18 February 2006

A brush with death

There are subjects I don't feel very comfortable writing about on a blog. Mostly, they have to do with the people here around Saint-Aignan who have befriended or, in some ways, adopted us. Their privacy needs to be respected, but our interactions with them and the gradual unveiling of their lives before our very eyes make for some of the most interesting moments we spend here. Many of the people we have gotten to know best are 20 or more years older than I am.

But the fact is that all these things that happen to them become part of my life too, and I want to write about them. When we decided to leave California and the stressful commuting and long work days, we didn't know what life would be like out in the country in France. We are finding that out now. In California, we each belonged to a work community. And we had a small circle of friends in common. But they were nearly all people our age. Now it's different.

The past week has been almost too full of events. After a very quiet period since Christmas, through January and part of February, I feel as if I got sucked into a whirlwind. It all started Friday before last, when I was scheduled to drive a friend up to Blois for a routine medical test. The friend is in her mid-70s, and she hadn't been feeling quite right for a few months — hence the test. The morning I picked her up she had had a bad dizzy spell and some nausea, she said.

In the car on the way to Blois, she had a more serious malaise of some kind. It seemed pretty bad -- she couldn't see or talk or even move much, although she never lost consciousness. It was hard to understand her, and I didn't see any option but to keep driving toward the hospital. I ended up taking her directly to the emergency room, where nurses and orderlies came out with a gurney and took her away. That hadn't been the plan at all. After a couple of hours of waiting I was told by a young doctor that my friend was very seriously ill.

« C'est très grave, et je ne sais pas comment ça va se passer dans les heures à venir », he said. It's very serious and I don't know what the immediate outcome will be. I asked: "Do you mean she might die?" He said that was a distinct possibility — « ses jours sont en danger. » She was paralyzed and couldn't talk. She couldn't swallow or even breathe very well, the doctor said. That was what was worrying him most.

I was stunned. I had to call my friend's partner to tell him what had happened, because he knows her children and sister. I don't. He was at work. He said he would race to the hospital. Then I went back and stood in the hospital hallway outside my friend's room, in a daze. Suddenly I heard her cry out: « J'ai froid. J'ai très froid. » I'm cold. I'm freezing cold. I ran to her bedside, and she was definitely talking. And shivering.

I went and found a nurse, who went to get the doctor. When he arrived, he was amazed. "You can talk? And you are moving your hands!" He said he had never seen anything like it. She wasn't paralyzed after all. Her partner arrived a few minutes later, and the doctor confirmed to him what had happened. I thought the man might think I was crazy for having alarmed him with stories of her paralysis and imminent death when I called him on the telephone.

We made a trip to Blois on Monday to visit her and were encouraged when we found her sitting in a chair and talking. Her doctors wanted to do a series of tests — an MRI, an electroencephalogram — over the course of the week to try to determine what had happened.

She told me I had saved her life — but the doctors deserve the credit for that of course. She said it was when I had looked into her eyes that Friday afternoon, as she lay there paralyzed, and said « Ma pauvre amie, je ne sais pas ce qu'on va faire maintenant » — my poor friend, what are we going to do now? — that she realized she absolutely had to be able to talk. I had seen the look of panic in her eyes. She wasn't ready to die. Then she started feeling chilled through and through, and she was sure that was death coming on. So she managed to cry out « J'ai froid! »

She is still in the hospital today, but she is able to talk and walk. It was quite a scare for me, but even more for her. She will soon be released to spend a month in a clinic, where she will have on-site medical personnel to look after her. She is under doctor's orders to rest, though it won't be easy because she's a very energetic person when she feels good.

* * *

I hadn't really recovered from the stress of all that when it came time to drive to Paris on Wednesday. We had been looking forward to the trip, and we had an American friend visiting Paris that we wanted to see. We in fact had a good day shopping, going to see a film, and then going out to dinner. But we didn't leave Paris until midnight, and we drove through windy and rainy weather until 3:30 a.m. to get home that night. It was exhausting, I realize now.

Friday night we were invited over by some new British friends who live in Saint-Aignan. Others there for the evening included a young Frenchman who lived in England for six years and a woman who was born in Texas but has lived most of her life in France. Both of them speak French and English. However, one person who was there speaks French but no English, and one speaks English but no French. So we had a bilingual evening with some good food and drink. We got home late again. I'm still resting up.

* * *

Ready for the oven...

Yesterday Walt and I made pizzas for lunch. We put ham, mozzarella and parmesan cheese, tomato sauce, and sauteed mushrooms on crust that Walt makes from scratch. They turned out really good. Walt has pretty much perfected his pizza crust now. It's light and bready, with just the right amount of crunch.

...and ready to cut and eat

I don't know about you, but I find good hot food to be of great comfort on dreary, gray winter days like these.


  1. Bonjour Ken,

    Tu as eu beaucoup d'émotions avec les aléas de santé de votre amie, puis, il y a eu l'aller retour à Paris, et donc, tu ne t'es pas vraiment reposé de toutes ces émotions... Alors, tu en subis le contrecoup à présent...

    Pour ce qui est du réconfort qu'on trouve en hiver dans de bons petits plats, je suis d'accord, mais, pour la ligne, c'est autre chose, lol ! Bises et bon dimanche ! Marie

  2. You're a very good friend to your friends Ken. We're all lucky to know you.
    Chris P

  3. Hi Ken,

    Maybe one of your projects this spring should be to build a brick oven out back so you can really make really classic French pizzas... Peter H

  4. I wish we had those kinds of masonry skills, Peter. I myself wouldn't know how to even begin such a project. Friends of ours in Urbana IL recently had a bread/pizza oven built at their house. I'll have to ask them what was involved.

  5. Sunset Magazine had directions for a do-it-yourself adobe oven a while back. Here it is: http://www.sunset.com/sunset/Premium/Home/1998/08-Aug/AdobeOven898/AdobeOven0898.html
    Chris P

  6. Ray's long been convinced that pizza is the appropriate remedy for a near death experience. Or for any other experience, for that matter. Perhaps it was the promise of pizzas to come that revived your friend. Clabber Girl and I are so looking forward to seeing you soon.

  7. I'm grateful your friend recovered, Ken. And I hope things stay calm for you for a few days.

    As far as food being a comfort, that's a given.

  8. I still say, Ken, your food photos are special and you should send a copy of a food blog to Saveur.


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