One year performing the inner monologue of “I almost died” goes something like this: I’m in Midtown Manhattan, surrounded by herds of men in suits. I’m at one of those everything cafés that have individual stations for sandwiches, pizza, salads, and a food bar of greasy offerings that costs nine bucks per awful pound. It’s noon during another day in political nonprofit land. I just left a meeting where our founder talked about mundane marketing details instead of answering how we are going to get enough money to pay everyone’s salaries on Friday. It’s my lunch break, and I want food that will sedate my irritated soul. I stare at the pizza section and think, “I almost died, should I get a slice?” but it doesn’t feel right so I move along. I think, “I almost died, should I order a roast beef sandwich?” and I promptly walk away. I stare at bins of different kinds of lettuce and think, “I almost died, should I get a salad?” and the answer is an immediate yes because who am I to deny my body a plate of vitamin-rich roughage.
I am not the woman I used to be.
Like running. I was told I should never run because I have breasts that make men stare and the mass of my body could destroy my knees but I go to one of those fancy running stores eleven months after my surgery and jog on a treadmill as a salesman analyzes my gait. He says super arched feet like mine need two-hundred-dollar shoes, and I think, “I almost died, is this how I should spend my money?” The answer is yes, so I pay for those Brooks sneakers with special insoles because I know what it’s like to be so weak a nurse has to hold you over a toilet so you don’t fall over when you pee. Why all healthy, capable people in the world aren’t running is beyond me so even though I’m still not strong, I’m going to train for a half marathon. I’ll strap down my boobs, and if some guy gives me trouble I’ll pound him like I’m going to pound the pavement because I can hear my body and she can’t stop saying, “I’m a beast.”
I start dating three months after almost dying because I’m alive so I might as well get screwed or at least have some guy buy me a Shirley Temple since my body can’t process alcohol anymore. But I don’t know what to do during the small talk portion of the evening. I’m at a hip wine bar in Astoria that’s lit by these low-hanging old-school bulbs, the ones that boldly show their eerie filaments. “Tell me about yourself,” asks the first date of my new life, and my mind races. Do I tell him about where I’m from, about my career, or do I share that the sole focus of the last few months has been recovering from a massive case of sepsis caused by a four-day-old ruptured appendix? Will he even get what that means because I didn’t until it happened and in a world of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes what’s so scary about toxic infection? I decide to share the mundane, abridged story of my life instead of an impromptu lecture on bursting organs when out of nowhere he tells me he thinks scars are a huge turn off.
I have a new four-inch scar that vertically slashes through my abdomen. When people say, “Oh, you had appendicitis? Me too,” and show me their cute little marks, I pull up my shirt and show them Towanda. She is the remains of a storm that left my muscles weak, scarred over my entire inner abdominal wall, erased my belly button, and gives my stomach the illusion that part of it is always being punched. So this new flesh of mine has her own name. Every morning for a year, I put on my underwear and stare at Towanda in the mirror. I want to make sure she’s there because I’m afraid she’ll disappear overnight and I’ll finally be able to convince myself that none of this happened.
So, out of nowhere my mind-reading date says he thinks scars are gross, and I think, “I almost died, who will be able to deal with this?”
I tell an acquaintance what happened a few days later when we’re sardined in a bar. He’s a six-foot-seven investment banker with a history of debauchery that would make even the raunchiest blush.
“Do you think you’ll want to get plastic surgery to get back your belly button?” he asks over a post-work whiskey.
I sip my seltzer. “I don’t think so.”
“No?” his eyebrow arches.
“I’m starting to think my scar will weed out the men from the boys,” I reply.
“That a girl,” he says as he clinks my glass.
I decide to stop dating because life is too short. I also decide to skip the carpe diem phase where I screw an entire borough, joyride on a motorcycle, jump out of a plane, and numb myself with illicit substances. I do, however, chop off my hair when the trauma of everything stops making it fall out in clumps. For the first time in my life, I’m glad I’m a hairy Italian, but I’ve lost over a third of it and my brown curls look frizzed and hacked. Four months after my surgery, I think, “I almost died,” so I pay $175 for an appointment at a Fifth Avenue specialty curly-hair salon. My stylist tells me what it was like growing up in Kosovo as she chops eleven inches off and gives me my first chin-length bob.
When I need an outlet for nonsensical exploding emotions, like when I cry at the sight of coconut water, my remedy is to walk sixty blocks from Midtown to the East Village after work, especially if it’s snowing. I also run to Grand Central and jump on the next Metro-North train and ride it to the end of the line and find myself in exotic places like Poughkeepsie. I decide on a Friday to go to Philly on a Saturday so I buy my friend and me bus tickets because I love Rocky and I want to climb those steps while trying to digest a cheesesteak. I drag friends to ride a mechanical bull in Bryant Park during a hoedown and volunteer with a veteran’s group and we share blankets as we watch Top Gun on the deck of the aircraft carrier Intrepid. I think about all the classics I haven’t read, so I join a book club and talk about Edith Wharton but it proves to be short-lived when I am quickly sidetracked by a sudden Teddy Roosevelt obsession.
I go to the Metropolitan Museum to try to write in front of great works of art but end up staring at armor. I go multiple times and always find myself stuck in this section. I sit on a bench with my journal thinking, “You almost died, write something,” only to wonder how much men sweated in these steel contraptions and if their greatest job hazard was heat exhaustion.
At my apartment, I sit at my desk and try to write but then think “I almost died,” and I remember the moment my pain level climaxed and the morphine stopped working. I was in the ER and felt a disturbing tremor in my nerves, and I suddenly understood why I felt beyond sick and why every medical professional looked panicked when they saw me. “I’m dying,” I realized and my life failed to flash before my eyes as my body went into shock. As I uncontrollably shook up and down alone on my gurney, I asked myself, “How do you feel about this?”
I thought, “Well, Angela, you have never been to Europe. You have never been married and you never had kids.” But I can see my eighth-grade self, awkward and self-loathing, wearing a t-shirt over her bathing suit by a pool in Los Angeles. I imagine her looking at me. I consider my thirty-one years and decide I had a good ride. I’m ready to go. But I should have had way more sex.
So when I’m at my desk thinking, “You almost died, you should write,” I can’t type, and when I do I produce dust because on my almost deathbed I never once regretted not living long enough to get that Off Broadway show or that agent or that mythical tenure-track position. Now when I hear colleagues bitch about how hard the industry is or how so-and-so got that opportunity they don’t deserve or worry about how much harder they have to work in order to make it, all I can think is, “No one is going to remember us for this.”
Before I got sick, I had seven shows on the books in three different states. I follow through with each of them, and the final one is the largest of my career. Seven months after my surgery it’s opening night in San Francisco and I’m sitting in the last row, staring at an impressive set that includes a sawed-in-half 1970s trailer home. It isn’t until the white tuxedoed actor who plays the San Andreas fault line squeezes my shoulder and whispers, “Break a leg,” that I realize my play is about to start. When the show closes, I put my computer away and decide to do all the things I never let myself do in order to make time to write.
I go to Michaels and buy bags full of yarn. In two months, I crochet my brother a queen-sized blanket and make a dozen scarves for friends. I finally get Netflix and binge-watch WWII documentaries. I go to bookstores and buy romance novels with the trashiest covers and read them with no shame on the subway. I see opera, dance, comedy, symphonies, and a baseball game, but I stay away from theater. And after everything I do, I wait for it to make me feel something.
Three weeks after the last tube is removed from my body, I fly to San Luis Obispo to officiate my youngest cousin’s wedding. My parents don’t think it’s a good idea, but I think, “I almost died, I can survive a plane,” and promptly get food poisoning from something at JFK. I throw up after the rehearsal and dry heave into a trashcan on the wedding day while my stomach spasms, my family stresses, and my brother calls me stupid.
Thirty minutes before the wedding my Zia Martha helps me stand, and I put on a teal cocktail dress and tie my unwashed hair in a low bun. I ask one of my cousins to rate her acting abilities. When she expresses dramatic confidence, I tell her that if I raise my hand during the outdoor ceremony she has to pretend to faint because that means I need to leave the gazebo and hurl.
Andrew, the youngest cousin on my mom’s side, asked me to officiate the Christmas before I got sick. He mentioned it casually after dinner, as my family engaged in decibel-breaking conversations. I thought he was joking because his mother would never approve of a female recovering ex-Catholic to oversee the marriage ceremony of her youngest son, but my cousin said he was serious and I screamed. People thought I saw a bug and when the truth came out, a minor scandal was born. Fortunately for everyone, trauma has a way of snapping things into perspective. The day before the wedding, I tell Andrew, “You’re so lucky I got sick.”
So it’s early evening on the summer solstice. The San Luis Obispo skies are cloudless and blue, and my family stands on the lawn as I walk to the gazebo. I slowly read the ceremony script I wrote and articulate every word until I get to the “power vested in me” part and suddenly sob into the microphone.
“You can’t start your marriage with me crying like that,” I tell the couple standing before me. I breathe, put down the mic, and shout, “By the power vested in me by the state of California, I now declare you husband and wife.”
I don’t puke for the rest of the night, but I lose ten pounds on the trip, which makes a total weight loss of thirty-five pounds since I got sick two months ago. But as I watch my growing family move across the dance floor in the quaint, mission-style venue I think, “I’m glad I’m here to see this” and that is the only time I feel alive in the year after my surgery.
After every little, big, and crazy thing I do, I wait for that feeling to hit me again. I expect to be thrilled to make it to the stage three months after my surgery, deciding like a crazy woman to go through with my solo show. I get my brain of mush to memorize an hour of material and whip my weak body into basic shape so I can embody five characters and get through fifteen costume changes, but when I take my bow before an applauding audience I think, “I could have gone without this.”
I’m not glad I lived to work another huge political event at my nonprofit nine months into my recovery. A two-day conference with high-profile guests that include celebrities, CEOs, former heads of state, and on the last day I meet President George W. Bush in a fancy high-ceiling, heavily crown-molded room at the New York Stock Exchange. It is early morning before our closing event, and I’m standing in a receiving line. When it’s my turn to approach, the former president looks me in the eyes and says, “How are you doing?”
I almost reply, “I almost died,” but I look at Laura Bush who is smiling to his right. “I’m fine,” I tell the President. “How are you doing?”
He looks a bit surprised that I asked and says in his easy Texas drawl, “I’m fine. Thank you for asking.”
He shakes my hand as his personal photographer takes our photo, and despite my polar-opposite political leanings I think, “I want to have a beer with this guy.” The revelation blows my mind, but I could have lived without it.
Most of the year is a clear daze, my smile automatic but never pretend. Subsequent weddings, engagements, and baby announcements fall on me with a thud, and it’s not polite to admit I get more excited when I’m finally strong enough to carry a gallon of orange juice from the bodega to my apartment. I try to appreciate the little things, I try to revel in the big things, but every moment I think, “I almost died,” and wait to get struck down by an epiphany.
There is a belief that everyone who almost dies transforms into a sage. If you go through hell and make it out alive, you carry knowledge and inspiration that can settle the nerves of more fortunate frantics. It takes some time, and when I finally say, “I almost died” out loud, people want to hear the good news from the girl who got close to the ultimate edge. What great truth can I share? Do I have clarity? Everything happens for a reason, why do I think I’m here? They wait for me to give an easy phrase they can use for their own motivation, but when I say, “I don’t know,” they stop asking me questions.
If I was honest, I would admit that time isn’t the same anymore because it’s folding into itself. Truth is that while I’m getting better, I can’t stop feeling sick. When I return to work four weeks after my surgery, somehow I’m also rolling into a CAT scan. When I’m running my first mile, I’m also holding onto the hospital wall as I try to walk again. When a critic calls my biggest play overly written and metaphorically stupid, I go into a shock when a nurse turns me over for my sponge bath. When I celebrate my thirty-second birthday over perogies on a frigid January night, the medical team surrounding my bed wants to know about my bowel movements. When I realize I’m in love ten months after I get cut open, a doctor rips off the plastic seal over my surgery incision. And when I am laid off a week before Towanda’s first-year anniversary by that wonderful political nonprofit, I’m unable to move in my ICU bed. I’m thirsty but not allowed to drink, and I’m frantically waiting for the nurse to appear because I suddenly forgot how I got here.
Angela Santillo has an MFA in Theater Arts from Sarah Lawrence College, and her work has been produced in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, and Asheville. She received a residency in nonfiction from the Vermont Studio Center and spent October working on this piece and others.