This is the probably the ninth time I tell myself as I hurtle along the highway chasing the ambulance doing well over the speed limit and I wonder about speeding tickets in the weeks to come. I’ve done this madcap trip once before in another continent avoiding big potholes and all the while hoping that you are not going to die in the process of keeping up with the clattering speeding vehicle in front of me called an ambulance. I raced along the motorway following the usual would-be Formula One driver in the ambulance ahead. It doesn’t matter which country they are in. All thoughts of speed limits are then banished as I fight to stay behind the careening vehicle in front for fear of losing my way to the hospital.
Four weeks later I still felt that I was on that roller coaster ride. You were getting used to your ‘wonder bra.’ That’s what you called the sternal brace that encapsulated your chest - that great invention that supported your sternum, sawn in two to allow you to have major heart repair.
Most people don’t get more than one opportunity to witness playing at brinksmanship with death and I am once again in this situation with you. There had been those three brushes with death from cerebral malaria in three different countries. That first one in the Sahara had reduced you to model-like thinness as you smiled wonderfully in the photo you sent me in your youthful exuberance and saggy clothes. That near brush with death doesn’t really count as I was away doing some postgrad studies.
The last one was during a leaving party after six years in one African country before leaving for another. All our friends came to say good bye ad you were upstairs in bed ill. A doctor colleague of mine having checked on you in your retreat there, scurried off in a frenzy to get the lifesaving drugs to you just in time.
Before that in my first full year of living with you was the venomous snake bite on a jungle hill walk in Sierra Leone and your collapsing at the open-air college disco followed by the very painful antidote administered by a rough village doctor who had no time for soft white men. Then I forgot to put bleach in the water drum for washing that was piped up from the swamp and you had a slow and debilitating bout with schistosomiasis. Perhaps that one doesn’t count.
I should have realized that first year that it was not so much a year of living dangerously but a lifetime contract of dicing with death. The double pneumonia that wracked you to the core with chills and delirium and was wrongly diagnosed as acute pharyngitis in 2002 led to that first race behind the ambulance. Then your misdiagnosing doctor told you, the following day in hospital, that there was nothing wrong with you, that you were suffering merely from pharyngitis. When I came to visit you in hospital with the children after school I found you ripping out the tubes from your arms with the mask of death barely gone from your face.
That pneumonia habit reappeared in a holiday in socialist Cuba and you had ‘forgotten’ to bring any antibiotics and I had to beg some from your fellow countrymen leaving the next day. A week later I had to find a sympathetic doctor on a motorbike who saved your life from the third episode. You don’t seem to be content to have a life-threatening illness only once. Is there a pattern here I wonder?
I know how fast you can go down. There is never the normal early warning system with you that other people employ. It’s a fast, unfettered train wreck experience that leaves us both winded and scarred. The most violent was the attack on you in 1991 in Kenya when you were strangled and beaten into a pulp. Strictly speaking that was my fault. I’d left a balcony door open upstairs on a very hot night and the robbers couldn’t resist the opportunity. You were unrecognizable in the hospital next day when the children came to visit. Scars heal but the trauma is a hair’s breath away.
This time has been the hardest for me. I knew for a long while that something was deeply wrong. I could feel it deep inside like a constant ache. Now you have a scarred chest and a long zipper-like scar on your left leg where they took the veins to repair your heart. The ‘wonder bra’, the sternal brace that now protects your shattered sternum, is a symbol of hope. Your life is back in your hands again and your courage and determination to return to full health reflects the marathon of your life. Your smile and jokey manner will take a while to return to full strength but each day the river of your being flows more strongly. You walk bravely step by step, as you always did, back to health.
I am acutely aware also of this now being a losing battle. Not for your life because you will rock it to the end, but for us. One day we will lose the battle of our being together, of living a full life; not just being happy in each other’s company but carefully mining the emergence of the best in each other. Those ambulance rides are the reflection of all the other journeys to knowing so intimately the value of our life together. Few couples ever get to touch the abyss together and come out the other side, even once. We have been blessed many times over.