Saturday, May 16, 2015


It only seems like slow motion when tumbling to the ground because I’m aware of every step. The first step on Colorado River rocks behind the koi pond’s waterfall, another step on uneven rocks for balance, and the feet are leaden, refusing to lift high enough or quickly for more balancing steps as the momentum of my body pushes forward, aware the tipping point has slipped behind me, the right shoulder crashing into a spiny asparagus fern spreading over more large rocks on the mounded perimeter of the pond. No banging of the head like two friends who died from falling, sudden leaks in the brain. There is slight pain from the thorns of the fern and the middle finger on the right hand throbs from cushioning the impact. Add blood-thinning meds since a heart attack more than a year ago and skinny white legs sticking out of cargo shorts look like someone has been playing mumbly-peg with a sharp knife. Small cuts bleed as if they are more dangerous ones and they do so on through the night.

What’s disconcerting is the tumble happened to a formerly agile guy, one who climbed ladders daily hanging lights in a theatre. It was the inevitability of hitting the ground once the fall started, knowing no instinctive maneuver would be quick enough to avoid the accident. It is like the sudden looseness in the steering or the brake pedal going all the way to the floorboard, the sudden acceptance of a crash into rocks covered by a pondside fern.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Heart Attack Friday

One year ago today . . .

After my father died of a heart attack at the age of 58, I had experienced sympathetic chest pains for months after the funeral. Despite being profoundly scared standing next to my father’s bed, knowing from that experience the symptoms of a failing heart, when my turn came over forty years later, I was not surprised I waited almost a full day before driving myself to the hospital, something the experts say you should never do. Famous last words in many cases, I guess, but the pain was hardly severe, not at all like the pain radiating across my father’s back that had made him sick to his stomach. What I thought while driving to the hospital—stopping at every red light—was getting a cure for the annoying discomfort before the weekend. I had books to read and writing to be done.

It began Thursday evening with discomfort behind the sternum, from stress I thought from financial concerns in retirement and because my wife was ill. Took aspirin and meds for my arthritis and went to bed. Awoke at 4:30 Friday morning—long before daylight—with the same discomfort and knew that was unusual but went back to sleep for a while, always the best way to escape concerns, or the best way to die for that matter, as several people I knew had done, to sleep, perchance to dream before sudden painless nothingness. Inclined as most men are when it comes to doctors and hospital, I put off doing anything, always aware of the discomfort and now some pain on the back of my left bicep—something felt plenty of times from arthritic pain in that shoulder. For short periods of time, the discomfort and bicep pain were joined by slight pain along the jawline and all were with me until early afternoon Friday.

Getting admitted to the emergency room was rapid, dizzying. It became the beginning of the story of how to avoid paperwork and waiting in a room full of sick people. I told the ladies through the round hole in the glass, I know this may sound dramatic, but I need to see if I’m having a heart attack. From the moment of uttering those words until I was on the gurney in an operating room, naked except for a gown, shivering because it was so cold in the room until one of the men put a warmed blanket on me, in that span of an early quick EKG and an emergency room doctor asking if I knew I was in atrial fibrillation and had high blood pressure (no to the first, never ever had the second), from the moment of being on a gurney and racing down a hall while talking on a cell phone to Dee who was too sick to come to the hospital and telling her I was headed to the cath lab, from being amid a gathering heart team and after the cardiologist introducing himself and me sort of echoing my father by asking if the doctor was any good, from that first utterance about checking to see if I was having a heart attack to having a line installed from groin to heart along mysterious pathways and three stents installed in an artery with 99% blockage, in that time, thank you, thank you, thank you, far less than one hour had raced by.

I was never in a great deal of pain, feeling only flushed warmth during the procedure. There was some pain from two IVs, some slight pain from the shaved pubic start of the pathway to the heart. The endless blood gathering always hurt and bruised, but the most pain came from countless sticky contact pads for always awkward and tangled lifelines connected to them. Despite shaving various hairy areas, the worst pain was the removal of two hand-sized sticky pads stuck to chest and all the hairs upon it in case my heart needed some shock therapy. After just one firmly fixed pad was yanked off I was ready to confess all the bad things I had ever done.

There is always a value to serious illness. After my daughter’s battle with encephalitis, it was learning not to sweat the countless and ultimately meaningless small stuff that makes up so much of life. Her illness also brought an appreciation of living in the moment. True of all serious illness, I guess. But I learned something entirely different from having a heart attack.

Dreading it despite knowing it is mostly an infinitesimal part of living, I have always been afraid of the actual act of dying since I was old enough to understand the process. Somehow, lying there on the table before snaking a line up to my heart and installing three stents to save my life, despite knowing I could go into a full-blown attack and die, I felt no great fear, and part of that may have been the speed of the process from when I first spoke to the lady at the ER window. It was a feeling that one of the shoes had dropped, that finally the end process had become visible. Not that I wanted it or welcomed it, but it was a dance with the actual end game that binds all humans most strongly to each other.

I am not sure what the lack of fear during that dance with mortality meant ultimately. Maybe I became a slightly better person. Wife and children would have welcomed that early on. Maybe I appreciated even more the time I had left, a grand gift, enjoying family and watching granddaughters grow into beautifully brilliant young women. But other nagging fears crept in, no doubt to balance my earlier lack of fear when I was having the heart attack, small daily concerns: the blood thinner that immediately created problems; being told not to miss taking another drug because I now had foreign bodies in my artery and the body loves to clot around anything not its own.


A half-century after my father died from his heart attack, two decades after Jennifer’s illness, I was just glad there was another lesson learned from my illness: sometimes you do have to sweat some of the small stuff because some of it can kill you.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Holiday Labors

In the old days, fathers were not allowed in the delivery rooms. Admittance for them beyond a series of swinging doors even in the early stages of a wife’s labor was strictly forbidden.

Go, sit in the waiting room, watch the television high up on the wall, we’ll keep you informed of the ritual secret birth and call you when your life has changed in unimaginable ways, when you and your wife are forever marked as blessed by a tiny life you’ll come to love above all else. So go on, pace the halls and lobby of The Woman’s Hospital if you must but never ever go through those swinging doors because you are germ-filled and are only the father.

Dee woke me early Thanksgiving in the still-dark morning and told me she was in labor. No old Dick Van Dyke routine with a cap on the top of the headboard, ready to sit up in bed and put it on in one quick motion, no fumbling for a suitcase that springs open and dumps all the womanly clothing and items needed after becoming a mother. It was simply excitement and a call to the doctor who said he would meet us at the hospital. So eyes puffy from lack of sleep, excited heartbeats felt in our throats, we met the doctor and he said Dee was barely dilated, to go on home and enjoy Thanksgiving. So we mentally put my baseball cap back on the headboard and had breakfast and waited for the Thanksgiving meal at Dee’s mother’s apartment. Miriam had baked the requisite turkey and her usual delicious fare of dressing and squash and butterbeans and cranberries cooked fresh that morning, a late afternoon feast with Dee’s brothers, David and Ricky, rounding out the family.

Once seated and no prayer, my first forkful of food heading toward my mouth, I swear, the first forkful heading up on an arc toward waiting teeth and tongue, and Dee said quietly, My water just broke. My fork clattered down on the plate and catapulted a piece of turkey to the other side of the white linen tablecloth like some invading eat-or-die mongrel hoard launching the only ammunition they had left.

A quick trip home to retrieve the suitcase and we were back at the hospital, me handling the check-in paperwork, Dee in a wheelchair facing the corridor of swinging doors leading to the Labor Room and, ultimately, the Secret Birth Room and special reclining chairs with here’s-one-for-the-boys-in-the-balcony leg stirrups in a wishbone Y. Hurried kisses and reassuring hugs, finally losing sight of Dee through a small window before being exiled in the waiting room.

Dee attempted Natural Child Birth but it was a long hard labor, stretching on into the night and all the next day, so long, in fact, that when they did finally wheel an exhausted Dee into the hallway and finally allowing me back by her side, she put her hand on my face and told me we had a daughter and wondered if worry made a man’s beard grow.

When she went into labor with Jennifer two years later, two weeks after Christmas in January of 1972, Dee remembered the two long days trying to deliver Laurie. She started holding out her arm for a shot as soon as we hit the hospital parking lot—or at least as soon as we cleared the first doors of the hospital. But Jen’s birth came much easier, not nearly the physical ordeal of Laurie’s first appearance on the Cothern stage.

I posted a sign on the door of The Rainy Day Bookstore that we owned, saying the store would be closed for a day or so and giving proud father details on Jennifer’s birth and weight. A reporter for a newspaper from one of the smaller towns around Baton Rouge took a photograph of the birth notice and we were told it had been published, one of those feel good items smaller newspapers seemed particularly fond of trumpeting.

During the time both daughters were born, their historical holiday birthstones included the still raging Vietnam War and the sometimes violent push for racial equality. While the Beatles’ “Come Together” / “Something” was climbing Billboard’s Hot 100 as a two-sided single (and would peak at Number One on Laurie’s birthday of November 29, 1969), The Plain Dealer published shocking photographs of the massacre of Vietnam villagers at My Lai, and in a more subtle approach John Lennon returned his MBE medal to protest his government’s support of the war in Vietnam. Two days after Laurie was born (and something that concerned her father), the first Draft lottery was held in this country since World War II. Three days before Jennifer’s birth on the 13th of January, 1972, a local reporter and anchorman, Bob Johnson, and his cameraman, Henry Baptiste, were covering a rally for a group claiming to be Muslims from outside the state who parked cars in the middle of North Boulevard to protest racial discrimination. The crowd grew, 200 or more strong, deputies arrived, and bottles and bricks flew. Two by three they died, two deputies, three Muslims, and the enraged crowd attacked Johnson and Baptiste as they fled, and it was Baptiste, a black man, who dragged from the scene his co-worker and friend, Johnson, a now comatose white man, who would remain in a coma for almost four decades.

So in all the years down the road, there were celebrations of birthdays while historical events swirled amid the holidays, always making reflections of the season a little deeper, more poignant. The girls grew up so quickly, and in the rush and hassle of living day to day we sometimes blinded ourselves to the simple sentimental facts that no matter the season of discord in the world, loving and sharing and protecting and giving to one another were the best gifts we had to offer.

Monday, January 12, 2015


It occurred to me only later that there was a hospital episode when Jennifer was a senior in high school that was a sampling of what was to come for her and us. When she contracted encephalitis and battled for months to stay alive while in a coma and battled for years rebuilding her life from the ground up, the earlier botched tonsillectomy was a foreshadowing of the dark days to come as parents, helpless, worrying about a sick child, worrying that earlier time about the outcome of a second surgery needed to correct the weakness of catgut or silk in the back of the throat, the placement or tightness of the sutures, all done in the operating theatre by a masked man performing badly.

The initial surgery went well, we thought, all according to form, we thought: a sedative to relax Jen, an intravenous line in the arm for fluids and antibiotics and whatever, general anesthesia before the procedure started, a breathing tube through the nose and down the throat, the mouth propped open, and the tongue no doubt pulled to the side like a thirsty hound on a summer day, snip, clip, suture ligation, the recovery room until the anesthesia wore off, and finally the white-sheeted bed.

But all during the day, after Jen was awake and aware, she said she could taste blood and assurances constantly came from us and the nurses about that being normal. She threw up once, twice, three or more times, each episode filling one of those kidney-shaped yellow plastic bedside pans. Aahhh, that will make you feel better, to get all that blood out of your stomach. And it went on and on until early evening. Finally, finally, the man was called back, unmasked now, Dr. Breaux, so obviously put-out by being called and having to come back, doubting until he probed the back of Jen’s throat with long crooked surgical tweezers and mumbled something about the sutures, straightening and telling the nurse to call a surgical team back to the hospital.

Now more assurances to Jen from us that everything would be fine, a stitch needed repair, that was all, and the pan again filling up with blood, her teeth and lips smeared with bright blood. You’ll be okay, here’s the gurney, slide over, that’s it, we’re going with you as far as we can, everything will be fine.

A nurse maneuvered the gurney out of the room, bumping the door facing a couple of times, pushing Jen by the nurses’ station, some of them registering slight surprise, and Jen sat up suddenly, hemorrhaging, gagging, leaning over, and the blood coming out, a projected wide stream like dark rusty water thrown across a yard out of a full bucket, covering half the gurney, Jennifer’s lap and legs, and splashing down to the floor, some of it rolling down the framework of the gurney as if the chrome tubes were being magically transformed to a bright Christmas red.

The speed of the gurney picked up and Dee and I were racing down the hall to keep up, drops and plops of blood marking our trail.

Dee and I waited in an empty pre-op room, the stillness and evening quiet unsettling, the worry now manifest in furrowed brows and tight lips and eyes moist with concern, pacing, arms across our chests, hands squeezing biceps in rhythm with our thoughts, Dee suddenly giving out a quick sob, telling me to please come hug her, asking me why I didn’t know she needed that, me wondering for a moment what was pushing me to stand at a distance in the empty room, apart from her, some solitary grieving ritual denying us both comfort.