Still Beating Heart

Aortic Root Replacement I’ve been thinking a lot lately of a Christmas I spent some 23 years ago. It’s hard for me to believe it’s been that long, but that’s the funny thing about time–it passes both slower and more quickly than we think. 

I spent Christmas of 1993 in the Intensive Care Unit of Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. I had just underwent Aortic Root Replacement surgery and was recovering. Essentially, I had part of my aorta replaced, including the valve itself, with plastic (Dacron, specifically). This was due to complications associated with Marfan Syndrome–my aorta was starting to rupture all on its own and it need reinforcement before I had a full-blown “dissection.” Such an event was what had killed my father at the age of 37. They had determined that unless I had this surgery that I would probably meet the same fate–and possibly sooner than my father did. 

I don’t remember much of actual Christmas Day–I spent most of my time sleeping or on morphine. I vaguely remember some family visitations. I do remember being thankful to be alive. I remember that much. 

I spent the days leading up to the surgery getting as many presents for the people I knew as I could with my meager income–I was a pizza delivery guy at the time. In the back of my mind I felt like this might be my final gift for them and I wanted it to count for something. I tried to play off my nervousness and fear, but secretly I wondered if I would survive this. I had never even had minor surgery before, much less open heart surgery, and I feared the worse. 

I had nightmares of waking up in the middle of the procedure. I imagined myself dying on the table and the grief of my family and friends. But outwardly, i kept my calm. The day of, as they prepped me, I “joked” that I wasn’t ready and wanted to go home. I wasn’t really joking. 

But–everything turned out fine.

I did discover that I have a low tolerance for anesthesia, though. I woke up while still intubated and kind of panicked but things were fine. Later, they had to take me in to drain some fluid off of my heart. I woke up as they were finishing that too. They told me to go back to sleep. Later still, they had to implant a pacemaker and I woke up in the middle of that. Luckily, a sheet was up between my face and chest and I asked if I should be awake and I was told “No” and was put back under.  

Eventually I was taken out of ICU and went to a regular room. There I had to get up try to walk down the hall as part of my recovery. That was one, long hall. I also had breathing exercises to do. I finally got the hang of it and eventually got to home. It was 1994 by then. 

And here I am, 43 years old and still recovering nicely. I see my cardiologist regularly and make sure I have no more rupturing. I’m on more medications than I care to mention, but I’m alive and my quality of life is nothing to complain about (though sometimes I still do). 

I am grateful for the surgeons and nurses at Presbyterian that took such good care of me. And to my friends and family who supported me while I was down during that time. Without them I wouldn’t have found the motivation to persevere. 

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For Goodness Sake: A Christmas Trifle

santaHere is a little Christmas ditty I came up with. Hopefully you enjoy it. — The Management

For Goodness Sake

I

“Where do you get the ideas for your stories?” she asked him, her eyes bright over the lip of her champagne glass.

It was a question he got often and he often grew tired of. But she was pretty and seemed genuinely interested so he bit off the first smart-assed remark that sprang to his lips and merely grinned mischievously.

“That would be telling,” he said, and winked.

She chuckled appreciatively and the conversation moved on to other topics, though they each maintained their flirtations and left together after the Christmas party came to a close.

II

He sat at the keyboard and fumed. This was the fifth time he had deleted this file and restarted. Nothing was coming to him now. Nothing at all. At least the past five times something came, however shitty. But now, nothing.

The blank screen shouted at him. YOU’RE A HACK. YOU’RE A FAILURE. YOU’RE NOTHING. He got and up and went to the kitchen. He took down some scotch from the cabinet above the fridge and poured himself a glass. He downed it in one. He poured himself another. This one he nursed a bit.

He had a contract and a deadline and no time for writer’s block. He looked at the clock. It was 10:00 pm. Tomorrow was Christmas Day and his manuscript was overdue. He’d get no work done tomorrow—he was due to be at his brother’s house and couldn’t let him or his family down. No, he had to finish tonight. But he was tapped out.

He took his drink and went to sit in the living room. He turned on the television. It’s a Wonderful Life was on, of course. He sat down and started watching, dozing off as a despondent Jimmy Stewart began to see how the world was different without him in it.

III

It was the smell that woke him. Pine and cinnamon and just a hint of leather. A strong smell, almost like a cologne. He blinked, bleary-eyed, and tried to pry his tongue from the roof of his mouth. Twilight was peeking in through the blinds. The television was now showing an early morning Mass.

He rose from the chair, stretched and looked at the clock. He had a little bit of time before he had to get dressed. Perhaps he could squeeze a bit of work in—if he could get some inspiration. He plodded to the office and stopped short of the desk, peering at it in confusion.

Sitting on top of the desk was a small package, wrapped in bright red paper with a green ribbon.

He cautiously approached the desk and picked up the package. He put it to his ear and listened. It wasn’t ticking. It smelled faintly of that cologne he had woken up to. It had a tag attached to the bow on top. It was addressed to him from Santa Claus.

“What the hell?” he said, incredulous. He set the package down and went and checked his front door. Locked. His alarm—armed. His apartment was on the 7th floor. There was no way someone came in through the window.

He returned to the office. He picked up the package and then shrugged. He started carefully unwrapping it, revealing a neat box. Inside the box was a leather-bound notebook. Embossed on the cover was a rendition of Athena springing forth from Zeus’ head.

Curious, he flipped through the notebook. Inside, in a neat handwritten script, were story ideas. Good ones. The very first one listed would get him out of his bind with his current project.

When he got to the end of the notebook, there was a circled note: BE GOOD.

He blinked.

And then he laughed.

He set the notebook down and went to the keyboard and started typing.

IV

“Where do you get your ideas?”

He inwardly groaned at the reporter beginning the interview with such a clichéd question, but did his best to not show it in his expression. He smiled tightly and said, “Santa Claus.”

The reporter frowned. “Santa Claus. I see. Like Bradbury getting his ideas from Schenectady. Cute.”

He shrugged. “Take it as you wish. You can quote me.”

The reporter recovered from this initial setback and the rest of the interview was far more insightful. However, the subject was never less than honest.

V

Success is a funny thing. It has an effect on the memory. Its beneficiaries often forget what brought it about and who lifted them up when they were down. Complacency and comfort often take the place of compassion and consideration.

He had achieved all the success he could dream of. He was a bestselling novelist and short story author. He was the toast of NPR and other media outlets. He had a huge social media following. He was a frequent guest on late night talk shows. There were even bobble-heads made in his likeness—how many writers could claim that?

But he was lonely. Oh, there were women—fans, mostly. But just fleeting hook-ups and chance meetings. His friends had dried up. He had become acerbic and sarcastic to the point of insufferableness. He didn’t have time for family gatherings any more—too many “gigs” to attend in the city. Career-wise, things couldn’t be better. His social life was busy. But emotionally, he was empty as a drum.

But he was worried now—he had reached the end of the notebook. But surely, he could come up with more ideas on his own. He was a writer, and a damn good one, before his gift. Besides, Christmas was coming soon. Perhaps Old Saint Nick would come through again for him. He’d been good. He’d given to all the right charities. He’d appeared at all the right functions. Surely, that counted for something.

VI

He arranged the bottle and the cookies again on the sideboard and decided that it would do. Twenty-year-old scotch and gourmet cookies. Only the best for Kris Kringle. He went back into the living room and decided to watch television for a while. He was too keyed up to go to bed just yet. Too much was riding on tonight.

All of the ideas in the notebook were played out. And he had tried to go on his own but he was tapped. He sat in front of the screen for hours and nothing came. The well was dry. Last night he wept and drank himself to sleep from frustration. He tried calling his brother, but his brother had been away at his son’s Christmas pageant.

Now, he was desperate. He needed a new notebook. He needed a visit from Saint Nicholas to save his career and the world he had built for himself. With these thoughts dancing in his head, he dozed as the television played George C. Scott acting out Scrooge’s redemption.

VII

He awoke once again to that peculiar cologne. Swallowing hard, he blinked and rose from the chair. He went over to sideboard. The cookies were gone, but the scotch was untouched. Shrugging, he walked to the office. He walked slowly, almost afraid of what he would find—or not find—there.

Sitting on the desk was a small package wrapped in red paper and wrapped in green ribbon.

Wide-eyed, he rushed to the desk and started ripping apart the paper and tore open the package.

Sitting inside the small box was three lumps of coal and small hand-written note. In a familiar script was written, “I said BE GOOD. Remember what is good in life and you will remember what to write. Santa.”

He picked up a piece of coal and stared at it. Then he closed his eyes and laughed, tears streaming down his cheeks.

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Post-Election Day Blues

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As I watched the returns come in last night, my heart continued to sink. I just couldn’t believe that my countrymen would allow this man, this mountebank, to have the reins of power to the most powerful nation on the earth.

And, yet, here we are.

Part of me is unsurprised. I live in a “red state” after all and there is a lot of anger here at liberals who are “gonna take our guns.” Not a lot of love for the Clintons or “Obamacare” here either. But I really hoped that my neighbors would see through this charlatan and recognize him for the narcissistic bully that he is.

But that didn’t appear to happen. Or, at least, it didn’t appear to matter.

Because people wanted a “big change” in Washington. Something different. And L’Orange represents that. In a big, bombastic way. Nevermind the sexism. Nevermind that he’s been endorsed by the KK-flippin-K. He’s different. He’s anti-establishment. He’ll “get things done.” What’ll he get done? Oh, never mind the details. We’ll get to that later. As long as he’s not an insider. Never mind that he’s the ultimate insider. He’s a billionaire for crissakes. He’s got to be an insider.

But part of me is utterly shocked. Appalled. How could we do this to ourselves? Can’t we see what path we’re taking? The highest executive of our fair land is a raging misogynist, a causal racist, and a habitual liar. He may even be a sexual predator. But that’s okay as long as he’s not a Clinton. As long as he’s not a liberal. That’s the message we’re sending?

I just don’t understand. I thought we were progressing in this country. Now it appears that we are regressing and in a big way. I am saddened, angry, ashamed, and confused. I have friends and family in marginalized communities that I literally fear for their quality of life. I have had my candidate lose elections before and have been disappointed. This candidate’s win frightens me. I have never been in this position before.

All I can do is wake up each morning with the willingness to do the best I can for my neighbor. And hope for the best. Be vigilant. Watch for the signs of tyranny that are sure to come and fight. Use my privilege to protect the underprivileged. Use my voice whenever possible to speak against the over-privileged. Use this as a lesson to make sure things don’t get worse.

Because no matter how bad I think this is, it could certainly be worse.

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Goodbye, Old Friend

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Yesterday was one of those days where it really sucks being an adult.

A hard decision had to be made, and my wife and I had to talk about some delicate subjects, but in the end, there was only one humane choice to be made. Elspeth, our 15-year-old cat, had developed a growth in her colon that was growing quickly and was keeping her from passing wastes. It caused her a lot of pain and was keeping her body from functioning correctly. Surgery was ill-advised due to the location of the growth and her advanced age. Letting it be would cause her to have to be brought in weekly to have the wastes extracted, a process that was stressful to her body as well, and the pain caused by the tumor would not be lessened.

We opted to end her suffering.

We spent a last half-hour with her, caressing her, telling her goodbye, and then we let the veterinarian do his work.

We got Elspeth back in 2001. My wife and I had been married barely a year and were living in a small apartment. The pet deposit for the complex was $600. We got a $600 tax refund from President Bush. It seemed to be fate. We paid the pet deposit and went to the animal shelter in Coppell and brought home a tiny tortoise-shell ball of fur. We named her Elspeth after a character in Mercedes Lackey’s “Arrows of the Queen” series.

Elspeth of the books was a bratty princess who grew up into a wise queen. Our Elspeth pretty much stayed in a perpetual bratty princess phase. She was cranky, prissy, and aloof most of the time. And she could carry a grudge–she never did forgive us for getting a second cat. But she was also affectionate and spunky at times. And she often comforted me when I went through a bout of illness.

Elspeth loved blankets, kibble, and men with beards. She disliked ceiling fans, children under 18 years of age, and any food but kibble. She tolerated Vladimir, our other cat, but was not afraid to make her displeasure known.

She was the “Fat Brat Cat,” “Fartsblossom,” and “Fattykins.” She was “Old Bitty,” “Fatticus Bratticus,” and “Baby Kitty.”

She was my friend and I’m going to miss her.

 

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Depression Is a Thief

untitled-3Depression is a thief. It robs you of the ability to sleep. The ability to tell time. The ability to work, spend time with friends and family, and to see yourself for how you really are. At least, this has been my experience.

About three years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I have been on medication to help treat it, but it doesn’t always help. I still have bad days–sometimes bad weeks. Awhile back I had been having a really hard time with it. I missed work. I isolated myself from the world. Finally, my wife and my psychiatrist suggested I get more help. So I checked myself into a partial hospitalization program.

The program was very helpful. It was comprised of visits with a psychiatrist, an education course, and daily group therapy. I was also required to set myself up with an outside therapist for further treatment once the program was finished. I had had a therapist before, but we had thought I had gotten all I needed out of it before, that I had “graduated” therapy and would only need a psychiatrist. I kind of blew that.

I’m now several months out of the program and things are going better. I’m still in individual therapy, but it’s a good thing. It helps.

I have finally shared some of the details of my illness with my family and my close friends. It was hard, but a necessary part of my therapy. Believe it or not, in my private life, I’m not much of a sharer. But I share this not as a confession, but as a invitation.

If you are feeling alone and depressed, seek help. Don’t shut out your family and friends–anyone who you know cares about you when depression isn’t lying to you. Get professional help if you need it. But don’t let it eat away at you. Don’t let it steal your life away. You’re far too important to let that happen. Keep the faith. Keep fighting. Be, as the Bloggess says, “furiously happy.”

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