death, Devil's Grotto, hyperrealism artist, Liberty Hill, memoir, mortality, musings, on dying, Poverty Creek, short stories, Sonja Heisinger
“You were about to check out,” the doctor told me. “You’re a tough cookie.”
I’ve had four close encounters with death, all of which I remember vividly.
That rush of adrenaline. That realization that the breath I was holding might be my last.
How many of us have lived through these moments? What were they like? Who were we before, and who are we after? Did we learn anything? Did we dismiss the experience, or did we learn from it?
Did we share it? Can I share mine with you?
Each one of my stories varies drastically. The only common denominator is the ending: I lived.
I grew up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, where bears knocked over our trash cans at night, rattlesnakes sunbathed on hiking trails, and kamikaze deer leapt in front of our cars with alarming frequency. We respected the wildlife, dangerous as it was. Even loved it. The Emigrant Wilderness was our backyard. Beautiful. Deadly. We embraced it, and were proud to do so.
When I was fourteen, my best friend lived around the corner from me. There was a bus stop between our houses, and whenever one of us left the other’s house after nightfall, we accompanied each other halfway home in the dark. There were no street lamps in our rural mountain neighborhood, but usually one of us remembered to bring a flashlight. Jittery from the cold and the prospect of continuing on alone, we parted ways at the bus stop, running at a good clip until we reached the safety of our doorsteps.
One night I forgot my flashlight. I remember watching the beam from Julie’s as it swung with the movement of her arms, the circle of illumination waxing and waning against the pavement and surrounding pines. Darkness overwhelmed me. I looked up at the Milky Way, pronounced and glimmering. It seemed to celebrate its reign over the night sky, free and unpolluted as the new moon hid behind a veil of shadow.
I’d walked that home stretch a thousand times. I took a deep breath and moved through the blackness.
Near the foot of our property, I was arrested by a sound. It came from the bushes a few steps ahead. Deep, reverberating, terrifying. The growl of a large animal. Certainly not a dog. I’d grown up with big dogs. This was wild. Powerful. Feline.
A mountain lion.
Paralized, a wave of heat traveled through me, followed at once by an icy blast of fear. What to do? I had no knowledge of mountain lions, except that they prowled these mountains, occasionally jumping the unsuspecting hiker, but mostly preying on livestock, deer, foxes. I knew a little about bears. How you weren’t supposed to go near their young, or give them something to chase. Don’t run. Make noise. Pray you won’t end up like Alec Baldwin in The Edge, or Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall.
For the first time in my life I felt the mysterious and unsettling sensation of being watched. What did this creature see as it appraised me in the dark? Did my fear pulse like ribbons of light? Could it hear my quickened breath? Was my horror malodorous, appealing, entertaining?
I began to tremble. I didn’t want to be eaten. I was only fourteen. I could only imagine what was about to happen. Those teeth, those claws. The ripping, tearing, searing pain. The great sorrow that this was the end, that I was to leave behind a life I had hardly lived.
I was drawn back to the stars. The only light in that world of darkness. They blinked as they spoke to me. I saw my future in their vast dominion.
Hope. They burned with hope.
Something shifted within me. I smiled, and took an emboldened step. Out of the thick silence I raised my voice and sang a favorite song. Softly. Clearly.
I felt those eyes burning through me as I marched towards my house. I moved, wrapped in a chrysalis of courage. I was spellbound. Transfixed. I was alive.
The instant I reached my porch steps, I heard it again. Only this time, it wasn’t a growl. Mountain lions have a distinct roar, different from other large cats. It’s shrill. Jarring. Some say it sounds like a woman’s scream.
The spell broke and my terror returned. I flew up those steps, crossed the porch, and lunged at the front door. I slammed it shut behind me and leaned heavily against it, my breaths rapid and tremulous, my body shaking violently. I flicked on the porch light, and glanced out the window, half expecting the beast’s yellow eyes to flash back at me.
Nothing. The lion was gone.
Several years later, I felt that rush of adrenaline again. Time slowed as I glanced in my rearview mirror and noticed another car barreling towards me. I was at a stop, waiting to make a left turn, when it slammed me into oncoming traffic. Somehow, I managed to maneuver my car off the road and out of harm’s way. The impact dislodged the stereo into my lap. My little Honda was totaled. Amazingly, no one was hurt.
Once more, in Texas, hiking beneath Old Baldy in Garner State Park. There came a piercing crack from a hundred feet overhead, followed by the sound of disturbed leaves and snapping tree limbs. A stone the size of a softball met the earth with a frightening thud only inches in front of me. My foot was still poised to step.
I’m a tough cookie, the doctor told me. She didn’t know about any of these experiences. All she knew was two years ago, I went to a clinic for a skin condition and was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Disease.
Hashimoto’s is very common and very treatable. It’s an autoimmune disease that attacks your thyroid, the organ responsible for regulating your metabolism. Your thyroid provides functionality to the rest of your body. Without it, the body shuts down.
Which is exactly what my body did.
A healthy person has a TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) between .4 to 4.0, give or take a little. Someone with a thyroid problem will start feeling or acting drunk if their levels reach 50 or 60.
Mine was 138.
“Oh my god!” This is never something you want to hear your doctor say. “Do you feel tired? Like you can hardly function?”
I told her yes. I’d felt that way for years.
She looked me right in the eye and said, “I’m going to start you on medication today, but it may take several weeks to make a difference. Listen to me: if you wake up in the night and can’t move, or if you feel ANY changes for the worse, you need to go to the hospital immediately. Do you understand?”
I was at risk for Myxedema Coma. That’s when you shut down and die.
A week later, I was sitting at my dining room table with my eight-month-old son when I felt it. Like someone had pushed the Power Off button. Exhaustion washed over me. I slumped down in my seat. Then my hearing turned fuzzy, and my vision closed in. My heart beat lethargically, like it wanted to give up.
This had happened before, and I always thought it was on account of low blood sugar, so I stumbled into the kitchen for an apple and a Sprite. Meanwhile my son babbled from his highchair, obliviously banging his spoon against the tray.
I felt a magnetic pull towards the floor.
My husband was gone. Would be for a month, training for work. I was alone with my child.
I called my neighbor.
“Something’s not right. I don’t feel right. I need you to come over.”
In the time it took her to arrive and dial 911, my breathing grew shallow. My heart slowed. I was cold, shivering uncontrollably.
I was dying. This was as clear to me as anything. I looked at my son and felt apologetic.
I’m sorry I’m leaving you so soon. I’m sorry I’m going away.
I was also indignant. How could this be happening? I wanted to fight, but had nothing to fight with. Where was my sling and stone, my unlikely army, my thread of hope?
The whole experience was so inglorious. There was no bright light. No sense of peace. No calming voice from another realm. The world was simply slipping away. I was slipping away.
I was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. They thought I’d suffered a stroke.
Gradually, life returned. I recovered my senses, my strength. I went home that night and held my son for a long time.
Over the last two years I’ve learned to manage my condition. I’m on the proper dose of medication, and I feel relatively normal. My numbers are good. I’m no longer in danger.
Physicians always do a double-take when they look at my file. They see that number—that impressive 138—and their eyes become large and round. They mention it briefly with a wag of their heads, then seem to shake it off, as though it’s too frightful to ponder. And yet no one ever told me just how frightful it was. No one ever admitted I could have died.
Until two days ago.
“You were about to check out,” the doctor said. She was new and unfamiliar to me. I could have embraced her.
I went home and fell into my husband’s arms, crying. I’d gotten it. The truth. Validation. It wasn’t all in my head. It wasn’t a bad dream. Something I could have changed, or simply awoken from.
I have a common disease that went undiagnosed and untreated for 28 years, and it nearly killed me.
I’m so thankful to be alive. To draw my pictures, write my stories, kiss my husband, hold my son. I’m so thankful for the rain outside, the glow of my Christmas tree, the taste of coffee first thing in the morning, the anticipation before a long-awaited vacation, the way sunlight changes in autumn, the feeling of accomplishment at the end of a challenging project. I’m so thankful for modern medicine, and safe cars, and reaching the peak at the end of a hike, and the limitless sky. I’m so thankful for every moment my story continues.
I’m so thankful to be alive.