A year ago I almost died. Or maybe I didn’t and I just believed what I was told by medical professionals who, after all, aren’t right as much as any of us may wish.
I remember leaving an appointment with my cardiologist, who said my blood pressure was under control and that I was in good shape. I could lose a few pounds but this is nothing to worry about right now.
A little more than a week later my arms became so weak and painful that I could barely hold them up. I thought my body was telling me something, so I went out for a two mile run. Yup. Two miles, during which I waited for that moment when the endorphins kicked in and I felt good again.
It didn’t happen. My blood pressure began to soar. I was short of breath and, after a scary drive to the hospital, I was given all kinds of things that gave me a very sunny disposition, put into a bed, “observed” and, after an very long while, taken into the cath lab, given a stent, and, after more observation, let out.
Eleven days later, I was back in the hospital with another heart attack (whose symptoms were identical with the first), back in the cath lab, given two more stents.
I never wanted to turn into one of those guys who, instead of talking about the weather, sports, cars or whatever else guys talk about most of the time, go on and on about their illnesses. But illness, when we experience, can become a way of understanding.
Or, in my case, a paradox that is better than a simple truth.
The paradox is easy: would I have behaved any differently if, at that fateful appointment, my cardiologist had been able to identify that I was DEFINITELY a heart attack risk? Certainly! Would I have been able to prevent the heart attack? Probably not.
I’m troubled by those avid reductionists, the kind who prattle “there are two kinds of people in this world” (what, only two? ) or “life is all about choices” (it isn’t, even if you choose to believe that, because some things happen to you that you did not chose, and other things happen before you can make that choice), or “life is about information.”
I remember Leo McKern’s Number Two, saying smugly in The Prisoner TV series, “we want information, information, information.”
Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six reply: “You won’t get it.”
Reposte: “By hook, or by crook, we will.”
In the series marginally incomprehensible ending (written in haste by McGoohan, who, before he died, claimed that it said all he wanted to say about the individual in society), Number Six escapes, the Village (the hi-tech prison against which he rebelled) implodes precisely like a deflating balloon, and we are given, in the very last seconds of the episode, the impression that the task of being an individual in society is never over: we’re all prisoners until we deny the power of society to control us.
Wonderful stuff, this. It influenced me for most of my life.
But now I’m older and, ever since I developed high blood pressure (it runs in my family, alas), the prescriptive (things you should do) enticements are piling up. Exercise–which used to be a source of my individual freedom–has become a chore.
And I could, and probably will, have another heart attack.
But I should–I must–live in denial: exercise is still a grand statement of freedom and strength (especially when I do my karate katas). Food remains pleasure and necessity. Life requires bliss: I must manage my emotional state so that I can believe that, maybe–just maybe, the good things that I’d like to see happen will find a way to happen, before the door I imagined I saw when I was in the Emergency Room opens and someone I’m supposed to be able to recognize takes me to the Other Side, where, I’ve been told, paradoxes don’t exist, all questions are answered and faith is replaced by certainty.
They tell you when you’re young to make the most of it, that what we know as life could be snuffed out at any second.
What happens when you get older? You have fewer people hanging around, so you have to tell it to yourself.
Time to exercise.