Three years ago to the day, I almost died.
As strange as it may sound, I tend to forget about this event until the Super Bowl rolls around. For those of you who haven’t almost died, it probably seems like the sort of experience which would dominate your life.
When I got out of the hospital though, I just wanted to move on as quickly as possible.
“It didn’t really change my life, except if anything, I want to party harder now,” this woman says to me. Three years and twenty countries since rupturing my spleen, I’ve finally run into someone else who has suffered the same injury.
Jango’s Thai-American, about my age, and, in her words, is well on her way to “being a cyborg” after an array of accidents and surgeries have left her missing more than a few parts. She’s good-natured about it, though. I like her a lot.
I like everyone we’ve met in Iceland. It’s a week before the Super Bowl, a week after Donald Trump’s inauguration, and we’re at a hostel in Reykjavik. We’re surrounded by Americans, unease, and the vague sense that our world may be ending. The joke that’s going around is that we’ve all taken refuge here, at the top of the world. “Hope they’ll let us back in,” we say.
We’ll be home for the Super Bowl, of course.
Every year when the Super Bowl hype starts flying, I remember 2014. That year I watched the Super Bowl from the Intensive Care Unit, surrounded by my family and friends. The room, they tell me, was filled. I don’t remember much from that day, which is probably for the best, as our Denver Broncos suffered a 43-8 shellacking. Floating in and out of a Fentanyl haze, I probably had the best day out of anyone in that room.
Although my friends would later describe seeing an ultrasound image that showed it was literally “split in half,” I kept my spleen. The E.R. doc’s warning that they’d have to airlift me to surgery—ultimately—proved meaningless.
“This may sound weird,” I ask Jango, “but can I see your scar?”
Sitting across from me in the hostel kitchen, she bears my request without comment. She lifts up her shirt to show a nine-inch surgical scar down the middle of her abdomen. I can’t help myself from saying “oh, wow.”
“How long did it take you to recover?” I ask.
“I started to feel better after about six months,” she says.
“Wow. I didn’t take nearly that long to recover. But I guess you fucked up a lot more than just your spleen,” I say.
She lists off a laundry list of broken bones, fractured ribs, and mangled organs. It sounds like dialogue out of a surgical TV show.
“So when you healed, you don’t feel anything or anything, right?” I asked. “No pain or anything like that?”
“Nah, nothing,” Jango says. She pulls down her shirt.
My traveling companion Jason, who had been engaged in a conversation with this woman’s friend, turns his attention to Jango. “I’m sorry, could I see that again?” He asks.
She grudgingly exposes her scar again.
“What happened again?” he asks.
“I had my spleen removed,” she says.
“Oh yeah, same as Daniel,” Jason says.
I chuckle. “That’s how we got into this conversation,” I say. “But I still have my spleen. They just let it heal on its own.” Jason nods disinterestedly—he knows this already—and turns back to his own conversation. “The reason I was asking,” I tell Jango, “Is that I can still feel my spleen in certain situations.”
“Really?” She asks. “That’s interesting.”
“Yeah, if I get too stressed, too little sleep, or if I drink too much, I can sort of feel it in my spleen,” I say. “It’s kind of like a pilot light for when I’m not taking care of myself.”
We’re getting drunk—and at great personal cost, too. Prices in Iceland are sky-high, for everything. At the liquor store, a 500ml bottle of cheap gin runs us close to $40. A draft beer at a bar costs $10. We’d been drinking Miller at $5 a bottle last night, and calling it a steal. Getting drunk in Iceland is expensive.
I probably shouldn’t be getting drunk—I’ve had the flu for over a week, I feel chronically under-rested despite Jason’s accusation that I’m sleeping away practically every waking moment of our trip, and my spleen’s been angry enough that I can’t comfortably sleep on my left side.
But Reykjavik’s nightlife is supposed to be really good. And who knows the next time I’ll be in Iceland?
It didn’t really change my life, except if anything, I want to party harder now.
I wouldn’t have put it that way, but maybe Jango’s right. Would I be in Iceland if I hadn’t ruptured my spleen? It’s hard to say. I probably would have been able to convince myself to wait—that there would be years and years to travel and party and see the world. When you’ve almost killed yourself in the first quarter of your life though, all the rest of those years start feeling a little less guaranteed. So when you’re only in Reykjavik for one weekend, there’s no question. Doesn’t matter if you got the flu. You’re going out. Both nights.
You’re alive, and you’re here.
“I didn’t have my first ‘real job’ until age 34,” a family friend recently told me.
“I was absolutely convinced the Soviets were going to nuke us,” he explains. “The world was going to end in nuclear holocaust. I was sure of it. So I just did whatever I wanted. As you can see,” he says, pointing to a spectacular old photo of his younger self, wearing bell-bottom jeans and cowboy boots, proudly lounging on the side of a mustard-yellow VW van. “Man I was styling,” he says with a booming laugh. “Did I mention how awesome the ‘70s were?!”
Even here, at his 60th birthday party, Art’s one of the coolest guys I know.
“There’s something liberating about living your life thinking you’re going to die at any moment,” he says, reminiscing. “We assumed it was all going to end someday soon. You could do anything you wanted, because we knew none of it was going to matter. And STDs didn’t exist back in the ‘70s,” he says with a wink. Passing by, his wife hits him. It’s playful, but hard.
Eventually, he says, he got tired of it. Age 27, he walked into Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs and said “I’d like to go to college.” To hear him tell it, he filled out a few forms, was told he needed to maintain a “C” average, and the school actually paid him. He got his Bachelor’s in Geology, then spent the next few years rock climbing in Glenwood Canyon for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
“It was great,” he says, wistfully. “They wanted a geologist that was also a rock climber—“ his eyes go wide, and he points at his chest theatrically. “Ding! Ding! Ding!” He moves his finger in and out as he does it.
“Every day, I’d just climb the canyon walls and look at boulders. I’d get up top, take a look, and write down: ‘Yup, it’s leaning at about a 10 degree angle, it’s roughly 20 tons, 5 feet in diameter, and it’ll probably fall sometime in the next 10 years.’”
He laughs. “It was the greatest job a climbing bum could ask for.”
Somewhere in there, Art met his wife, met my mother, got his master’s degree, had a kid, and decided the world probably wasn’t going to end. At age 34, he walked in the doors of Hewlett-Packard, and began his “real life.”
“I call my 20s my ‘early retirement’,” he told me, sometime later. “I figure, it’s better to use those years while I’m young and crazy enough to do all the things I won’t want to do when I retire.” He laughs. “By the way, remind me to give you those crampons when we go back to my house.”
Art doesn’t climb any more.
Back in Reykjavik, 4:30 a.m., we start stumbling home.
We haven’t been lied to. The nightlife is really good in Reykjavik.
The girls, who have been in Iceland a lot longer than Jason and I, start leading us back to our hostel.
“You should have gone with the bushy-haired girl,” someone in the group ribs me. “She was into it!”
I laugh a little grudgingly. “She was right though,” I say. “I wasn’t fucked up enough.” The group doesn’t buy it. “I can’t afford to get fucked up enough here!” I claim.
Complaining about the prices is like the number one activity for travelers in Iceland. Young travelers, anyways. There are plenty of retired old couples strolling around Reykjavik, pointing at cute things in shop windows and actually considering buying them. That’s not our crowd. I bought one drink the whole time we were out. Jason bought zero. We’re still feeling good though—we put down plenty of alcohol at the hostel before we left for the bars. I’m fucked up, and making excuses, maybe just a little.
We come across a cemetery, surrounded by a four-foot fence: stone pillars with black wrought iron spikes in between. One of the girls is intrigued—she wants to go in. I place my hands on the pillars, push myself up, and put my feet on the spikes. I’m trying to climb. The spikes—which I hadn’t thought were that sharp—immediately sink through the soft beeswax soles of my Clarks. I wince, without saying a word, and push myself up off the spikes. I jump back on the sidewalk.
Turns out, there’s an open gate like five feet away.
I stand and talk to Jango while her friend runs around in the cemetery. I can feel every pulse of my heart in the soles of my feet. That was fucking stupid, I think to myself.
The friend loses interest in the cemetery pretty quickly. But then she realizes she’s also lost her phone. We agree to walk back to the bars with her, to see if we can track it down. The girls run ahead, I grab Jason by the arm and slow our pace so the girls can’t hear.
“I just impaled my feet on those spikes,” I say. “I’m pretty sure I’m bleeding.”
“Jesus Christ dude,” he says. “Why?”
“I don’t know man. I didn’t think they were that sharp. I thought I could stand on ‘em, but the soles of my shoes are beeswax—soft as shit. Just stupid drunk shit.”
“You’re always doing stupid shit man,” he says with an exasperated shake of his head.
“Like what?” I ask him.
“Like… rupturing your spleen,” he says. “Or stepping on spiked fences for no reason. And falling off that tree in Seattle—that looked so bad man, I can’t believe you walked away from that.”
I laugh. He is right. I can’t argue it, and I wouldn’t want to.
We walk back to the bars, and then back to the hostel. The phone never turns up. When we finally get to our beds, 5 or 5:30, I take off my shoes. There’s a small hole visible in the soles of both my boots. My socks are shredded, and soaked with blood. I throw them away.
When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I notice is that my spleen hurts. The second thing is that my feet are bleeding.
I spend the rest of my time in Iceland limping.
On October 11, 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan met with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, long before the tiny Scandinavian nation was on anyone’s radar.
The two held a summit on nuclear weapons. They hoped to see the threat of mutually assured destruction totally dismantled within their lifetimes, so that another generation of young people would not grow up under the looming spectre of nuclear destruction.
The summit was more helpful than most anticipated, but fell short of its original goal of total disarmament. Regan refused to abandon his signature “Star Wars” program—a sci-fi missile-defense shield that would, in theory, protect the U.S. from intercontinental ballistic missiles.
And in Gorbachev’s mind, if the U.S. could defend against a second strike, why wouldn’t they just wipe the Soviet Union off the map?
The summit failed to produce meaningful disarmament. But a year later, both nations signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), pledging not to use mid-range nuclear missiles. A few years later, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed.
And a few years later, I was born.
Growing up in the U.S. during the ‘90s and 2000s, we were never afraid of nuclear weapons. We did no “duck and cover” drills, and the Cold War was taught as a historical oddity, not an omnipresent ideological conflict. Nukes, our teachers said, would never be used. People were too smart, too attuned to the massive destructive potential of these devices, to ever want to use them again.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. would lead the world into a new age of freedom, tolerance, and international cooperation.
And yet, as I limped through customs, back into the U.S., Jango was held up for a moment on account of her last name. It’s foreign, and sounded suspiciously Muslim.
“It is Muslim,” she tells me, back on American soil. “But I’m not going to tell them that.”
She’s traveling on a US passport.
Two weeks later, the news will break that the Russians have deployed an intermediate range cruise missile, a firm violation of the INF.
Our new president, I suspect, would call such provocations “fake news.”
I don’t really know what’s true and what’s false any more. All I know is that my spleen hurts more often than it used to. And something feels like it’s shifting in America.
Jango and I hug and say goodbye in the airport. We only ended up on the same flight by coincidence, and she’s heading on elsewhere.
“Come see me in Samui this summer,” Jango says. “We’ll get to that Full Moon Party.”
Walking away from Reykjavik, back into Donald Trump’s America, that doesn’t sound like a half-bad idea.
(Some names have been changed).