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!