On the morning of June 26, 2000, I awake with a weird pain in my right side. I stretch, take a deep breath, and assess the situation. No other symptoms. “I must have slept funny,” I think, as I take my dog Lancelot out to pee.
It’s a Friday. A glorious Vermont summer day. My girlfriend Jess and I have been dating for about 6 months, and this is the first time we’ve arranged to have a few days off of work together.
My truck is loaded with our trash. The plan is that I will drop the garbage off at the dump before meeting Jess and her kids, Sam and Tessa, and heading to Lake Shaftsbury for the day.
I don my sunglasses, roll down the windows, and blast Bob Marley. If this had been a recycling trip, Jess would’ve joined me. I would have sorted the paper, plastics, and metal. And, though we both love the thrill of shattering glass in the huge metal bins, I would’ve let Jess do that part.
I used to have rules about who I wouldn’t date: Don’t date anyone who’s married. Don’t date a coworker. Don’t date anyone who’s more than seven years older than you. Don’t date anyone with an addiction problem. And don’t date anyone who’s in the closet.
Jess pursued me and, because dating her would involve breaking every single one of my rules, I resisted for several months. Until the day she cornered me behind the register at work—in the area where employees gift wrap items for customers. I’d kneeled down to pick up a piece of ribbon. She slipped into the closet-sized room, put her foot on the stool beside me, and pretended to be adjusting the strap of her high heeled Mary Jane. She was wearing a short black skirt and knee-high stockings.
“You need some help in here?” she asked.
“No, I think I’m fine,” I said, but the desire to softly slide my hand up the back of her calf as I stood was irresistible.
Rules are made to be broken, right? And if you’re gonna break one rule, why not break all of them at once?
Rules are made to be broken, right? And if you’re gonna break one rule, why not break all of them at once?
Jess had worked at the bookstore for over ten years. She was the manager of, and book buyer for, the children’s department. Later, she would confess that she knew she wanted me from the moment we met. She could even provide a detailed description of what I’d been wearing on my first day of work.
When I arrive at Jess’s house after the dump, she says I look pale. I confess to having a weird pain in my side but insist I’m okay.
On the way to the lake, we stop to get some cash. I feel woozy as I cross the street to the ATM. When I reach the entry to the bank, I have to kneel over and put my head between my legs for a moment to keep from passing out. I wonder if maybe I’m lightheaded because I didn’t eat any breakfast.
Jess and I find a spot on the lake’s beach, and Sam and Tessa charge off into the water. In addition to a book, Jess has also brought a journal. Periodically, she pauses from her reading, writes secret notes in the journal, and slides it over to me. Though she’s left her husband, she isn’t ready to be open about our relationship.
Later that afternoon, I almost pass out again. Finally, I confess that I really don’t feel well. A guy whose kids attend the same school as Sam and Tessa is at the lake, and Jess asks if he’ll keep an eye on them while she runs me home. When she drops me off, she promises to call and check on me in a couple of hours.
As soon as I’m alone, I start to panic. Lancelot looks at me with extreme distress. Something is really wrong. I get an intense stabbing pain in my right side when I take a deep breath.
Jess calls, and I tell her I’m worse and I don’t know what to do. When she arrives at my apartment, she says, “Melba, you look like the gray E.T.” Because this was one of my favorite childhood films, I know exactly what color she means—and how dire this situation might be. The way she looks at me also makes me think that she and I share the same kind of love, the same kind of symbiotic relationship that Elliott and E.T. did. It’s like Jess and I can feel each other’s feelings, and this feels like the truest thing I’ve ever known.
On the way to Mary McClellan Hospital in Cambridge, New York, I try to act like I’m fine because the kids are with us and I don’t want to scare them. But by the time we arrive, twenty minutes later, I can hardly breathe.
Jess drops me off at the emergency room door. I stagger up to the nurse’s station and am immediately whisked into an exam room.
A nurse takes my temperature, pulse, and blood pressure. She listens to my lungs and whispers something to another nurse.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“We need to get some x-rays,” she says.
She offers a wheelchair, and I insist on walking.
I try three times before she tells me to stop. She brings in a wheelchair and takes me into a very serious looking room in the emergency room.
The x-ray technician takes a couple shots of me standing with my hands at my side. Then she asks me to put my hands over my head. When I do this, everything goes black and my legs buckle. As my arms fall, there’s light again, and I manage to catch myself against the wall. I try three times before she tells me to stop. She brings in a wheelchair and takes me into a very serious looking room in the emergency room.
They hook me up to all sorts of wires and give me oxygen. The thing that clips onto my finger and measures my oxygen level reads 78. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.
“What is going on?” I ask for what feels like the millionth time.
“Your lung has collapsed. We’ve called a thoracic surgeon. He’ll be here as soon as he can.”
The word “surgeon” sends me into total panic.
Jess insists on calling my mother, but the only way I’ll tell her the phone number is if she promises to tell my mother not to come. “My family is not comprised of the kind of people you want to be around in a vulnerable state,” I say.
The surgeon describes my collapsed lung as a spontaneous pneumothorax and shows me a diagram. “This is the lining of the lung. And this is the chest wall. The area in-between is called pleural space. The pleural space has negative pressure. Some people are born with a congenital defect called blebs. Blebs are like blisters on your lung. And if they pop, then air gets into the pleural space, and it causes the lung to collapse. We most often see this in tall, thin people in their twenties. And it often happens while they sleep.”
“Blebs?” I think, “Seriously?”
In an attempt to figure out why this has happened, I confess that I used to smoke and ask if that could have caused this. “Well, smoking is bad for everybody,” he says, “You shouldn’t smoke. But, no, there’s nothing you could have done to cause this. And there’s nothing you can do to prevent it. In fact, once a person has a spontaneous pneumothorax, there’s a 50% chance it’ll happen again. After two collapses, the likelihood increases to 75%. So, if you have another pneumothorax in the future, I’d recommend surgery to staple the lung. But that is serious surgery that can sometimes be avoided.”
For now, he explains that he needs to insert a chest tube, which he will attach to a vacuum to suck out any air and fluid and restore negative pressure in the pleural space, in order to help my lung re-expand. I will have to be hooked up like this for several days to enable my lung to heal. He will do the chest tube here, but I’ll have to be transferred to a larger hospital in Albany for the recovery period.
I ask if I can be knocked out for this procedure. “No,” he says. “Your blood pressure is too low. We can’t put you under general anesthesia.”
I feel really cold. I hear a nurse yell, “I think she’s going into shock!” And I think, “Well, this whole thing is rather shocking.”
It’s a tiny hospital, and I’m the main attraction. The entire ER staff is watching as the surgeon injects me with local anesthetic a couple of inches below my right collarbone. He says, “Let me know if you feel anything, okay?” I turn my head away and look as hard as I can in the opposite direction—staring at a blank spot on the wall. He explains every little thing he’s doing. “I’m going to make a small incision and then…”
“Dude,” I say, “can’t you tell I’m trying my best not to be aware of what you’re doing?” A giggle ripples through the onlookers.
The procedure doesn’t really hurt. It’s just gross to think about having a plastic tube hooked to a vacuum inserted into my chest. But as soon as it’s in, I feel immensely better. I can breathe again.
The surgeon examines the froth that is being extracted from my chest. “Hmm,” he says, “I expected the fluid, but you’ve got blood, too. When there’s blood, we call this a spontaneous hemo-pneumothorax. ‘Hemo’ means blood. This is more common when there’s been trauma. Are you sure you’ve only had symptoms for one day?”
“Yeah,” I say, “I’m pretty sure.”
Actually, maybe this is when I go into shock.
I wake up and don’t know where I am. A woman’s voice says, “It’s okay. You’re in an ambulance. Your lung collapsed, and you went into shock. We’re taking you to a hospital in Albany.”
I’m jostled about on a gurney. The fluorescent lights are too bright. I close my eyes.
My hospital room is at the end of the hall. It’s long and narrow, and there are several empty beds to my left. My bed is closest to the door and the bathroom. Plate glass windows run the length of the room, offering a nice view of the city.
There’s an intercom over my bed. When I ring the call bell, a nurse’s voice asks what I need, and I explain that I need help to get to the restroom. My chest tube remains connected to a vacuum, which is attached to the foot of my bed. No one comes. An hour later, I ring again. Same thing. Three hours later, someone finally appears.
The next day a new doctor says that he would’ve put the chest tube in my side instead of near my collarbone. He says we’ll give it a couple of days, but that he’ll probably want to do it over again.
I have to pee frequently, because they still have me on IV fluids even though I’m eating and drinking normally. After repeating the infuriating intercom scenario numerous times, I watch how the nurse unhooks and re-hooks the chest tube and decide I can do this.
“Oh, I’m only going to read you the sexy parts because you seem a little defeated, and I need you to stay fierce.”
“Move over,” Jess says, as she slips into bed beside me that evening. She pulls Michelle Tea’s Valencia out of her purse and begins reading to me. A few pages in, she starts skimming and skipping ahead.
“What’re you doing?” I ask.
“Oh, I’m only going to read you the sexy parts because you seem a little defeated, and I need you to stay fierce.” As she says this, she slides her hand up my thigh.
And it hurts horribly when I laugh.
That night there’s a lightning storm. We turn out the lights and watch the city strobe elaborately before us.
“I’m sorry my stupid lung ruined our weekend,” I say.
“Shhh…” she says, “This is amazing.”
I do just fine managing my chest tube…until day three when I get tangled in the bathroom…and as I stand up from the toilet, the tube goes flying out of my body and blood splatters…and I yell, “Oh, holy fuck!” And Jess goes running…
The doctor returns and says he’d been planning to do another chest tube anyway. “I’ll do local anesthesia, but this is going to hurt. You need a bigger tube, and you are small, so there’s not much room. We’ll have to spread your ribs.”
They bring a gurney into my room and tell Jess to wait outside.
How many nurses does it take to hold down a 95-pound, 23-year-old woman who is screaming and kicking wildly while being stabbed between the ribs? Six.
When I’m discharged a few days later, a nurse tells me not to lift anything or drive for a couple of weeks so that my lung has time to fully heal.
During this “healing” time my mind begins processing, trying to figure out what this near-death experience means. Instead of feeling lucky to be alive, I begin to wonder if maybe I should have died.
I started smoking when I was sixteen. I once read an article that said each cigarette I smoked would subtract about 11 minutes from my lifespan. Instead of being a deterrent, I relished this bit of trivia. I’d exhale and think, “Awesome, 11 minutes less of this bullshit.”
I think maybe, by smoking all those cigarettes with such a death-wish attitude, I’d brought this on myself. Yet, somehow I’d dodged fate. I also find it especially ironic that death would come for me in the first moment I’d ever felt truly happy. I was wildly in love. And this is the price I would pay for breaking all my rules.
Kurt Vonnegut espoused smoking as the only legal, classy way to commit suicide. I first encountered his novels when I was in high school, and I loved Vonnegut so much that I adopted him as my imaginary grandfather.
See, my own family—riddled with mental illness, substance abuse, and religious fundamentalism—left much to be desired in the realm of role models. So, in my teens, the concept of an imaginary surrogate family evolved.
Here are things I told myself: When I’m in need of comfort, all I ever need to do is allow Grandmother Maya Angelou’s deep molasses voice of God to hum through me. When I’m in doubt, Mother June Jordan will hand me her torch of outspoken resistance and hope. When I’m overcome by cynicism, Aunt Dorothy Allison will blow me to bits, then put me back together again—better and different and filled with revolutionary zeal. When I’m stuck in a rut, I should commune with Uncle Tom Robbins, who is sure to zing me with a zany metaphor. When absurdity has me reeling, I can turn to my twin brother, Augusten Burroughs, who will remind me that he, too, often experiences things that are most hilarious and most heartbreaking as one in the same. And, when the darkness looms, all I ever need to do is borrow sizzlingly sinister Sister Sylvia Plath’s lyrical stun gun.
But my collapsed lung has triggered a crisis of faith. I begin to wonder if having non-reciprocal relationships with imaginary people is enough.
There are unsettling complications as my lung heals: sharp, random, shooting pains. My doctor explains that there’s scar tissue in the area where the second chest tube was inserted, connecting the lining of my lung to the chest wall. Part of the healing process involves this tissue tearing, so that the lining of my lung can once again slide against the chest wall.
But since there’s a 50% chance that my lung may collapse again, and this healing pain is virtually indistinguishable from the original collapsing pain, I don’t know how to interpret these signals.
Years earlier, I’d suffered a bad case of pink eye. Long after I’d recovered from this ailment, when I’d begin to fatigue, I’d first feel it in my eyes. Even though the rest of my body would feel fine, my vision would weaken, and it would become impossible to keep my eyes open. It was a strange new litmus for exhaustion that I had no choice but to recognize.
A similar thing happens with my lungs. But instead of being triggered by fatigue, shortness of breath results when I become anxious. Seemingly out of nowhere, I feel like I can’t breathe. I become aware of stressors that hadn’t even been on my radar before. Some reactions make sense: It’s stressful to go to work when Jess and I are fighting. Other reactions seem irrational: I can no longer breathe in the grocery store.
Everyone knows that they might one day get struck by lightning or hit by a train. It’s one thing to understand this intellectually.
Everyone knows that they might one day get struck by lightning or hit by a train. It’s one thing to understand this intellectually. It’s another thing entirely to experience such a reality in one’s body. My anxiety rapidly becomes irrational and debilitating, but it’s grounded in a very real and legitimate fear. There’s a 50% chance that my lung could collapse at any moment—and there is nothing I can do to prevent this.
My therapist tells me I should learn to meditate. She writes a mantra on a slip of paper for me, but I think it’s stupid. So, she suggests I create my own.
I ask myself what words feel expansive and think of Mary Oliver’s poem “Flare.” The final section of this lengthy poem is particularly inspiring:
When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before,
like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket
whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.
Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain,
shaking the water-sparks from its wings.
Let grief be your sister, she will whether or no.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves.
A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.
Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.
In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.
Live with the beetle, and the wind.
I try to memorize this but find I can never get the sections in the right order. Plus, it’s way too long to be a mantra. I think hard about what this poem means to me and decide that it’s all about reconciling the opposing forces of the beetle, which in my mind is a diligent dung beetle, and the wind, which is totally unpredictable.
Neither of these forces is bad or good. The dung beetle’s responsibilities on any given day could become a surprising pleasure—like taking trash to the dump for the woman you love. The wind could knock a limb in your path, or it could suddenly be at your back—making the rolling of the dung ball feel effortless. A collapsed lung. A stunning lightning storm.
It’s not about control. It’s not even about balance. The challenge is acceptance.
I begin listening to a relaxation cd given to me by my yoga instructor, who tells me to focus on my breathing. “You don’t understand,” I argue. “If I focus on, or even think about lungs and breathing—my own or anyone else’s—my chest tightens and I can’t breathe.” She tells me it takes practice, and I decide to fake it by replacing any thoughts of breathing with my mantra: “the beetle and the wind.”
Breath in: the beetle.
Breathe out: the wind.
With these words, Mary Oliver earns a place opposite Maya Angelou as an esteemed matriarch in my family tree. Over the years I find myself returning to these words again and again. They become a practice, a foothold. Though my lungs would remain intact, there would be times when my life would collapse as spontaneously as my lung had.
During a particularly bad week in 2006, my Jeep would break down. Lancelot would die. And I would find out that Jess, who I’d thought was my soul mate, had flown cross-country to cheat on me.
Grief will be my sister. I will know the stump of sorrow. I will scatter flowers over the graves and walk away.
But learning to rise like the green leaves will take quite a long time.
It has now been thirteen years since my lung collapsed. A ferocious looking reddish brown horned beetle, preserved in clear acrylic, sits on my desk. An emerald beetle dangles from my keychain. A scarab carved from onyx, which was a gift from Jess, still holds a prominent place in my meditation area.
They are constant reminders of a single aspiration:
to live with the beetle and the wind.
Melba Major holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles and an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she currently teaches writing. Her work has appeared in The Citron Review and the Southern Women’s Review.