Fifteen years ago Saturday I woke up with a terrible headache. I took four or so aspirin, lay down with my eyes closed for an hour, took more aspirin, rested another hour, and took yet more again. The headache did not abate in the least, and I decided (probably because of what the aspirin was doing to my stomach, though I was too out of it to realize that) that maybe what I really needed was food. Moving like I was walking through mud, trying not to make my head pound any worse, I got dressed, and put on my shoes. And sat, bent over, the laces of one shoe in my hands.
I couldn't remember how to tie my shoes.
I sat there a while, breathing deeply, trying to hold panic at bay. I remember trying to remember what my sister Marliene had told me, twenty-odd years earlier, when she taught me to tie my shoes. And I couldn't.
I was terrified.
Finally, I got up, with my shoes untied, feeling very unsteady on my feet. I didn't have insurance, and was living a very hand-to-mouth existence, and was afraid of being stuck with the bill for an ambulance, so I didn't call 911. Instead, I went down the three flights of stairs to the building lobby, clinging to the rail with both hands all the way. I remember sitting on the front steps of the building, catching my breath, trying once more to tie my shoes. I don't remember anything between that and the hospital, except that I remember wincing from the brightness of reflected sunlight off of cars as I was walking along. I remember walking into the Cambridge City Hospital Emergency Room, and I remember saying to a tall woman in a white lab coat: "I'm very disoriented and I can't tie my shoes." And I remember her asking me something, and me not being able to speak.
I woke up in a dark room, tied to a bed with a tube up my nose. I shouted "nurse!" until one came in. (Those of you who are squeamish may want to skip the rest of this paragraph. It's a part of the story I have only ever told a very few people before.) I asked her to please untie me so I could use the bathroom, which I needed to do desperately. She said she couldn't do that. I said "What am I supposed to do?"; she said she would get an orderly and a bedpan, and left. I didn't last until she got back. Only then, in this entire experience, did I cry. The nurse and orderly cleaned up, but still wouldn't untie me. I only later found out that what essentially amounted to induced diarrhea was part of their standard treatment for a suspected drug overdose.
An hour later the test results came in, and they decided I was not some kind of drug overdose case, and took the restraints off and helped me to clean up and put me in a clean bed. They explained, eventually, that I had been treated as a drug overdose case because I had had a seizure in the ER, during which I had knocked members of the hospital staff to the floor, and dislocated my shoulder. So the restraints were for my own protection and the staff's.
I don't remember how long I stayed in the hospital; I may have only stayed overnight. I remember that getting home was interesting, because they had cut my clothes off. I owe my life to the young doctor — whose name, to my shame, I have forgotten — a recent Harvard Medical School graduate, in the final year of his residency, who, even though I was a charity case, was as determined as I was to find out what had caused my seizure. Who oversaw two weeks of poking and prodding and assorted scans that ultimately led to my diagnosis of cancer.
That moment, fifteen years ago, when I couldn't remember how to tie my shoes, was a watershed moment in my life. I think now is a good time to reflect on what it has meant, and continues to mean, in my life. I hope some of you will care enough to bear with me, ask questions, challenge my views, as I muse on this over the next few days, or perhaps weeks. Having some company on this exploration would mean a lot to me.