Bad Weather

Susie Boyt

  • A Match to the Heart: One Woman’s Story of Being Struck by Lightning by Gretel Ehrlich
    Fourth Estate, 200 pp, £9.99, February 1995, ISBN 1 85702 293 9

My mother’s return from Galway some while ago was delayed because things got very stormy in Oughterard. I had known there was a chance she might run into difficulties sorting through her uncle’s belongings; possibly there were disputes among the friends and neighbours who had always taken a keen interest in his affairs, or some unpleasantness about my great-uncle’s will that needed to be smoothed away. I mentioned it to my sister. ‘No,’ she said, ‘there’s a storm – you know – weather.’

Reeling from her experience as a lightning-strike victim, Gretel Ehrlich attempts to find a context for what happened to her, and she does this by asking lots of wild questions: ‘I don’t know if I am alive, but if not, how do I know I am dead?’ ‘Had I been shot in the back?’ ‘Had I suffered a stroke or a heart attack?’ She had woken on a dirt path, bathed in blood, with the muscles of her throat paralysed, unable to move three of her four limbs, remembering ‘nothing’. It is only by the sound of thunder directly overhead that she knows she has been struck by lightning.

As soon as she has taken this in, and despite the pain, which she catalogues coolly and swiftly, she wants to define the situation. But there are so many readings available to her. She tries to gauge what time of day it is, how long she has been unconscious, but it is unclear how literally she should take her surroundings: ‘The sky was dark, or was that the way life flew out of the body, in a long tube with no light at the end?’ The dog who was struck with her is no-where to be seen. Half-dead, completely isolated, Ehrlich requires some sort of model of behaviour to secure her. Is she the victim of an unprovoked attack? Has her body just given out on her? Is she heroic like a soldier in a war film? ‘What is it,’ she writes, ‘one should do or think or know? ... All the cultural references I know showed gods throwing lightning bolts.’ She had already been clipped by a bolt several years earlier, and she stops focusing on the whys and whats of her attack and begins to look on herself simply as a woman dying. A deathbed scene seems prosaic and comfortable by comparison with being struck by lightning – a conventional death familiar from tender representations in novels and films, and from pictures she has seen on Wyoming’s two television channels.

Having accepted the idea of death, Ehrlich becomes ambitious about it. Odd fragments of advice drift back to her. ‘Sweep the mind free of weeds,’ she tells herself and wonders what the best prayer might be and in which position it best befits a body to die according to Buddhist teaching. She stares at death full of expectations and is disappointed that they go unmet: ‘No feeling of peace filled me.’ She knows she should ‘let go of all desire’, yet her anxiety about the well-being of the dog is stronger. Ehrlich detects a certain comedy in a body preparing itself for death in this unspontaneous way while noticing and learning new things. She tries to laugh but finds that she can’t make her ‘face work into a smile and get sounds to discharge from my throat’.

Ehrlich’s detachment from her body introduces a new phase in her attempts at survival. Her mouth may not obey her instructions, but this failure enables her to separate her idea of herself from her suffering body, so that the woman who wishes to laugh is no longer the woman dying, but a friend at the bedside of that woman. This new attitude helps her, miraculously, to take herself in hand; she drags herself for a quarter of a mile, lifting her legs from the thigh and setting them down, falling over and beginning again, until she reaches home.

From this point onwards – it is only halfway through the second chapter – A Match to the Heart examines the meanings and repercussions of the attack. In a sense the book can be seen as a sort of Bildungsroman, or as a narrative of awakening – certainly, Ehrlich learns a great deal from this dramatic turning-point in her life. However, this isn’t merely a tale of creative suffering. It contains much in the way of geological and medical fact: Lichtenberg’s flowers (which appear on the skin) are ‘the transient, feathery pattern due to imprints from electricity showers’; victims of lightning often see light, and it’s nothing mystical, just the temporal lobe lighting up; ‘the angle of the fingernail and the skin around it may mean congenital heart or pulmonary disease.’

On the other hand, the fact that we learn almost nothing of Ehrlich before she has the accident reduces the Bildungsroman element: we have nothing to compare her to. We know she is the author of The Solace of Open Spaces and of Heart Mountain, a novel. She had also written a collection of essays, Islands, the Universe and Home and there are very occasional glimpses of her past: landscapes remembered from childhood; a teenage beach party where she first touched a penis; a failed romance. The courage and strength of mind that she immediately brings to bear on her ordeal seem instinctive, they are not new acquisitions. She begins the book with a ‘ruined body and a ruined marriage’, and ends on a point of hope, but her progress is never steady, and there is nothing facile in the telling. The catalogues of injuries and ailments that Ehrlich details are less emphatic, less passionately recounted, than the lists of flora and fauna visible in the places she settles. What she has is not a conventional patience or serenity brought about by suffering, but an assertive desire to know, accompanied by a rigorous study of the ‘systems of the body’.

The book is remarkable for its lack of other people. Sam, Ehrlich’s dog who was struck by her side, is given a character we come to know as rounded and vibrant. He works hard, is loyal, affectionate and alert; and is duly rewarded with hamburgers and fries at fast-food chains when there is one nearby. Blaine, the first intelligent and sympathetic doctor in a long line of duds, is a bit of a hero. He is a kind, dashing giver of hope and saver of lives, although even he is wrongfooted at times, uttering what becomes the book’s anthem: ‘We don’t know very much about how electricity affects the brain and heart.’ With him, Ehrlich forms a ‘couple de malades’. Friends and relatives make brief appearances but the author never seems to engage with them. She can enjoy the fact that their dogs like her own. She attends the beach parties of home-sick Australians, but that is as far as it goes. There are no confidences.

A Match to the Heart is a tale of solitude. There is no one to share Ehrlich’s ordeal intimately, to shoulder half the anxiety, half the danger. Danger flanks her throughout this book; death is always by her side, yet she is always alone with it. Her solitude is almost never commented on; it is just a truth about her. When she does have intimate contact with people her aloneness is emphasised. The occasional meeting with her estranged husband Press, and especially a time when he is tender with an injured calf, might have led to bitterness: ‘Press chased the coyote off, wrapped the calf’s chewed legs in his own socks and carried him half a mile to the barn.’ But Ehrlich chooses not to offer a direct parallel between her husband’s care for the beast and his absence from her life. It is characteristic that we are not told what went wrong. In fact she seems to champion his behaviour and enjoys being proud of him.

Ill in bed on New Year’s Eve, Ehrlich gives voice to the book’s only stated complaint. There is no reproach, it is just a clear facing of facts: ‘I wanted to be held,’ she writes, ‘to be pieced back together and fastened to the realm of the living by another human being, but there was no one, and there would be no one in the morning.’ Yet the next day, standing on rocks, she burns the photograph of an ex-lover who dropped her. ‘It was not him I was burning but my own habit of attachment.’ Many aspects of the book seem to stand in for human attachments: the intricate and absorbing descriptions of animal and marine life, the talk of starfish, red algae and green mermaid’s hair that inhabit the tide pools.

I wondered whether an anxiety that the author herself might be at fault lies hidden in the text of A Match to the Heart; whether the strike of lightning she sustained, the bolt that made feathery burn marks on her skin and an invisible circle emitting burning pain on her back is seen in some way as a blight, and a warning, forcing her to engage with people more. ‘A witch who escapes human detection will nevertheless eventually be struck down by lightning,’ Clyde Kluckhorn said and Ehrlich quotes him in the preface to her book. There is a sense in which her nomadic lifestyle and private nature mean that her own self ‘escapes human detection’. Something of the spirit of fire remains in her. In the months following the lightning strike the lobby of a hotel bursts into flames as she enters it, a plane catches fire in front of her on the runway, a forest fire starts up as her plane is landing, and although she documents all this bravely, it obviously troubles her.

Blaine allows what we might guess is now his favourite patient to watch a lengthy session of heart surgery. We find – and may find it odd – that the deepest engagement with another person that Ehrlich has in this book is with a stranger anaesthetised on an operating table.

The room was cold. Steam rose from the opened cavity. I felt as if I had broken into a hidden cave and come upon rubies ... Looking past skin, red tissue, white bone, into a chest held open by a steel frame, I saw a beating heart. ... both militant and gentle; whether rhythmical or arhythmical, its movements were soft, even subtle. Westerman slid is hand under the stilled heart and lifted it. He cut a tiny hole in the right coronary artery, inserted a vein that had been removed from the leg and sewed it in place ... For an organ that pumps 100,000 times a day 700,000 times a week, it looks rather meek nestled in the surgeon’s hand.

Watching this process, Ehrlich compares the patient’s brief descent into death to that of the hero in an epic poem. Implicit in it is a recognition of her own journey and her own findings. A clear understanding of the workings of the body, formed by watching life being dismantled, and then carefully re-established, in the operating theatre heralds Ehrlich’s own change of heart. In the steam from the live, opening body, death evaporates. Blaine is philosophical about it. ‘The heart is completely motivated to maintain life,’ he says. ‘That’s what I like about hearts.’