I have a head cold. I’m stuffy, but I can breathe through my nose just fine. My ears are plugged. I feel tightness in my head. I have a sore throat, and I’m out of breath and weak. None of this would particularly contribute to me contemplating my own death, except that I recently experienced perhaps the worst headache I’ve ever had, and it came on just 24 hours after another unbelievably terrible headache.
Now, I get headaches not infrequently, and I have really bad headaches sometimes. I have not been diagnosed with migraines, but I understand what they are. I’ve had headaches that made me feel sick to my stomach and want to pull my hair out. The nearly-migraine kind where light hurts and idea of hitting myself with a hammer has fair appeal. I normally just lie down and sleep it out with an ice bag on my neck.
The night before I had toughed it out in the living room, covered up with a blanket all evening, sipping ginger ale, before my husband made me take a pain reliever/sleeping pill and go to bed at 9:00. I was crying from the pain and feeling sorry for myself, and when I laid down I had a panic attack and couldn’t breathe. Little did I know that it was just a warm up for the next day.
This most recent headache was the mother of all that, a black hole of pain sitting in my forehead and behind my right eye. I left work at 3:00 and was in bed by 3:30 having ingested an ibuprofen and settled the ice gel pack on my neck and shoulder. Neither helped, but I slept until 6:00 when my daughter woke me. She needed a ride uptown to buy poster board for school. I roused up, put on my coat and a pair of clogs, and we set off. She is unaccustomed to and not supposed to drive my truck (for insurance reasons), otherwise I would have made her do the driving
My hearing was muted in my right ear, and I had to shield my right eye because light was unbearable. We made it home. I took an Excedrin and went back to bed at 6:30. That was when I started contemplating death.
I think I have a pretty high pain tolerance. I’ve been through labor and also three increasing painful attacks leading up to trip to the ER on New Year’s Day in Mankato revealing that I had a kidney stone. On the pain scale I rate labor and kidney stone nearly equal. The headache comes in third, so lying in bed, upset stomach, blinding pain behind my eye, it’s really no wonder that I started thinking dark thoughts. Maybe I have an aneurysm. Maybe it’s a brain tumor. I was applying pressure to my forehead and covering my eye with my left hand and clutching the comforter with my right, crying, sobbing in pain, trying to breathe and finding it really difficult.
If you can catch the aneurysm early enough, it can sometimes be fixed. A brain tumor, though, that’s all kinds of unknown. What kinds of scans do they do? I was seeing myself with no hair, which doesn’t really bother me. But what about the radiation and/or chemotherapy. How bad does that feel? How much does it all cost? I don’t want to leave my family in debt. I don’t want to ruin their lives with my pain and illness and expensive treatments.
I feel like my husband would learn to be OK if I died. I think my daughter would have a really bad time of it. She’s just about to turn 16. Emotionally, people can recover, but the money and the debt afterward . . . I don’t want that kind of struggle for them. Even the hardship of coping with someone who is ill, caring for them and still trying to live and work. I know people do it all the time, but that doesn’t make it easy.
I have thought many times, is this it? Will today be the day? For some reason usually when I’m driving, I glance at my right shoulder and ask that question. It helps me settle my mind.
“There are many levels of meditation on death. A simple one is to imagine that a little bird is on your shoulder. When you wake up in the morning, you ask the little bird, "Will this be my last day, little bird?" There's a way to do it that is very superficial, but when you think about it, a wisdom arises within you. You then ask the question, "Am I living the life I want to live?" That is the second question that you should ask. This is very superficial, but it is a deeper way to meditate, by asking yourself again, "Am I ready to die?" It's not to make yourself afraid, it's not to make yourself paralyzed or overwhelmed with fear, but by thinking of death - there are several depths and several techniques, depending upon the nature of the problems - it helps people to get stronger, wiser, and more and more realistic toward life, and helps people to enjoy more of the beauty of life.”
I was able to breathe finally and to find tiny spaces where I could relax a little. Eventually the pain began to subside, and by the time my husband checked on me again around 9:00, the headache was mostly gone. Today, it’s not a tumor or an aneurysm.
I feel the little bird though it is almost weightless. It sees me with a dark, round eye. I never imagine it with feathers of any specific color. The little beak opens and closes, but it’s completely silent.