I’m on a survivor’s high.
One minute I’m in the passenger seat, racing to the emergency room as I sink into some degree of anaphylactic shock, and the next I’m high on an IV of Benadryl and giddy at the blessing of being in pain but alive, in love with the old wrinkly nurse and doctor who are calmly injecting my body with various mystery substances and draping my out-of-body body with a blanket and asking if I’d like to change the channel on the TV I can’t focus on up on the wall.
I’m in pain, and trapped in the frailty of my human form, and overwhelmed with the strangest feeling of glee that I’m alive.
It all started with the Tracker Jackers.
My uncle, a generous handyman, surprised my son with the tree house last summer. He built it while the family was away at the beach. Some 20 feet up in a tree on the edge of our wooded backyard, if the design had a flaw, it’s in the steps. Steep. Narrow. In that dangerous nether-region between being steps and being a ladder, but looking too much like steps. For the feet of toddlers, this is no problem, but it can get tricky for teens and adults, who must descent backward to be safe.
On an overcast Sunday afternoon, I found myself hungry for a change of routine and perspective, so I decided to take my daughter’s Eno up into my son’s tree house and read The Boys in the Boat under the tarp as a storm dropped around us. And maybe I’d nap, too.
Eno around my neck like a shawl, I reached back to begin setting it up when I felt the first sting on the top of my skull. Instinctively, I reached up with my left hand and quickly felt the second sting on my knuckle. Then, another on my right forearm.
At that point, the world began to move in Matrix-esque bullet time. I knew I couldn’t jump safely, but I worried equally about the risk of too many additional stings. So I chose the third bad option of scurrying down the steps, quickly stumbling and sliding down the wooden handrail with my arm draped around it at the elbow, skin scraping off along the way.
For some reason, at the bottom, I stopped to chuckle.
Something about it all caught me funny. The idiocy of not thinking maybe there were might be a nest up in a mostly-unused tree house. The random urge to do something out of routine and thinking it wouldn’t have consequences.
And I thought of Tracker Jackers. I was up in a tree like Katniss in the first book. That's when they got her, too. It struck me as funny.
And then I casually sauntered back to the house to stir my wife, to inform her of my awkward situation -- four or five stings, hornets or wasps, maybe some splinters to boot -- and watched, woozily amused as she went into crisis management mode. Take this Benadryl. Sit down. Ice here here here and here. Where else is hurting? Can you breathe?
All the while, I’m thinking, “What an unexpected turn of events this all is,” and pondering matters such as karma and justice. And fairness.
Fifteen minutes later, as I continued insisting an ER trip was unnecessary, I noticed hives had exploded on every limb, on my neck, on my chest. Sorry honey, you’re right, we probably need to go to the ER.
We go. I’m amused as she drives our SUV like Hardcastle in that cheesy ‘80s show, touched that she honestly believes my life is at risk when I’m pretty sure it’s not but not sure enough to get too upset with her. And I’m wondering if the calm I feel is actually an acute panic attack or just my need to feel in control, because I know down deep, with certainty, that everything is going to be OK.
In fact, I said to her at one point, “I might eventually die in some random moronic way, but this won’t be it, not today.” Later I realized those would be really funny last words.
My wife knows how to get attention, so I was escorted to a room shortly after our arrival. I had fun feeling calm and polite with the nurse, thanking her as she worked the IV into my hand, as she informed me of the water, then the steroid, then the Benadryl, then some third thing I don’t remember because the Benadryl began making me really loopy.
I kept thinking of all those movies where the protagonist tells the injured person in distress not to fall asleep, not to close your eyes, so I sort of felt this urgency to stay awake and drunkenly alert.
But mostly I felt this deep wash of gratefulness.
Gratefulness for a wife, for that wife, for my wife, for the way she loves me and has given so much of herself to me.
Gratefulness for medicine, and medical professionals, who must save dozens or hundreds of people from anaphylactic shock and God-only-knows what else every day as I stress out over some update to a web site and as I agonizingly wordsmith some mass email to people.
Gratefulness to my uncle for that damn tree house.
Gratefulness to my urge to go up there and read, for an urge that allowed fate to sting me with those angry damn hornets instead of one of my three children, the ones far more likely to find themselves climbing up those tiny stirs on any given summer day.
I asked my wife to chronicle my Benadryl high. I wanted the moment captured, but she wasn’t amused. She found none of it funny. And she thought I was just being a jerk.
She took a single picture to shut me up. I woozily posted it on Facebook with a comment about being attacked by Tracker Jackers and the odds not being in my favor. It’s damn near the most popular thing I’ve ever posted. I don’t even want to think too hard about why, but it’s pretty funny regardless.
Five hours later, I was back home. I slept over 10 hours straight and woke up Monday feeling sore and woozy, but the gratefulness grew in strength.
I have no idea how long a survivor’s high lasts. I have no idea whether it’s some sign of a midlife crisis, or an overcorrection to a stretch of stress and panic from being surrounded by a seemingly endless torrent of tragedies, illnesses and trevails to friends and acquaintances.
All I know is I wish I felt so grateful all the time, that life would be somehow easier if I could cling to that gratitude, to the certainty of my appreciation for all those little and big blessings in our lives.