Note: Breath of Heaven is the first installment of a very difficult story – I’ve had to look at it in tiny pieces. This is the first three minutes of this incident.
The washing machine whirs through its spin cycle while the slanted late afternoon sun casts cheerful, buttery sideways beams through the slightly cob-webbed basement window of our 125-year-old home. ‘Late afternoon sunbeams seem sunnier in September,’ I think to myself, ‘it must be the angle of the Earth this time of year.’ I’m standing in the ray’s path trembling as I watch it settle just above the heads of four paramedics kneeling over Greg, my husband.
Greg arrives home around 4 pm from his job at our local hospital in a cheery, ‘It’s Friday!’ mood. I meet him at the lowest level of our house, the basement, which has an entrance from the street through our garage. He’s not a bit sweaty from his bike ride home although it’s less than a mile but mostly uphill and the temperature is in the low 90s, sweltering for mid-September.
He’s been riding his adored bicycle to and from work for close to 20 years. As long as the streets aren’t slippery with ice or snow, the heavens aren’t pouring rain and the temperature is above 13 or 14 degrees, Greg opts for his bike. An athletic guy, we met at our small town swimming pool as teenagers. I watched as Greg, flipped, dove and swam all over that pool. I was instantly attracted to him – the axiomatic ‘love at first sight.’
A baseball player in high school and college, he’s remained active throughout his life. Still an avid swimmer, he joins in rec basketball at the local YMCA and pumps a bit of iron now and then. A natural competitor, he’s participated in Iron Man triathlons, half-marathons, 10ks, 5ks and recently gave up 35 years of softball league play due to his age, not his ability. “The young guys kick our asses now and it’s just no fun to lose,” he quipped when he made the difficult decision to retire his bat and glove.
I look forward to our weekday afternoon reunions. I spend my days writing or designing for clients or caring for our grandson. I’m blessed to have the luxury of working from home. Greg’s indulged me as I dabble in self-employment while he holds down the fort with a steady paycheck and coveted medical insurance.
He’s extra jolly planting a quick kiss on my lips.
“I want to get the lawn mowed before we go to dinner tonight,” Greg says in a bit of a rush.
“Sounds like a great plan. I have about an hour of work I can get done before I need to hop in the shower,” I reply.
Greg pulls me into his arms, lingering for a moment; surprising me with the sweetness of it, then playfully shoves me toward the stairs joking, “Quit messing around and get back to work!”
Laughing, I climb the stairs back to my office gathering my thoughts as I go. I hear Greg start the lawn mower outside my second story office window as I focus on the task at hand. Soon the fragrant scent of newly cut grass drifts through the window screen. The aroma brings a familiar comfort as I settle in.
Ninety-minutes later, I hear the mower stop and the grass blower start, signaling Greg is close to finishing the lawn project. “I need to wrap it up and jump in the shower,” I say aloud to our dog, Stella. She’s cowering under my desk at the sound of the lawn grooming equipment. Stella hates lawn mowing day.
I pull a bath towel out of the linen closet, hanging it on the decorative, shiny black hook near our shower. I don’t hear the grass blower, Greg must be in the house. I’m just about to step out of my faded gray yoga pants and turn on the tap when I hear my daughter-in-law, Tameka, shouting from the kitchen, “Mary! Mary! Greg is having a seizure!”
There is a shrill in her voice I’ve never heard before. My heart rate increases as I question her, not believing what I’m hearing. I merely respond, “What?”
My first brief thought is she’s joking. I’m clutching the towel in both hands. I’m not comprehending the message because it doesn’t make sense. It simply can’t be.
She frantically repeats, “Hurry! Greg is having a seizure in the basement!”
The panic in her voice prompts me to move. I dash down the upper flight of stairs, my feet not touching most of them. I run through the kitchen toward the basement. I hear Travis, my son, at the bottom of the staircase shouting, “Dad … Dad!”
The scene I observe is heartbreaking, shocking, surreal. It simply can’t be.
Travis, on his knees leaning over Greg, his face close to his dad’s, looks at me and with a steady voice says, “He’s having a seizure and I’m trying to make sure he isn’t choking. I think he’s biting his tongue.”
He adds without pausing, “I called 911, the ambulance is on its way.”
I open my mouth, then shut it. My world swims with confusion, fear. Greg is on his right side, his upper body through the doorway to our laundry room. Then, I hear myself calling to Greg, futilely trying to get his attention. Panic ready to engulf me. I struggle for control.
Greg’s healthy, beautiful body is seizing violently. His jaw is impossibly clenched. The disembodied guttural sounds he’s making are zombie-like and force me to recede in terror. His face is an alarming shade of purplish gray; a color I’ve never seen outside a horror movie. He rolls his eyes toward me. For a fraction of a second, our eyes lock. Does he know I’m here? I step toward him as his eyes roll up and out of sight. He continues to convulse. I step back, petrified.
Travis utters, “Hold on Dad. The ambulance is coming!”
I swim in a slow-motion haze trying to form a thought, an action, something beyond my reach. Travis’s voice snaps me back to the moment, “Mom, I’m trying to get him on his back, but his arm is in the way.”
We need help. I’m terrified to touch Greg. I know if I touch him my resolve will burst into a million pieces. Greg and Travis need help, not me losing my shit. ‘It simply can’t be,’ reverberates through my mind.
I run. I run like a fugitive trying to escape. I run for help to the strongest man I know, our neighbor, Don. A father figure since I was four-years-old and always a friend; I sprint to his back door. Frantically, I pound and then yank the door open not waiting for an answer, shouting, “Don! Don! We need your help! Greg is having a heart attack!”
I don’t know where the phrase came from – heart attack.
Don’s usual happy greeting matches my urgency before he knows what’s happening. Don puts his shoes on while he’s running with me. He’s 81-years-old – acts and looks like he’s 50. We race together. He outruns me reaching the kitchen first. We sprint through the screened back door and down the stairs.
With Don near my courage is renewed. His presence has calmed me enough to think. I screech as I’m bounding down the stairs, “Travis! He’s not having a seizure he’s having a heart attack! He needs to be on his back. Start CPR, hurry!”
Without hesitation, Don springs to help Travis where I was unable. They swiftly shift Greg to his back. Travis doesn’t waver. He’s on his knees starting chest compressions before the words are out of my mouth.
I can’t watch. I can’t witness my beautiful, brave son performing chest compressions on his own father. My heart is tearing out of my chest. My lungs are collapsing. I stand back, petrified. “I’ll flag the ambulance,” I say. But the truth is I’m a coward. I can’t watch. I run. It simply can’t be.
I run to check on Tameka. She is sitting on our patio with her son, Remy, and nephew, Jace. She is keeping the baby busy and calming seven-year-old Jace who saw Greg collapsed on the floor. They’re drawing with sidewalk chalk. Stella, our Pitbull, is frantically running about the yard.
I need support. I clasp my phone and punch my sister Donna’s name on my phone’s favorite list, the phone rings endlessly. I hang up, hit her name four more times, still no answer. “Where in the hell are you?” I plead, my voice tight. Next on my list is Dan, my brother; he picks up on the first ring. I’m talking but he repeatedly asks me what’s going on. I realize I’m not making any sense. He gives up, announces, “We’re coming!” His phone clicks off.
I can hear the sirens. Hope fills me as does annoyance – the ambulance isn’t coming fast enough. On our busy street, cars fly past though the speed limit is 30 mph; most people don’t abide it. Afraid she’ll dart into the traffic, I grab at Stella’s collar trying to subdue her. I join Tameka, Remy, and Jace in staring down the hill waiting for a glimpse of the ambulance. A random thought passes through my mind, it’s my mom saying, ‘Always get up in the morning, take a shower, get dressed and be presentable. You never know what the day will bring, and you always want to look presentable.’ So much for looking presentable, I cringe.
Waving the ambulance down, I feel like a caricature of myself. Screaming for them to hurry, holding a Pitbull by the collar – they must think I’m insane – I am.
I drag Stella with me toward our driveway as the paramedic parks the ambulance. I implore him to follow me. Baffled by his hesitation I’m finally aware I’m still holding Stella.
“She won’t hurt you,” I shout, but he doesn’t trust me.
Hauling Stella, I limp to the basement bent at the waist like an old woman with a too short cane. The paramedics slide past me, talking fast to Travis as he’s still performing CPR. A conversation ensues between Travis, Don and the paramedics.
Exhausted, I release Stella and she bounds toward Greg. Travis, newly relieved of his CRP duties, scrambles to contain her. Travis picks the dog up deciding to put her in my bedroom, three stories up, to keep her away from the paramedics.
As Travis heads out the door carrying Stella over his shoulder, the washing machine whirs through its spin cycle while the slanted late afternoon sun casts cheerful buttery sideways beams through the slightly cob-webbed basement window of our 125-year-old home. ‘Late afternoon sunbeams seem sunnier in September,’ I think to myself, ‘it must be the angle of the Earth this time of year.’ I’m standing in the ray’s path trembling as I watch it settle just above the heads of four paramedics kneeling over Greg, my husband.
The ensemble clamors to revive him. They are unnervingly calm. I suppose it wouldn’t help for all of us to be frantic. I’m afraid to look directly at Greg’s face, terrified this might be my last glimpse of him. Instead, I observe the handsome young paramedics at their task. I silently plead for them to hurry; a sob grabs my soul as I beseech God, informing him I’m not ready for this.