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Spent twenty-four hours in an emergency ward and am still giddy from it and from having gotten off light when it could’ve been otherwise, which someday it will but not yet. I lay in a little alcove, off a busy core of staff at computers, gurneys coming and going, beepers beeping, but vast professional courtesy prevailing. It was a big hospital on 68th and York in Manhattan, so it was an international staff, Asia, Africa, all over. My neighbor was a woman with cancer who often yelled, “Somebody come and help me! I just want to die! Help me!” and my other neighbor was a drunk who was mentally ill and also a jerk, a terrible combination. He had checked himself in and was now calling 911 to come get him out. Four cops arrived. It may have been the highlight of their day.

A man who experienced blankness does not go to the head of the line. So I wrote.

As for me, I’d been sent by my doctor for tests after I’d twice blanked out and had memory lapses (including the name of my doctor), which alarmed my wife. I called the doctor and his secretary asked for my phone number and when I couldn’t recall it, she put me right through. I took a cab over and Dr. Nash quizzed me. I’ve suffered a couple of strokes in the past, light ones, and he is a good explainer, and I canceled everything and went over to ER. My wife kissed me goodbye and said, “You remember that Maia was born here, right?” I did, then.

One nurse referred to it as “purgatory,” and maybe so, but it was fascinating and maybe the cure for a brain episode is to go to a place that gets your full attention. They shipped me in for an MRI, thirty-five minutes of honking and rasping in a small dark tunnel but I thought of that day back in December 1997, when my wife delivered at this hospital and the Filipino nurse took the little tadpole wrapped in a blanket and handed her to me and her eyes met mine and we’ve been studying each other ever since. This memory was worth the MRI.

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I had paper and pen with me, so waiting was no problem and there is plenty of it to be done in ER. A man who experienced blankness does not go to the head of the line. So I wrote. My nurse was Yemeni, the neurologist Israeli, the night nurse was Black from Des Moines. I felt like I was hosting a panel on diversity.

At 4 a.m., a man awoke me to install the electroencephalograph wires on my scalp, an intricate gizmo. He was from Nepal but I heard it as “Naples.” “Beautiful city,” I said. “Country,” he said. It put me in the mood for comedy. I said, “It looks as if you’ve done this before,” and he said, “Each time is like a new experience.” This struck me as the funniest thing I’d heard in days. He thought so too. I asked his name and he said, “You’d only mispronounce it. Call me Bob.” “So you like to work under an alias, then?” I said. He said, “With men your age, yes.” We were an act, meanwhile he was putting contacts on my scalp, freezing them in with a freeze-gun. I said, “So Nepal—you’re Buddhist, right?” “How could you tell?” he said.

He said, “Buddhism is the easiest religion in the world. You just don’t hate anybody. Hindu is very complicated. They love cows and everything else is a matter of degrees.” I thought briefly of the one person in the world I hate, a corporate killer I encountered four years ago, but he seemed irrelevant in this moment. It was almost 5 a.m., I was giddy from lack of sleep, like back in college, and it made me think maybe I could use more nights like this, and the dying woman was moaning, a useful reminder that time is limited.


I still felt good at 9 a.m. when Dr. Nash came by to tell me the tests showed it had been a seizure, not a stroke, a spark in the circuit that throws off the timing. I was lucky. I told him that a resident neurologist with wild hair had been by to see me who looked like a junior in high school and I told him we expect our neurologists to be bald. Dr. Nash said, “Actually, he’s a sophomore.” I asked him if an EEG can detect dementia and he said, “Yes, some kinds, but you’re not there yet.” Dr. Nash is bald, so I’m going to take his word for it.

Garrison Keillor
Prairie Home Productions