Author’s note: Being a writer, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to chronicle my heart attack. I started on the life flight and continued to write my thoughts for the next couple of months. Some of the thoughts were dark.
I want everyone to know that the dark places I write about in this essay are no longer where I’m at. I’ve made several trips into the mountains this spring, and all aspects of my life are under control.
The future looks bright.
Word count: 1,648
I closed my eyes, and the familiar whop, whop, whop of the chopper carried me back forty years—I was twenty-three, flying over dark green forests, my whole life ahead of me. I opened my eyes, and the unfamiliar computerized gages in front of the pilot sucked me back—I was sixty-three, flying over the San Rafael desert, having a heart attack.
The flight nurse came over the headphones asking me how I was doing. I gave her a thumbs up. I seemed to be the only one on board who wasn’t concerned. I’d been expecting a heart attack; my father had died of the same heart attack—the one they call the widow maker—when I was sixteen and he was forty-seven. I figured I’d been living on borrowed time any old how.
The pilot came over the headphones, “That’s Grand Junction up ahead.”
“Got to be,” I replied, “there’s nothing else out here.”
He chuckled and worked the chopper through another band of turbulence. The turbulence didn’t scare me, I was probably checking out anyway, but I didn’t want to be responsible for the deaths of these people who were trying to save my life.
Judging from the concern of the nurses, the outcome looked iffy. Right up until I had the heart attack, I’d thought I was in fairly good health. But heart attacks don’t happen out of the blue; they take years to develop. I’d been sick for a long time. I just hadn’t known it.
My father told me you start dying the day you are born. Technically, I suppose that’s true. I grew up in small mobile homes that had permanent layers of cigarette smoke hanging at nose level. I’d started smoking myself when I was eighteen. I’d been a sailor for nine years, doing all the things sailors do. I’d smoked, ate whatever I wanted, and, at one time, drank heavily. But I was a weight lifter. I was healthy, right? Anyway, whatever was going to happen was up to God and the doctors now—I’d done my part. As I’d always hoped, I wasn’t afraid of the reaper when he came close, rested his boney hand on my shoulder, and whispered of my transgressions—I felt surprisingly detached.
After the surgery, I noticed I didn’t care about much, at least not the things I’d previously cared about: fine cigars, old whiskey, young women of uncertain moral fiber—none of which are conducive to longevity. I was overcome by a wave of apathy. Even my writing didn’t excite my interest. I still wrote, but it didn’t seem important. Long ago, my mountains taught me that I wasn’t important—the heart attack left no doubt. My existence didn’t matter—never had. And I wasn’t sure I had anything worthwhile to say. I can’t really be specific. It was just a general feeling of not giving a good goddamn about anything.
The first thing I did when I got home was delete over half my phone contacts. I asked myself two questions: (1) Did I tell this person I had a heart attack? (2) Am I going to tell this person I had a heart attack? If the answer to either question was no, their number got shitcanned. Friends? I’ve a few, but not as many as I’d thought. There’d been a flurry of phone calls right after I got home, but they tapered as my friends confronted their mortality through my brush with death. It’s as if they were afraid they’d catch death from me, as if heart attacks were contagious.
My world changed with that concentrated pressure in the center of my chest. And while I’m doing better each day, I’ll never be out of the woods. The damage is permanent. I’ve an increased risk of stroke and heart attack. I carry nitroglycerin tablets around now to put under my tongue the next time I tip over—I can’t tell you how much that changes your attitude. I should be thankful to be alive—but I’m often not. I don’t like my house anymore; it doesn’t feel like home, it’s not safe and cozy, and it’s got bad juju.
I feel fragile, and I’ve never felt like that before. I don’t like it. I’m hoping it goes away. Having always been a big strong guy (I was lifting weights when I had the heart attack), it’s hard to get my head around this new fragility. I keep thinking I should be dead, and when the medical bills started rolling in, I was sorry I wasn’t.
The take-this-or-die medicine they tell me I need costs two-thirds my monthly income. Then there’s the cycle of adjusting to the medications, feeling like shit until you adjust, changing medications, feeling like shit again. The bills kept coming, and I regretted going to the ER in the first place. I should’ve just walked into the San Rafael and disappeared. I know I shouldn’t think like that—but there are times. I live one day at a time now, leaving each day to its own concerns. On most days, I don’t care about the bills; I can’t do anything about them, can’t negotiate them, can’t pay them, and It’s an exercise in futility to worry about things you can’t do anything about—on most days.
My reprieve from death seemed to be a conspiracy cooked up by big pharma and the healthcare industry. As the medical bills piled up (totaling well over one hundred and thirty thousand dollars), I started weighing my options. One option was suicide.
I looked at the mountains from my house and longed to walk into them and disappear, and I wondered if I could make a one-way trip. When the future was just death, it wasn’t scary. Everybody dies—no big deal. But now the future was poverty and sickness. And I was afraid of that future. So the thought that I could check myself out and avoid a drawn-out process began to look inviting. The first thing I needed was a will.
Believing organized religions were invented to prey upon the fears of mankind and provide employment opportunities for the shiftless, serving little purpose other than steering those who feel the need for ceremony and mysticism away from ritual cannibalism and child sacrifice, I made arrangements to be cremated with no funeral service. That way my few friends wouldn’t be saddled with having to attend a meaningless ceremony where they’d wind up feeling guilty for lying about what a great guy I was—you’re always a great guy after you buck out. I didn’t tell the doctors about the suicidal thoughts. They’d pump me full of brain pills. I’d wind up sitting on the porch, looking at mountains I can’t reach, and drooling on my shirt. And fuck a bunch of that.
I’m not a particularly good person; I’m not a particularly bad person either. So why had I been spared? The widow maker kills people every day. Had God stepped in to save my life . . . or am I a freak of modern medicine? I’d been saved just because they could. But for how long? Long enough for big pharma and big healthcare to strip me of everything I’d worked for all my life? And what did any of it matter anyway? I tried to think of reasons to hang around. There wasn’t many—my dog, Touch, who’s getting long in the tooth herself, and seeing the high country, fishing its streams, catching its bright trout. Not overly compelling reasons to live, but, perhaps, good enough.
I felt like shit most of the time—sick to my stomach—and I wondered if that was my new normal. I dropped a lot of weight because I didn’t feel like eating; nothing tasted good. On one hand, they tell me to give up salt, sugar, tobacco, and booze; on the other hand, they tell me to live life, which makes me wonder what they know that they’re not telling me. And at this point, what’s the point? I did quit some bad habits, things I didn’t like about myself. Finally, I reached a point where I realized feeling like shit wasn’t my new normal. I started thinking I’d make it . . . and I started wanting to make it.
I’m trying to get healthy enough to hike into the mountains this summer. I want to sit on the bank of a mountain stream, feel the sun on aching shoulders, and try and figure out where I went wrong. My trips into the left fork may be over, though, and it’s a bummer to think some of the places I love to go may now be out of reach. When I tell the doctors and nurses that I like hiking and fishing in the backcountry, they get blank looks on their faces.
There may be places I can’t go anymore, places I’ve looked at for the last time, and that’s okay. I don’t want to be struggling all the time, and some of the hikes were already struggles. But I remember those places. Nobody can take them from me.
I’m kept alive now by drugs: drugs to thin the blood, drugs to control the pressure, and drugs to control the rhythm. My life seems artificial and strange; my body, a traitor. I look in the mirror and think, “That guy should be dead, cremated, scattered.” My life is divided into before and after. And there’s this sadness. My eyes well up over sick children, abandoned pets, the lonely, and I want to drop to my knees, rip at my clothes, and cry. I don’t know what good I’ve done or what my life means; however, I now know what it’s worth—one hundred and thirty thousand dollars and rising.
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