Friday, March 15, 2019

Expecting Catastophe

My heart raced.
Sweat poured.
Every nerve in my legs screamed in pain.

This is it, I thought.  This is how I die, here and now.

"Here" was Victoria's Peak in Hong Kong; "Now" was 1:00pm, March 26, 2009.

I staggered to a payphone and dumped a handful of change into the coin-slot.  I was not sure how much money I put in, but I knew it was the most expensive phone call of my life.  It didn't matter.  Money and materials do not matter when you're dying.

My mom picked up the phone in Washington State at 10:00pm March 25.  Thank God--I wouldn't have to break the news to my parents through voicemail or a Facebook post.

"It's me.  I'm sure I'm having a heart attack.  I'm freaking out."

My mom, who walks a perpetual tightrope between her role as a mother and her role as a doctor, offered a quick diagnosis:

"You do not sound like someone who is having a heart attack."

Geez, I need a second opinion.  If I even have time for a second opinion, that is. 

"I really think I'm dying.  My heart won't stop racing, and I'm getting shooting pain in my legs."

"Are you at your hotel room right now?"

"I'm calling from a payphone at the top of Victoria's Peak."

"Have you eaten lunch yet?"

I had eaten lunch, as a matter of fact.  I was in Hong Kong for a 3-day trip to reset the tourist visa that was allowing me to volunteer at the Christian Academy in Japan.  I had always wanted to go to Hong Kong, and particularly Victoria's Peak, ever since seeing a picture of the cityscape in a special Places of the World edition of TIME Magazine as a kid.  So, that morning, I had made my way by foot from my hotel to the trolley that would take me to Victoria's Peak.  I had walked for more than three hours, only to find that the fog had rolled in, completely obscuring the view of the city.

By then, it was lunch time, and I had settled at a window-side booth in an Indian restaurant that probably had a panoramic view of the city, most of the time.  I had only recently been introduced to Indian curry for the first time, and was feeling adventurous that day.  The last curry on the menu, advertised only as "very spicy", came with a health advisory notice, cautioning pregnant women and people with heart conditions against ordering it.  How spicy could it be? I thought to myself.  I decided to give it a try.

About halfway through the meal, I swore off spicy foods for the rest of my life.  I don't feel that any adjective I throw out could adequately capture just how spicy this curry was.  Suffice it to say that at one point, I felt like I could not only see--but understand--the concept of eternity.  I had ordered an iced tea with my curry and one refill quickly became half a dozen or more.  Soon enough, I had put out the fire, but left some burning embers behind.

As I was new to overseas travel and restaurant etiquette in different countries, I was shocked to learn that there was no such thing as "free refills" at this restaurant, and that I had spent the equivalent of $15USD on my iced tea alone.

It was about five minutes after leaving the restaurant that I had started sweating and my heart had started racing, and I knew with all certainty that I was going to die then and there.

My mom listened to my story as she would have listened to a patient history.  Then,

"Yep, that curry was probably a mistake.  Doubt you'll do that to yourself again, given how easily you get heartburn."

"But it's not just heartburn, my heart is racing--"

"Because you drank eight tall glasses of iced tea.  I'm assuming it wasn't herbal tea."

"But my legs--"

"You spent the entire morning walking, probably on concrete for most of the time.  You don't usually get this much exercise, so I'm not surprised you're feeling sore."

After the conversation had ended, I made my way back to the hotel in a stupor.  So I wasn't dying, after all.  Physically, I still felt miserable, but I felt like I had been snatched from the jaws of death.

After a nap back at the hotel, I made my way up to Victoria's Peak again that evening.  Second chances are a wonderful thing, and on this second trip, I found that the fog had cleared, giving me a beautiful view of the city lights.

I do not consider myself a pessimist, but over time, I have learned that I am a pro at expecting catastrophe.  Unbidden, I find myself leaping to the worst conclusions or envisioning the most dire scenarios based on little to no evidence.

It's all too easy to let my mind imagine the worst and then look for any reason to confirm those fears.  Disaster lurks around every corner; malice hides in every pleasantry; death awaits in each ache and pain.  Soon enough, I'm having a heart attack and wondering whether I'll die on Victoria's Peak itself, or in the ambulance.

Bracing myself for the worst, I forget the truth: that more often than not, it's just spicy curry and too much iced tea.