Even a broken clock reads correctly twice a day, so when on a Wednesday morning in January, crisp and bright as it is during Los Angeles winters, my doctor leaves a voicemail asking me to call her back, I know my paranoia has paid off. I had the feeling: first when they slid me into the MRI scanner the way raw dough vanishes into a clay oven, second when I read in the sloppy voicemail transcription on my phone. I’m calling to your MRI results. Three days separated the two events. The only time my mind was still was for the sixty minutes spent inside the machine, during which the rapid, jackhammer banging of its magnets and metal coils allowed me to imagine I was attending an amateur EDM concert. The thirty seconds between pressing “call” and hearing my physician’s voice fizzle onto the phone, too, were spent empty-minded.
I had gone in for jaw pain. “So,” my doctor said, “your MRI confirmed displacement of the temporomandibular joint.”
Nice, I thought.
“But, um. They saw, um, you have. You have an arteriovenous malformation in your brain.”
I had no idea what that was.
“The main thing,” she continued, “is that sometimes they can bleed. So if you feel like you’re having the worst headache of your life, call 911 immediately.”
“Okay,” I said. “Is there anything I should do in the meantime?”
“No,” she said.
I thanked her. She hung up.
There is something in my brain. It has been there, they think, from the time I was born. It is the length of a lime and the width of a walnut, because whoever invented the system for classifying tumors had a fetish for whole foods. Blood flows through it like whitewater through one of those impotent little cocktail straws, the kind you need two of to taste even a drop. If the doctors were to run with the cocktail straw metaphor, they’d explain to me that the biological bartender had only given me a single straw. Also, that I needed a few hundred thousand of them for my cerebrovascular system to function properly.
I had been alone in my car when I received the news. I called my dad. He didn’t pick up. I called my other dad, who picked up but was hard at work formatting an Excel spreadsheet. I told him my disturbing diagnosis. “What is that?” he asked. “Go cuddle the dog,” he said.
I pulled into my driveway, but before exiting the car I had performed various virtual dives of unthinkable depths. I emerged an expert in the condition, confident I could pass any relevant board examinations. An arteriovenous malformation (AVM) occurs when blood vessels in the brain bypass the capillary system, resulting in direct connections between high-pressure arteries and low-pressure veins. The imbalance in pressure can make things go pop! That’s bad.
I had, by the time I was sufficiently overwrought with a sense of mortal dread to thrust open the car door, already read tens of firsthand accounts of those afflicted with AVMs. Their stories were an unsettling clip show involving lost speech faculties, months-long medically-induced comas, and hemi-everythings (-anopsia, -paresis, -plegia). A mother on Facebook mentioned that her AVM-afflicted child had qualified for Make-A-Wish. Even now, I refuse to retraumatize myself by scouring journal articles for the approximate mortality rate of those with AVMs, but I happened across it once and read that the number was not insignificant.
So I heeded my father’s advice. I hurled myself across my sofa like a widow onto a grave, and convinced my dog, who does not like me very much, to sit beside me in my senseless bawling.
Everything following this moment was submerged in a grimy, impenetrable film—every vision occluded, every experience slick with something heavy and unplaceable. Streetlights melted into harsh impressionist blobs, and what had previously flowed freely and generously to mind—pop lyrics, preferred coffee orders—instead clung to the back of my throat. My already mediocre scores in iPhone word games plummeted further. Something was deeply and dreadfully wrong with me. My undoing felt imminent.
I had always gazed upon my terminally ill relatives with both fear and awe—how did they do it? How did they hear their time on earth was limited and find the will to continue walking through it? In the more morbid would-you-rather games my friends and I played in middle school, when asked if I would want to A) know that I had a year left to live or simply B) die suddenly in a year, I answered ‘B’ without fail. Now I went to lunch with my family and cried in the middle of a patioed bistro for the young man eating the gorgonzola walnut salad who had no idea what was coming for him. In one of my English classes, someone mentioned there were “so many people” they “would die for,” and I restrained myself from spitting would you fucking really? My childhood street was dense with string lights in candied colors, left over from Christmas and inexplicably beautiful. I wanted to protect whatever was still living. Everything had become the world’s eighth wonder. It brought me to my knees.
I’ve had a good life. I thought this often in the weeks directly following my diagnosis, when I believed my death was certain and fast-approaching. I meant it, though I was only nineteen. On a solo hike a week earlier—the kind that fits the definition invented by Angelenos, meaning an extended walk in any scenic location—I had worked my body so violently I had to fight the urge to vomit into a thicket of endemic plants. I sat at the trail’s apex as my skull throbbed and stared at the Los Angeles skyline, which was sparse and comically smoggy. The memory of it is still euphoric. I cannot tell you why.
The way we characterize end-of-life regret is often in terms of things unaccomplished, monumental tasks never undertaken. Did you
A. quit that dead-end job?
B. tell her you loved her?
C. compose that
Life is a game of connect-the-dots—miss one, and the image collapses. In the wake of the most blatant reminder of my mortality, however, I felt no compulsions to carpe diem. I ate Costco pizza, waddled around the grocery store with my dads, and sat for hours on the couch watching hidden-camera reality TV. It was the happiest I had been in a long time.
My family doesn’t do much. Mostly they record entire seasons of cable television shows on TiVo, work jobs they don’t like, and eat leftovers from the same two Chinese restaurants (Peking Delight and Gold Chopsticks) ad infinitum. My grandfather, arguably the most remarkable of us, is known to wake up at 5 a.m. on the odd weekday to play recreational tennis or serve as an usher for the Oakland A’s. There came a point where their everyday realities came to frighten me, likely around the time I was applying to college and pretending to think about what I wanted my life to mean. I took issue with their lack of ambition, their lack of drive to do more than they did and be more than they were. Something—probably the U.S. News & World Report—compelled me to claw myself far away from that life. I would move to a city with one thousand seasons and warm-toned trees, experience a love that made me want to throw myself against a wall, and devote myself to artistic pursuits that moved others incalculably, until I withered into a hideous monument to artistry. Then I would receive an award, preferably one that committed me to an eternal registry of winners and motivated a bored, sensitive teenager to create my Wikipedia page.
The happiest days of my life had occurred when I was seven or eight, visiting my grandparents and aunts in their dry suburb of the Bay Area. At a dining table cluttered with stacks of napkins purloined from fast-food joints, we ate as a family from plastic takeout containers, and I was allowed to drink canned soda for every meal. I shared a bed with my aunt, who let me stay up past midnight as she shuffled through episodes of NCIS and Bones. We rarely went out, but sometimes my family would drive my siblings and me to the Monterey Bay Aquarium or into San Francisco to watch my grandmother get her hair done in Chinatown. They’d point to an apartment window above a mildewed dry cleaner’s and say Look! That’s where we lived with your great-grandmother, eight of us squished into a single room. If the school year had just ended, I would show my grandfather a copy of my report card, and he would bestow upon me a crisp two-dollar bill. Then, of course, we would watch more TV.
Often associated with the end-of-life regret complex is the “bucket list,” in which the dying are pressured to fashion their remaining years or months into a mortal artifact rife with extravagant pursuits and previously unthinkable adventures. The bucket list is posed as an answer to the debilitating existential panic that knowledge of one’s impending death brings, but its implications are sinister.
The directive: Accumulate as many experiences as you possibly can.
The message: The only meaningful way to see life through to its end is to seek experiences outside of your own.
Experiences that are common to everyday life are devalued, disregarded. But these moments, unremarkable as they are, are everything. By the time most people reach my age, they’ve experienced most—if not all—of the things that give shape to a meaningful, contented life. You have delivered a good joke and allowed your audience’s laughter to tickle your ears. The solution to a troubling math problem finally came to you, and you felt briefly like some class of genius. Maybe you even ate something delicious. These are quiet moments, the kind you forget before you learn not to. Sitting shotgun in my dad’s car, on the way to the first of many diagnostic appointments, I put my foot down. I would not mistake what I wanted for what was meaningful. My family and their way of living have always been right, my teenage disgust unfounded, even ludicrous. How can I express the overwhelming beauty in the smallness of their lives?
I think of my grandma’s love for Windows FreeCell and my grandpa’s woodworking shed and bulk-bought Kirkland almonds and Friday Family Fun video calls. I cling to these details. I try to think of anyone happier than they are, and I come up short.
My therapist has a friend who lives with terminal illness. Her partner describes their before and after like this:
We walk the dog, we watch movies, we go out to eat.
We walk the dog, we watch movies, we go out to eat.
Similarly, Dr. Kate Bowler, a divinity professor at Duke processing her own diagnosis with stage 4 colon cancer, describes what happened when the father of one of her students received a terminal diagnosis with a prognosis of just a few months.
“Much to everyone’s astonishment, his father didn’t have a wish list. In fact, his father didn’t wish for anything at all. Not a trip. Not a meal. He sat contentedly in his overstuffed recliner in the living room humming about how much he loved his family.”
It is debatable whether, at nineteen, I had accomplished anything. There had been no falling in love or stepping into my dream job or leaving my indelible mark on the world. But I almost didn’t care. What I wanted was more time to be. To take a walk around the neighborhood, burn the tips of my fingers making a shitty homemade meal, wake up late on a Saturday confronted by the sun’s alarming height in the corner of my window. I wanted the rush of irritation that came every time my dad blasted Squeeze’s “East Side Story” at obscene decibels, for hours on end, as he weeded the backyard. I wanted always to know the afternoons, watch the clock’s little hand point nervously to three and feel the day putter out of frame. When my dogs pounced, adoring, and made the skin of my thighs into scraps of paper, I felt pain grip my chest, not my legs. Let me inhabit only this. I felt it each second of each day.
Two and a half weeks elapsed between my diagnosis and my return to relative normalcy, which occurred alongside the realization that my condition was likely treatable and would merely involve doctors squirting medical glue into my cerebral arteries before zapping my brain with a linear accelerator. But I continue to carry with me a certain feeling of futurelessness, a buzzing immediacy that only what I’ve always had can satisfy.
I am historically a fearful, unproductive writer. A sentence is a thirty-minute endeavor. My habit is to conjure very little, measuring what a clause could be against what it is so viciously that I induce paralysis. I favored poetry for this reason, how a sentence could end at any time, how a handful of words tucked into a handful of lines could become something complete.
I was a poet first. Poets do not really know anything more than the average person, but they capture life as I’ve been forced to see it now, as the human experience’s entire possible range of meaning contained, again and again, within a tiny snippet.
“Economy of language,” that artful sparseness of words, is really about attention and where you have put it. The Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet wrote “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” just one year before his unexpected death, in which he states he “didn’t know [he] loved the earth,” “the sky,” “trees,” “roads,” “flowers,” “the cosmos,” “the sun,” “the sea,” “rain,” “sparks,” “so many things,”—so, everything. Things you can find just by stepping outside. His mode is just to repeat, over and over again, the simple, unremarkable facts of his world, allowing each one to accumulate. In doing so, Hikmet crafts a devastating work of art entirely from mundanities.
Mary Oliver’s most famous poem, “The Summer Day,” functions similarly. Its crowning lines hang, framed and unframed, from kitchen walls, classroom blackboards, tote bags in indie bookstores: “what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” But its meaning, I understand more acutely than ever, is intensely misinterpreted. The lines directly preceding the poem’s ending invert its standalone sentiment:
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Oliver is not advocating the kind of raucous, ostentatious life that constructs like the bucket list put forward. Instead, she defines the human experience by the rules of poetry itself—by paying attention, by amplifying what is always and already there. Mary Oliver and her nondescript summer day wagged the truth before my face, not about the wildness and preciousness of life, but about being idle and blessed and nothing more, about strolling through the fields and whittling your time away into nothing. What Oliver asserts about death is no less raw, no less resistant to the flawed notions of meaning and purpose we’ve built:
“When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder / if I have made of my life something particular, and real.”
I am not sure what to say about gratitude, one of the only aspects of this experience I cannot quite find the words to discuss. Though I am no longer lazing around my childhood home in the warm embrace of my parents, doing nothing all day, I still have the sense of being happier in the wake of my diagnosis than prior to it. Mere hours after the ill-fated phone call with my physician, I called my friend and cried. “I’ve been, like, this petulant, ungrateful child.” I was not referring to how good I had had it before, but to how it was the worst day of my life, and I was somehow struck by love for people I hated and beauty in disgusting things. If it was possible on the most devastating day, it had been possible from the beginning, and all it had taken was this. A cluster of gnarled vessels burdened with too much blood and too much meaning. I was inhabiting my body for the first time.
I do not remember what my doctor’s voice sounded like over the phone that day. I do know that my car was littered with straw wrappers and grocery store receipts, that I was returning from catching up with someone I hadn’t seen since high school. I remember what I ordered for coffee that morning, that my hair was frizzy, and that I was changed absolutely over the course of 90 painful seconds. I feel now a devotion to the world that is hard for me to locate in many others, and harder still for me to find in whatever iteration of me existed before that Tuesday. But this devotion is not a hoarse-throated, pounding on the walls, message-to-God cry of I didn’t know how lucky I was or boundless blessings or heaven on earth. I am scared a lot of the time and worried about what will become of me and whenever I have even the briefest headache my heart rate accelerates in panic to twice its intended rhythm. But none of this is bad.
I like being here. I like to think about the past and what is to come and whatever is right in front of me. Today it snowed for the first time since I returned to the Northeast, the earth swaddled and infantile in its thick white blanket. At home in California, it is 84 degrees in February, and sweat drips from the temples of half the people I’ve ever loved. Weather is harsh and our bodies keep secrets and there are places to which we can never return. I track footprints through the snow like fresh prayers.
Cover Art: Lines from a Dying Star, by Federico Federici