HEAVEN ON EARTH
On a Sunday morning in July, Paul and I drove from our home in Springs to Montauk Harbor and boarded the ferry to Block Island. We quickly found seats on the upper deck by the starboard railing, knowing it would be the sunny side as we headed northeast. Morning sun is always good for the soul.
The ferry motored out of the inlet past commercial fishing boats tied to the dock, their catch of the day already in. Once in open water, we picked up speed.
The one good thing about a brush with mortality is that it reminds you to love being alive. The sun-glazed Atlantic shimmered under a blue-eyed sky. Emerald crowns topped the pale cliffs of Montauk Point. I took a deep breath of full summer off the East End, and my nose found the unique maritime mix of salted ocean air and dusky wafts of diesel.
Someone wise once said that every ferry you take adds an extra day to your life. On the ferry that morning, I thought back to the year before, a day last August, when we needed an extra day or even more.
* * * * *
It had been a typical summer afternoon with family at home in Springs. The kids had left a few hours earlier. I worried that they’d run into Sunday traffic on their way back to Brooklyn. Paul said he was tired and went into our room to lie down. Within minutes, he called out in a voice I barely recognized. When I rushed in, I saw him lying on the bed shivering in the warm room. He asked for blankets. I covered him up and dialed 911.
“He’s lost feeling in his hands and feet,” I said into the phone, my voice breaking with terror. “We’re starting to panic.”
“Try to stay calm,” the woman answering the call told me. “We’re on our way.”
I lay down on top of Paul to share my body heat and whispered hoarsely that help was coming. He didn’t seem to hear me.
The EMT workers arrived and wrapped him in thermal blankets and got him onto a stretcher and into the back of the ambulance. I clambered into the front seat next to the driver. My hands were shaking as I tugged the seat belt across my chest. We pulled out of our driveway and onto Old Stone Highway then Fireplace Road. At the stop sign, we waited to turn west onto Route 27, a parking lot of stopped traffic. I glanced at the clock on the dashboard and felt desperate. It could take over an hour to get to Southampton.
A woman wearing an EMT badge emerged from the back of the ambulance to tell me they’d get Paul to the ER in time and he’d be okay. I started to cry. The driver put a gentle old hand on my knee.
“I’m turning on the siren,” he said. “We’ll be going 75, maybe 80 miles an hour. You going to be okay?”
I couldn’t speak so I nodded yes. I stared through the windshield and watched, mesmerized, as the ambulance shrieked operatically down the highway. The clustered cars parted to make way for us. It took 11 minutes to get from Springs to Southampton Hospital—on a Sunday afternoon in August.
Paul spent the next few weeks in the hospital and needed daily antibiotic infusions for two months after that. Once the medical emergency was over and he was safe, the doctors explained that a minor infection had erupted into a systemic bacterial onslaught that had suddenly exploded into sepsis. Paul had gone into septic shock, near-complete organ shutdown. Septic shock is often fatal, they told us; it could have killed him. We’d been lucky.
* * * * *
Almost a year later, that Sunday in July, I liked to think we’d had some magic as well as luck on our side. As the ferry streamed through a kaleidoscope of sky-and-ocean blues, I half-wondered if all those ferries we’d taken over the years living on the East End—from North Haven to Shelter Island, from there to Greenport on the North Fork, and from Orient Point to New London—if maybe they’d all tallied up to add the extra days Paul needed last summer.
Our ferry docked on Block Island, and we met our friends, Tim and Ann, vacationing from London. We were all in a holiday mood. I was wearing a white summer dress with a biscuit-colored sweater and a favorite straw hat. The four of us sat down to lunch on a wraparound porch perched high on a rise overlooking the Sound. The sky was bell clear. White sails glided across the far horizon. We ordered fish and a bottle of white wine.
Tim, an art historian, had just finished writing a book titled Heaven on Earth about how painters throughout history had visualized and depicted heaven in their art. We talked about artists’ images of heaven as blissful versions of what they knew of life on earth, heavenly places on heavenly days—like this one.
When the wine was poured, Paul lifted his glass and offered a toast: “To heaven on earth,” he said.
We all smiled at the intended double entendre, toasting the title of Tim’s new book as well as the time and place we were sharing.
As we said our goodbyes to Tim and Ann and headed for the ferry dock, I remembered someone saying that wisdom is knowing when to fight and when to dance. Paul and I had done our fighting at the end of last summer, and we had won. This summer we were dancing onto the deck of a ferry boat bound for Montauk, happy to add yet another day to our lives. In case we need it.