It was a typical Sunday here in Coimbra. Bright and sunny, I’d walked from the local train station through Choupal Park, to Centro Hipico de Coimbra – the stables – for my turn with a friend’s horse. I spent a lovely hour or so there, and walked back through the park to the station, as I have done several weeks in a row. It’s about four miles round trip. But I’ve become joyfully accustomed to walking long distances and up and down hills daily. No big deal.
I sat down for a moment to wait for the train. When I stood, my vision went all black at the edges. I fully expected it to clear, I was waiting for it to clear. Instead I came to up through a sea of concerned faces. I’d fainted. My first question was, “Did I miss the train?” I wanted to know how long I’d been out. None of my saviors spoke any English, however. I believe one of the older men was a physician; he was wonderfully calm, took my pulse, checked my eyes. He and his wife helped me to stand. He kept a hold of my hand, taking my pulse now and again, sort of folding my hand into his soft, strong, warm one.
I wanted to marry him.
The trip to the ER revealed nothing. Vital signs normal. Not enough water, perhaps. Or I hadn’t eaten enough breakfast. Or maybe the day was hotter than I was used to. There was nothing to be done. They sent me home with a package of biscuits and a container of milk.
I took a bus. An unfamiliar route. Got off too soon. Had to walk kind of far.
Belatedly, I noticed the back of my head was sore and realized I’d clunked it on the cement wall.
Over the next 48 hours I grew dizzier and dizzier. I recognized the sensations and symptoms. Several years ago I suffered a very bad concussion – a wicked fall off a horse. I was concussed again. And time is the only cure.
My being – and staying – in Portugal largely depends upon my staying healthy and independent. It has been a troubling two weeks. I haven’t been able to move my head, much less work. Or take walks. Or do errands. On one or two days, I was so dizzy and nauseous I couldn’t so much as listen to music. It made me sea sick.
In the middle of this, one of the two very young kittens I only recently adopted died.
Linda and Vince, the friends mentioned in earlier blogs, have brought in groceries and offered daily encouragement. So I am not alone.
But the specter of vulnerability, of dependence, of not being able to walk where I want, or where I need to, of not being able to work, has descended from an abstract place floating somewhere over my head to one sitting just there, in that chair.
I feel better today. I was able to write at least this. I’m encouraged. But will I ever leave my apartment with quite the same confidence? What caused the fainting in the first place? We don’t know. What if fainting is a permanent part of me?
Hannah Arendt wrote, “Loving life is easy when you are abroad. Where no one knows you and you hold your life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time.” I’m finding this to be true in ways I never would have expected, but I don’t believe we need radical departures to achieve something of this state of mind.
In her novel, Go Went Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck writes that Richard, newly released from an academic career, “. . . has time – plain and simple. Time to travel, people say. To read books. Time to listen to music. He doesn’t know how long it will take for him to get used to having time.” He’s uncomfortable. All those open days. But in those open hours he finds a self that has been waiting. Richard is more complex, more generous, and far more human and connected than he dreamed.
But waiting until retirement for life to feel true is as terrible as waiting for opportunities to be overseas. Yes, both gave me permission to allow all that was extraneous and distracting to fall away. What I didn’t know is that I didn’t need permission.
Gordon Mennega recently recounted the experience of a colleague who has found a way to balance professional duties with much more contemplative time. The result, in Gordon’s words, is that thinking feels almost new.
The thinking feels almost new. That’s exactly it. Grounded but fresh.
I’ve discovered that my work has been keeping secrets from me. Suddenly I see this novel draft clearly and what all those unfinished short stories are asking to become. If I’d fully understood the true cost of distraction and bedevilment prior to the major life changes I undertook last year, I like to think I would have taken advantage sooner.
But I celebrate. Loving life fully instead of only bits and pieces is better late than never.
The Harlem River Bridge was open and stuck. The Metro-North train I was taking to Grand Central for the shuttle to JFK and my flight back to Portugal was, according to announcements, delayed “indefinitely” while waiting for “the Army Corps of Engineers to figure out how to close it.” Minutes ticked by. The hour of cushion I had given myself dissolved.
We weren’t parked completely between stops. The last car sat beside the Fordham station platform. One by one, and then in droves, people left in search of options.
While discussing my own choices with a conductor – a taxi, but taxis rarely stop there; Uber, but my Portugal phone had already refused to call Uber; the subway with a stop two blocks west, but I’m unfamiliar with the Bronx, had luggage, hours and hours of travel ahead, and rarely took the subway even when I lived in New York — I said, “I won’t be doing subways.” A nearby woman pounced, eyes flashing, her voice a bark: “We’re not stupid!” she told me. “It’s two blocks.”
Perhaps I’d once been accosted in a subway, or had been trapped, or fallen asleep to find myself in Brooklyn instead of Broadway and Lafayette. Perhaps a medical condition precluded my walking any blocks or descending and ascending stairs with two carry-ons. I travel lightly, but not empty-handed.
But no. No thought to any other possibility other than, “We’re not stupid!” implying that while she wasn’t, I was.
I left the train to take a look at the street – a stray taxi perhaps? A flash of inspiration? – hoping it didn’t leave without me before I’d figured something out.
Three women stood just outside the station door, one twenty-something, one thirty-something, one eighty-something. I overheard the thirty-something say “Grand Central.”
“Grand Central?” I said. “You’re headed to Grand Central?”
“Yes. Uber. Want to join us?”
So, the four of us, capable and competent and resourceful, climbed into an Uber car so small there weren’t enough seat belts to head into Manhattan. The older woman was joining friends for a play. The two younger ones had meetings with clients. And I, of course, was travelling,
Not one of us stupid.
Perhaps the woman on the train believes she’s empowered, and that it’s her job to empower me and any woman she encounters who isn’t exhibiting her, ah, strength. Perhaps she thinks she represents a proper sort of feminism.
Whatever her reasoning, I reject it. And happily embrace women who join forces.
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“A heartbreaking and exquisite story about emotional violence.” — Kirkus Reviews
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