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Facing emergency surgery in Mexico, I found myself conjugating the verb ‘to die’

kim rosen The Globe and Mail

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All I am trying to do is say one simple thing in Spanish: "I almost died."

I've got the "almost" part, but the rest is complicated. The verb to die is both irregular and reflexive, so I have to think about how or whether the root changes in the past tense. I have to think about exactly how it was that I almost died (myself).

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The schoolroom Spanish stored in my brain is not much help. In the chapter of the textbook that covers reflexive verbs, morir comes up right away. There is a dialogue between Rosa and Irving, in bed. She snuggles up to him and says: "I'm dying [myself] of cold." (Estoy muriéndome de frio.) Irving, the cad, replies: "Well, get up [yourself], woman, and shower [yourself] with hot water."

But that bedroom talk doesn't get me into the story I want to tell, so perhaps I will leap in another way. …

The day before I was scheduled to leave Mexico to return to the late spring of Ontario, I had a medical emergency. My doctor sent me to the hospital immediately, by cab. I was accompanied by a friend from Vancouver.

I am well into my 80s, and I know from previous experience the perils of the kind of open-belly surgery that might be necessary.

I began, then, to conjugate the verb to die – distractedly, fitfully, in Spanish. Perhaps it was a kind of meditation. I might die (myself). Future conditional? Subjunctive?

When the taxi pulled up at the hospital, I was tucked into a wheelchair and taken right away to a tiny X-ray room, where two big guys showed me where to stand, and how to spread my arms out. One of them demonstrated holding his breath.

Luckily, I was wearing only a Mexican cotton robe called a huipil, so I didn't need to waste time disrobing. The ride from X-ray to ultrasound was quick, but I began to sink into a kind of fog.

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Someone put a hospital gown on me and handed my clothes to my friend.

The ultrasound doctor, looking beautiful and stylish in her silky blue suit and white medical coat, talked to me about what she was seeing. I understood almost none of it, as she rubbed the sensor over my abdomen. The equipment was all very modern, and when she had the image she wanted, she sent it directly to the surgeon by iPhone.

As I lay on the gurney being wheeled to surgery, I had a sort of "Hollywood moment." I watched myself stretch my hand out toward my friend as he stood there in the archway, backlit by the late-afternoon Mexican sunshine and looking quite glamorous with his eyepatch.

Gently, quietly, I heard myself say "Bye, honey," drifting, thinking: Laurie's last words? I was easy, ready to leave this life, if that was the way it would go.

The surgery, yes, I remember it now, a small room, not a lot of equipment in it, other than a big impressive control box, dark blue. Everyone was garbed up in surgical-blues, ready to start: surgeon, assistant, anesthesiologist, nurse. When I threw up one last time, all over everything, the doctors and the anesthesiologist leaped back, away from my contamination. The clean-up person took over briefly, and after that, they got me [own, and out, very quickly.

What can I say about that small hospital? Thanks to the wonders of Mexican architecture I could see the sky from my room – the building designed to let the heat out, the light in. My doctor was wonderful – confident and kindly. I was pleased and comforted by the cleanliness – the tile floors washed twice a day – the efficient nurses, friendly, trying out their English as I tried out my Spanish.

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My stitched-up belly was bound firmly with a good Mexican swaddle-wrap, the kind they use for babies.

That was reassuring – at least I could be sure I wouldn't really burst open, even if that was how it felt. I was weak and frightened. The nurses encouraged me to get out of bed, to try to walk.

After several days, I was allowed to go home. Not home to Canada – I couldn't fly until the stitches were removed – but to my Mexican home, where my daughter had come down to take care of me until I could travel.

I lay in bed much of the first few days, then sat on the patio where there was more space, warm air and sunshine, and shade when I needed it.

My body began to heal. To encourage it, I did gentle tai chi exercises every morning, feeling as wobbly as a baby kitten.

Morir. Simple past, reflexive, negative: I did not die (myself). No me morí. Will that do?

I'm still trying to figure out in which form of the past I did not die. Was it a real, or hypothetical past?

But perhaps it is a verb I can decide to ignore, at least for the time being, while my wounded body recovers.

Laurie Lewis lives in Kingston.

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