“Is this what it’s like to die?” I wondered. “Perhaps I really am dying.”
During the winter of 1996–1997, I had moved from New York City to a secluded place where I could concentrate on writing. The book in progress was about life and Earth, so a trailer perched a mile up in the mountains of a spectacular and remote corner of New Mexico seemed ideal. But the metal container nearly became my coffin.
The first signs seemed innocuous. The tip of my right thumb went numb. Then at odd moments electrical zings began shooting along my arm. A few weeks later I started waking at night with painful cramps in one hand or the other. Once I was jolted awake to find my toes in contorted positions and half my face feeling like a wooden mask. Next, my hands and feet started “falling asleep” in the middle of the day and would not wake.
Medical care was a problem. My regular New York doctor was thousands of miles away. The nearest town was across two mountain ranges, and its sole neurologist flew in but once a week, weather permitting. So initially I hoped that my troubles would just go away on their own. Then I happened upon what I thought must be the ultimate cause of my infirmities: poisoning from carbon monoxide, emitted from a wall-mounted propane oven that had been activated just that winter after years of disuse. With the help of a meter I purchased, I discovered that airborne molecules of the odorless, invisible, deadly gas had at times been accumulating halfway to levels that could cause death in four hours. While writing about the atmosphere’s CO2, I ironically had been oblivious to my growing exposure to a related airborne gas whose biochemical lethality derived from one less oxygen atom.
I immediately shut down the oven, of course. Yet even so, to my horror I kept having what my neurologist over the phone termed “relapses.” I grew more and more terrified as these “relapses” intensified. Soon I was barely able to write legibly. At night I found my mind trapped uncontrollably in inane obsessions. I imagined myself, for example, peeling an apple for hours, unable to cease or think of anything else. Coordination faltering, I had to steady myself when walking, one small step at a time. My chest would sporadically become the radiating center of body-filling pulsations, an uncontrollable drumming of rapid-fire vibratos that coursed along my arms and legs. Heartbeats pounded in my ears and set off reverberations all along my nerves.
Fearing that I could be fatally ill, I took to the outdoors and tried to make peace with myself during slow, clumsy walks in the valley that sheltered the trailer. On one cold, evening amble, with snow glossing the juniper trees and the shadows thickening, I relived my childhood and the ensuing pageant of my then forty-six years, trying to come to terms with my inner terror and the realization that, no matter what was going on, no guarantees had ever been given that I’d live to the standard life expectancy.
Over the following month I suffered several more “relapses,” and my despair increased. Then one morning I startled myself with a new possibility: Could it be the old car?
I put the carbon monoxide meter in the front passenger’s seat, started the engine, turned on the heating fan, and watched safely from the outside as the numbers surged into the danger zone. An exhaust leak! With every three-hour round trip to town I had been dosing myself with a second, independent source of carbon monoxide. I had come to the mountains for fresh air, but had found myself being poisoned twice over by defective technologies.
For more than a decade afterward I had to take an anticonvulsant drug to soothe what the doctors called “sensory distortions.” Eventually I was able to wean myself from the medicine, apparently healed. But my outlook on life had permanently shifted.
During the time of terror, during the evening walks, I found myself taking refuge, even embracing, a deep core of gratitude. How marvelous to have lived at all, I felt. Had the carbon atoms of my body been locked into, say, the calcium carbonate crystals of limestone rock, then the atomic arrangements would have had more permanence. In that case, what about an “I”? The transient configuring of carbon in my body allows a conscious self to exist: complicated and conflicted, to be sure, yet also joyous, curious, and loving.
Sure, death would come. Death, I came to realize, was inherent both in my humanness and in the evolutionary nature of our existence. Life and death were totally intertwined. Life, a flowering of the fortunate way my atoms were combined, was bound up with inevitable death. In fact, death made life possible.