There’s an interesting story behind this particular set of stairs. There’s also an interesting reason as to why I am expressing my blatant feelings towards these steps. Stay with me for a few minutes and I’ll explain.
Sometimes you find yourself in a place that seems vaguely familiar to you and yet, oddly enough, it may not be a place at all; it may be a smell, or a sound, or a breeze in the air – but you feel it and it takes you there, as if you’d never left it at all. I can always tell when Christmas is right around the corner, not by the colorful array of glowing lights dancing on each rooftops of each house in the neighborhood, or the plethora of decorations for sale at Target (tell me, do you even know what a plethora is?), but by the smell of it. I can taste it – a particular cookie from my childhood that I only ate after the tree had been decorated, the stockings hung up and the miniature snow-laden Christmas Village had been assembled… It’s that cookie; I can still taste it, 25 years later, when the time is near and yet I doubt I’ve actually even eaten this cookie in decades. But every December it takes me there and I’m 8 years old again, and it’s as real to me as it was then.
Unlike Christmas, sometimes these places that we are taken to are not pleasant or jovial but rather quite the opposite. Such was the case with this particular set of stairs that I encountered last week. These stairs took me back to a place that I’d love to never visit again, and yet I’m afraid that I don’t have a choice in the matter. Just like the Christmas cookie, I’ll be transported here again – against my freewill and without warning. It may happen to you too.
So what’s the significance of these architectural groupings of ascending concrete blocks? Funny you should ask. I’ll tell you.
It was January 23 of 2015. My wife had just been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. Large B-Cell Lymphoma, to be exact. There’s other blog posts on this topic from the time, which you can find and read on this very web site if you’d like. Just click on ARTICLES and scan backwards. You can’t miss em.
I’ll skip all the details from that chapter of our lives, save one: this very staircase was a horrific scene of panic, fear, failure, hopelessness and despair for yours truly. I hate these steps with every fiber of my being – which is odd, given that it’s just a generic staircase; nothing more than limestone, shells, and chalk or marl combined with shale, clay, slate, blast furnace slag, silica sand, and iron ore. What’s to hate about that?
Allow me to paint you a picture.
It’s 2015 and we had been in the hospital for 3 days by this point – no sleep, no shower, no eating (not really), no rest and no other thought than What’s going to happen next? Not knowing what will happen next isn’t such a big deal under most circumstances. But when it’s life or death – not knowing is almost worse than the outcome itself. Or so it seems.
After three days of poking and prodding, scans and tests, biopsies and consultations, spinal taps and bone marrow extractions I was at the end of my wits. I had nothing left, I was completely drained. Then a very tall man walked into the room and won us over with his gentle charisma and personality. His name was Jack. He spoke with an Australian accent and his arms were covered to the wrist in tattoos. Jack was nice. Jack said he was here to take Sara for a fluid draining procedure that she needed very badly, and that he’d be taking extra good care of her. I believed him. I trusted Jack.
Jack handed me a piece of paper and said I needed to sign it first. Naturally I wanted to know what it was, and Jack said it was a release of liability on behalf of the hospital if anything were to go wrong during the procedure.
A quiet moment went by as I pretended to read the page he handed me.
“Jack,” I inquired, looking up from the sheet, “What could go wrong?”
“Well,” he replied, pausing for a moment without breaking eye contact, “It is unlikely, but she could die on the operating table.”
My heart stopped. The next question was supposed to make me feel better.
“What are the odds of that happening?”
“Oh, she’s got great odds of pulling through.” His accent was so comforting. “This is just precautionary paperwork, just-in-case kinda stuff, ya know?” I love how Australians say the word kinda; how they stress that first consonant and sort of make it sound like one letter. Jack was so nice.
He was beating around the bush. But I wanted to know. “Jack, what’s considered good odds?”
As if this was supposed to comfort me, Jack responded, with his dashingly charming Australian accent, “I’d say at least 80%.”
I’m no doctor. I’m not a scientist, or a mathematician. Hell, I didn’t even make it past the first year of algebra in high school, I don’t think, but I know that 80% isn’t “good odds.” 99%, 98% – even 95%… There’s some good odds for you. But 80? You’ve got to be joking.
I signed the paper and they wheeled her out of the room. I followed them as she passed down the hallway, keeping my gaze on her as they crossed the nurse’s station, the doors opened into the next hall where I was not allowed, and then…
Well, here’s where things get tricky. For three days we’ve been going through this stuff, signing this and that, percentages and whatnots – all the while I’ve been fighting off one single thought; a thought that I wouldn’t allow myself to think. It’s a place I wouldn’t let my mind go to, a line I dare not cross. But exactly then, in that moment as they wheeled her through the door, connected to dozens of wires and machines whose primary functions are seemingly to only to go BEEP BEEP, I let myself go there.
There’s a reason I didn’t want to go there, to bridge the divide, because once you do there’s no going back. And unfortunately I was right – I crossed the line, and I’ve never been able to go back. On January 23, 2015 I began a journey into the very mouth of madness itself. Come with me, and I’ll take you there.
The double doors swung open as she left me in the Coronary Care Unit ward of the hospital. I saw her face, calm and collected. She gave me a smirk, sort of a half smile, as if to say “I’ll be right back.”
That’s when I couldn’t hold it back any longer; the thought that I dare not think, the line that I dare not cross, the place that I dare not go – I finally allowed myself to ask the question:
What if I never see her again?
The doors swung closed behind her, and in an instant she was gone.
Pause – she wasn’t GONE gone, just, you know, out-of-the-room gone. Let me stop for a second and say that it’s 2017 and Sara is in perfect health. I apologize for the dramatizing trauma that I sometimes compose with; it’s the fiction-writer in me.
Where was I, oh yes! She left with Jack and went to have her procedure while I, well, to be quite honest, I have no idea what I did.
Or where I was.
Or what happened.
I snapped. I completely lost it, if I ever even had it to begin with. I don’t know what happened next, I deduce that I went for a walk because I found myself outside, hundreds of yards from her room at the CCU. I “awoke” with a half-eaten banana in one hand and a cold cup of Chai tea in the other. Who knows how long I had been gone? The tea was ordered hot at one point – I could tell because it had one of those textured coffee sleeves around it. I had no idea how I had gotten there but I found myself sitting alone, outside.
On those steps.
I cried on those steps. I cried my eyes out. I cried for every reason I could think of, and then I cried for reasons that I couldn’t think of, and even for reasons I didn’t know how to think of. I cried because I crossed the line. I cried because I was scared. I cried because I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I cried because I couldn’t stop thinking of the question – What if I never see her again? Again and again, it haunted me, taunted my soul and laughed in my face…
What if I never see her again?
I even cried because of the banana – I did not want the banana. Why did I buy a banana? Where did I even get a banana? I melted down, in every sense of the word, on those steps. Every horrible thought, every terrible scenario, every awful thing in existence came to me all at once on those God-forsaken steps.
I even decided how I would remedy this disease that plagued me which was, in fact, these very steps themselves: my own death.
It was obvious to me, a full-fledged raving madman by now, that suicide was the only answer. If the question was, What if I never see her again?, then the answer was simple. Kill yourself.
But how? Ah yes, how? Of course! That was the real question. Would it be a gun? No, no, no – what if I screwed it up? What if the bullet scrambles my brain, not exiting the skull, leaving me paralyzed for life? That would surely kill my mother. Perhaps a rope? No, hanging is too painful with plenty of time to think about how much of a mistake that choice was. Plus, what if it was my mother who found me? That’d certainly kill her. I needed something quicker; something like… an overdose! Yes, of course! Pop 40 or 50 pills and sleep it off. Forever. Wait, no, I’ve met people who tried that and it didn’t work. And mom would definitely be mad, especially if it put me into a brain-dead coma. She would definitely die from that, or at least kill me because of it.
I kid you not, these were my exact thoughts, 100%. It always came down to Nope, don’t do that, you’re gonna break your mother’s heart. She’s terrifying when she’s angry. But aren’t all moms?
Alas! I finally figured it out. It was perfect. If Sara didn’t come back to me from her procedure I would take the elevator to the top of the parking structure, to the 4th floor. Surely, a swan dive from the peak of this building would guarantee my death. No one could possibly recover from that, I couldn’t possibly screw this up and there’s no way I could devastate my mother with an attempt of suicide.
The perfect ending. Thank you, outdoor staircase, for showing me the way. I owe you one.
And so, as we come full circle to the beginning of this story, you now see why I hate these stairs. Oh, how I loathe them; I despise them with every fiber of my being. It all came to this, here at on these very steps, not three years ago, where I decided how I would end my life. These stairs represent everything that is evil in my soul, all of the pain that I could possibly imagine and more; if there is such a thing as Hell it will forever be, to me, at least, these very steps that you see before you – calling to me, softly like the Siren’s song, never ceasing; offering only her calming peace within a cold embrace.
Enough of the drama.
Obviously, Sara made it out just fine. In case you couldn’t tell, I’m still here and so is she. We’re all good. I literally got a text like two seconds after I decided I that wanted to die, saying she made it out and all was good and where the Hell are you? And logically all of that suicide stuff went out the window, just as quickly as it came to me. Out of sight, out of mind, for nearly three years, never to be thought of or mentioned again.
Until last week.
Last week my nephew was born at this very same hospital. I went to visit them, the beautiful newborn baby boy, the exhausted (understatement of the year) mother and the overwhelmed father. I parked my truck in the parking structure, oddly enough on the 4th floor (purely anecdotal coincidence) and I walked down to the front entrance.
I knew this building well; my wife and I had spent quite some time here. Nearly 6 months. I passed familiar signs, heard familiar noises and I even recognized the smell in the lobby: Chai tea and peanut butter oatmeal – something that my mother brought me every morning for breakfast when she came to visit us during our stay. She didn’t miss a day.
It all took me back, full circle, almost three years later. I practically lived in this place. So many memories, so much anger, despair and pain… And yet, there was hope, too. And healing. And joy. I remember Sara and I would go on walks in the oncology ward every few hours; me with my new shoes that made a squealing chirp each time that I glazed my heel over the newly waxed floor of the nurses station, and she in her green hospital gown and homemade beanie trailing her wheeled IV stand full of a potent chemo cocktail (that we aptly named Lancelot) by her side. She hated my shoes, which made me squeak them even more, and Lancelot became too heavy for her at times so I pushed it for her.
All of this came to me instantly, like a foggy memory, all at once. Kind of like Christmas. You know how sometimes you find yourself in a place that seems vaguely familiar to you and yet, oddly enough, it may not be a place at all? It may be a smell, or a sound, or a breeze in the air – you feel it and it takes you there, as if you’d never left it at all. I can always tell when Christmas is right around the corner. Can’t you?
[ insert record-skipping sound ]
Sorry to ruin that perfect Wonder Years wrap-up moment -there’s one thing that I forgot to tell you. As I parked my truck, walked down the steps, headed for the building to see baby, mother and father, right after I entered the hospital lobby, as the aroma of peanut butter oatmeal and the sweet memories of walking laps around the nurses station were starting to fill my head, I immediately exited.
I walked past the entrance, turned left down a small corridor, passed the gentlemen under the burgundy valet umbrella, through a small garden and found these dreadful steps that had haunted me for so long. I picked up my phone and with my forefinger tapped on the cartoonish icon of a camera, and with all of my mite decided to tell these stairs how I really felt about them. With all of my strength I said, in the best way that I know how:
Moral of the story – is there something you’re holding on to? Something you can’t let go of, or won’t? Or don’t want to? Just let it go. There’s no reason to keep that stuff around, life is just too damn short. It’s not helping you and it’s time you got rid of it.
Keep in mind – it won’t ever go away. It’ll come back, I guarantee that. Like the smell, or taste, or song; it’ll bring you back and you’ll be right there again. But this time you’ll be in control. You’ll be the one calling the shots. You’ll be the one with the power.
Give it a try. I guarantee you won’t regret it.