It was last Wednesday when this story unfolded. It is, again, one of those stories that is about many things beyond what happened here in the middle of the forest early that morning before the sun illuminated the jagged lines of the birch and the frills of the white pine.
I am up around four, sitting in my corner chair beside the still black window down the hall from where Bob is still sleeping. I relish the dark’s quiet erasure before the duties of the day overtake the peace of the morning. Then, out of the silence, I hear Bob stumble from the bedroom and when I look up a man emerges from the dark hall, gripping his chest, gasping for breath, the look on his face filled with terror.
“Oh my god, I just had a terrible dream, terrible, terrible,” he said, visibly shaking and barely able to talk. “I was locked in a room, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t get away.” His breath is shallow, his speech, though pressured, is clear. His whole body is shaking. His jaw, he tells me, is tight and it is a little hard to talk. He raises his arms like a bird raises its wings and says his arms feel rigid. He picks his legs up high when he walks, like a stork patrolling the beach.
His speech is pressured with the need to tell me about the dream, to recount the images as they flash into his mind. If you had to guess which one of us has a vivid dream life populated with characters of ill intent, bridges that collapse over high ravines, buses that go nowhere, locked rooms, you probably wouldn’t guess it was my dear, kind, hard-to-ruffle husband. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear I don’t dream at all, for I never remember any of those fleeting images the brain produces while we sleep, in an effort, the dream people tell us, to integrate the emotional toll of the day.
Bob, on the other hand, wakes with his dream journey so vivid it has on occasion taken him all the way through his cup of tea, his first piece of toast, the headlines in the paper to relegate the unconscious demons back into the dark rooms of the mind. You might think a good wife, particularly a good psychoanalytically trained wife, would, on these mornings, welcome a discussion of these dreams as a path to forge a deeper intimacy with her beloved’s mind.
But you would be wrong, for the vivid images in his dreams frighten me, like visions from a Salvador Dali painting. They press on my own fears of things that go bump in the night. They are the renderings of what Jung called the collective unconscious and, I confess, I’m too chicken to start the day wrestling with the collective unconscious.
This morning’s demons are far worse than any that have ever invaded our morning. Never have I seen him so physically affected. I don’t know which one of us says the word stroke first. Maybe he says, “Could this be a stroke?” Maybe I say, after encouraging him to breath deeply and slowly, “I wonder if you are having a stroke?” Could he have had a stroke in his sleep which precipitated the dream? Or is it the dream that precipitated these symptoms? This sentence goes through my head immediately: “You are licensed to diagnose a panic attack, sweet pea, but you are not licensed to make a differential diagnose between panic attack and stroke.”
Still calm, I google waking from stroke during sleep. Dr. Somebody from Somewhere on the web tells me that if I have any doubt about a stroke I should, “Call 911. Don’t be embarrassed if it doesn’t turn out to be a stroke. Treatment within 2 hours is critical.” I take the don’t be embarrassed advice seriously. For the first time in my life, I call 911.
It is now five o’clock in the morning and ten degrees outside. It is pitch dark and the half mile dirt road to our house is sheer ice and not sanded. I feel miles and miles away from anyone. Yet, after two rings, a very bright voice answers. I only understand later that this voice belongs to someone in my community who is always on call to look out for us in these circumstances. Immediately, she takes my address, my phone number and asks me to describe what’s happening. She doesn’t want to talk to Bob. She wants me to keep him rested and calm.
I haven’t yet put my hearing aids in, so I can’t quite discern everything she says. But I do hear this: “A stitch in time saves nine.” “Oh yes,” I say, “a stitch in time does save nine.” I believe she is reassuring me that I have done the right thing to call, and I fall onto this childlike but soothing metaphor like a warm pillow. Then she repeats her request again and I hear that she is asking me to see if he can repeat those words. He can.
“Get his pills all in one place, if you have an animal put it in a room. An ambulance is on its way,” the dispatch operator tells me. Oh dear, I think, I better call Bridget and warn her that an ambulance is going to pass her house, tell her we are taking precautions to ensure her father hasn’t had a stroke. “I am here if you need anything,” she says, her calm reaching the 500 yards from her house to ours.
We wait for the ambulance to arrive. I do what I tell my patients to do: don’t make up stories. I try to stay in the uncertainty of the moment. The phone rings before the ambulance arrives. It is Finn calling to talk to Gigi Bob. “Don’t worry Gigi Bob, I have scary dreams like that all the time. I wake up all confused sometimes too. I bet you are going to be fine.”
We wait a little longer, until finally we look into the blackness of the curved driveway and see a set of lights coming toward us. The driver parks the big yellow box-shaped ambulance so that when it’s time to leave the vehicle is pointed in the right direction. Two tall black-clad figures emerge with backpacks half their size, enough rescue supplies for a whole town. The tallest black-clad figure is a young woman with blonde hair that tosses as she talks. I watch her eyes and see that they notice everything. She is the one in charge. The other not quite as tall figure is a man who, he later tells me, once was an organic farmer but took this job because the income from farming was so unsteady.
“Okay tell us what happened,” the woman tells Bob. I believe they expect him to describe his physical symptoms, so I am impatient when instead he is compelled to recount his dream in painstaking accuracy from beginning to end. He has an urgency about conveying this dream’s message of impending doom and helplessness.
After the taking of oxygen levels and blood pressure and the administration of tests for raising his arms and balance, they ask him to repeat again, the words that, by now, are to my ears like a chant or a prayer. “A stitch in time saves nine,” he repeats flawlessly. They don’t diagnose stroke. They don’t believe he needs to go to the ER, though, if we were to insist, they would take us. They pack up their gear. Bob asks them if they’d had a busy night. “Nope,” they say, “we slept right through until your call came in.” At least we didn’t wake them too early.
Imagine that, I thought as the ambulance slid its way back down the driveway, its headlights growing dimmer. Every night, a team of caring, trained medics is tucked in their beds in the Freeport Safety building, just a few miles away, in the event any of us has an emergency. Like my experience with the staff at Maine Med, and even with Bow Street Market (after the appearance of The Masked Woman) I again felt cared for and safe in this community. Within an hour the sun rose, Bob had his cup of tea and his toast. At eight I saw my first of many patients that day. Everyone I saw was anxious.
I’ve got to hand it Finn. He called it. It is Gigi Bob’s dream that precipitated the only panic attack he’s ever had. Why now is the question I’m trained to ask. Why would he have the most frightening dream I’ve known him to have? Well, why wouldn’t he? Why aren’t we all screaming in the night? I don’t think it takes fifty years of training to interpret this dream and the anxiety that accompanies it. I don’t think it counts as neurotic. I think it counts as pretty good reality testing. Now, right now, this week, is a truly terrifying moment in history and we are feeling pretty powerless in the face of it. Call 911 we have an emergency. We can’t pretend otherwise.
Piled on top of the fact that he and the rest of our family have just recovered (completely and quickly without getting very sick) from Covid, and two months ago he had emergency gall bladder surgery, are the events happening in the world beyond our patch of forest. The Supreme Court has denied OSHA the right to keep citizens safe; the Freedom to Vote Act looks headed for the ashbin, further weakening democracy; the pandemic is spiking, again, like a church steeple; the ocean warmed last year faster than it has in recorded history; greenhouse gas emissions, once headed down, are now rising; the Build Back Better Act which I’d put so much hope in, is also headed for Manchin’s golden coal bin; and oh, lord, Russia!
Where is the team tucked in their beds waiting to help? Am I all alone in the dark with this moment? It turns out, the team is already here and if I need to call them in the night, they will come. I didn’t realize last fall how much, come winter, I would need the people in the group I was then assembling around our fears and our hopes for the planet. They are my stitch in time. They are all here now, new friends, old friends, a large circle of neighbors engaged in local collective action.
We scheme, we write, we revise, we put up websites, we paint banners, we collect emails. And sometimes, if one of us falls ill, we deliver chicken soup. In all of that we form bonds of support and connection. The actions soothe and empower us. The treatment plan for anxiety remains the same: talk about your fears, don’t make up stories about bad things that haven’t happened yet, ask for help, do something to address your anxiety.
If you live in Freeport, come to our Zoom meeting this January 20 and meet us. The link is on our website, Freeportcan.org. Join one of our committees. If you live somewhere else, start your own small group. It took exactly four months to get from the day I watched the scarlet sun rise over the ocean and recognized I needed to start talking that very day with friends about my fears for this planet to this big coming out party we are having next Thursday.
What’s that line from the movie Field of Dreams?
If you build it they will come.