POST-OP WEEK 49
week of January 4
My wife and I used to paint our kids’ faces to get them to sleep.
And by paint, I don’t mean actual paint. I mean imaginary paint.
I can’t take credit for inventing this, for starting it; my wife started it. But I picked it up and kept going with it. She started it with our first when she was little and kept going ‘til our fourth.
I couldn’t tell you how she would do it, but when I did it, it went like this:
As the kids lie in bed, lights off, quiet, you first tell them “shhhh, close your eyes and relax...” Then with a finger or two, you gently touch a part of their face. “I’m going to paint your nose,” you tell them, “I’m painting your nose... blue.” You run your finger down one side of their nose then down the other while you whisper: “blue, blue, blue on your nose.” Then you take a finger and gently stroke some other part of their face— their eyes... “I’m painting your eyes... red. Red, red on your eyes.” First one eye, then the other. “Red on your eyes...”
Moving through different parts of their face with different colors. Cheeks. Lips. Forehead, ears, eyebrows. Green, brown, purple. Until you’ve painted their whole face.
Then you kiss them goodnight and let them drift to sleep.
I came up with this little joke at bedtime with my kids. I’m not sure if they thought it was a joke. But I’m sure they understood what I was doing.
Whenever they’d ask for a bedtime story, at first I’d say: “Bedtime story?! Ugh, you want a BEDtime story? Okay, okay. I’ll tell you a short one, just a little bedtime story, okay?”
Then get all whispery, put on my snuggly voice and go: “Once upon a time there was a—--” I’d customize it. If I were telling my daughter the story (I did this joke to all my kids), if I was telling this to her, I’d say: “Once upon a time... there was a girl... then I’d use her name...” Stretching it out, making it seem like something magical was coming... Then I’d say: “the end. Go to bed.”
Okay, so I’d tell them a regular story after that, read from a book, whatever. But every once in a while, I’d do my bedtime joke. I don’t know, maybe they thought it was funny. Whenever I told it to my youngest, I’d end with: “go to bed.” He go: “deh-deh-deh.” I have no idea why.
POST-OP WEEK 50
week of January 11
Greg, one of the guys from the high school theater crowd, thought it’d funny to “kidnap” one of the other guys. A joke. A prank.
Yeah, okay, they were different times— the mid-70s/early 80s... Grabbing a guy, throwing a bag over his head, stuffing him into a car, and driving him a round for an hour or so... that kind of thing happened all the time back then. We wouldn’t do that these days. We’re too politically correct for those kind of shenanigans.
The weird thing was, when Greg brought it up, I didn’t say no. I didn’t think about it for even a second and try and talk him out of it, try and suggest, maybe TP’ing a house instead. No, I just thought, yeah, okay. Why not?
It was this guy, Mark, I think his name was. We didn’t hate him or anything, he wasn’t the nerd of the group and we were picking on him. I think he was well liked. Mark was the guy with this really cool, old three-story house right in downtown section of our suburb. It was one of those turn-of-the-other century houses, with smallish rooms and tight staircases. They had a bunch of kids and they let them have the top floor, the attic really, but it was expansive with a high ceiling, exposed slanted joists, no drywall. He’d have parties there. I thought it was cool.
Mark was a tall guy, too, and strong. I’m not sure why Greg thought he’d be the perfect target, a target that could probably kick our asses. But he was our guy...
We somehow lured him to the local youth center where Greg and I and another guy named Mike (from the radio show) were waiting. I think we had someone from the staff call him to get him to come over. We let him walk through the door ten feet or so and then rushed up behind him.
POST-OP WEEK 51
week of January 18
It comes in flashes.
I’ll be sitting somewhere— at work, at home, watching TV, anywhere and nowhere in particular —and it’ll hit me. The thought of death.
Maybe not death. It’s the thought of non-existence, I guess.
I try and keep them away from me, these thoughts, but they’re right behind me, waiting for that moment to jump me.
Just writing this on the train going home, I have to pretend the thought isn’t there. I don’t know if I’ll be able to write anything with any depth without getting sucked down the dark rabbit hole of those thoughts.
I’ve thought about death before over the years. It comes and goes. I wrote this free verse “poem” in grade school, 7th, 8th grade called “Pushing Up Daisies.” My English teacher was blown away by it. She got all excited. She wanted it to get printed in the annual creative writing journal the school put out every year. I, of course, couldn’t understand what the big deal was all about. I didn’t think it was all that special; they were just my thoughts. Like I said, it didn’t rhyme, it was free verse. But it was deep thoughts about death and dying. I remember something about a casket and lipstick.
These days, they’d probably send me to a doctor or put me on Ritalin. Back then they applauded me.
So, yeah, I’ve thought about it on and off for a while.
It’s weird; I don’t think it about it much when I’m in an airplane. And I swear I didn’t get the same flashes when I was waiting in the hospital over the weekend, waiting for my open-heart surgery that following Monday.
I don’t know, I guess I figure I’ll be okay, somehow, in a plane. I used to hang out of them to shoot pictures and we almost crashed when my brother-in-law’s airplane’s muffler leaked carbon monoxide. So what could happen on my way to Baltimore?
And there was a trust thing with the heart surgeon. Or maybe just a resignation— go with it, hope for the best.
But the flashes I’m having now are different. Maybe it is the heart surgery. Or maybe it’s my father-in-law slowly slipping away: piece by piece for six years in front of our eyes until those final, agonizing days, in the hospital and when we brought him home to die in what’s now our den. That was pretty rough for me.
I wasn’t there when my dad died. No one was, technically, he died in his sleep. Or my mom. Anne’s mother passed away in the hospital; I don’t know where I was at the time--- work, probably.
My son’s hamster died in my lap. He brought him down because he took him out of his cage because he was “acting funny” and brought him down to me. I knew he didn’t look good, but I guess I didn’t put two and two together until he started convulsing, a death rattle, I guess. (Ahhh that was hard, writing that word!) It left an impression on my son after that, that I think he still thinks about, though I haven’t asked him.
Maybe it’s the absence of religion. I was raised loosely Lutheran. We were Russian Orthodox until one day my sister wanted to go to the Lutheran church the next-door neighbor girl went to. So, ding! We were Lutheran... I went to church and Sunday school with my mom and little sister. My dad stayed home and cooked brunch. He only went on Christmas. We were lax to say the least. The deal was— you had to go to church until you went through confirmation, then it was “voluntary.” So, needless to say, after 13 or so I stayed home with dad and watched TV.
I’m not a big fan of religions. So many self-righteous people are doing twisted little things behind public bathroom stall doors. The fire and brimstone anti-gay pastor who’s secretly gay. So many wars are fought in the name of some particular God. And everyone’s got their own version. Us against them.
So I don’t know what to believe. I don’t want to sound like one of those “intelligent design” people— who are pretty much Christian zealots pretending to give the other side an opinion. But, the more I look at the world: nature, my kids. The more I study because of my job, research before I write something about diabetes or heart disease or whatever, the more I can’t help feeling that beings this complicated couldn’t have just “happened” over time. We sure look like some kind of science project, an experiment. This planet has too many things that just kind of fit together. Veins in leaves look just like veins in people and rivers from half a mile up. There are too many systems in the body that work so well— hormones that secrete just what an organ needs to do its job just when it needs it— insulin, etc.
At the same time, I can see evolution at work, too. That whole white polar bears flourished because their fur blended in so well with the snow they lived around, stuff like that. I guess it’s kind of like something kick-started this place and then sat back. But I don’t know if there’s this all-powerful being watching us, helping the Broncos win the Super Bowl because the team prayed in the end zone before the game.
I guess that’s the thing: I don’t know. And I don’t think anyone actually knows. Groups claim they do, but they’re just guessing or it’s wishful thinking. It all comes down to faith. And I don’t know if I’ve got any.
So, we look to religion for answers.
They say we rise up to heaven when we die, to sitteth upon the right hand of God, etc. We create images of Pearly Gates. The movies show people floating away. The Ghost Whisperer tells her pals to go toward “the white light.” Warren Beatty rides into the clouds on a white escalator. But no one really knows. You’re just supposed to believe. You’ve got to have faith.
Ah, there’s the problem. I don’t believe in much of anything. I don’t have a lot of faith. Maybe it’s my lack of a father figure, my distain for authority in general.
It’s going to happen to me some day and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. It’s out of my control. Maybe that’s the worst part. I have no control over it. Like it or not, there’ll come a day when I’m not here anymore. What will happen to me? I don’t know. No one knows. I can’t rationally tell myself it’s a white escalator. I can honestly say that I feel there is some sort of “spark” inside all of us. Is that the soul? Is that what makes us the people we are. What makes us alive?
And is it the Buddhists who believe that when you die, the spark rejoins some greater energy force? Or is that Scientology? Maybe it’s just one of the guys from my comedy group who said it...
I don’t know, that wouldn’t be so bad, I guess, but it’s still scaring the living crap out of me right now typing it.
So I have these flashes.
I didn’t always have them. And they’ve gotten more intense, especially lately. (Let’s see if I can write about them without having one and freaking myself out...) I don’t remember them being like this before. Sometimes it’s the moments before I drift off to sleep, lying in bed. Sometimes I’m watching a show on TV or a movie and someone’s dying. Or on CSI when they’re already dead. I read the Business section of the Trib every morning, the front part. The back part’s the obituaries. There’s a lot of death, I’m noticing, sprinkled around.
I didn’t think about it this much before, this intensely. Now I think about my heart and how it could give out at any moment. I didn’t know anything was wrong with it before, so why should I have any warning signs now? There was nothing ever wrong with me; I always dodged bad things. Then I had this huge bomb dropped on my life.
Now I think about how my heart’s stitched together with veins cut from my own body and I think I could have a heart attack pretty much at any time. My rational self tells me that’s not true and then I remember the words of that idiot cardiologist making her rounds at Northwestern a couple of days before I went under the knife: “A bypass is the best thing; it can last you up to 20 years...” Great bedside manner, I know. 20 years? That’ll take me to 2029, I’m thinking. I’m doing the math. My mind goes instantly to my youngest, and how old he’ll be when this great medical marvel gives out: he’ll be 31, I think. Married probably by then. Maybe a kid or two. I do the math with my oldest: 38. She’ll be pretty old, I tell myself, when she loses her father.
I call her on it: “20 years!? I’ll only be 71!” I tell her. “Oh, I’m sure they’ll make some advances by then...” she assures me.
Okay, yeah, she was a bonehead. Even if she thought I’d only make it 20 years, she probably should’ve just lied to make me feel better. I figured my arteries took me 51 years, this new thing’ll take me another 51. But now she planted the seed in my head. If it could give out in 20 years, what’s keeping it from crapping out in 19? Or 12? Or a year and a half!!!
So it’s got me thinking about my mortality, big time. It’s fairly constant. I can distract myself with little mundane things— work, a comedy on TV, my writing —but it’s always there now, off to the side, ready to jump in if I let my guard down.
I’ll be lying in bed at night, the TV’s on but my mind starts wandering. I feel my heart beating and it makes me think about how it’s beating. Is it fast, an SVT? No. Is that okay? I think about what they did: opened me up and monkeyed around in there. I think about how “next time” I might not be so lucky and I could have a heart attack. Then how are they going to repair something that’s already been repaired once?
Then I think: even if nothing happens to my heart I’ll die someday anyway. There’s nothing I can do about that. My mind goes to how I have no control over the moment when I blink out of existence like my father-in-law did. I have flashes of me in a coffin, underground that I try and shake off. But I won’t be there. Will I? Will I go somewhere? It’ll be dark and it’ll be forever! Maybe that’s it. I’ve been here, doing whatever it was I wasted my time “on earth” doing, then I’ll blip out and be gone forever and ever. Which is really a fucking long time. AND THERE’S NOTHING I CAN DO ABOUT IT! I don’t want it to happen. I’d rather stay. I like the air and sunlight and my kids and the smell of an outdoor fire in the fall. But all that’ll be gone. Wherever I go, I won’t be here, experiencing the world. I’ll be in blackness— forever!!!!
If I let it, it goes around and around in my head, working me up into a panic in a matter of 2 or 3 seconds! It’s anxiety with heat; I can feel my body getting hot, rising up. Then I have to stop myself, distract myself somehow, but I’m not really distracted, it’s still there.
This didn’t happen before, pretty much just lately.
Yeah, it took me how many pages to finally say what’s really going through my head, sorry. How many train rides spread out so I didn’t freak out and now I finally got to it and freaked out and now I have to stop and take a break and try not to think about what I just thought about...
POST-OP WEEK 52
week of January 25
Today’s my re-birthday, I’ve decided.
It’s January 26, 2010, a year since my surgery.
As this day approached, I didn’t know how I’d feel about it. I thought maybe that it’d be no big deal; I’m not really a commemorative guy. Yesterday didn’t feel like re-birthday eve, you know.
This morning I woke up as usual— hey, what do you know! I came downstairs, started the coffee pot and put on my coat to get the morning paper. Everything just like normal. When I came out of the bathroom, my wife was awake, as usual, in the glow of a single light, reading the paper I brought in, with the TV on to the news.
Then I realized today was different. A year ago today I had open-heart surgery. I walked over to her, bent down and gave her a hug. We said something about it being a year and I started to tear up again (like the old days). It was 6:45 and she said yeah a year ago today I hugged you the same way just before they wheeled you down for surgery.
It came at me on and off after that. On my way upstairs to the shower, I thought about the surgery and the tears started to well up. Getting dressed was different today, too. Coming downstairs and hugging my son as he ate his cereal was different. Foreign. Special.
I booted up my laptop on the train and clicked over to the Word docs I had written so long ago, the ones marked “Do not open until 1/26/10.” I wrote them in April, apparently, and at the time my therapist told me to put them away and not look at them until the anniversary. Until today. I hadn’t thought about them until a few weeks ago, then I got curious. What did I say nine months ago that she felt I shouldn’t know about until now?
I opened the first one (there are seven of them) and started reading what April 2 was like last year. As I read about how much pain I was in and how much trouble I had sleeping, I started to cry again. It went on to say how much the burden of so many meds had on my psyche. How going to the Osco for an anti-depressant made me cry. I was suddenly one of “those” people who suddenly felt “old.”
I was crying on and off and had to stop and compose myself.
I wondered if going to work in this state was such a good idea, maybe I should call in sick. But I stuck to the routine. I stopped reading the Do Not Open docs and headed for the office.
I decided yesterday that on my way in, I’d pick up some breakfast treats for everyone. People do that from time to time, usually during the holidays. So I did it, too. I got sticky rolls at Cinnabon, then went to Corner Bakery and got bagels, Dunkin' Donuts for Munchkins, and Caribou for a jug of coffee! I brought it into our common area in our group and started setting it up. One of the programmers came out of his cube asking what was the occasion. On the train I thought about how I’d answer that question, what I’d say to anyone who asked or remembered about the surgery. I played it in my head how I was going to hold it together and not cry. I figured I’d just lie.
This guy came up first: Hey what’s the occasion?
I paused and then quietly said, while looking away from him: I had my surgery a year ago today... Oh, yeah, that’s right that was a year ago already... he said, something like that. Well, glad you’re here, glad you made it, something like that, I wasn’t listening really. All the other programmers descended on the food like pigeons, talking and laughing but not really asking why I brought them in. It’s customary when you bring treats to send out an email to everyone in the group to come and get it... The one I wrote was straight and to the point, leaving out the part about why I brought them.
A while later, I got an email from an art director in the group named Carol, thanking me, and wishing me a “Happy Birthday.” Someone was spreading it around that I brought in the food because it was my birthday. I emailed her back telling her my birthday was in September but it’s the anniversary, etc... She’s one of those perky people and she turned it into that’s even better, congratulations, wishing me the best, etc.
I was okay as the day went on, in meetings and such. But when I sat at my computer trying to write lines of dialogue for a talking Ensure bottle to say while he was exercising with fruits and veggies in a fridge, my mind would drift and the old feelings of loss and sadness came over me.
I hadn’t felt that way in a while. I didn’t know why those feelings came over me now. I mean, why not yesterday? Or a week ago Friday? Maybe anniversaries did mean something to me after all.
On and off throughout the morning I’d drift into sadness. But then I remembered Carol’s birthday wish and congratulations. A tiny thought crept into my head that yeah it was a trauma and I didn’t like it and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy— but it happened. And it’s over.
And maybe good things have come out of it. Besides the “saved my life” thing. I’m not sure why I still don’t feel like the doctors saved my life or even saved me from a heart attack. I have to consciously tell myself that they did. I didn’t crumple in a wad on the floor. Yeah, I was having chest pains on and off for a week, but they weren’t so bad and they’d go away. It’s like I’m taking the doctor’s word for it that I was on death’s door. But, yeah, they saved my life.
I do feel better, physically, you know, when I work out and stuff. I am MUCH calmer at the office and, besides lowering my blood pressure, it’s helped people accept my opinions. I would’ve never gone to counseling if it weren’t for this operation pushing me over the edge (and the rehab nurse seeing the signs and suggesting it). If only because insurance wouldn’t have paid for it.
I never would’ve met my therapist, Dr. Cooper. I never would’ve experienced The Cooper Effect. It pushed me well outside my comfort zone and into the light. It shook the weight of my dad off my back.
[I’ve heard it said that creative people create because they have a “monkey on their backs” that makes them create. I just hope that de-sensitizing, defusing my feelings about my father didn’t get rid of the monkey and I haven’t lost my creativity.]
So around noon I came to the opinion that this was a good thing, this anniversary; there was nothing to cry about. Crying was the wrong reaction. And maybe Carol was right, this was my birthday, my re-birthday. The first anniversary of my second chance.
So I thought maybe I should tell my Facebook buddies. It was a silly thing, I’m not a huge Facebook guy; I don’t constantly update my status, like some people, I don’t take pictures of my lunch and post them. I don’t steer people to articles I think they should read. I look, I comment once in a while.
But this seemed like a thing I had to do to get it out there. If I posted it and told these people, then it was true, then it was real and I could believe it.
Okay, so I Googled “re-birthday” first to see if it had any religious connotations and it didn’t seem to. I only found it on a couple places, cancer survivors blogging about the anniversary of their remission, etc. So I felt safe. I posted: “is celebrating his re-birthday today.” And that was all. (I wonder if I should’ve said something about the bypass, to be clearly non-religious but it was too late.)
I got a few comments and 5 or 6 “So-and-So likes this” and that was about it. (I still wonder, though if I shouldn’t have added something about the bypass, so they wouldn’t think I was born-again. Hm.)
But it got me thinking, and this sounds stupid, that it’s probably time to stop seeing this as a bad thing and start seeing it for what it is— a life-changing event, literally. Now all I have to do is tell myself enough times until I actually believe it— fake it ‘til I make it...
One more (odd) thing about January 26, 2010...
I turned on Letterman— I don’t usually stay up that late, but this time I did. It was a rerun from a couple weeks ago. Denzel Washington was on talking about his new movie Book of Eli. And Dave had on another guest, a doctor. His doctor. The doctor who performed Dave’s quadruple bypass. It was the ten-year anniversary of Dave’s operation, so he had his cardiac surgeon on to celebrate!!
When the show was first on, last month, whenever, it was Dave’s anniversary. I hadn’t seen the show THEN. I saw it replayed— on MY anniversary!! Dave was 52 when he had his bypass— the same age I was when I had mine... What’s that deal?
Dave asked the doctor to give the audience a play by play, pretty much, of how he came in, how blocked his arteries were (about the same as mine). How Dave didn’t have any visible symptoms (much like me). How Dave was hours, days, minutes away from having a heart attack that the doc said would’ve killed him (same here). He also had the doc go through what happened in the operating room, how the surgery was performed, cooling his heart, splitting him open, all that. Dave was cracking jokes so it kind of helped me see the lighter side of this whole thing.
Then Dave thanked the doctor for saving his life. Because, the way Dave put it— if he hadn’t done the surgery then Dave would’ve never had his son...
diary continues in February 2010...