All as in all in. The entirety. No more. Every single one. Most. The majority. More than some, less than all. Together both completion and suggestion. All the stories are the same. Most of them have to with the centrality of the fact that I almost died. Before my time. In my time. But there were other times.
There was the time that Michael almost downed. I was twenty-eight. We had been married only a little while. We loved books, camping and each other. It was the time after his father's death. Not an almost death but one sure and certain. He had flown home from the small nest we shared deep in Sichuan province, from the city of coal and fog and flights that never departed, so leaving was all trains and waiting and negotiating tickets to Hong Kong and then leaving behind the months of being a foreigner.
He had flown home in time to put his ear to his dying father's chest and hear his heart beat the last drums of love. I had lingered to grade papers and drink black tea with mad Russians and negotiate an early departure and give away the last of our worldly Chinese goods. Then I boarded my own train.
Tinammen Square on a cold January morning, open for the first time since the children carrying the fervor of reform had been mowed down and disappeared into decades of questioning. It had held a million and now there was a scattering of soldiers, only a little older than the students they had killed half a year before. Soldiers flying kites, surrendering their arms for the great color of dragons and hawks and beasts beyond imagining.
I marked those deaths and that beauty and bought my plane ticket to an even colder Chicago. Where I kept my head down, worked temp jobs and wrote a dissertation and thought about a future. Lived with my widowed mother in law on sufferance, hers and mine, and tried to keep Michael company in his grief. The trail away from grief took us to California in August, across valleys of heat that could only be borne by soaking t-shirts in cold water and wearing them as a sort of portable air conditioning, but they were valleys that led to mountains, to the infinite twining and inclining of the uphill roads, the great forest and the snow in the distance.
One warm day, we walked the lake trail, climbing and ipping and scrambling and sweating and when we stopped I set my eye on the great rock in the middle of the lake, whipped off my shirt and headed for it, reveling in the cold relief of the lake. I was tired when I scramble on to the rock, breathing with labor and set on resting a long time before I made my way back. I looked to the shore and saw him wading in.
I shouted a caution, but with the arrogance you would expect of a man in his twenties whose much smaller wife had just completed a long swim, he started for the rock. He slowed. He seemed to flounder. He called to me that he was going to need some help. He started to sink. I screamed "tread water" and leapt from the rock and reached back ten years to when I used to swim for sport, to match my speed against that of others. Breast stroke and frog quick and shouted reassurance whenever I could spare the breath. He had gone down three times before I got my arms around him and began the slow progression back to shore, dreading the moment when it was him or me, when I'd have to let go. But the kindness of strangers met my desperate shoreward struggle and I was able to shove Michael into the arms of some passing hiker who came to meet us and get myself to where I could get my feet on the bottom of the lake. By the time I stumbled to shore, he was coughing great amounts lake water into the sand. Years of betrayal and distance and failed negotiation followed. I killed his heart. But I kept it beating too.