You woke up gasping for air, out of breath from REM state exertions, or so you thought, until you politely asked the fat dude you were wrestling to get off your chest, but there was no fat dude and it was then that you realized that you might be in trouble.
When the pain starts at 3:30 a.m., you suddenly remember your family medical history (a father at fifty-three, a younger brother and sister before reaching the half-century mark), all of their departures in the early morning hours.
And you recall the little things you failed to give proper attention to, such as the numbness in your arm from yesterday, a choking sensation with a touch of burning nausea for the past week, and, oh yes, the pain in your back, right there between the shoulder blades: deep, beyond flesh or bone or blood or reason.
And you lie in the dark with the bitter taste of the eschatological moment, the slapped-cold knowledge that mortality is real; that the at-risk factors were plainly evident for years; that you should have quit smoking or lost weight or skipped “peeking in” at Fox News while channel surfing or not have been so insouciantly certain that the “next day” would always arrive.
And you’re afraid of the consequences of misjudgment, overreaction; that sometimes a back pain is just a pain in the back; that you should have resisted adding jalapenos to last night’s pizza; that, at your age, you shouldn’t be showing off on the bench press like the other chicken McNugget-heads at the gym.
And if you wake your wife and tell her any of the symptoms, there’s no stopping her from going ape-shit and making the phone call—the ring-a-ding-ding that will marshal the folks who live at distal end of 9-1-1, culminating with an ambulance and fire truck, sirens blazing, pulling up and blocking the street out front, rousing your neighbor, Frank (an Episcopal priest who lives next door) to scurry over in his bathrobe, toting a crucifix and a small black leather case of ashes, ointments, and Holy water; and with all the noise and excitement our two dogs will think it’s Armageddon and will bark and wail and raise enough hell to wake your son who lives in the cottage out back; and when they place you on the gurney the police cars will make a suitably histrionic appearance and the once dark and still morning will be bathed in a plasma of red and yellow and platinum light, and the damp morning air will hiss and crackle with emergency frequencies.
And as Frank intones the final prayers when the paramedics wheel you out the front door, you shout, “Fuck me!” because unless you are, in truth, potentially a dead man with the narrative leading either to bypass surgery or a mortuary attendant tying a tag on one of your big toes, there will be shame, a mountain of shame, enough shame to prevent you from ever going home again—at least during the daytime—because this whole nocturnal carnival will have been a monstrous admission to the world that having another day mattered more than retaining your dignity.
So you roll quietly out of bed and slip into a blue flannel bathrobe and a pair of mismatched slippers. You navigate the house in darkness, more or less feeling your way to the front porch, where you settle into an oversized wicker chair, light a cigarette, and wait for the morning.
Or for whatever else might come.
Author photo by Nkosi Shanga, a freelance photographer who lives and works out of Orlando, Florida.