Three years ago, in the grip of a sudden, near fatal cardiac ‘event’, I was rushed to hospital in an ambulance, only to be taken to a larger hospital system by helicopter. At the time it seemed likely I would need urgent cardiac surgery. As it turned out, I was treated medically, eventually learning, but only after some months had passed, that what had occurred was most likely a viral inflammation of the tissue surrounding my heart: pericarditis.
Within the space of a few hours I was jolted from being a healthy active seventy year old (admittedly a bit tired after shifting house), into an old person, on heart medication for life, who needed to ‘take care of himself’.
Things were very obviously changed. My wife was anxious, and wanted to look after me. That she took the event seriously did help. I definitely needed some care. I was so tired that even a one block walk to the shops was exhausting, and that eroded my sense of autonomy. It was still important to walk, every day, to drag myself off in some direction or other. I went a little further day by day, dragging my feet home one step at a time when I’d had enough, ignoring how long it took. The inevitable question worried at me: how much was ‘enough’? How damaged was my heart?
Various medications were prescribed to kept my blood pressure down, my cholesterol down, and my blood thin. They kept my mental state down as well. Or something did. The common currencies of concentration, being alert, having the energy for a conversation, all seemed beyond me. A writer and lifelong avid reader, I’d read books only to forget them in no time. A couple of weeks after I got out of hospital, someone wanted to know what I thought of God. My reply was that there was no energy available to think of anything that big.
For almost twelve months I took the medication as directed. At a follow-up consultation I was told my heart had no need of such support at this stage. I could go off the drugs. At that same appointment I learned that my cardiac event had probably been caused by a virus. We live with what appears to be an imperfect science in medicine (or is it just as much an art?), often unsure of the total facts, and inclined to deal with probabilities and approximations. But I’m comfortable with that. Certainties seem to be elusive critters found more easily in films and books, but not so often in day-to-day life.
It’s strange that we shifted to within a hundred yards of the St John’s ambulance station in our town only a couple of weeks before I needed them desperately. I regained a semblance of consciousness in the ambulance as it sped along the darkened roads, and again in hospital, where warm hands and quiet voices left me feeling reassured. I was in a safe place. Waking in the night once I was back home in my own bed, some bigger picture than my imagination could supply seemed to mean there need be no fear of the next stage – even if I died. Not for the first time, I had been in a place closer to the next life than to this one. It was okay. In the darkness that is also light, there was no reason to fear. Somewhere beyond the reach of words and where others’ voices were outside my hearing, there seemed to be a resolution I can only think of as spiritual. But then again, I came back didn’t I? I didn’t go all the way.
We are part of a much bigger process than our language can successfully grapple with. We use words like death, yet what we experience is more like change. Our bodies consist of matter which changes ceaselessly from the minute we’re born. And even before that, there is change, just as there is after we stop breathing.
Three years ago I lay on the living room carpet, unaware, and quite beyond the reach of pain. I’m told I had no measurable blood pressure. Today, or should I say in the meantime, I live with the wonder of being able to draw breath on this imperfect planet. Vegetables grow in the garden, and blackbirds create mayhem among the seedlings we plant. Wood which is split for firewood knocks and rings with percussive notes when it is thrown on to the growing heap not far from my swinging axe. It is easier than it ever was to move me to tears with a song. Weather arrives day by day according to some whim of nature, more often than not ignoring the best efforts of televised forecasters. When I go to bed after another day of doing who knows what, I am very aware that in my chest, against my rib cage, thumping away rhythmically, is my heart.
Pat White is a writer and painter living in Fairlie, New Zealand. His work has been published and exhibited regularly since Frontiers Press published his first volume of poetry in 1976. His most recent poetry collection is Fracking & Hawk (Frontiers Press 2015), and a newly-published biography/memoir of teacher, author and environmentalist, Peter Hooper, Notes from the margins; the West Coast’s Peter Hooper (Frontiers Press 2017). Pat’s own memoir How the Land Lies; of Longing and Belonging was published by VUP in 2010.
His exhibition Gallipoli; in search of a family story opens at Timaru’s Aigantighe Gallery, April 2017.