When Mom was being checked out of the Intensive Care Unit, Dad had a hard time remembering the name of the more standard room in the cardiac wing that she was being promoted to. The “progressive” care unit sounded to him “like some kind of liberal political thing,” he admitted, so he had a hard time finding mental space for it. But we all agreed that Mom’s care was very good, progressive, conservative, or otherwise.
Flying west over the Pacific towards islands, I’m grateful that I can make some progress on tasks while the plane races Earth’s rotation and gives me more sunlight. Six hours later, I’m only three more hours into the day, at least according to local time. Even the wind is blowing the wrong way, it seems. I’m borrowing time, though I know it will demand repayment in return for bringing me back Home.
I didn’t really know exactly what I’d like most about the turntable and vinyl records my family gave me for my birthday. I’ve joked that I’m now a #hipster, and a part of me worries about the pretense of spending nearly twice as much on a piece of music as what I would in a digital form with higher data compression and more portability. This could all be a passing fad, giving way when someone decides reel-to-reel is a viable alternative.
Yet, setting the needle down on Johnny Cash’s live performance in Folsom Prison, I realized that the beauty of the LP record is that it’s a commitment. Pulling out an awkward disk from its sleeve and maneuvering it onto the precisely centered axis, the arm works its way from the outside rim to the inner label for twenty minutes before it asks to be turned over. This demands a deliberate action and attention. I just sit and listen. There are more productive uses of my time, as far as accomplishing frenetic arrays of tasks. But this is the focus I imagine Buddhist monks and therapists would call for.
The first surprise of seeing my heart in the ultrasound monitor? That the organ is present, real and beating and moving fluid from chamber to chamber, within to without, red and blue images of juice that makes laps around my body. Of course I know I have a heart. But of course I don’t really, not before this moment. Part of me even secretly pictured (or hoped) it wouldn’t be there, that through some surprise of immortality or robotics, some secret my parents never revealed, I had some whole other set of mechanics inside my shell. And thus, there’s no potential problem to potentially consider. But as it was, there were the chambers, so hidden until now, valves flapping up and down, in and out. I tried to detect if there was alarm or worry in the technician’s voice, but she gave away nothing. Worse, I knew precisely which valve was genetically predisposed to abnormality, and even as she probed into that one — top-down and bottom-up — she also checked all other ports and plumbing while stickers and wires correlated it all to my electrical system. The problem, it seemed to me, wasn’t so much that she was thorough but that in her zeal to check all possibilities I learned about all such possibilities: leaks, pressures, defects, constrictions, lost parts, all of it. This thing keeping me alive and functional is also the thing that has so many possible ways to fail me.
There are no miracles here, no sacred mysteries, no deep meaning; it’s just life. And, also, I got to see my heart on a screen and listen to the flow of my own blood through my body and the detailed explanations of the technician with the ultrasound wand. Forty-six years along and regardless of any potential diagnosis, I’m living and all within is vibrant.
I’m taller than you’d think. “Just a little bit more than five foot eight inches,” the nurse told me, which is just a little bit more than what I’d thought. And, better yet, it isn’t any shorter than I’ve been, which is something I think I should celebrate for the time being. And I weigh less than I used to. My blood pressure is back where it should be, though I’m not sure if that’s due to my exercise or the fact that the nurse didn’t scare me or the fact that I hadn’t had any coffee yet.
Once the doctor came in, he put a stethoscope on my back. I took deep breaths, and after that he checked for heart murmurs and other complications that might be reverberating against my chest wall. I always wonder what it sounds like, and I never ask. I’m not sure if it would be reassuring or if it would give me an anxiety attack.
All was fine.
I told him I wasn’t sleeping well. He said that he wasn’t either. He paused, maybe to see if I’d suggest anything to him about what to do. You could try this or that, he suggested. There are prescriptions, healthy routines, or simple resignation.
Mostly, I’m in good health. There’s some family history that justifies another check on my heart, but this seems to be out of an abundance of caution and the fact that it’s convenient enough to spend an extra 30 minutes at the hospital. I was also due for a tetanus shot, which I accepted enthusiastically, new prospects to walk among rusty nails. They drew small vials of blood and sent them somewhere I’d never see.
Later I’d see in the doctor’s notes and lab results that I can access on the screen—one of those conveniences that prevents me from sleeping, I suspect. These confirmed that my good health is well documented. The expert opinion of the medical expert is that I’m a “very pleasant 45-year-old.” Also, my “neck is supple,” I have “no worrisome addictive habits,” and my “oropharynx is clear.” I suspect these are all good things.
“You should take up smoking, maybe start drinking more,” the doctor suggested. He didn’t, actually; but I’ve imagined that there should be some room for such things based on good behavior and good health. He did suggest those few things for sleep, though, which is enough. He and I are both working on this.
My eccentricities compete. I need to immediately do a thing as soon as I think about it in order for it to be done before it’s forgotten. At the same time, I have a weakness for combining dissonant tasks.
Thus it follows: I’m walking around the house with a toothbrush in my mouth, looking for my headphones, pouring a cup of coffee, and replying to an email.
And then I decided that I should write about it and put the neurosis to good use.
When I called to schedule the wellness visit with my family doctor — the one whose name I always lists as my physician on this paperwork or that form — the scheduler explained that she’d have to ask him if he would take me on again as a patient. It had been too long between visits and I had been relegated to some inactive roster. This was a little annoying, but acceptable. I could wait to get word with the hope that continuing to see a relatively healthy patient wasn’t a burden to their office. When I’ve been before, the waiting room seems to be occupied by the demographic of greyed men with John Deere insignia caps and oxygen tanks. I would think that I could help with patient diversity.
I waited as the receptionist flipped through details of my records to get me setup. “The last time you were here was in 2012,” she informed and judged. My immediate reaction was relief: It had only been two years, and while I should check my blood pressure more often, I shouldn’t beat myself up about this.
But then I reminded myself about simple arithmetic, did the calculation that the astute reader has already completed (2018 – 2012 = 6 years) and recognized that I’m continually deluding myself, mathematically and otherwise. 2012 seemed like just yesterday, and 2016 still feels as though it’s in the future; or, at least it should be.
When I answered the phone, the voice on the other end introduced herself and asked for Mike. She explained that she was returning his call.
I told her that this must be a wrong number. Yet she explained that this was the number that “Mike” left. It was, in fact, my phone number. I could see that this created a difficult problem to resolve.
That’s why it was interesting to me that she asked if I knew Mike’s number. I do not, it turns out.
And yet, she really wanted to see if I could provide any clue — since apparently Mike and I share the same phone number, perhaps I know more about him. I told her that I wish I knew him, especially as he had called about her delivery of some number of tons of rock. Still, I was just the recipient of her own call. I was the fate at the end of her misplaced digit.
Perhaps, since this was the number he gave her, I might know of another way to reach him? And I so very much wanted to give her a better answer for all of her effort and patience. I had to put into words the disappointment that must be so common: I am just me, and this is just my phone that only connects me occasionally to other people in this world, yourself included. But it was nice talking to you for a few minutes.
When the dual roled dispatcher-receptionist asked if it this was an emergency, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I’d called this electric repair shop for help, obviously. We didn’t have power in a large portion of the house, seemingly randomly. But emergency? I hadn’t called an ambulance or fire truck, so I guessed not.
But then she said that the earliest appointment we would be able to get was four days into the future. Or, she could dispatch the “after hours service” at a fee of $99 for the visit that evening. The definition of “emergency,” then, is if it’s important enough to pay an extra hundred dollars to have someone address the problem immediately.
“Steve” came out that evening and opened a panel behind another panel to expose a junction between the power lines external and internal to the home. Seeing a burned out connection and melted insulation plastered on the inside of the metal box made me think that “emergency” might be more appropriate than I’d first realized.
I peek in on the activities of my old neighbor up the block as I pass by on walks. Often he’s out tending to the yard or doing odd jobs around the home. Once I witnessed him, armed with a chainsaw and overalls, attacking hedges as they encroached, humiliating them into submission. He stopped me as I made my way, insisting I give an assessment of how they looked from the street. Another time he was inspecting his roof, ladder steadied and watchful in the absence of anyone else.
Some of these things make me nervous. The story is that in spite of his overall health, age is winning. There are shakes. I worry about him, sure, but also I know that his own trajectory is my own, best case scenario. It’s reassuring when I see him sitting in an easy chair next to the picture window, an open book, glasses employed. (He doesn’t wear them otherwise.)
And yet, there are those fruit trees out front, the ones he keeps meticulously trimmed and staked, overloaded with peaches and apples each September. Today I noticed that they’re now joined by a brand new seedling, a stick with a few audacious flowers here and there. It’s hope planted with dark soil and shallow roots. And it’s inspiration for how to live our lives. There is no need to plan for ends, only beginnings.
It’s only after printing out all the exams that I think of all the questions I really should have included. Like the one about the Ferris wheel and what the scale reads while you’re traveling at the top of its rotation. Or, what’s the angle of an inclined plane that a red ball is rolling down? Or, how is your sister doing? I’ve been meaning to ask. What keeps you up at night? What Muppet character do you think best represents your true self? What are your real aspirations, besides passing this tiresome exam? And, most important, if you could play bass with any band, who would it be—assuming you could play bass? And would you even like to play bass, or would it be some other instrument? What are your most fanciful hopes and dreams, anyway?
Of course I should have asked these or so many other questions. But instead I’ve squandered the opportunity and have asked them to calculate how long a ball will be in the air.
I just deleted the paragraph I initially thought should lead into this. It was just blather holding off the inevitable. It’s best just to run headfirst and full speed into an image like this:
I found Karyn’s image, set twelve years ago in Canyonlands, as I was working through photos for other projects and presentations, and this one in particular kicked me in that soft spot right under the ribs. There we are, me trying to frame a photo and the girls there just as I know them and just as they are not. Vastness of horizon and deep cuts in Earth pair with the foreboding, encroaching ceiling. The Colorado River has patiently removed all the land beneath us, one grain at a time, having all the time in the world. We get to experience this outlook: here is the immensity of time and space, even as it etches away imperceptibly.
I just deleted the paragraph I initially thought should conclude this. All I have is just the image of the subtle, slow trawl of geological time and the whiplash blink of an eye, together in the same frame.