One year ago today, I was lying on an operating room table at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, having jumper cables attached to my chest to try to get my heart beating normally again – I had just had my circumflex artery opened up via angioplasty, and the ticker didn’t take it too well. It wasn’t a very good day… it wasn’t a very good week.
This week wasn’t much better. For the second year in a row, Joyce spent the Wednesday before Memorial Day in a waiting room at BIDMC, waiting for word on a loved one having a procedure following a heart attack. This time, it was her mother, Grace. Fortunately, she came through it without any complications, and is doing remarkably well.
While Joyce was in town awaiting word on her mother, I was having a root canal done, which flared up again this morning with an infection. This is just as I’m finally getting over a debilitating case of achilles tendinitis that came on out of nowhere a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, I’ve been unable to use my left arm for much of anything since coming home from my second angioplasty/stent procedure in September, due to rotator cuff tendinitis in that shoulder. In short, it’s hard not to feel like I’m falling apart. And it’s not just me…
Grace seems like she’s going to be fine for the time being, but she’s also part of a larger pattern I can’t help but see unfolding around me. People I know from my parents’ generation keep appearing on the radar either very sick or dying. My dad has lost four of his brothers since Joyce and I took Kelly and Leigh to visit the Canadian relatives prior to Abby’s birth. There’s been others in different parts of the family, and plenty of friends, as well. After a while, it’s impossible not to notice how much a part of life death is. But it sure is an impolite subject in public life.
My dad was the age I am now when I was about 14 or 15. He seemed old to me then – funny how that works. No doubt I thought I was pretty grown up, too. Despite my conceit, I couldn’t have been more wrong about that. Within a couple years, I’d find myself sitting on my bed in the back room of the basement, reading the Hebrew prophets, being intrigued by simplistic but adventurous eschatological speculations. And I have to ask myself: How much has really changed in 30 years? The fervor has waned and waxed a few times, and of course I’ve come to a much clearer understanding of the nature of the Church, which has cured me of susceptibility to ham-handed eschatologies (a significant difference, admittedly). But what else is really different, other than that I am now a husband and father myself, whose body has started to give out, and who has learned to be conversant with death and disease?
It comes quickly, and it goes like lightning. Life is truly over in a heartbeat. I wrote once, long ago – was it really more than yesterday? – about my need for a “certain urgency,” about my need to realize that the pressure is on before I can motivate myself to do what needs to be done. What it has taken me far too long to figure out is that life itself – or rather, death – provides that certain urgency to me, and to all, all the time. It is over before we have a chance to act, unless we act at every opportunity, rather than waiting for the “right” opportunity. The kids are grown and gone before they can be taught many of life’s serious lessons. And I can only marvel at how life has passed me by.
I didn’t mean for that to happen. But as I’ve incessantly thought things through, I realize now just how much diversion I’ve muddled into, and how, not only every decision I’ve made, but even those I’ve deferred, have closed doors to me that history clamps shut decisively.
One year since my brush with death, I’m one year closer to my immersion in it, and not sure I’ve come any closer to doing what it was I was put here to do. I’m still looking for time, and time is starting to look less like hope every day. Maybe it’s not time I need, after all.