Lying on my side in dim light, watching
The Column: 04.15.22
I was at Mayo last week where, after years of providing urine specimens and taking a deep breath and holding it and various medical adventures, I feel like an old alum and the lab tests show that through no fault of my own I am in fairly good shape, walking upright and making sense fantabuli octopi magnanimous anthropods or not making sense if I choose.
It’s a friendly caring place where they hand you an iPad in the waiting room so you can answer questions Minnesotans would be embarrassed to ask anyone, such as “Are you being abused by your spouse or partner?” or “Are you unable to afford food or housing?” A simple way for people with serious trouble to raise a red flag.
One question they leave out is, “Have you taken up all of the bad habits you felt were required of a serious American author?” which applies in my case.
I first came to Mayo in 2001, thanks to my cousin Dr. Dan who was alarmed at my shortness of breath while I was doing a radio show, and he packed me off to Rochester where Dr. Rodysill listened to my heart for a few minutes and said, “Mitral valve prolapse,” and brought in a surgeon, Dr. Orszulak, and a few days later they wheeled me into the blue light of the OR and he performed open heart surgery and sewed up the valve. I remember the sense of great competence in that room, no false moves, no joking, nine people who knew exactly what to do next. A person doesn’t encounter this intense competence often in this world. It’s very reassuring to the one who is prone.
So my first stop this week was Cardiovascular where I lay on my left side, bare-chested, for an electrocardiogram, and I looked up and saw the silhouette of a flower fluttering on the screen and asked the technician what it was and she said, “Your mitral valve.” The little flap kept opening and closing, opening and closing, such a delicate piece of tissue, and from the repair of it, I have gained twenty-one years of life that my uncle Bob and uncle Jim didn’t get but died in their late fifties for lack of a surgical procedure developed here in Minnesota.
Cardiology is crucial science in Minnesota, we being German and Scandinavian, hefty consumers of animal fats who seldom turn down dessert, whereas psychiatry is looked on as a step above astrology or witchcraft — we’re puritans and feel that mental illness is caused by a moral flaw. It’s just how we are.
But to lie in dim light and watch my heart beating was a spiritual experience. Twenty-one years, during which I was married to a magnificent woman and we had a loving daughter and I wrote books and saw some of the watery parts of the world and enjoyed humorous friendships, and thanks to the procedure decided to skip alcohol (a depressant), which made me lighthearted — all of this depended on that small flower petal fluttering in my heart.
There’s no need to see into my brain, I live there, but to see the heart, live, on a screen was to see that life is a miracle. The petals of the valve, so delicate. I thought of my friends Leeds and Corinne and Barry and Roger and Annick and Sydney, all died so young, unfulfilled. I feel I should uphold them somehow, live in their behalf.
How shall one live up to this miracle? I believe in self-improvement but only for other people. I do seem to have certain competencies, however, and though I’m no Louis C.K. or Bill Maher, I have the advantage of a strict evangelical background, which is a good foundation for comedy, and I can recite the eighty-seven counties of Minnesota in alphabetical order very rapidly, which is impressive, and there are little theaters here and there where people have been glad to see me, so why not?
A man lay dying, his wife holding his hand, and he said, “Darling, you’ve stuck with me through two heart attacks, a stroke, prostate cancer, the hailstorm that wiped out the beans, the tornado that blew the roof off, and now this brain cancer, and you know something? I’m starting to think you’re bad luck.”
I, on the other hand, lay on my left side in dim light and watched my heart beat, and there’s the difference.