We all have stories, and each one of us is full of rich, funny, sad, surprising, quirky tales of our own lives. It is rare though to make the time and space to listen deeply to your story and to another’s. On retreat we had the opportunity to just listen, uninterrupted and non-conversational, to snippet’s of one another’s story. Curating a space for stories to be received and gifted is a talent and a generous offering of its own. The dinner table and the campfire are experienced are holding these spaces. This week I went to TenX9 to hear some stories and decided I would share one of my own. Buoyed by the experience of being heard on retreat I wanted more of that in this year of self compassion. To help me along the way, I have recruited a few people into my life as “witnesses” who have kindly agreed to listen to me when I feel the need to be heard. This is a great salve and I highly recommend it, for unlike a conversation, I know there will be no comments, no judgements, no expectations and equally the witness can drop the expectation of having to respond in any way. This is free style listening and speaking. Hearing yourself into speech helps with some of the un-ravelling of tangled thoughts.
So on Friday night I stepped up to the microphone and the theme of the story-telling night was: I almost died. There are stories I could have told that would have been funny, like times I almost died of embarrassment with one fashion malfunction or another, I could have told stories about times I almost died of fright finding something hidden in a bag that revealed a side of a person I didn’t want to know, I could have told stories about the times I almost died laughing when something truly hilarious and spontaneous came into view. Instead I told a story from my childhood about a night I almost died.
Here is the story I told.
My mantra that night was “Daddy do you love me?”
I must have said it a thousand times.
I was 7 years old and there had been a tropical storm the night before. The town I was living in had 457cm of rain a year, coming from South Australia, the driest State on the driest continent I saw more rain in the two years I lived in Lae than I had seen in my life to that time. Everything was green and mould seemed to grow as you watched it form on walls, inside the fridge and under the counter in the kitchen (where I could see, as I was the right height). It was the reason I was in the hospital. I was allergic to the mould, but my Mum and Dad didn’t know that at the time. Every spore seemed to be finding its way into my lungs from every breath I took, and with each breath in, I had less breath to breathe out. I had asthma attacks regularly and they were all terrifying … but this one escalated and I ended up in hospital.
I don’t remember how I got to hospital but it was probably in a VW beetle driven by my Dad. I found myself in a bed, in a room with other patients, all much older than me, and in my seven year old memory, the bed was huge and was scared I was going to fall of it as it was so high. The stainless steel seemed to be hard and cold and I wondered what was going to happen in the hospital. I wasn’t comfortable in so many ways – and I couldn’t really see what was going on around me. My main memory was the big brown feet padding past me and the big drops of water forming on the half opened louvers that eventually feel onto the garden outside which I think was a hibiscus plant. All the local staff had bare feet. As a side note, when we went to the UK a year or so later, my baby brother had to put shoes on for the first time and was not impressed. Every time I saw the feet approaching I wondered if they were coming my way, but each time they just padded past. Groups of three or four people seemed to be gathering in corners away from me and conferring – I just guessed they were talking about other patients and had no sense I was the subject of their conversation. But clearly I was because a man in a white coat came over and directed a woman with no shoes to give me an injection.
And that was when I nearly died. I had an allergic reaction to whatever they gave me. I learnt as an adult it was adrenalin – probably the worst possible thing I could have been given. My heart was pumping so fast and my Dad was trying to slow me and my heart right down by trying to get me to breathe in a gentle slow pattern. He was a psychologist, so he did have a few tools up his sleeve thank goodness. He probably didn’t know what else to do. So with each breath in and each breath out I tried to slow my breathing down – it was like catching a wave that kept crashing before it reached shore – it was absolutely exhausting – I didn’t know if I could keep going. Somehow I found a few words to help me through and that helped my breath to slow down … I thought I was dying (and I was but didn’t know that til much later) …. I just kept saying Daddy do you love me? Daddy do you love me? Daddy do you love me? Daddy do you love me? I got through the day and the night and am here to tell the story of nearly dying. It happened again about a year later, and being an old hand and the mark on my file not to give me adrenalin I survived that attack too.
When my Dad was dying just over ten years ago, I wanted to ask him about that night in Lae. I didn’t trust my childhood memory and I wondered what it was like for him as a parent, did he know I knew I thought I was dying? Did he think I was dying? Juxtaposed with his own pending death, although he didn’t accept he was dying until a few days before he did, thought it might be a good time to ask. He was sitting quietly and I had administered the pain killers. We were having a cup of tea. There was a gentle ease in the space between us.
He certainly remembered the night. He remembered helping me with my breathing and told me he was counting with me, number of breaths in and out and how long each breath was taking, so he could see if any progress was being made. He told me he remembered my mantra and each time I said it Daddy do you love me? he replied Yes – I had no memory of that part of the call and response. He told me he thought I was dying and was perhaps hallucinating or he thought I might have been having a near death experience at one point. I do have a sense that might have happened. He also told me he truly thought I might have died that night.
I have had times in my life as a parent, when one of my children has been faced with a major health crisis, even one who had asthma attacks – each time I brought my childhood memories to the situation of the night I almost died. That night I learnt about unconditional love, about the fidelity of a Dad towards his daughter and the power of the breath to hold love between generations. I know he still loves me and even though he is long gone, the night I almost died, was a great primer for my own parenthood.
In this year of self compassion I am going to keep listening and telling stories and find ways to be heard that might be new for me. I give thanks to the wonderful story tellers I heard on Friday, and especially give thanks to those who curate and create the spaces for new campfires and new dining tables so stories can be shared.