Spending a Year Dead

Spending a Year Dead

By Gene Wilburn

I exaggerate, of course, but my past year has had echoes of Hotblack Desiado, intergalactic rock star, who spent a year dead for tax purposes (Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams). Obviously “I Aten’t Dead” as Granny Weatherwax says (Discworld Series, Terry Pratchett) — but I feel I’m back from the dead. Talk about a strange trip. At times there’s a thin line between physical and metaphorical death.

It wasn’t a dark, stormy night kind of sudden event that brought me down. It was more of a gradual seaside erosion — the type where you begin to notice that your living room is now hanging over the edge of the cliff. The view is amazing, but when the pounding of the surf underfoot causes more rumbling in the room than your Bose subwoofer does, it bids one pause. The word precarious comes to mind. So does the word terminal. It was the kind of event for which Siri provides no reliable assistance.

In retrospect, it all started twelve years ago, with a heart attack. It must have been one of the milder varieties because, although I had rather nasty chest pains, I went to a Friday night ROM Song Circle to jam and sing with good friends. I brought along my Taylor twelve-string and had a remarkably fine time. The pain, which I attributed to indigestion, disappeared during the singing, but I noticed as I was lugging the Taylor home via the GO Train, that the guitar in its hardshell case seemed uncommonly heavy.

By the time I reached home I was exhausted and I remember thinking “I’m getting old.” Later that night things got serious and I was rushed to hospital where my triage doc, looking at the portable ECG machine strapped to me said, “Mr. Wilburn, the reason you’re not feeling very well is because you’re having a heart attack.” A subsequent angiogram showed my left arterial descending artery (also called “the widow maker”) was severely blocked.

To shorten the big-bang portion of this narrative, fast forward over the next three ensuing years, and I had two stent procedures followed by an open-heart surgery double bypass to get things under control. That’s when the erosion started.

People made well-meant, cheerful remarks about how the heart surgery would make make me “better than before” and it is my understanding that this blissful state descends like a blessing from an otherwise indifferent universe on many of those who have survived what the poet Alan Ginsberg once referred to as a “cardiovascular freakout.” For me, no such luck.

Although the heart surgery gave me a new lease on life, it had limitations. I noticed that I never regained full stamina and that I tired more easily. Not enough to complain about, but it was there.

But gradually, especially in the past two years, my stamina lessened and I began to get out of breath when doing even mundane things like showering or tying my shoes. Doing something like vacuuming would put me into a nearly comatose condition. I had to sell my heavier camera gear, a lovely Nikon collection, because the weight of carrying it bothered me too much. I opted instead for lighter, more compact Olympus and Panasonic M4/3 gear. That helped for awhile, but even that got to be too heavy.

The worst part was that my walks became more and more curtailed. I couldn’t walk as far and then during the past year I reached the point where nearly any walking at all had me breathing heavily and becoming exhausted.

My family doc, who is an excellent doctor, started scheduling me for tests, starting with a nuclear cardio stress test and an echocardiogram. That was followed by a visit to a lung specialist, breathing tests, and a lung x-ray. I gave lots of blood samples for analysis. The tests all came back negative, meaning that I appeared to be a healthy human being, aside from my mystery ailment. My cardiologist thought it could possibly be pulmonary edema — a built-up of fluid in the lungs due to a less efficient heart and suggested I be put on a diuretic. I tried this but aside from peeing a lot it didn’t help.

The condition worsened. I went to a Friday ROM Song Circle, which is one of my favourite treats in life, but after it was over I became so exhausted I wondered if I would make it home. It knocked me out of commission for two days while I recovered. About the most I could do was help Marion prepare dinners, but even standing in the kitchen left me exhausted for the rest of the night. I no longer went for walks at all. They tired me too much.

None of this helped with my mood. I’m bipolar and my circumscribed condition was making me increasingly depressed — clinically depressed. I began to blame myself and worried that this was all in my head. I’d try to rally. I went grocery shopping and felt exhausted about halfway through the store. By the time I got home and helped put away the groceries, I was knocked out for another two days recovering from the grocery trip.

I was spiralling inward on myself and began to think I was on my way toward some kind of early death. I literally felt as if I were on death row. The only thing keeping my spirits up were my family and my Facebook friends. I spent most of my day online, reading and kibitzing with friends.

Oddly, I didn’t feel anger or despair. I just figured my time was up and I’d go out as cheerfully as I could. I’ve had a good life and there’s very little I would do differently so I figured that if it was about over, I had lived about as well as a human being could expect to. The thing I was most grateful for, aside from my dear wife, was that I could still read and think. I’m a thinking person by nature, and I started reading a lot of philosophy while I still had the time to do so.

Then, just one month ago when I visited my doc for another round at my mystery illness, he went over the cardiologist’s report who suggested that if the diuretics didn’t work, try putting the patient on Monocor, a beta blocker for my cardio system.

The first day I tried Monocor, it was like flipping a switch from near-dead to very-alive. Just like that. Suddenly I felt good again. The feeling continued, and for the past month I’ve started to recover my life.

One of the things I discovered was that forced inactivity had left my body weak. I’m now in self-rehab, exercising and taking gentle walks as my muscles and joints begin to recover their spring and elasticity. Walking, which I’ve always loved, feels wonderful. I can’t go far yet, but I’m improving. I’m much more active in the house, relieving Marion of some of the housework she had to take on during my absence. And my mood has improved drastically. I don’t know if I’m totally out of the woods yet, but I’m hopeful.

The bottom line, as the Terminator implied, is that “I’m back.” And, fates willing, I’m going to the next ROM Song Circle. I’ve even written a new song to introduce to the group.

Deep thanks to the few friends and family who knew about my condition and provided encouragement and support, and extended thanks to all my Facebook friends who laughed at my corny puns and commented on my more philosophical posts. It meant, and still means, a lot. I hope to see as many of you in person as possible now that I’m able to get into the city again.

Life is precious. Let’s all live it to the full!

A Musical Interlude

A Musical Interlude

By Gene Wilburn

I once described myself as “a loner with friends” — an introvert with broadband connectivity. Through Internet forums and special-interest groups, some of the friends I’ve made have been local enough to meet in person. Nowhere has this been more evident than on the Rangefinder Forum. As we discussed rangefinder cameras and film shooting (frequently trading and buying and selling cameras and lenses to each other), we revelled in the glorious sunset of the film-photography era. As more people began to embrace digital, used film cameras got cheaper and cheaper and even I got to experience the beauty and joy of shooting with a Leica M2 with a Hexanon 50/2, and a Leica CL with Summicron 40/2, not to mention a fine bevy of Bessas.

Some of the members of RFF, as the forum is known, began scheduling local meetings of rangefinder enthusiasts. I think the first was in San Francisco, perhaps New York. Not long after, a Toronto meetup took place, and extended to several subsequent meetups as we got to know one another. We found we had more than just cameras in common, and we developed a network of friends around the city that is still thriving.

One of the people I met this way was my friend Guy Steacy, a US draft dodger from San Francisco who came to Canada a short while before I did. We’re about the same age, both tall and white-haired with Swedish ancestry, both with degrees in English, and we were born across the Bay from each other: he in SF, me in Richmond. We both emerged from the era of Flower Power and shared similar tastes in music.

Guy has a good sound system and a discerning collection of LP and CD recordings, and over the past couple of years we’ve begun having meetings of what we call the Bay-Area Boys Listening Society. On a recent Saturday Guy invited me over for some listening and I was delighted to accept.

These interludes are special for me, because I tend to be a hermit and don’t go out often, except for walks to the harbour. Special not just for the music and amiable conversations, which are always a pleasure, but also for the trip into Toronto then the long trip to the east end via the Queen streetcar. I’ve always liked being in Toronto — all my jobs were in the city — and I especially like seeing the parts that are less upscale than the Bay-Bloor area. Another friend of mine, Stan Smith, who was attending the University of Toronto at the same time I was, went back home to Nelson, BC, one time, for Christmas. When he got back he said he just stood on the corner of Yonge and Bloor, “getting off on the traffic.” Some people love cities. I’m one of them, and I’m a boy at heart when it comes to streetcar rides.

Walking up from Union Station to Queen and Yonge, I got on board the 501 to Neville Park and began my journey east sitting in a single window seat where I could gaze out and take some photos. From there Toronto began to reveal itself. The rusty, abstract statue on Victoria St., St. Michaels Hospital, Henrys camera store, Vistek camera store, the armoury, mannequins on the sidewalk, the bridge over the Don Valley, the Riverdale neighbourhood, the Leslieville neighbourhood. Pedestrians bundled up against the cold winter wind, a thin young Asian woman who began singing aloud as her stop approached and continued to sing as she stepped down to the street. Passengers boarding, most of them nodding or saying hi to the driver. Faces that looked lived in.

We passed pubs, convenience stores, meat shops, tatoo parlours, head shops, art design studios, Indian restaurants, coffee shops, cheese shops, more convenience stores, parkettes, a shop that sells whey products, and a gas station. Streetcars passed us headed the other way, filling with passengers even on a Saturday. The 501 line is said to be the longest streetcar ride in North America. Starting at Long Branch, in the far west end of Toronto, you can ride it all the way to the Beach area in the east end, or vice versa. It carries passengers of all ancestral nationalities, many of them conversing in languages other than English or French. All now Canadian, not in the American “melting pot” way, but in the Canadian “cultural mosaic” way.

I got off at my stop and walked the rest of the way to Guy’s place along a narrow, tree-lined street, each house a little different from its neighbour. Some old, some renovated, some newly replaced — most of them two storeys on narrow, deep lots. Cars, mostly compact models, parked on the street. An older neighbourhood, getting more than a whiff of upscaling in the hot Toronto real-estate market.

Guy greeted me at the door, made us a pot of coffee, and we settled in for an afternoon of listening, at significantly loud volume. We both have eclectic tastes, so we started with some Grateful Dead standards, then followed the Dead on an experimental journey through “Playin’ in the Band” which probed the edges of rock music. From there we cut over to Art Pepper and grooved to some “California Jazz.” Since we both like music that is a little unusual, we finished off with the Diga Rhythm Band, a band that included Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. An excellent afternoon of music, conversation ranging from Old English to current politics, and the consumption of many cups of coffee.

Then the reverse trip home, streetcar to city centre as dusk fell over the city and the lights of the city switched on. Toronto — beautiful in the twilight. Back to Union Station and the GO-train ride home where Marion greeted me with a kiss and a bowl of hot veggie chili.

Mick Jagger had it wrong. Sometimes you can get satisfaction.