"B.G., I can't walk!"
On Friday evening, May 15, 1998, I enjoyed supper with my family in the seaside garden of our home on the North Shore of Boston. My husband, Bruce (a.k.a., B.G.), and I had lived there for ten years.
After spending the day in Boston, we had been determined to put some unpleasant business behind us during a delightful al fresco lunch at Maison Robert, our favorite restaurant in the city. The weather was beautiful, a clear sunny day in spring with enough warmth to hint of summer, our favorite season, which was just around the corner.
That evening back at our old colonial home, we enjoyed the warm spring breezes as our two young children, Westy and Lindsay, frolicked in the garden. Watching the sailboats in the outer harbor, we laughed and talked as we looked forward to another summer of sailing and tennis in Massachusetts and Maine. B.G. and I had sailed together for years, beginning before we were married. But it was always fresh—a time to appreciate life and reconnect. I never tired of seeing Bruce's piercing blue eyes against the backdrop of the sea. On the water, it seemed as though we were always smiling. It was ever so beautiful, and we felt so alive out there in the elements. Then, of course, we brought the children into it, and they, too, developed a love of sailing and the sea.
In the end, I remember feeling very lucky that day. The children were happy and healthy. They were at a wonderful school right in our neighborhood. We seemed to have the best of everything: good health, a beautiful family, great friends, and a charming home in a lovely town, just up the road from our favorite city. From every perspective, it seemed like a charmed life. From every perspective but one.
The memories of that evening were the last I would have for more than three weeks.
I have pieced together a chronicle of this time by drawing upon conversations and correspondence with the people who endured this ordeal with me. At times, their words help me tell the story.
* * *
I awoke the next morning, Saturday, May 16, feeling ill. Both Bruce and I thought it was simply a case of the flu.
"B.G.," I said weakly, "you have to take the children out today and let me rest. I'm exhausted." He looked in on me, guessed I was coming down with nothing more than an unusually bad cold or flu, gathered Westy and Lindsay, and left for a long walk at an old estate in town. The park was beautiful that time of year, with the azaleas in bloom and the garden's famed rhododendrons starting to come out. It was a favorite destination for the whole family, and Bruce and the kids had a wonderful day.
Meanwhile, I spent the entire weekend resting. I don't remember getting out of bed at all, although I later learned that I did—even drove myself to the local hospital for some medicine. By Sunday evening, I was confused and on the verge of delirium.
Bruce had become increasingly concerned as the hours passed and I seemed to be slipping into myself. Finally, he announced, "This is no ordinary flu. If you're not better tomorrow, I'm taking you to the hospital."
By Monday morning, I was definitely not better. Bruce dressed for work, and our children's nanny, Jeanne, arrived. Westy, our seven-year-old son, was up and getting ready for school. Lindsay, our three-year-old daughter, was still asleep and thus was spared the sight of what came next.
"Wendy, you'll have to get dressed," said Bruce. "I'm taking you to the hospital."
"Okay," I said weakly, as I struggled to sit up in bed. But then a frightening problem presented itself.
"B.G.," I said, attempting to get my clothes, "I can't walk!"
Stunned, he stared at me. "You can't walk?"
He helped me dress. I had always been athletic, deriving great pleasure from sailing, skiing, playing tennis, and being outdoors. Now my muscular legs were of no use to me. He slipped them into a pair of jeans.
"Can you hand me Dad's belt?" I asked.
Lying down, I was able to loop my late father's old ostrich-skin belt, which I treasured, through my jeans. Bruce quickly picked me up, put me over his shoulders like a sack of potatoes, and carried me down the stairs. Westy stood in the front hall, watching with his nanny, Jeanne. Both looked extremely puzzled.
Bruce carried me out of the house. I'm told it was a clear, bright morning, the kind when the sun sparkles on the harbor so beautifully, but I don't remember that. Bruce put me in the Buick station wagon, which we had owned for four years. He later told me that I looked at it and asked, "Is this a new car, B.G.?"
Staving off his concerns, Bruce drove to the fine community hospital in the center of town. He stayed with me in the emergency room as physicians examined me, gave me a spinal tap, and kept me for observation. I remember nothing.
"You'll be fine now," Bruce assured me, though undoubtedly, he had a hard time watching the clinical proceedings. "I'll check in later on, when I get to work."
Bruce left the hospital, confident that I was in capable hands. He genuinely felt that what I needed was expert attention, which he could see I was receiving. I apparently had the presence of mind to ask for, and was admitted to, a private room.
Medical Record May 18, 1998
Patient returned to emergency room [where I had checked in over the weekend for a stubborn sinus infection, but did not recall it] with progressive headaches, confusion, neck stiffness, leg stiffness, inability to walk. Temperature 103. Lumbar Puncture performed, 620W [white blood cells, indicating infection] . . . Neurologist suggests brain stem dysfunction . . . Advised to Beth Israel- Deaconess Medical Center.
I made two phone calls from the hospital that morning to my two closest colleagues and dear friends at John Hancock. Foster Aborn was the company's boyish but exacting vice chairman and chief investment officer. Tim Hollingworth and I had worked as financial writers side-by-side for a decade. Neither was in when I made my calls. However, once they arrived at their offices atop the gleaming, blue glass Hancock Tower overlooking Boston that morning, they found some bizarre messages waiting for them in their voice mail.
I had been Foster's speechwriter for more than a decade, but because of his demanding schedule, I always avoided taking up his time unnecessarily. Why I would have called him when we were not working on a project at the time is puzzling. I can only guess that I must have been frightened, perhaps even terrified, given what had begun to happen. But his empathy and devotion would prove instrumental in saving my life.
"Foster . . . Tim . . . it's Wendy," I began slowly. My speech already showed signs of dysfunction. "I'm in the hhhhhospital. They don't nnnnknow whhhhhat's wrong, and . . . I'm not sssssure when I'll be back to the office."
I rambled on, slurring my words.
Tim and Foster later expressed to me equal amounts of concern and confusion about my messages. Tim recalled thinking I sounded drunk.
In retrospect, the reason I had no memory, the reason I sounded so odd, was clear: my body had begun to shut down.
I was dying.