POST-OP WEEK 32
week of September 7
The longer I’m a dad, the more I’m seeing that the way I was raised was wrong. At first, I thought that my childhood was pretty much like anybody else’s. Of course, whenever I’d compare notes with friends, for the most part, I’d find out that they didn’t do Russian dances in front of their drunken dad while he threw pocket change at them. They didn’t make their own sausage or throw airplanes with straight pins glued to the tips at each other.
Yeah, sure there were the guys in my improv comedy group.
Mark’s parents were divorced when he was little and they split up the family--- he went with one parent while his little brother went with the other.
Dan’s dad was a macho Air Force dickhead, like Robert Duval in that movie The Great Santini. Drinking, watching sports, and berating his son for being able to draw any cartoon you described to him when he was 8 or 10.
Tom’s dad had been divorced 3 or 4 times by the time I met him--- He’d drop acid before an improv class.
Bill is the oldest of 5 kids, The Silver-Backed Gorilla, he calls himself. His mother, growing up, was a diagnosed schizophrenic and his dad a heavy drinker. His dad would pack the kids in the car, drive to a bar and park it out front for hours while he’d go inside and drink, leaving the kids alone in the car. Bill didn’t talk about his childhood much but he did tell me once how his dad used to come home drunk and beat the children. He threw one of them against the wall one time, the time Bill was big enough to grab his dad by the collar, push him against the wall and tell him, “don’t you ever touch her again.”
A lot of comedians had lives similar to that, I think. But I don’t know how many regular people did.
I’m just seeing that the longer I create my own experience for my kids, the more I create THEIR childhood, the more I see that my childhood was wrong. What my father did in that collection of years was no way to treat a cool, little creative kid, who was smart and with a limitless imagination.
Yeah, maybe my father’s father was a dick to him, so that’s how he figured fatherhood went. (My mom had a really crappy childhood but she always seemed like she was trying to break the cycle.) I’m sure there were pressures of running his own business and all that. And I don’t know how his marriage to my mom was actually going. But the longer I’m a dad myself, the more I realize that’s no excuse.
And maybe, in a weird way, that’s why I started crying at odd times, inappropriate times, like meetings and presenting ads to my boss. That started some time in the late-90s, when I was at my first ad agency. Things hadn’t gotten bad there, yet. My fourth child was probably a newborn, First Born was around 6 or 7. I was close to 40 then, maybe just over. My dad probably already died.
Sometimes I’d tear up watching a movie or TV show but normally the scenario would go like this: I wrote something, a line of copy, a tagline, headline. It came out of my head and onto the computer screen without me knowing about it much. I knew I wrote it, I was there. But once it was out, it was its own entity. I knew I had created it, but it had a life of its own, somehow. So when I read it out loud in a meeting, it was like I was reading the other guy’s stuff. And it was really good so I’d well up with tears.
Maybe this other guy was that little ignored kid, little Wally.
TO BE CONTINUED…
When the four Comedy Group guys got hired to be writers for Jonathan Brandmeier’s TV show (he was a huge Chicago radio personality back then who signed with NBC) it seemed like it should’ve been the end of something, like we attained some goal, which we had. But it more like a “base camp” that mountain climbers set up, a place to rest before continuing the climb.
We had come a long way from the dumps we started in— playing to two people in old churches or the corners of Italian restaurants to people who’d rather eat in piece.
It’d been four years or so since we’d gotten out of improv class and formed a comedy group pretty much like everyone does coming out of improv class. We’d been sending Brandmeier bits for years, too, little one and two minute song parodies and wacky characters. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, we’d become a part of his morning radio show on WLUP. My wife played Edie, the Breakfast Fairy, in a total of 26 bits (Tom wrote the first bit, a takeoff of 1950s dietary school films--- where everything we think of as bad these days was good for you back then). We did bits about the Bears and the Cubs. We had a Cajun cook character who made dishes that were all puns.
When we created Joe, the Love Potato, that sealed the deal for us.
Joe was a parody of some “romance” tapes Johnny played one morning. Women were supposed to listen to the tapes of a romantic guy taking the listener on a “dream date.” “Why don’t we take our shoes off,” the deep, manly voice would say. “And walk along the beach.” Stuff like that. I thought it’d be funny if we took it to the next step or two in the romance— when the guy’s moved in and quit his job, etc. (A lot like my sister, I guess, and her boyfriends.)
Dan and Mark were the two married guys at the time; Dan had just quit his job and his wife was supporting the both of them. I thought he should play the part of Joe but he didn’t think the idea was all that funny. Mark jumped in. Little did any of us know how important that decision was…
We sat around one night in the basement of my dad’s house in the suburbs where I lived, throwing jokes around for Joe to say: The theater of the mind plot was that Joe was sitting in his La-Z-Boy (I guess in the kitchen) while his “Special Gal” (wife, girlfriend, we don’t say) gets ready for work. He gets her to make him some eggs while not blocking the TV and then give him some money for beer later. All with Mantovani’s version of the Midnight Cowboy theme playing under it. Whoa!! Good stuff.
Actually it was really right for the times: it was the mid-80s, there was a recession, men were leaving the workforce while more women were joining it. As much as it was an over-the-top burn against women, in a way, it burned men pretty much, too. It caught on really, really BIG with Johnny’s audience.
Johnny played that first bit over and over. We wrote and recorded a second bit, then a third. Joe appeared live on Johnny’s show. We’d write jokes for Mark to use and he’d ignore them, going with his special brand of “yeah, that’s right,” “you’re telling me” kind of thing that worked for Mark for so long on stage. On the radio, though, Johnny was funnier. Johnny would tell me later that Joe was funnier in the recorded bits. I had to agree.
We figured out a way to do a Joe bit on stage— basically I played a guy named Warren Borzello, a crass, dees-dems-and-dozes, disco throwback. People from the audience would ask Joe questions and if Mark couldn’t come up with anything right away (which, mostly, he couldn’t) I’d jump in with a joke and Mark would say, “Yeah, that’s right.”
We were selling out comedy clubs. Companies hired “Joe” to do radio commercials, he appeared on a local wrestling show, and a publisher contacted us about writing a book. We sold “Atta Girl” t-shirts (Joe’s catchphrase) and “Special Gal” buttons. That national comedy DJ, Dr. Demento played Joe bits, we ended up on his top funny five. I’d hear rumors of people in California saying “Atta Girl.” The specter of Joe pretty much took over the group. Tom and Bill started hating Joe; Tom would come in with bits where Joe died in a fiery car wreck. I ended up writing half the book and all the new bits for Johnny’s show.
Mark, in the meantime, would go out at night to bars trolling for people who’d heard of Joe. If people listened to GCI or BBM-AM, they’d give him a blank stare, no Joe. But then he’d run into a Johnny B fan, and the guy’d buy Mark drinks all night. I was sitting all afternoon one day at a car dealer while Joe signed autographs (on the 8X10 of him I took in my basement) from his recliner. This is when Mark decided that instead of splitting the small amount of money these places paid five ways like every other paying gig we did, he wanted 85% of it and we’d get 15%, like an agent. This made sense to him.
I’m not sure Tom and Bill cared; they didn’t get involved much, one way or the other. And, of course, they weren’t doing any Joe stuff at this point anyway. Dan and I stood firm on the all for one, one for all thing and one night, after our show at Northwestern College’s 2001 lounge and student center, Mark dramatically quit the group.
We tried to replace Mark with Dan (like it would’ve been had Dan not been so sensitive) but Brandmeier wouldn’t accept it: He said Dan was the Roger Moore Bond, it just wasn’t the same. Mark appeared as Joe once, on his own, and believe it or not, we had our lawyer send him a “cease and desist” letter.
So Joe, the character, died.
(Mark died, actually, a couple of years ago, from lung cancer; he was a long-time smoker. He was about 45, divorced, two grown kids. We went to his wake; his ex-wife invited us. Johnny did a tribute on his show and played old bits. Robert Feder in the Sun-Times wrote a blurb. I hadn’t seen Mark since that night at Northwestern.)
But our relationship with Johnny lived on. We kept sending him bits that he flat-out refused to pay us for (I flat-out asked him). The way he paid us was hiring us to write for his TV pilot.
About this time, Johnny’s star was rising. NBC had Johnny under a development deal to do a late night TV show, to air either after or instead of Letterman— who was still on after Johnny Carson on NBC. Of course, Brandmeier’s reaction was: “Carson’ll never quit! And even if he does, when will that be? How long would I have to wait to get a slot?” Despite his keen sense of show business, Brandmeier said yes to a 90-minute special that’d be played after SNL.
TV legend Fred Silverman was his co-executive producer and suggested, among other things, bringing in writers from L.A. to write the show. Johnny said he needed writers who knew him and his brand of “comedy.” So, against his better judgment, Silverman said yes to four, non-union newbies from the Midwest (plus a guy named Paul Barosse, a Chicago guy who wrote for SNL for a few months before they let him go).
We signed the contract in my living room in our two-flat in Logan’s Square: Dan, Tom, Bill, and me. It was quite an accomplishment that I thought should be celebrated with a toast of champagne. It should’ve been us celebrating a beginning but it ended up being more like the beginning of the end.
My dad had his first stroke when I was still down at Southern during my second semester.
I can’t place, exactly, when he had his second stroke, I can’t remember if it was after mom died or before. (I’m thinking, maybe, after, closer to when I graduated.)
But I do remember taking care of him after I graduated. I sort of got “volunteered.” You’re just hanging around. You’ve got no wife, no job, no place to go… Why don’t you help dad, naked, to the bathtub, wash him, cook him dinner, clean up his poop off the carpet when you can’t walk him to the toilet fast enough.
My aunt Natasha came for a visit to help out, but it was only temporary and dad didn’t like her showing up when he was naked. So I got the honor.
VCRs were new back then, but there was a place on the corner that rented videos, so I pick up a few I thought he’d watch and we’d sit in his room and watch them. I don’t know what got into me, but I was his caretaker. He yelled at me a lot, when he wanted me to move something on his dresser or pick something up off the floor and he couldn’t think of the words or he’d yell at me just because.
Jim’s mom called me during all this. It was a little odd because I hadn’t spoken with Jim in a very long while. But she called to tell me she was listening to that little radio in the corner of her kitchen and heard about a program at Westlake Hospital (where is that, Maywood, River Grove, something?) that specialized in stroke rehab and I should go and check it out. She gave me the number and I called it. They were having an introductory lecture in a couple of days, would I like to come?
One morning, I drove over by myself with my pad and pen and listened to what they had to say. I’m sitting in this classroom, chairs with desks attached, that whole thing. It was wives, mostly, with their husbands. The husbands with the telltale limp facial features, arm and leg. I sat through the class as they talked about what they did and how and at the end as everyone filing out, I went up to talk to the nurses about getting my dad enrolled.
They said they wondered why a young man such as myself would be sitting in a stroke class alone. (I was probably 23 at the time!) I don’t remember how we set it up or how we arranged payment (mostly likely cash) but I made an appointment. I’m not sure when I broke it to my dad that he was going to rehab and I’m sure he wasn’t happy, but we were there. They assessed him and assigned him a male therapist, an intern doing his rotation from med school or whatever.
I think we went a couple times a week and on appointment days, my dad would always be awake early, poking me in bed with his cane to get up, too, hours before we had to leave. He’d sit and attentively do the arm-lifting exercises the therapist would have him do, he’d have dad working his leg. We did this for a month or so; dad actually showed some progress. Then the male therapist told us he was rotating off, going back to school, whatever, leaving and that a new therapist would be taking over. I swear I saw tears in my dad’s eyes when he gave us his news. Unfortunately, the new therapist was a female…
So dad never went back.
I tried to get him interested, c’mon dad, she’s kinda cute, something, anything. I guess I could’ve asked them to assign a male again, but I didn’t, I don’t know why. His rehab ended there. He was able to walk, sort of, after that. He could get around but he wasn’t stable.
I wrote this firsthand account of what happened to me before and after my diagnosis, heart surgery, and recovery less than a year from when it happened. As the events get further away, however, further in my past and my memory they don’t seem as immediate. But at the time, they were very, very real… Enjoy.
POST-OP WEEK 33
week of September 14
I sort of knew, I think, that something wasn’t right. I’d had acid reflux before, for years, in fact. And this wasn’t like that. That was a pain in my chest, with heartburn, and deeper, lower. (Oddly enough I kept thinking that was a heart attack back then, bolting up in bed in the middle of the night. I drove myself to the emergency room once at 2am.) This was fairly isolated. But I was belching, too, like acid reflux, so I waited.
I’d been having heart palpitations, too, off and on for six, eight months. My heart would skip a beat, do a slushy kind of thing every once in a while. Then I’d get that rabbit heartbeat… I was having some problems during the summer, when I was away on business in Denver. I was doing market research, which meant sitting in a darkened room with account people watching consumers look at ads through a two-way mirror. It also meant doing lots of mindless eating and Starbucks.
My allergies were acting up, too. I felt self-conscious in that little room--- all anyone could hear was my constant sniffling. So I was popping over-the-counter Zyrtec as often as the box said I could.
But this was just after the holidays, just after my trip to Portland with my art director partner and the account guy she was having a secret affair with, messing around in their hotel rooms at night and telling us all how to do our jobs during the day. I was a tad tense.
So for a week I “watched” and “waited.” I didn’t have any of the regular signs for heart trouble, no numbness, no neck pain. But walking to the train, a block or two, would give me a sharp pain in my chest, higher up than reflux, with no heartburn. I was stopping every five minutes and resting, watching the traffic go by until it went away. I lifted the garbage can up over a snowdrift in front of house one morning and it felt like when you swallow a too-big chunk of food, only this was in my heart. Over-the-counter Prilosec wasn’t doing much.
No one said that pain upon exertion was a symptom of a heart attack except for Mayo Clinic dot com, which had it way down on their list. I called my doctor’s office and they squeezed me in on a Tuesday. My doctor thought it was reflux, too and told me to double up on the Prilosec but he scheduled a stress test, too: “When can you make it?” he asked me, casually. “Hm, Wednesday’s no good for me…” (I was in no hurry for a routine stress test.) “Thursday would work.”
So I go to work Thursday, go a recording session in the morning, then walk over to the hospital four blocks away— stopping every block or so because of the pain.
I put on the backless gown and they stuck electrodes all over me. After ten, fifteen minutes on the treadmill, the pain was back full force and I started doing that rabbit heartbeat. The tech told me to stop, put a chair right on the treadmill belt, and told me to sit… She hunched over the read-out paper, looking over at me from time to time. She called over a guy who looked like a superior and they both hunched over my read-out. They’d glance over at me together, sitting in a chair on the treadmill, then back to the paper.
The tech and her assistant told me to get my things; they would have to admit me. They might’ve said something about blockage, they might’ve told me a lot of things, but I wasn’t really listening. I called my wife from the locker room on my cell. I started tearing up when I told her what was happening. She answered in a concerned voice and told me she was driving down right away.
Despite the week or two of chest pains, this really came out of the blue for me. I was the one who dodged these kinds of things. When I fill out all that paperwork at doctor’s offices on my first visit I’m always checking down the “no” column. Diabetes--- no. Glaucoma--- no. No, no, no.
I had a cyst in my lung that was benign. Nodules on my thyroid that were supposed to be cancer (twice) but turned out not to be (twice). Outpatient surgery for an in-grown toenail. Had a large, but non-cancerous mole removed. I thought, maybe, that this would be the same. I was metaphorically holding my breath.
The tech and her assistant walked me over from the building at Northwestern hospital where they run the tests through the underground hallways they use to get lunch and whatnot, the underbelly, to the next door building where they do the surgery. Still in the backless gown, I’m walk up to the admitting desk and the woman asks without thinking: “Are you having any chest pains?” I say: “yes.” She stops what she’s doing. “Yes? You’re having chest pains?” “Well, not right this very minute but yes, on and off.” Then she points to some chairs in a waiting area and tells me someone will be right with me.
The tech and her assistant turn to leave, wishing me luck, and asking me to tell them how it “turns out.” A woman comes out and she takes me up to a room to get settled in. Medical people file in and tell me about the angiogram they want to do on me, to me, the next morning. I never want to know too much about what doctors are going to do to beforehand so I don’t get all weird about it. My imagination gets the better of me most times and I get freaked.
[When I got that mole removed, I couldn’t see what they were doing; I couldn’t feel anything, they had me so numbed up but I got a little detached tugging and my imagination did the rest. I started picturing them pulling my skin out and cutting it like football leather with a scalpel. I turned stark white, they told me, and I almost passed out. They tilted the table way down at the head to get some blood going. So, I try not to get to much info.]
I’m supposed to be out for the angiogram but I’m watching the whole thing on their TV monitors. I can feel them make their little poke in my thigh and fish the tube up into my chest. I can hear them murmuring. I can see some bright colors on the TVs but, of course, without my glasses it’s all a big blur.
Before I go in, the doctor, tech, whatever he is, tells me that if they find a blockage, they’ll put in a stent and fix me right then and there. Of course, after they’re done looking, the same guy comes out and tells me I’m way too blocked for the easy way, they’re going to have to do a bi-pass or two…
This doesn’t seem like he’s talking to me, somehow. He must have the wrong guy. Bypass and Me aren’t two things that make any sense put together like that, in the same sentence. I’m too young. I’m not overweight. I don’t do any “bad” things the real people who get this do… “Do you smoke?” No. “Red meat?” Once a month, maybe. I don’t smoke. I work out three times a week, four if you count yoga. “Ah ha! You must have a family history!” No.
See? It can’t be me.
“This is very serious, Mr. Michka,” everyone tells me with their serious faces on.
The fifth, sixth question they ask is if I have a stressful job. I tell them advertising and they give me the oh well, there you go… This is weird coming from heart surgeons. I figure heart surgeons have much more stressful jobs than a guy who writes stuff for Snap, Crackle, and Pop to say. For me, the job itself isn’t stressful, coming up with creative stuff, but, I guess some of the politics is.
[Okay, full disclosure: My blood pressure had been rising, little by little, for years. About two years ago, maybe three my doctor was treating it, giving me some kind of med for it. It wasn’t super high back then, so we caught it early. After a month or so, I swear the meds were making me depressed and making my legs hurt. I don’t know if that was true, but I stopped taking the drugs--- AND DIDN’T TELL HIM. So my BP continued to rise again, unchecked.] [Some time last year I checked into the emergency room on a Friday morning with a BP of, like, 190/120… They kept me overnight while they tried to get it down, which they finally did the next day.] [This crosses my mind, and has, through all this.]
So now I have the weekend to think about open-heart surgery after they schedule me for it first thing Monday morning. My wife’s been visiting on and off this whole time, but now she brings the kids. They look at me funny, quieter, not knowing what to say. Kid #3’s kind of funny, he wants to try out my hospital bed so I let him. My sister comes with her husband and their two kids. They hang around while I try and make awkward conversation and we watch TV.
Doctors, techs, nurses come in and take readings or ask me if I have any questions. The head of cardiology stops by flanked by two other people. She tells me not to worry, these operations are done all the time and bypasses can last a good twenty years. I know weasel words when I hear them. I do the math. 51 plus 20 equals not a lot of time. My daughter (Kid #1) would be married, I figure, probably even Kid #4; I could live to see that… But it’s a lot shorter than I’d planned, not that I planned any amount. Infinite would be nice. But 20 years sounded like tomorrow afternoon, somehow.
I didn’t think of getting a second opinion. Actually, I did, for a minute. But everyone was so concerned with getting this done so quickly, like I was one walk up the stairs away from a heart attack. They wouldn’t let me go home when I asked for fear of me going out. So I stopped thinking about calling another doctor and seeing what he or she thought. I trusted these guys. The son of the guy who never believed in doctors suddenly believed in these people quite a lot.
TO BE CONTINUED…
POST-OP WEEK 34
week of September 21
I spent the weekend prepping for Monday’s surgery. But there was no prepping, really. I keep thinking about “going under.” I thought about those stories I’ve heard about patients who aren’t put totally out so they can feel the extreme pain of the knife going in and all that, but they aren’t awake enough to scream out to the doctor’s to stop.
Stuff like that.
The surgeon came in at one point, to say hi, I guess. (I didn’t pick this guy, there was no audition, no vetting process, he was just assigned, I guess, eeny, meeny, miney, kind of thing, maybe? He was just, suddenly, my surgeon.) Young guy, I mean, 30s, he said he had kids. He started in on his explanation of what he was going to do when I stopped him. Knowing all the gory details just makes my mind go crazy with weird thoughts. It’s what makes me faint during mole removals. So I told him to stick to the high points.
I watched movies on cable. I ate the hospital food (which, oddly, wasn’t all that bad). I opened a Facebook account. They scanned me, drew blood, x-rays. I made small talk with relatives. All the while trying to not think about dying.
Monday morning eventually came. Around 6am my wife hugged me and they wheeled me away, up or down, I don’t know, just away. They take me to an area, surrounded by white, curtains and walls. Techs, attendants, I don’t know who’s what; they scurry around me. “But you look so young,” they say again and again. I’m looking at them from waist level, of course, because I’m flat on my back. They’re blurry because I’m not wearing my glasses.
I’m trying not to think about bad things that might happen, forcing them to stay out of my head. I’m helpless, I guess, but trusting, giving myself up to the inevitable, good or bad, fate. It was like jumping out of an emotional airplane, freefall. And hoping for a safe landing.
A woman in green scrubs comes up to me at my side. She says she’s the anesthesiologist or his assistant or something; I’m not really paying full attention to her. She pulls up a syringe and sticks it into the IV tube that’s been in my arm since my stress test.
“Okay,” she says, referring to the syringe, in her matter-of-fact, pleasant voice. “Now, this is just going to feel like a couple of cocktails.”
And that’s the last thing I remember until my eyes blinked open in the ICU/recovery room nine hours later! NINE… HOURS! So now there’s a nine-hour blank spot in my life. A team of doctors, though, put in a full day’s work with OT, like a shift in a factory, digging around inside me. I used to be sealed, but that seal’s been broken now. They cut me, cracked me open like a lobster and messed around in there. They pulled a vein from my leg and cut it up, sewed it onto my heart somehow. They stopped my heart, I’m told, I was there but not there. Cooled it down, I guess, until it stopped beating all together. (Doesn’t that make you dead?) I was on a heart/lung machine, it kept me alive-ish while they monkeyed around in me. And I don’t remember any of it.
Of course, that’s a good thing.
But my active imagination, of course, fills in the gaps from time to time since then. It can help me picture myself flat on the table, covered in those green, sterile sheets. I’m naked but covered. They do what they want to me. People I don’t know; people I’m never met. They shave me. Put in a catheter. I’m laid out like those frogs we cut open in high school biology. I picture them cutting me, sawing my bones, prying me apart. I imagine my heart, now, some sort of “device” from a sci-fi movie with extra tubes and hoses stuck to the sides of it.
That’s what I imagine. If I let it.
When my eyes blinks open in recovery, a big plastic tube blocks my view at the bottom. It’s poking out of my mouth. It’s that tube they always stick down people’s throats on ER. There’s something else going across my forehead across the top blocking that view, too. I can see my wife sitting to the side. She stands up and comes over when I try and speak. I make a sound but nothing really comes out because of the tube.
I can’t move.
There’s a nurse that I mostly can’t see buzzing around— checking stuff, changing things, flushing a toilet that, I guess is in the room. At some point she deems it permissible to pull the intubation tube from my throat, and ready 1, 2, 3 slides it out. The next hour or so are flashes, pieces of moments. My wife tells me later that I was saying funny things but I couldn’t tell you what they were.
The tubes taped across my forehead end in my neck somewhere and the nurse lays those down on my chest now. She was a very nice woman, blonde, I think, athletic. I remember thinking she looked like a runner. It’s six, six-thirty in the evening; half a day went by.
That evening they take me to my room on the cardiac floor, room after room of people just like me— except older. I said thank you to the blonde runner nurse as they wheeled me out of ICU and I could see there was a toilet in the room, just jutting out into the middle. I wonder who’d use that…
The next five days was a blur. Injections and pills and scans. It was a pretty steady stream of medical people. Northwestern has a system: everyone gets a different color outfit or they get an extra coat or something to delineate them from each other, like the Army, you were supposed to be able to tell their rank but I never knew who was who.
My new place is a corner room, up high, with views of the city on two sides. The lady next door is a Russian woman who’s always moaning or yelling at the nurses or complaining— in Russian. Two years of high school Russian and I only know how to say “grandpa” and “The enormous jet awaits on the field” which doesn’t help here.
I don’t fight them. I do what they tell me to. If they want me up at 2am for a blood oxygen test or to give me some nasty potassium powder, I figure they know what they’re doing and go along. Besides, you don’t really have to wake up to hold out your arm, so they can jab you again.
I’ve never been hit by a car but I imagine it feels a lot like this. It’s a lot like an out-of-body experience. I’m not sure if it’s the numbness, but my chest feels like a “thing,” an emblem or a shield. I can move my arms and legs but I don’t much for fear of flexing my chest muscles or my abs. I feel I can’t take deep breaths, though they constantly tell me to.
I notice now that there are more tubes sticking out of me: three out from my ribcage that end in bulbs filled with bloody liquid. I’ve got two wires coming out of me, too, actual, electric wires, like I’m a lamp. I also have a tube attached to a blue box for local pain meds going into the incision. I feel like a thing, a thing these people poke stuff into.
They make me get up and sit in a chair to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And they make me take a “walk” three times a day around the cardiac floor. I circle the nurses’ station; there are 10 or 20 nurses, techs, almost all women, like a bunch of moms buzzing around helping people. (Okay, there are some guys, too, mixed in there, but they’re kind of like moms, too, I suppose.)
Coughing, sneezing, clearing my throat— all hurt. They tell me I can do those things so long as a “splint” myself by squeezing a pillow against my chest when I do. But I’m sure they’re wrong and I try my best not to for fear of ripping something, a stitch or my chest. I figured out a way to stop a sneeze— it’s like I can talk myself out of it, Zen my sinuses to stop in mid-sneeze.
They keep me pumped full of painkillers, morphine that makes me see things and have weird dreams. The surgeon comes to visit one day to see his handiwork, I guess. When he asks how I am, I tell him my back hurts. He says that’s understandable considering what he did to me. “We cracked you open like this,” he says, making a double-claw shape with his cupped hands, like a bear trap opening. “That can really hurt the muscles in your back.”
They measure all the fluids that come out of me--- pee, that reddish stuff that leaks out of my lungs. They seem very interested in it.
I haven’t bathed in days. My wife washed my hair the Sunday night before the operation but now it’s so dirty I leave a brown patch on my pillow whenever I get out of bed. They have to teach me how to get in and out of bed without putting too much side pressure on my ribs: sit, tilt, tilt, aim for the pillow and drop…
Little by little, day-by-day, they pull stuff out of me. The catheter one day. A drainage tube, another. It’s unnerving to feel the tube snake out of my body as they yank on it. I’ve put up with a lot so far.
My wife visits every day. She sits on the side bench along the windows, reading or doing crossword puzzles. Sometimes we talk, when I’m not sleeping. A neighbor comes to visit, too. Her husband needed an emergency hernia operation so while she was downtown waiting on him, she dropped by. She takes me on one of my daily walks and I’m sure people thought she was my mistress. My sister Jayne and her husband stop in for a visit, too. (What’s that about?) (Actually I think my heart episode rattled Jayne--- I was in good shape, did everything right and still ended up in the hospital. She’s 10 years older, so what does that mean for her?) A couple of work people called.
Friday comes around and they decide that this is the day… The nurse yanks the last two tubes from my chest— ready? On three… I can feel them pull through my lungs like a ripcord, first one, then the other. It doesn’t hurt exactly, it’s just another one of those de-humanizing things medical people do to unsuspecting patients.
Everything thing I do is in slo-mo— deliberate movements, slow. Everything is tentative. (I remind myself of the 90-year-old neighbor I have back home, Mr. Frye. He gets out and does things in his yard, goes for walks down the street, but it’s… always… in… slow motion…) I feel like I’m going to break or something inside me is going to disconnect and start spurting. I can’t imagine what they did in there, inside me, so I don’t know how much stress it can take. And I don’t want to test it out.
My wife helps me get dressed. It’s the first time I’ve been in clothes in a week— pants, shirt: first the right sleeve, then the neck hole, then the left sleeve. There is nothing stuck in me anymore. They wheel me out of the cardiac floor and downstairs to the front door of the hospital. I waddle the ten steps to the car, through the blast of cold, January air and we drive back to the suburbs.
I spent February in or around my house. I watch TV, movies sometimes, during the day when the kids are at school. My father-in-law (who’s alive at this point, living with us) is a bit agitated by my presence in my own house— he’s not used to having people around when he wheels out to eat lunch, let alone people watching a loud action movie in the living room.
I don’t sleep well. Staying flat on my back, flanked by pillows, the pain meds give me weird dreams again. Getting in and out of bed is a task, dressing, showering— it gets to me once in a while. I can now see why old guys (like my dad and his stroke) might just give up. At 50 I wasn’t about to. But add 20 or 30 years onto that and I can see that the effort might be too much.
I don’t know if that makes sense: maybe it was the pain, there was that. Maybe it was the shock of this change in lifestyle or the reminder of mortality or this “shit, it finally caught up to me. It had to some day, I guess, and this is the day.” But some moments during some days… it was just more than I could handle right then, more than I wanted to handle. I just wanted to quit. Or maybe it was just that I wanted it not to be me, but it was me, why me, so I was pissed. Or depressed or all of the above.
My walking path three times a day was round our first floor: kitchen through hallway to front/music room, through the “homework” room around the living room to the kitchen again and so on ten, twelve times. In a bathrobe and slippers. (I didn’t own slippers before this. Now I do.) I carried a stopwatch.
Neighbor ladies would drop by with food, dinner. We didn’t really need it by then, Anne was home to cook. It was helpful when I was in the hospital but now I was home but they kept bringing food. High fat stews made with red meat, stuff like that. They’d come in the door and see me, surprised that I “looked so good.”
I’d cry in the shower sometimes. It happened there, mostly, for some reason. Maybe it was when I finally washed the scar area. Rubbing my hand over it reminded me of what they did to me. Of how I’m not the same as before all this. Of how suddenly it all changed. I was this guy all along, until January, then bam--- this. And I had no say in the matter. It’s like I was assaulted. I know it saved my life. And maybe if I had had an actual heart attack it might’ve been different somehow, maybe it would’ve seemed justified. But this just seemed unfair.
TO BE CONTINUED…
POST-OP WEEK 35
week of September 28
My dad liked to eat sunflower seeds. Not the shelled kind, a bunch of little kernels already in a bag. He liked the kind you had to crack open to get the seed out. He’d buy them unsalted. He’d take a small handful, four or five, and pop one at a time in his mouth. Then he’d quickly roll it around in his mouth, pushing it end over end with his tongue to position it, upright between his teeth. And when it was ready, just so, he’d bear down, crack it lengthwise, exposing the kernel. He’d work it around some more, pulling the kernel out like a parrot and getting it back to his teeth while spitting out the shells.
It was an amazing thing to watch. Pop, roll around, crack, spit. Pop, roll, crack, spit. There’d be a pile of shells in a circle around him. On the ground while he was standing, fishing. Wherever.
I learned how to do it, too. By watching him, very closely. Eventually I could eat like a parrot, too. (I still get a bag once in a while, mostly for watching my daughter’s softball games--- it seemed to fit in there.)
I’d do this thing as a kid, though, sometimes while eating sunflower seeds. I do it when we’d be driving somewhere, on a long trip to Wisconsin, maybe. I’d be sitting in the back seat of the car, cracking seeds and instead of putting the shells in a garbage bag, I’d drop them out the open car window. And each shell, I’d pretend was a bomb, a tiny bomb that blew up when the car behind us ran over it. I was setting traps for the traffic.
It made total sense to me.
I don’t think I wrote this story. Forgive me if I have.
When my wife and I lived in Logan Square, in a two-flat we bought and fixed up, I used to take the El into the Loop and back for work. Our place was a five or six block walk from the El station. It was on Francisco between Sacramento and Logan Blvd.
One day as I walked along, I heard a “cheeping” sound. I looked around to see what tree it was coming out of but it was coming from an alley and two baby birds hopping across the pavement. This made me stop. Another woman, behind me, stopped, too, and we both looked at the birds, confused.
I bent down and reached my hand out for some reason, like you’d do to make friends with a dog. But instead of running away, the little baby bird jumped up into my hand! I looked at the woman and she looked at me and the bird in my hand. I looked up into the nearby tree to find a nest or somewhere he might’ve fallen from but there was nothing.
I was going to put him down again and let him run loose when I started to imagine cars running him over in the alley or cats stalking him and eating him. So I pulled the bird up to me and cupped him to my chest. “I can’t really take both of them,” I told her. “But I’ll take one.”
The woman grabbed the other bird, who happily went with her and we parted ways. When I got him home my wife rolled her eyes. “I’m not taking care of it,” she told me.
I told her I’d take care of the bird. (I took care of the two cats we used to have, she never touched the cats, the food, or their litter boxes. Why would this be different?) I got a box out of the basement and made him a little house, I don’t think we had an old cage or anything, so that would have to do.
I couldn’t tell what he was. I knew he wasn’t a parakeet or anything from a pet store; he wasn’t an exotic, colorful bird. I thought maybe he might be a pigeon. They say no one ever sees baby pigeons, but maybe this is the exception. He was awfully friendly for a wild bird. He’d let you pick him up and then he’d hop up your arm and onto your shoulder.
My wife had a show or something in the evening, so she left me with my two kids (and the bird) to take care of for the night.
The bird was doing fine for a while, chirping, hopping. But then he started to look weak. He stopped moving and laid there, heaving; his feathers looked matted. I thought he might be hungry so I got a flashlight and went into the backyard to look for worms in our lawn. I thought: bird = worms, so that’s what I’ll do. There aren’t a whole lot of worms in a city lawn but I used to go out at night in the ‘burbs and in La Crosse to look for nightcrawlers for fishing, so I knew how to find them anywhere. I actually found one, exactly one, and brought it inside, cut it up (yeah, yuk) and offered it to the bird. Nothing. He wouldn’t take it. He was getting worse.
For some reason, I called Dan’s wife. I guess I figured she used to work in an animal shelter (before she refused to perform the euthanasia thing and they let her go) so she’d know something about an unknown bird I found in an alley. She couldn’t be sure what kind of bird it was but she suggested I feed it some oatmeal or baby food. I had lots of that. I mushed some up and fed it to him— forcing open his beak at first to get it in there.
And, hey, that did it. A couple of globs of Gerber and the baby bird was back on his feet. When my wife got home that night, I told her the story and she told I was nuts. We both figured, though, that we couldn’t keep the little guy so on my way to work that morning, we stopped by the Anti-Cruelty Society in the Loop and brought the bird up to the woman at the front desk. Oddly enough, they accepted birds and she examined it.
“Do you have any idea what kind of bird this is,” I asked her.
Without a second’s hesitation, she said, “Yes, it’s a chicken.”
A chicken! A chicken? I saved a chicken from getting eaten in an alley by cats. (She said you could tell by their unusual feet: they have three “toes” that face forward with a fourth “toe” that juts out on the side from the third one.) It was four or five weeks after Easter and she figured someone bought cute baby chicks for their kids, then decided they couldn’t take care of them when they got bigger so they dumped them. I had always heard of that kind of thing, but thought it never happened, or happened back in the 40s.) She said they’d take it in and take care of it, most likely it’d end up at the Lincoln Park Zoo but maybe she was just trying to make me feel better.
When I got to work, I happened to tell the receptionist on my floor the story and she said, “of course, that was a chicken, you can tell by that fourth toe— I grew up in Mexico and we had chickens all over. You can always tell by the toe.”
Of course, the 4th toe!
When we’d go grocery shopping my mom would give my little sister something to eat to keep her quiet while she rode in her seat in the cart. A lot of times it was one of those little cubes of Philadelphia cream cheese, in the silver foil wrapper. I don’t know if she’d do that for me when I was her age, but maybe.
The dairy case was right there at the front of the store, I guess, so mom would grab one and unwrap one end. Ellen would be gnawing on it, getting it on her face. By the time we’d get to the checkout line my mom would hand the girl the empty wrapper and she’d ring it up.
When I was in college, down at SIU, I took a creative writing class. I wrote poems, a short story, there might’ve been an essay or two, an assignment every two weeks, I think. Okay, some of it was strained if I remember them correctly, but overall they were pretty good. My teacher told me at the end of the semester, when she gave be a “B” that it was a really a “B+” but “B+”s don’t show up on report cards, so it came out a “B.” She really wanted to give me an “A,” she thought my work was that good, but that she didn’t give “A”s, so it was a “B+” which showed up as a “B.”
The next semester, my girlfriend at the time, my live-in girlfriend took the same class with a different teacher. The assignments were the same, so she just handed in my work with her name on everything. She had no moral problem with this… At the end of the semester, her teacher gave her an “A.” He said she was a really good writer, blah, blah, blah.
I kept trying to tell myself that it wasn’t personal, that maybe my girlfriend got a better grade because the teacher thought: “Oh my God, this woman has such an insight into the male psyche!! She can really write her male characters true to a male’s point of view! Genius!” Or maybe he just had a “thing” for her. Or maybe I just couldn’t get a break.
The diary continues in October 2009...