Eight and one-half years. After eight and one-half years I felt it was the right time to take hiatus from writing essays, short stories, and poems to post on my Dispatches from a Northern Town blog site.
The writing break stretched on and on. One month, two, three, four… My thoughts were cloudy. Maybe this was not a temporary pause. Maybe this was the end of something.
The energy level in my mental battery was dropping. The well of creativity and imagination was running dry. Physical strength and stamina were fading away. I was depressed by the madness that has seized nations and cultures, hastening civilization to the brink of disaster. Over the course of the next year, we plan to move off the farm and build a new home in the city. Late life’s changes. Always hard.
One July day, in what might have been my inadvertent attempt to write finis to this tangle of distresses, I had a heart attack.
(Henceforth, this essay is written in the “stream of consciousness” style, a story telling technique that worked well for James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Jack Kerouac, but may not for a writer trained as a journalist: me.)
Odd thoughts when at life’s potential ending. Please let no one call me a ‘journalist’ at my memorial service. I was a newspaperman – a reporter and columnist. Not one of those despicable fast-and-free-with-the facts pseudo ‘journalists’ who came blathering onto the stage when broadcast news and the internet drove out the real news reporters.
Myocardial infarction, coronary thrombosis, cardiac arrest, coronary artery blockage. Medical terms for the heart attacks that end the lives of most of my male relatives. Collapsing on a sunny and pleasant summer day while chain-sawing trees and tree limbs blown down by a violent wind storm that had swept through our North Country town the night before. Helping friends. A good final chapter. Except for the painful part, it was a nice morning to die. Regrets: there were several things left undone, that I was responsible for, that I should have completed before my exit.
A too-late realization. My mental and physical powers were not diminishing because I was growing old. They were declining because my heart could not supply my brain and body with sufficient blood circulation. Sing out: “There’s a joke here somewhere, and it’s on me.” *
Good fortune. I fell four city blocks from the local medical clinic’s emergency room ambulance service and about two hours from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The local ambulance service has excellent emergency medical technicians. Mayo has dozens of highly skilled cardiac specialists. My chances of survival were quite high, not that I was eager to place a bet on the odds, however favorable.
Comfortingly, I discovered during my ambulance transfers to the local ER and then to Mayo that I had no fear of death. I did have a fleeting fear of dying because departing this mortal coil via heart attack is quite painful. And messy for those you leave behind.
Once admitted to Mayo-Saint Marys hospital, the film (drama or comedy?) proceeded at a head-spinning pace: EKG, blood tests, check of vital functions, diagnosis, medications, recommended procedures, explanations of projected outcomes, suggestions for follow-up examinations and treatments. Too fast for me to comprehend, but the character I was called upon to play was not a major role. There was little for me to do.
I have a morbid dread of dying in a hospital bed with a dozen tubes and wires attached to my body. More than once I thought: “Maybe it would have been better to have died beneath the open sky with work clothes and boots on.” But doctors and nurses assured me that I was not going to die. I soon acquiesced to the full array of tubes, wires, ports, needles and electrodes – and had much of my body hair shaved. A compliant patient trundled into the smooth functioning machinery of modern medicine. This must be how astronauts feel when they turn over all the necessary functions and decisions to mission control: a best choice, but one that creates a sense of emotional and mental weightlessness. “Major Tom to Ground Control – Far above the world/ Planet Earth is blue/ And there’s nothing I can do.” **
One day after my collapse a stent was surgically inserted in the circumflex artery of my heart. This was done with an angioplasty procedure. A catheter inserted into my wrist snaked its way through arteries in my arm and chest into my heart. Once there, dyes and fluoroscopes and ultrasound sensors perform some rituals of medical magic to discover arterial blockages, widen them by inflating a tiny balloon attached to the catheter, and insert a wire mesh coil – the stent – that prevents the blockage from reclosing.
“You’ll be sedated and you’ll have a local anesthetic that numbs your wrist, but you can watch the procedure on the screen over the operating table,” the pre-op nurse told me. No. No, thank you. I want to be sedated to the maximum permissible level. I have no desire to watch a personalized NOVA television program about angioplasties. Especially if something goes wrong. I willfully drifted away, and all I remember about the procedure is that the nurse administering and monitoring the sedation had beautiful deep blue eyes.
Two days after the stent was implanted came a reawakening. I had been cloistered in a small, airless room within my body, and now the windows had been opened to a fresh northwest breeze. I walked out the door. No more breathlessness, cramping in my chest, dizziness, blurred vision, headache, onset of weariness, muddled mind, or aching arms and shoulders. The summer grass of the hilltop hayfield was incredibly green. An eagle soaring along the river valley was sharply in focus.
Eos has not shone her light of grace upon me, nor was I rejuvenated in springtime as was Persephone, but a new season of life is beginning. Looking back, I had become resigned to my inexorable fate, reconciled to my fast-approaching doom, insentiently accepting the infirmities that were chipping away my body and mind. Today, looking out across a new landscape, I realized I had things to do, places to go, people to see.
I am quite ready for a new adventure.
*From the song ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ written and performed by Bruce Springsteen (b. 1949)
**From the song ‘Space Oddity,’ written and performed by David Bowie (1947-2016)