Bionic Mamas

you're not losing a vagina, you're gaining a son

Penn Station


Hello from a slow train through the eastern mountains, Internet. We are chugging along on the Capitol Limited en route to Washington, DC, and it’s so beautiful I can’t bring myself to care that we are two hours behind schedule. We’ll miss our connecting train to New York, but meanwhile there is a river and trees, white Queen Anne’s Lace and yellow Mullen and purple Joe Pye Weed. Whatever train they put us on instead will get us home late, with no doubt crying children, but I can’t be upset about that when there are bluffs of layered rock, square boulders in the water, stands of improbably straight tulip poplars, and a hound dog baying in answer to our whistle. Early this morning there was mist dyed sunrise pink, people fishing from canoes and rowboats and their own feet planted midstream. A fat groundhog trundled his way through the greenest grass. By midday the wide river was spangled with floating rafts. Even the yellow splashes down the sides of black tank cars alongside us (HOT MOLTEN SULFUR, they declare their contents) are picturesque, fireflies on a summer night.

We pass through these little towns, and I wonder what it would be like to shop at Confluence Food. In a bigger town, there’s a Roses store near the tracks, and I can smell the rubber soles of the canvas shoes my hometown Roses sold from towering and rickety metal cages, $3.99 a pair. Graffiti is dominated by the not terribly terrible sounding BONGLORDS, and not too blocks away hangs a campaign banner for someone named Bongino.

I do love a train trip. I love watching the miles get lapped, I love the gentle rocking and low grumbling, the distant whistle that, the Bean says he likes because it reminds him of being at the station, waiting for the train to pick him up.

I have no explanation, in light of how happily relaxed train travel is, for what happened at the beginning of this trip, in the lounge at Penn Station. What with the exigencies of weekend subway riding and travel with small children on any day at all, we had allowed more than extra time, such that, even giving ourselves time to walk part of the way to the station (the wait for the shuttle bus replacing our local train having become annoying), we were at the station abundantly early. We checked the luggage and found soft chairs in the lounge; played with Jackalope while Sugar and the Bean bought us a lunch of surprisingly good sushi and a bottle of my preferred iced tea. I was quite tired following a wakeful night, and past hungry. After we had eaten, I walked out into the station to the ATM, looking forward to the tea when I returned.

When I sat back down and reached for the tea, I saw that its seal had already been broken. That’s odd, I thought, I don’t remember opening this — but really how odd is it that, hungry and tired and harried by children, I might have forgotten something so negligible? I took a sip; it tasted perfectly normal. Well, I said to Sugar, I guess it didn’t have cyanide in it, anyway.

What happened next was very strange indeed. First my chest became very cold. I could still breathe, but it seemed hard, all of a sudden. That corner of the lounge is already dark, but I couldn’t see as well as I should have been able to. When the huge waves of dizzy cold started rolling up my legs and body and chest and head, I began to feel quite frightened: WAS there something in that tea? Is this the dumbest way to die on record? Thoughts of Robert Johnson, absurdly. Why is my heart doing that? Or is this my heart? Is this oxygen depravation? Is this what an embolism is like? Thoughts of my mother, of course. What if she had been able to call an ambulance? More terrible waves.

I’ve thought a great deal about how to write this down so that it gives some impression of how terrified I was. You, of course, know I survived all this, but I truly believed I wasn’t going to. Sugar got me to the desk, and they called for help. Someone made me sit down, which seemed like a terrible waste of time, when all I wanted right then was to hold my children. It seemed hugely important that whatever else happened, they know how much I love them.

The police arrived. I wasn’t dead. They asked me questions. How old are you? Have you eaten? When? What? How do you feel now? A very kind Amtrak lounge worker sat in the chair beside me, cane resting on her knee, suggesting that I might be having a panic attack. I tried to nurse Jackalope, hoping that if this was a panic attack, magic nursing hormones might make things go back to normal; she didn’t want to nurse. The sides of my face became very cold. The waves would go away for a while, then return. The paramedics came. I began to feel as much embarrassed as scared. The balance went back and forth between those two, again and again. My blood pressure was its usual, low-normal self. My pulse was fine. Someone gave the Bean a coloring book. It seemed less and less likely that I was dying. I took an experimental walk around the lounge. Everyone was very nice.

When it came down to it, I decided to get on the train rather than the ambulance. (And was immediately separated from my family, which didn’t help a bit. Stars in the heavenly crown of the anxious mother who very graciously relocated her two anxious small children to allow us to be together.) There were a few more minor echoes, but by and large I felt normal by the next day, mostly normal within an hour.

Well, “normal,” maybe. A week later, I still feel very taken aback that my brain would do that to me, for no apparent reason. Or was it my endocrine system? Maybe it was some confluence of exhaustion and caffeine and recovering from previous low blood sugar. I’m certainly an anxious person, and I have felt physical anxiety before now, of course. But always when I’ve been feeling anxious in the first place, I’ve been at least thinking about something nerve-wracking. Being shanghaied by adrenaline in a setting that doesn’t consciously upset me is a new one, even for my addled brain. It doesn’t make any sense to me, and, frankly, it’s scary.

7 thoughts on “Penn Station

  1. Love, of course.
    Glad the return trip was so pretty. Glad you’re back at your own stable door.

  2. That is scary. I’m sorry you experienced it. From my vantage point, it does sound like a panic attack. I know from experience that those things feel HORRIBLE. The first one I had, I had to run outside for fresh air. And I thought I was going to die. Advice from a medical professional: “Panic feels HORRIBLE but it isn’t dangerous.” Which is good to remember since it sure does feel dangerous. And, it came out of the blue with no obvious trigger. That’s what makes them so nefarious. Hugs to you.

  3. Phew. That sounds awful, and I’m sorry you had to experience it. I’ve had similar feelings, perhaps not quite so strong, but more frequently. And often I have no idea what triggers them, feeling quite calm in the consciously accessible part of my brain. Lately I have noticed that dealing with or even thinking about anything related to giving birth triggers them (which shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise) but there are still others I can’t trace. Plus, knowing this trigger doesn’t make them stop, though I hope it is a first step in getting better.
    Glad the ride back was so beautiful. Sending hugs and healing thoughts.

  4. Oh, no. I was so enjoying the train journey (I love trains too as no doubt I have already said. Let’s be trainspotters, except without the heroin and squalor!) until I read that bit so I can only imagine how you might feel. As far as I know, and I only know about as far as the door, say, a panic attack can be brought on by a chemical imbalance, as well as high anxiety, stress and so on. I am hoping that this is a one-off, remember-that-weird-time sort of thing, but if it does happen again (let me salute a single magpie here, if that’s an Irish thing, just trust me) you’ll know at least what it is, which might mitigate the fear? I am friend of a family who suffers en masse with panic attacks and they occur in different circumstances, some not stress-related at all.

    The digits are crossed for calm and peacefulness.

  5. Oh that does sound like it would have been terrifying. I hope whatever it was never recurs (and I am glad you love train travel so much. I love it too. It is just so relaxing and there is always something new to see.)

  6. This sounds so scary. Nothing constructive to say, just bearing witness. I’m glad the rest of the trip was calm, at least, and you got to end on a slow, soothing note. Train trips through beautiful scenery are good for the soul.

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