’t want that.
You say goodbye to them, that you’ll see them in recovery, but there’s a voice in the back of your head that says that might be a lie. This could be it. That could be how they remember you.
You sleep. You wake up. A man in scrubs and a hair net asks you how you are, and you tell him you’re cold. You sleep again. You wake up again. And you smile at Mom from around a breathing tube, awake, happy, and deeply appreciate that she puts your glasses on your face so you can see beyond the first six inches past your nose.
You’re still breathing. You’re still here.
What nobody explicitly tells you, from diagnosis to surgery, is that it’s okay to be scared. So you tell yourself, wrapped up in bed and with nobody to hear you.
It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to want to scream into your pillow. You do all of those things at one point or another. This isn’t an easy choice to make – nobody likes to look their own mortality in the eye – but you tick the boxes and sign on the line.
And you lay on the floor.
But here we are, 5 years later. We have a kickin’ new scar, a decidedly different outlook on life, and while the world has gone to hell a little bit, sometimes…sometimes we’re so stupidly grateful to be upright and breathing it hurts.
You’ll make it through this. I promise. And after this? We will do what we have always done: carpe the hell out of this diem and then some.
We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that death will tremble to take us.