“This is the best time I ever had.”
She didn’t mean it literally. She used the line too often. Not so often that it lost meaning but often enough—a few times a year in your presence if you were lucky. When you heard it, you knew it wasn’t the best time she’d ever had, but you sure as hell knew life at that moment was pretty close to perfect.
She might say it while eating churros sold out of the back of a truck on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Or maybe while having a martini freshly shaken by a waitress at a roadside BBQ joint in Bali. Or maybe while doing something closer to home, such as enjoying lamb biryani takeout at night on the balcony of her tiny Manhattan studio on a warm summer evening. “This is the best time I ever had.” Every time I heard her say it, it was validation—I was a part of the life she wanted to be living. It also meant I was part of the life Iwanted to be living too, as a partner in a committed relationship with someone who I thought was the greatest woman in the world.
In 2014, I was forty-two years old and living in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens, New York. I drove a beat-up 1998 Honda that was usually clean only when it rained, but who cared? I was in love with a fabulous woman whom I had adored for more than a decade—my fiancée, Holly. We both had jobs we loved. I worked in the photo sales and licensing department at the Associated Press in New York, and she was a professor of religious studies at Bethany College in West Virginia. We were fully committed and yet independent. We spent school semesters apart, but we were together as much as possible on weekends and school breaks. In many ways, we lived an enchanted life—supporting each other from near and far and truly believing we were our best selves because of each other. After ten years with her, my heart would still race when she bounced into baggage claim as I waited to pick her up after her latest flight. I was living a schoolboy crush in the real world as an adult but in a wonderful, equal partnership.
Holly was a vibrant thirty-nine-year-old woman—happy, healthy, and never having endured any serious illness or surgery to that point in her life. She was a yoga teacher who, before getting her PhD, had spent a decade teaching high school English in Texas and in the South Bronx, New York. Holly loved the ocean, her friends, teaching, collecting passport stamps from around the world, and surfing small waves, which she did with an ear-to-ear smile across her face.
On the day after Easter in April 2014, my world shattered. At 5:30 a.m., Holly awoke with a ruptured aneurysm in her brain. She was unable to move and barely able to speak. It is not hyperbole to say she almost did not survive. She suffered heart and lung failure as she ceased breathing on her own as blood leaked from the rupture into her skull. In the days and weeks that followed, I also was informed that rare is the instance where a person fully recovers from an aneurysm rupture, and often the recovery can take years. I thought Holly might make it through this if she was lucky, but the life we were living was soon to be a distant memory for all intents and purposes.
Holly’s aneurysm ruptured without warning. We’d never known she had one. She barely survived that day and spent twenty-four days in the intensive care unit, fighting for her life during much of that time.
Holly survived. She made it through a ruptured aneurysm and all the complications that followed. Her official medical diagnosis was a grade IV subarachnoid hemorrhage, the result of a ruptured aneurysm on her basilar artery. I knew her recovery was miraculous, but a conversation months later best illustrated how rare it actually was.
While we were in the emergency room at New York University Langone Medical Center for treatment of one of Holly’s many complications in the months after her initial bleed, a neurosurgeon interviewed us about Holly’s medical history. When informed Holly had endured a grade IV brain hemorrhage, he refused to believe it. He began educating us on how the grading system works, but I interrupted him, saying we knew how it worked. I told him that yes, Holly had survived a grade IV brain hemorrhage just five months prior.
His eyes widened as he looked at Holly again. “You don’t see people present like she does after a grade IV hemorrhage,” he said. “You should consider yourself extremely lucky.”
I said we had been told many times that she was doing well, and we were incredibly grateful.
He persisted, shaking his head. “You don’t understand. We have a sad saying here. We say that eighty percent of people who have a grade IV brain hemorrhage die. And of those that live, eighty percent wish they had died.”
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