Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Heart Chronicle (Part 3)

[This is the third installment of a multiple-chapter essay on my recent heart surgery. Scroll down to read Parts 1 and 2.]

In the early morning of Feb. 13, about nine hours before my release from Vanderbilt Medical Center, I became increasingly emotional. Sitting there in the dark, my roommate asleep but snoring on the other side of the partition—my short-term ordeal coming near to its end—I began to weep.

I was overcome by sadness. I had had this physical event and survived, but I started thinking, I guess, about my life—now so much nearer its end than its beginning. I thought about my failures, especially as a husband and father, and about how I’d blown a lot of important personal stuff, including as regards earning a sufficient living—starving artist-ism being all well and good if you eventually make it big and then don’t have to worry about paying off costly medical bills.

I also thought about my bad personal habits, especially cigarette smoking, which I count as THE major contributor to my heart attack. Something I could’ve controlled.

My family history does not tend toward heart disease. I have forebears who lived into their eighties and even beyond. Generally speaking, I appear to be in trim-enough shape. I’ve eaten my share of bad calories, of course, but I don’t think I've been the worst kind of abuser. I have a fairly sophisticated palate, and I can’t eat junk food consistently without running very readily to “real food.” I’d say that my pre-cardiac overall eating patterns were not that un-healthy, in relative terms.

Nevertheless...too much caffeine? Probably. Too many sugared drinks? Yes. (I’m a sucker for flavored lemonades.) Lots of beef and cheese, plus fries, with extra salt? Yes, maybe, but I always pulled back too, with a salad and soup, and usually I have avoided junk food in consecutive meals, on consecutive days. And, despite the generally sedentary nature of my work, I feel I have stayed active enough. (Though maybe not, it turns out.)

Given my general profile, it is my belief that cigarettes alone brought me to the abyss at Vanderbilt. Decades of smoking can precipitate heart attack. You didn’t hear it here first, of course, but as I embark on this new phase of living, it is the mantra I must continue to repeat.

About 25 years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing British novelist Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange, etc.) at a book convention in Manhattan. My own father, a novelist himself and a longtime smoker, had recently passed away. Burgess, born only 33 days after my dad, and hence his living, breathing contemporary, was smoking, and I joined him.

Somewhere amidst our discussion of dystopian literature, social engineering, politics, the age of celebrity and so many other wide-ranging topics that Burgess expounded on with brilliance, I asked him about cigarettes. I remember his response to this day with crystal clarity: “It’s such a delicious addiction.” It is that.

Back in my hospital bed, the tears and sobbing stayed steady for awhile, then were dispersed by a sudden cry in my head of “Fuck!”—as if cursing a heart attack, or all my guilt, could chase them away. Nah, it just makes you feel a little... energized. Though that's not a bad thing to be when your daily life is about to be turned upside-down.

Let the search for new "delicious addictions" commence.

Up next: The Heart Chronicle (Part 4): Mostly for Men Only

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