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Wednesday, 18 November 2009 14:10

Flirting with my own mortality

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I felt something clutch, almost seize up, and then a shooting pain in my chest, and my first thought was, oh no, God, please, not this, not now, not yet. I was standing over a frying pan, just browning some ground turkey for the spaghetti sauce. The kids were sitting at the bar, sort of watching me, sort of involved in their own pursuits. My daughter was making another list of some sort — she loves making lists — and my son was busy arranging Hot Wheels cars in some type of face-off, as if they might be about to race toward the oven.

I am sure I must have paused when I first felt my chest tighten, but if my face registered anything alarming, the kids must not have noticed. I turned toward the kitchen window, gathered myself, and took a breath, then another, and another one after that. The pain was not getting any worse, but it wasn’t getting any better either. I thought about the symptoms I could remember from those days when my father was still alive, always seemingly on the verge of a major heart attack, from the time he reached forty until the time a heart attack actually did take him, almost nine years ago.

By the time he was the age I am now, he had already had one, and was only a couple of years away from another one that nearly killed him, followed shortly by a quadruple bypass that bought him a few more precious years. In those days, we lived in constant fear of losing him. Any calls after 10 p.m. were cause for profound dread, until it turned out to be a friend who’d simply lost track of the time. When the call finally did come, it was a beautiful, cold Friday afternoon in December, not even two weeks before Christmas. I was just about to leave work, and had quite a few plans made for the weekend. I had imagined receiving the call a thousand times, but never imagined it would be like that. Life may get predictable sometimes, but death is always a surprise.

Of course, I was thinking of my dad, remembering the other symptoms from the heart attack years. Dizziness. Shortness of breath. Tingling in the arms and legs. Numbness. What were the others? I took inventory, and as far as I could tell, I had none of the other symptoms, but when I tried to move my arms, my chest tightened further still and the pain increased. I remembered that my dad had described his heart attacks as incredibly intense and painful to that point of complete debilitation, and I wasn’t quite to that point. Then what was happening?

I looked at the kids sitting there at the counter, oblivious to this, oblivious to the terrible fact of our mortality. I could have a heart attack and die. Or I could go on browning the turkey and eventually wrangle them into the bathtub, as I always do, before reading them their nightly story on the couch. We have our rituals. We have our expectations. We all believe vaguely in some allotment of years. Somewhere in the back of my own mind, I take the 62 years my dad lived — and his dad before him — and I add a couple of decades based on some very fuzzy math that I’ve invented without really thinking about it consciously. I exercise, I gain a week. I don’t smoke a cigarette, I get another half hour. I take the stairs instead of the elevator, there’s another half a day. Surely this adds up, doesn’t it?

Then I think of all the people I know who are dead, some of them my age, or younger. Somehow, their math went wrong. Or maybe math is no match for fate — or luck.

Do you feel lucky? I do. After spending the better part of an hour researching chest pain on the Internet, I found that one cause could be a pulled muscle, and then I remembered that my wife and I had moved an enormous television — one of the old picture tube TVs that weigh about as much as a medium-sized cow — out of the van and into our bedroom earlier in the day. I hadn’t felt any muscle pull then, but I’m at the age now where such injuries often as not turn up later, like hours later. I tried a few more movements and found that there were certain things I could not do at all, the pain near my heart was so intense.

I have never been so relieved and in so much pain at the same time. I could not give my son his bath, but I was able to supervise as he bathed himself. He’s almost old enough now anyway. I couldn’t pick up anything off the floor, but the kids helped with that. I could not breathe deeply, but I could breathe. I was going to die all right, but not yet, not now.

Not long before bed, my daughter called me over to the upstairs window. With the last of the leaves barely clinging to the towering oaks in our front yard, we now have a great view of the sun setting in the west, and that night the clouds were burnished with a dark pink tint that had us completely transfixed. Minutes after the sun disappeared completely, the sky just above the mountains was still lit, just like a stage, and those clouds shined deeper, the last embers in the dying light of day, glowing still.

“Beautiful, isn’t it, daddy?” my daughter said, her arms around my waist. We kept watching for quite awhile.

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