Five years ago this week, on a frigid night in Flint, I got take out shrimp from a Chinese place, ate it alone in my high-ceilinged lonely apartment, and went to bed feeling isolated and depressed. At 4 a.m. I jolted awake in a panic, my heart wildly racing, my neck burning, my arms tingling, my legs cramping, and my stomach nauseous. Desperate and afraid, I got up, walked around and around the wooden floors in my stocking feet. I was convinced I was having a heart attack. I didn't want to die alone. I forced myself to get dressed and drove myself on a snowy, icy freeway to Genesys Hospital, where I stayed for two days for tests and more tests, until they finally assured me that it was not a heart attack and sent me home, shaken but relieved.
I remembered this anniversary of sorts Sunday night when I watched the last half of the new Masterpiece Theater version of Jane Eyre. I remembered that Jane Eyre, my 2002 panic attack and my own Rochester, the man I married in 2005, are all tied together. On the way home from work tonight, a full moon glowed overhead and I could swear there was a full moon that week, too, one I could see from my hospital bed in the cardiac unit. I remembered I'd been reading Jane Eyre that winter, and I thought I remembered that I had written notes in it as I'd waited anxiously for one test after another in the hospital. At home, I rummaged from room to room. I really wanted to find the book. I wanted to reflect on that terrifying moment of my body's fragility, and what I might have noted about it. And I finally did-- find Jane Eyre, that is, pushed behind some old CDs in a downstairs shelf.
The semester had just begun and I was teaching Women's Lit for the first time, replacing a professor who was on sabbatical. I had left my husband of 15 years the previous spring, and that first long winter was rough. We were all still reeling from 9/11, of course, and on top of everything I was in the throes of a turbulent, mercurial menopause. Everything was hitting me hard. I was 52 years old and it seemed hopelessly improbable that I could begin again. There was too much history. Who did I think I was, starting over? Yet there I was, having wrenched myself from one life and thrown myself into another.
I adopted Professor Zeff's syllabus as she had always taught it, without changing a thing, and there at the top of the reading list was Jane Eyre. I'd read it in college 30 years before, but never since. So I was madly reading it again, trying to keep ahead of my students, the 50 or so women and three men staring back at me as I reported in each day from what felt like a fabulously irrational new life. I had reconnected with an old friend from Peace Corps, a man I hadn't seen for 25 years, and he'd been flying in to Flint from LA to see me about once a month. I loved him, but it seemed impossible to plunge into a new life with him so hard on the demise of my old. I was still in deep mourning for the death of the dream of my marriage. I could only think of what was lost. But when Ted came to visit, sometimes I began to forget the grief and let in a little pleasure. We connected physically, and I was startled and amazed.
When I set off for the hospital that night, gripping the wheel and expecting to be attacked by pain all the way, part of me was still planning to show up for class the next day, and so I had tucked my copy of Jane Eyre into my purse. Inside it now, there is still a folded menu from one of my hospital meals -- it says "fruit cocktail/jello/dry creamer/decaf coffee/whipped potatoes/hot beef sandwich/carrots/no salt." On it I wrote, "Hospital food really is nasty, still we eat it because we're hungry." By we, apparently I meant me and Rita, in the next bed over, whom I wrote was "impossibly frail with a mastectomy on the left side from the same year her husband died." I cried when she told me. She, too, thought that she was having a heart attack, and in her case, she was right.
I kept going back to Jane Eyre. "What good it would have done me at that time," Jane writes, returning to Thornfield after her first dramatic encounter with Mr. Rochester in the moors, "to have been tossed in the storms of an uncertain struggling life, and to have been taught by rough and bitter experience to long for the calm amidst which I now repined." I wrote on the menu, "smiley faces everywhere. Darling, honey, kiddo." There was a National Geographic with an article about the aurora borealis. I found it comforting. And a ten-year-old issue of Prevention Magazine on the windowsill.
Eventually, of course, Jane falls in love and after she first touches Rochester and he clings to her hand, she goes back to her room "tossed on a buoyant but unquiet sea," intensely sensing a "freshening gale, wakened by hope." I'm not sure how far I read in the novel those two nights at Genesys, but I know that the book gave me hope. I began to believe that whatever time was left in my life, it was good -- this passion I had, to begin again in love.
From California, crazy with worry, Ted finally found out where I was and called my hospital room. "Why didn't you tell me what was going on?" he demanded, crazily angry that I had left him out. "I want to come out there. Do you want me to come?" I wasn't sure I could ask anything of him, nor sure if I wanted to. Or dared to. But I knew I'd just terrified myself and I was afraid of being alone. "I want you to come," I finally said, and the next day, there he was, hugging me back to life in my apartment, the old radiators chugging out noisy heat. That weekend I let him take care of me. That first night when we snuggled into bed, he put his arms around me and whispered, "Were you afraid?" And when I said yes and finally gave in to tears, thoroughly and unapologetically in the moment, with its terror and joy, I knew something big was happening -- to me, and to us. Things were different between us from that moment on.
And my beloved copy of Jane Eyre, with the page predominantly earmarked where she announces, "Reader, I married him," is here in front of me now, a cherished artifact of starting over, of a sea change, of a molting that has been the biggest and most wonderful surprise of my life. Early Happy Valentine's Day to you all.
The soft or shrill voice within us
7 years ago