By Jordan Zakarin
“I’m not doing this again,” I said through gritted teeth, girded against the constant rattle of suction tubes laid against my lungs. “If this gets fucked up again, and they say I need this shit again, I don’t care. I can’t do it. Not worth it. What’s the point? Just shoot me in the face instead. Seriously, I mean it.”
“Okay, okay. Shoot you in the face. I got it,” my mom answered, looking up from a book and doing her best to act like she meant it.
But we both knew I was lying.
I wish that wasn’t the case. Part of me really did mean what I said; having just hours before woken up from my second heart surgery in less than three years, I was feeling nihilist far beyond my usual self-defensive, New York writer who got picked on in high school self.
Unless I’m doing it wrong – and there is every chance that I am – the human experience largely consists of days, weeks and months that pass by in blurs, with a few moments, if you’re lucky, memorable enough to make the final edit on a yearly highlight reel.
Open-heart surgery is something you remember, with pain so sharp and recovery so lonely that, when you have operations packed so closely together, the time that you are healthy feels like a brief intermission between rounds in the ring with a heavyweight fighter.
A week or so after that conversation with my mom, after I’ve left the hospital and spent five days alternately popping Percocet and grousing about my disdain for whatever was being discussed on TV or in an overheard conversation, the pep talks began. Yes, I’m hobbling around, sore and bruised and pissed, and things suck at the moment, but an accounting of my life offers plenty of reasons why I should retract the permission to spray my face with bullets: I’m young; I have a lot to accomplish, as I have yet to sell a screenplay and my passport boasts little ink; I should probably fall in love at least once; and for the betterment of mankind (so I tell myself), I need to make sure I pass on my unique blend of self-hatred and egoism to another generation.
The whole thing is an awful enterprise, but maybe worthwhile, assuming they didn’t have to keep cutting me open at such a frequent clip. I have a lot to accomplish, see and do, and my natural curiosity gets me out of bed even when the rest of me feels like it’s been hit by a truck.
At 26-years-old – the surgery fell on my birthday, of course — I was the youngest patient on the cardiac surgery recovery floor, a title I retained from my last visit to the operating table. It’s not an especially high honor, and honestly a bit depressing; old people get bypasses like it’s their job, which it mostly is, since they tend to be retired and Medicare pays for it. But for me, an otherwise healthy and fit guy, to be in the hospital, was plain demoralizing. But it also meant that I recovered more quickly, and the promise of two decades without the need for any more procedures made for a prospectively pretty good return on investment.
On the other hand, I had a few roommates while in recovery; both Neil and Tony were well into their late seventies. What, exactly, did a promise like that mean for them – if they were even given a pledge that long. Maybe, given their advanced years, they had about five years before they would need more surgery. That’s a twilight of infirmity and pain.
So, why were they bothering to go through with it? Perhaps it’s presumptuous to say, but it seems like diminishing returns, spending old age, already a degenerative experience, bound to hospital beds and choked by fistfuls of pills.
Neil is a soft-spoken guy. He has homes in Chicago and Florida, where he frequently played tennis in his retirement community. His wife was by his side as he watched the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee on television throughout the day; and his daughters, who lived in London, were flying in to spend time with him as he continued to rehab. So, he clearly has a lot to appreciate and enjoy in this life – if healthy.
But will he ever be fully healthy again? Maybe his life will be all hospital visits and painkillers. He seemed nonplussed about the fact that he had to piss in a pan, like it was some necessary evil to which he was already resigned.
I don’t know how he’s peeing today, five weeks since I last saw him, or if he’s back to playing tennis. Maybe it’s all good again; perhaps he’s back to his normal life.
I have a feeling that’s not the case. I rushed back to New York, sped up the timetable on my recovery through stubbornness and stupidity, and six weeks out from surgery, I still feel my ribs closing back in on each other, my skin testing the stretch for the climb atop and over the raised bone in my chest, and the battering of my subconscious as a brush with mortality twists my sleeping thoughts into nightmares that jolt my eyes wide open. How could he possibly be even close to that healthy?
The same thing goes for Tony. He was the sort of bastard I found insufferable when I was trying to sleep, and hilarious when I was awake; his snore, assisted by oxygen tubes, sounded like a gorilla scraping its knuckles against the ground, but his wise-guy shtick – chiding nurses and cursing up a storm — brought a lot of needed levity to the room. Especially when his wife spent much of the time on the phone, talking with family members about a cousin or brother who had six months to live, tops, seemingly willfully ignoring the doom in the room she was sitting in.
Listening to her talk was the first time I had really thought hard about the visible end, the collapsed star of life that steadily sucked in those as they grew weaker and drifted further away from the orbit of every day life. “There goes another one,” they say calmly, watching as a loved one is pulled toward the white light, all the while trying desperately to reinforce their own tether to buy just a little more time.
Maybe I’ll think differently when I reach this stage, but I can’t imagine what it’s like to spend those last years fighting pain and repeated carvings, knowing that the solutions are just weak patches on the moors anyway, and that soon enough it will be an impossible struggle against the vortex. Why bother?
I guess any time at all is better than the alternative, but that may have something to do with our fear of death. I don’t think it’s a sign of weakness to admit that it scares the fuck out of me, the idea of all-consuming nothingness, a forever of darkness. But that’s the difficult part to grasp: we’re unaware of that pitch black eternity – it’s not like an infinite boredom in a burlap sack, where we count sheep and regrets and wonder what’s happening in the outside world. Maybe if we understood that, we’d be less willing to suffer, less afraid of dying.
Of course, if that were the case, I wouldn’t have much excuse for wanting to live through all these surgeries, either.
I went to the cardiologist last week for a checkup, and in the waiting room there was a girl, no more than 14 or 15 years old. I overheard that she was there for a consultation, which, as my experience told me, pointed toward an impending operation. And it depressed the hell out of me, thinking what she’d have to go through, the angst and isolation of illness in high school, and the long-term monitoring and follow-up surgeries.
I wanted to talk to her, tell her that really, it’d be okay, but I didn’t get a chance. And now that I think about it, I’m kind of glad I didn’t; I caught her looking my way a few times, and maybe she was wondering why I was there, why I keep seeing doctors and submitting to physical devastation and rounds of nightmares. And if she asked, I wouldn’t have any logical, foolproof answer for her, given what I know, cold and factually, about death.
Maybe now I understand why Neil and Tony kept fighting. You may not feel in death, but the little touches of life can be pretty good.
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