Mortality as Metaphor
By Alice Lowe
1. Stroke of luck
My self-image—fit and healthy, damn near invincible—splinters on Friday, April 30th, when I suffer a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA). I shrug off the first sign, a misplaced password; it happens to everyone. But when I can’t express myself and my speech becomes distorted and disoriented, my alarm grows, as does my husband’s as he tries to decipher my increasingly tangled efforts. We dash to Urgent Care where they establish the diagnosis and hurry me to the hospital. TIAs are called mini-strokes because the symptoms are stroke-like but diminish quickly. Mine resolve within the hour. I call it a stroke of luck.
2. Writers write
It could happen to anyone at any age, but this happens to me, now, in my seventies, and it shakes my perception of myself, tips my precarious hold on life. Writers write about their heart attacks and strokes, maladies and mishaps. When Jenny Diski was diagnosed with cancer, she didn’t want to join the herd, but as a writer she couldn’t avoid it. My experience is uniquely mine, and regardless of how mini/minor it is, I’m compelled to record it. Writing gives me a hold on my situation, pins it down so I can explore it inside and out, extract what I need and move on.
3. Experiencing the experience
Several years ago I wrote about Sir John Franklin’s nineteenth-century expedition to the Arctic circle. Or that’s how it started, but then it expanded. My research and ruminations generated web-like tendrils that stretched and spiraled throughout the polar regions, north and south, real and metaphorical. Antarctica, the land and the people who encounter it, continues to stir my lingering fascination. Then and now I read Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica, her memoir about a voyage with no purpose except just “to be there, in a white, empty, unpeopled, silent landscape.” When, on arrival, the passengers learn that the pack-ice may be too thick for them to land, she reflects that, as in life, “you look, you pass through, you leave.” You experience yourself experiencing the experience, building a collection of images to return to. Serenely nestled in her womb-like Cabin 532, Diski understands that the truth she seeks isn’t dependent on reaching her destination.
4. “Do I dare to eat a peach?”
My mini-stroke introduces a flurry of firsts: my first ride in an ambulance, first visit to an ER, first non-birthing stay in a hospital, first MRI. And my first taste of jackfruit, the mass of brown vegetable matter, heaped on a tortilla, that lay under a dome on my hospital tray. Cooked jackfruit is a meat substitute said to resemble pulled pork, but my lip curls at the mere thought of the one stringy, sweet/sour bite I brave. Is the hospital trying to punish vegetarians? T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock greets the onset of age with trepidation: “I grow old … I grow old … Do I dare to eat a peach?” If he hesitated over a peach, imagine him facing jackfruit.
5. You got old
Three days after the TIA, I have a second attack—this time my mirror betrays me, displaying my drooping jaw. It was followed by seconds of all the acronyms and abbreviations, everything except the jackfruit. A second narrow escape. All the tests come back negative again; I’m in excellent condition, so how could this have happened, I ask the doctor. I do everything I can to stay healthy: good diet, plenty of exercise, minimal stress. “You got old,” he says. “There’s nothing you can do about that.” I’m told it may not happen again (though the odds are increased that it may). Sent home, I’m told to live my life as before, to resume full activity, not to worry. Not to continually glance over my shoulder for the next assault, not to fixedly stare at the mirror for signs of facial sag, not to repeatedly recite my name, the date, and the Star-Spangled Banner to assess my mental and verbal acuity.
6. Antarctica as allegory
My friend Carol and I quicken with yearning when we learn of a locally organized cruise to Antarctica with Midge Raymond, author of My Last Continent. After a brief and breathtaking ride on the possibilities: what if … just think … do we dare? … we drop back to earth with a thud, hurdles like rocks in our pockets. The cost, the time, our age, the physical effort, my back, her knees, and, in my case, congenital cowardice. We acknowledge the sad truth: we waited too long. In my reveries, Carol and I don layers of fleece and down to brave the elements; brace ourselves at the railing to ogle icebergs; shield our faces against the icy spray as the Zodiac hurtles toward land. There my imagination falters—I can’t fathom that first step onto the ice. Sometimes it’s enough to dream. Antarctica as allegory.
7. You look, you pass through, you leave
Mortality is much on my mind. I’m not invincible. Life goes on, much as before, and I’m no longer sneaking glimpses at the mirror or peering into the shadows. During the Covid quarantine I bought an exercise bike to supplement my walking. In a recumbent (near-horizontal, reclining, sprawling) position, I read books on my Kindle, listen to podcasts, watch the squirrels and birds feeding on my deck. I revive and revise memories, draft essays in my head, take fantasy excursions. I contemplate my good fortune and life’s fragility. You look, you pass through, you leave. Distanced from the experience, its meaning is gradually minimized—mini-stroke as metaphor.
About the Writer
Alice Lowe began her writing life after retiring from thirty years in the nonprofit sector. Since then she’s had more than a hundred works of creative nonfiction published in literary journals. “My Quarrel With Grieving” in Permafrost (2016) and “Jesus Saves, I Don’t” in Ascent (2018) were cited as Notables in the Best American Essays. She has authored essays, reviews, and two monographs on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, and contributed a chapter to the 2014 collection Writing After Retirement. Alice writes about life and literature, food and family in San Diego, California; her work can be read at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.
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