The North Shore of Oahu is a dangerous place. The tropical greens, clear water, and loose-hanging vibe invite recklessness, and arouse the belief that retirement from the mainland U.S. to a life tending bar by night and surfing waves by day is not only possible, but a good decision. Romantic nights cap adventurous days, and as passion rises with the moon, the taste of fresh fruit is replaced by that of sweet lips.
I was going to die in Paradise.
The pain tightened across my stomach around one o'clock in the morning, not long after Elizabeth had fallen into a deep sleep beside me. Thinking it was a nothing more than a stomach too full of good food, I chewed a couple of Tums and hoped for a long fart to ease the pressure. After turning off the television, I laid down and focused on the sound of the ocean pounding against the rocky shore of Turtle Bay.
Almost an hour later the pressure remained, and I sensed that my stomach was about to demand a welcome purge. I went to the bathroom, closed the door, and spewed forth demons as quietly as possible, not wanting to disturb Elizabeth's peaceful sleep between the crisp white sheets. My throat burned, my eyes watered, and my mind panicked, because my stomach continued to tighten in spite of being drained.
Believing, hoping, praying really, that my empty gut just needed a few minutes to settle into all's well, I brushed my teeth and rinsed my mouth several times before returning to bed for much needed sleep. The Universe, however, had other plans. Within minutes my body began to play a game of tag between fever and chills. Great drops of sweat swam to the surface of my skin and cooled as they made contact with the night air. I shuddered like an addict on day three of rehab, wrapped in damp blankets and swaddled in self pity.
Pity gave way to worry when the chest pains hit. If my rib cage had been an engine, I would have supposed that it was running without the lubricating effects of oil, every one of its moving parts seizing and grinding with each labored breath that I took. I struggled to a sitting position and gulped at the air around me in panic and desperation. Rather than subside, the pains turned into hot, sharp jabs. The pressure within my chest rose with the dreadful thought that scrolled in flashing red across the movie screen within my mind.
You are going to die from a heart attack in Paradise.
Choking back the bile of fear that had started to climb my throat, I shook my left arm and waited for the chest pains to travel down it. The pain stayed were it was, clamped tightly across my chest.
A new message scrolled past in flashing red: Okay, you are not going to die from a heart attack in Paradise. You are going to die from a stroke.
I sniffed the air for burning toast, doubting that strokes included severe chest pains.
Okay, not a stroke, but there is no way you are going to outlive this pain.
I slid from the bed to the floor with a whimper, and wished for a quick and merciful end to a life that I hadn't yet lived. I stared up into the darkness, knowing that my kids were too young to lose their father, and my wife too beautiful to be left single. How long before I became a sweet but distant memory, worthy of nothing more than a few minutes reflection each year on what had been my birthday?
You have some serious issues to resolve before your die; you'd better find a way out of this.
Not quite ready to chase the light, and wondering why I bothered to punctuate internal warning messages, I considered making a deal with my maker. My life was an unfinished canvas, and I refused to stop slapping paint on it until it had become a masterpiece. Well, maybe not a masterpiece...
My supplication (sent without conditions or deals) complete, I struggled to my feet and limped to the sliding shutter-doors that led to the balcony. After steadying myself against them for a long moment, I turned and made my way across the room to the front door. I repeated this march of suffering a few times, hoping my efforts would not go unnoticed by he who helps those that help themselves. While my situation didn't improve, it didn't seem to worsen, and so I was hopeful until a sudden, more pronounced pain sent me to my knees. The fever tightened its grip, chasing the chills away for good, and I felt the darkness around me begin to spiral. In the silence of what I thought would be my final moment, I heard several drops of sweat fall from my face onto the carpet.
I thought once more of Elizabeth and our kids, and hurled a prayer into the night before rolling onto my back to die. The pain of losing them washed over me, adding to that of my seizing chest. I heard Elizabeth breathing softly in the distance, and was powerless to stop the tears that came at the thought of her waking to find me dead on the floor.
Happy memories replaced the flashing red warnings, and I embraced each one of them as they came and left in a rush. Despair wrapped in acceptance came over me, and I marveled at the sensation.
Thirst pushed its way through the thick mesh of emotion, and since I didn't appear to be dead, I climbed back onto all fours and crawled over to the bedside table. The pain in my chest had become a constant series of spiny waves rolling upwards through my chest, over my shoulders, and into my back.
On our way to Turtle Bay, we had pit-stopped at the Dole pineapple plantation. We decided against taking the tour, but did browse the gift shop, where in a moment of impulse much out of character, we bought two large drink tumblers with the Dole brand logo on the side. For the past three nights I had filled it with ice water and left it on the bedside table for easy access in the middle of the night.
I held the green tumbler in trembling hands and sucked at the straw. Cold water washed over my tongue and filled my mouth. It hit my cheeks, and I thought I heard the sizzling sound of fire meeting its mortal enemy. The image encouraged me and I swallowed, bringing more water up through the straw in a steady flow that continued until the tumbler was empty. I placed it back on the bedside table and laid down beside Elizabeth to die.
As my head hit the pillow, the pain disappeared without so much as a fading. I stared up at the ceiling and waited for its inevitable return. Seconds, then minutes passed, and the pain stayed away, as if chased from the room and down the hall by something I could not see or understand. I imagined it jabbing at the elevator button in panic, then screaming without a voice as whatever it was that had saved my life charged into it. Together they fell into the open elevator. Before it reached the lobby my champion had devoured my enemy and then disappeared like mist through a vent.
The pain was gone.
I turned onto my side and watched Elizabeth sleep. She was just as still and peaceful as she had been a couple of hours earlier when my battle with the threat of death had begun, but she had somehow become more beautiful. I fell into the smiling sleep of the exhausted, and if I had dreams I cannot recall them.
The rest of our trip was wonderful. I soon felt tempted into recklessness again, but the recklessness was less dangerous than it was insightful. I didn't dare suggest to myself that I had been given a second chance at life, but more a pile of reasons to keep on living the life that I had already started.
And so, back home in Oakley, I am trying to do just that. I don't think I will die any time soon, but every night I fill that green Dole tumbler with ice water and put it beside my bed.
Just in case.