In The Kitchen - Mary Jumbelic
The stainless steel of the refrigerator door felt cool against my forehead. My pulse banged inside my ears. My throat seized up. I tried to quiet my sobs as my breath came in staccato bursts. My eyes squeezed shut. My youngest son, a man of 25, turned on the light in the kitchen.
“Mom, what’s wrong?” he said. I turned to him; tears spilled down my cheeks. Marty looked like he had just finished working out -- dressed in a sleeveless t-shirt and running shorts, his hair plastered to his forehead.
“I just can’t go on a ventilator again,” I said. “Please let me die at home if I get Covid.”
Spring of 2020 had arrived in New York with a tsunami of COVID-19. My oldest and youngest sons returned home to quarantine with family. My middle son already lived in town. This closeness of all of us together reminded me of my former convalescence. They had been beside me then too.
Marty came to me and put his arms around me. He pulled my head to his chest. When he was six years old, he barely reached my elbow. I called him my little peanut. He grew and I shrunk. I wet his t-shirt with my crying.
“I know, Mom, I was there,” he said.
It had happened eight years earlier, but the memories remained fresh. One second, I had been breathing, and the next instant I wasn’t. I remembered counting the respirations per minute just before I passed out. I had thought this isn’t good. As a physician, I recognized the signs of impending respiratory failure. The ventilator had sustained me for over a week.
Far away from home in the Czech Republic on a vacation, I had succumbed to an infection that invaded first my hand and then my arm and then the rest of me. From the time I had fallen and scraped my knuckle to losing consciousness had been less than 48 hours. Necrotizing fasciitis from a flesh-eating bacterium permeated my skin and tissue and caused sepsis in my blood. A cytokine and toxic storm (like the effects of coronavirus) swept through my body.
I had required dialysis and intravenous antibiotics along with medication to maintain my blood pressure, quell my fever, and perfuse my brain. The intensive care unit became my home for three weeks. Without sophisticated medical intervention, I would have died. Even with it, the outcome had been far from certain.
Weeks had passed before I could eat, months before I could walk. Independence relegated to the past. My family (husband and three adult sons) rallied around me; took shifts with meals and showers. I received skin grafts and physical therapy. I got back to a fully functioning life.
Standing in the kitchen, the horror of that experience flashed vividly in my consciousness.
“It’s going to be okay, Mom,” Marty said. “We’re all home and being safe.”
I didn’t feel that. No one knew how the coronavirus was spread – aerosol or fomites? Was it safe to go to the store? To receive mail? Why did the CDC say masks don’t help? In my job as a forensic pathologist, I had worn N-95s for every case. They protected me from inhaling dangerous pathogens. Why should that be any different with this virus?
Eight years before, at the time of my hospitalization, Marty had found comfort in data. He studied the instruments attached to me and charted the numbers. By following the ups and downs of the machines, he interpreted whether I was doing better or worse. At least, that’s how he said he felt at the time.
As we stood there next to the refrigerator, he reminded me how I defied the mortality figures back then. Ninety percent of people with the same circumstances I had were slotted to die. I had survived.
“You’re indestructible,” he said.
Yet I knew that at the time, as he stood by my bedside watching my chest rise and fall with each forced respiration from the ventilator, he had thought I would die.
Photographs taken as the final documentation of my life showed me obtunded. I seemed unrecognizable to myself – face swollen, breathing tube taped and distorting my mouth. My limbs flaccid. A pulse oximeter on a finger. Lines entering my neck and arms. A white sheet exposing heart monitor pads on my chest. Wires coursing beyond the camera lens. I looked like one of the many cadavers I’ve seen in my morgue; one of the myriad of corpses that I’ve autopsied.
My son and husband had taken turns holding my hand while the other snapped a photo. No doubt, they thought I would die. I thought I had died.
For me, there was no glorious white light or heavenly chorus. No god or cherubim to welcome me through the pearly gates. Only darkness and terror and unending night. My coma hadn’t been a romantic slumber. Instead, my oblivion was a hellish nightmare that felt real. Thinking back on it felt more like recalling a memory than a dream. I did not want to re-enter that purgatory.
I glanced up as my oldest son plodded to the kitchen for a snack. He had been reading a text message on his phone but immediately set it down on the counter. Without speaking Joshua joined the family hug. While data collection soothed my youngest child, my oldest relied on mindfulness for calm – an awareness of the moment. The three of us gathered in a tight embrace. My sons attempted to infuse me with their strength. Our breathing began to synchronize.
The aroma of coconut surrounded me from Josh’s recently shampooed hair. I took in the sweet tang of Marty’s sweat. My heartrate slowed. I swallowed tears. Warmth emanated from their skin in a rejuvenating aura. My muscles gained power as I held onto my sons.
Uncertainty swirled in the world outside. Confidence gathered inside. If my next breath was my last, this love would be enough.
Mary Jumbelic is an author from Central New York, and the former chief medical examiner of Onondaga County. Performing thousands of autopsies in her career, she elaborates a strong voice for the deceased. She explores through creative non-fiction the imprint the dead have made on her humanity. She has published with Rutgers University Press, Tortoise and Finch, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Vine Leaves Press, GFT Press, Women on Writing, Jelly Bucket, The Closed Eye Open, Prometheus Dreaming, Grapple Alley, Change Seven, Dreamers Creative Writing, Hektoen, Sterling Clack Clack, and Free Spirit. In 2014, her piece was selected for the top ten in the AARP/Huffington Post Memoir Writing Contest. In 2021, another was chosen in the top ten for the Tucson Literary Festival. She teaches on-line courses on writing for the Downtown Writer’s Center of Syracuse, and is Assistant Editor for Stone Canoe. Stories can be read on her blog, Final Words, at www.maryjumbelic.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.