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A Thousand Days

By Heidi Glyn Barker

In the first line of an early poem by Keats, he refers to his “mortal body of a thousand days.” The strange premonition that he would die within three years haunted him; when he first began to cough up blood, a few months after he wrote this sonnet, his reaction was one of resignation, rather than surprise. His feeling proved correct; he did indeed succumb to tuberculosis, forty-three days short of his thousand. I wonder whether Keats’s constant awareness of his own mortality colored the experiences that led to the beautiful, sometimes tragic, and often transcendent nature of his poetry. Sometimes the very pain one avoids can give rise to questions that move thinking to deeper wells of inspiration; often sorrow leads to heights of greater understanding.

How beautiful, if sorrow had not made
Sorrow more Beautiful than Beauty’s self.
(John Keats, “Hyperion”)

My husband was the first to notice. “Something’s wrong,” he said, looking at me. That is all it was, at first, a subtle sense that there was something awry. I shrugged, unwilling to say out loud that I too feared losing this little life. Like two previous pregnancies, both short-lived, I felt early on a slight heightening of my senses, almost a faint buzz reverberating in my brain. Life. Life. Life. I knew it was there, and I couldn’t bear the thought of yet another miscarriage.

Our doctor confirmed the vague disquiet we both had sensed. “It has only a slight chance of living,” he gently said. “But this often happens, even two or three times.”

“But there is a chance the baby will live?” I pled. There was something so real about this child, finally, finally, after waiting and wanting for so long. Devan drove me home, and I cried in the little alcove that served as bedroom in our tiny student apartment.

Devan spoke gently to me later that evening. “It’s only a feeling I have,” he started hesitatingly. “What if this baby were disabled? I mean, would that change your feelings at all?” I looked up at him. Would it matter? In what way? Visions of my children had never included any specific kind of disability, but probably no new mother daydreams about anything but a healthy child, at least at first.

My very stoic husband looked down at his hands. “We are being offered this child. Will we accept this baby? With all of our hearts? It’s just a feeling.”

Our prayers over the next few days changed, and changed us. Please help us to know Thy will, Father. Please enlarge our hearts, make us big enough for this angel to come to us. Please spare our little child. Please increase our faith. Please. And finally, one day all of the questions seemed to fade. On our knees, at the side of the bed, we looked at each other and we knew. We could do this. No fear, no disappointment, only love. Love, and gratitude, and humility that we would be chosen to raise one of God’s perfect angels. Then I started bleeding.

No miscarriage is easy, but this one required a hospital stay that lengthened into days. I slept, wrote on my laptop, and looked out the window into the warm springtime. What does it mean? Were we not worthy? Did we not understand the feelings we both experienced so strongly? Or was our simple submission the extent of this particular experience? Where was our tiny baby? Was its brief life a life at all?

Quiet coves his soul hath in its Autumn, when his wings he furleth close; . . . He has his Winter too of pale misfeature, or else he would forego his mortal nature.
(John Keats, “The Human Seasons”)

The years scrolled past, two healthy children joined our family, and the days were brim with energy, church callings, work, our farm. A pulled muscle in my neck prompted a decision to go to the chiropractor. I told him I’m busy, that I needed to feel well for an upcoming trip. He said he knew what would help, and performed a maneuver which twisted my head first to one side, then the other. If you want to know more about massage benefits, and other benefits of chiropractic services, you can click here!

The moment I opened my eyes I knew something had gone wrong. “Please help,” I mumbled; my eyes wouldn’t focus. I fought back a wave of nausea and then felt myself falling onto the floor. Vaguely I noticed the ambulance attendants rushing in. I saw the light they shone in my eyes, I felt the efforts they made to revive me, but couldn’t respond or indicate in any way that I was still there, still aware, just somehow floating. I began to drift in and out of consciousness, hearing now-frantic voices around me, feeling the prick of needles, the relief of a breathing tube. At least now, I thought, I will not choke on my vomit, which I can’t seem to control. Then, suddenly, nothing.

My husband told me later that when he arrived at the hospital, they immediately pulled him aside. There had been a catastrophic accident; every vein in my neck had been compromised, and the vertebral arteries were shredded. There was only one faint chance for me: a “clot busting” drug which could dissolve the coagulated blood. Generally it was effective only if the drugs were administered within three hours of a stroke, and I was already over that limit””but there was still a possibility it would work. As soon as my husband’s signature was on the line, the doctors sprang into action and emptied a three-pound bolus of drugs into my veins. Then I was whisked away onto a helicopter for the Cleveland Clinic, and the head neurologist wiped his hands on his smock and looked at the nurse. “It is sad that such a young mother should die,” he said.

But I didn’t. Within a day of arriving in Cleveland, I began to drift in and out of consciousness, staying fully awake for only moments at a time. In a few days Devan hung pictures of the children on the hospital wall, and we practiced saying their names: Milena, Tallis. But I couldn’t remember them and just called them Girl and Boy. My sister arrived from Chicago, and she and my mother spent hours rubbing my feet, talking to me about my children, the family, anything they thought would interest me or elicit a response. My dad took a leave of absence from work and sat by my bedside and read to me, since I couldn’t hold a book and would not have been able to read it, anyway. My voice, when I could talk, sounded strange, like I had an accent from a foreign country. I hallucinated, imagining visits from people who never came, and had no memory of long conversations with frequent visitors. But little by little I began to get better.

Soon I could raise the bed up, and one day I tried to brush my teeth. I couldn’t control my arm and could not even spit; I could only dribble into a basin Mama held for me. Even though I was hungry, it was too hard to coordinate breathing, chewing, and swallowing. So I wasted away to ninety pounds. But I remember the first time I balanced, on shaky stick legs, and shuffled down the hallway clutching my IV pole in one hand, Mama’s arm in the other. A week after I stood up for the first time, I walked from the hospital lobby to Devan’s waiting truck, and we finally went home.

The doctors had advised a nursing home, but my parents and Devan’s parents had both promised that they would be there to take care of me, to take care of the children, and asked that I be allowed to stay home. So for the next month I slept upstairs and visiting therapists came and taught me exercises. I practiced walking, refusing the suggestion that a cane might help. I balanced on a big rubber ball and worked on throwing and catching a beanbag. I spent hours forcing my father-in-law to play “Memory” with me, and even took up SuDoku, determined that my mind would recover. The days marched on.

I began writing thank-you cards to the people who had visited, watched the children, and sent meals. My writing was like a kindergartener’s, but over time I regained control of my hands. One day I even sat at the piano. Slowly at first, haltingly, because even though my mind couldn’t remember, surely these movements were in my fingers still. The stretch, the coordination, the rhythm began to stir, somewhere inside my hands, my arms. I had a funny, croaky voice, but I could still think of the words:

Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side
With patience bear thy cross of grief or pain . . .

I heard Mama come and stand by the doorway. I was embarrassed, but I didn’t stop. My mother-in-law came and stood next to her. Their voices, shaky as mine, joined me. The hymn is a long one, and my struggle to meet each note painful, but I played it to the end.

About Heidi Glyn Barker

Heidi Glyn Barker, her husband, and their two children currently live in her childhood home in Sugar City, Idaho, having recently moved from Novelty, Ohio. She has had a lifetime interest in literature and languages, and hopes to finish her MA in Slavic Philology at some bright, distant, future time. Whenever possible she is involved with One Heart Bulgaria, an organization which works with children living in Bulgarian orphanages.

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