Just when you think, “I’ve got this,” think again.
Back in 2007, I was on top of the world. Our family business was hanging ten on a ramped-up sales wave, and I was in the prime of my life – the 40s were the new 30s. My young adult kids had left the nest, and I’d started up a small apparel company on the side, where I could exercise my colorful imagination.
Don’t get me wrong, they were long hard days. I spent hours on the road in New Jersey traffic, where getting “flipped off” occurs as frequently as a horn honk. I burned midnight oil until I got so weary I started using the calculator to add one plus one. I mastered meals, pets, parties and my mom’s addiction to Atlantic City like a juggler twirling plates in front of him while he catches balls behind his back. A bustling Amazon warehouse had nothing on me.
Then, suddenly, I found myself in strange company. Financial institutions were teetering with subprime mortgages and the “Big Three’s” assembly lines were running on fumes.
And, as it happened, I was running on fumes too – literally.
Of course, it took time to figure that part out. First, I had to entirely lose my bearings, like finding that I’d mistakenly driven to Pennsylvania, miles from where I was headed, and another time, having to be rescued from a Wawa parking lot that I drove by every day, but for some reason didn’t recognize.
I lost weight, and not the pounds you want to lose. These were the ones that left a deathly void between your skin and bones. I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without wheezing. My eyebrows turned stark white nearly overnight. And then there was the pièce de résistance: the day I was standing in an aisle at Lowe’s in shorts and sandals and my bowels decided at that moment to completely let go.
Doctors were perplexed and not particularly helpful. It wasn’t until my husband began having similar symptoms that we identified the culprit as a gaseous leak in our sewer pipe, which led us to evacuate our house. As we learned, we’d been poisoned by methane and hydrogen sulfide from those pipes, and the ghostly gases had begun to rot us from the inside out. It took a valiant effort, but eventually we found a homeopathic doctor who saved our lives by putting us in hyperbaric oxygen chambers. The first time I climbed out of that spaceship-like contraption the entire doctor’s office stunk of rotten eggs, and that stink had come from me.
All of that, and it was just the beginning of the roller coaster ride we were about to embark on. As we would soon learn, once a person is chemically injured, they become hypersensitive to chemicals – and that means every chemical in their path. Dogs and cats are not immune, either, and we had one of each. The key word being had – as though we needed that grief to add to our growing trauma.
We became nomadic, moving from house to house as often as carnival workers, in an effort to escape the seizures and TIAs that had begun to shake my body to the core. We stripped our environment of anything that was a chemical or had even a whiff of off-gassed residue. It was like being in a time-travel machine that left us back at the toddler stage learning how to walk. I don’t think anyone expected us to live. But that’s how this crazy world works. It puts you through the ringer, nearly squeezes the life out of you, and then spits you out the other side –if you’re lucky. And we were damned lucky!
This past decade has had the effect of morphing my husband and me into people with lives so vastly different from what they were that it’s nearly unimaginable. The events of those years landed us on secluded acres in Vermont, where the air is clean, and where we’ve learned to take the time to sit out at night and gaze in awe at the bright stars. We marvel every spring at the hotbed of new life in the shallows of our pond, on the shore of which we dance barefoot in the grass and, in winter, toss snowballs at each other as if we’re still kids.
It’s in this very fertile—this somewhat hallowed—place where the idea to write “The Six Gifts” series first germinated. That idea—and my new surroundings—have granted me not only the possibility of a new career, but also the prospect of more years to live. This clean and chemical-free new life is the result of being slowed to a near stop, just like the turtle in the old fable—and we all know how well he fared in that race.