A Timely Brush with Mortality

Life is what happens when you are making other plans.

–Author Unknown

 

In the end, it had to have been the breakfast tacos. They and the good-natured bantering with the young fellow who made them had become an essential part of my morning, six days a week. There were other factors, of course, and it was a long time coming. But those nuggets of pure flavor from the busy little trailer on South First, equal parts lard, refried beans, bacon, and more lard, were almost certainly what pushed me, finally, over the edge. They were, mind you, really really good, though, and for this reason it is easy to suppose that it might almost have been worth it.

As often happens, the notification that Things Had Changed arrived uninvited and without warning. One early December afternoon I was unhurriedly carrying out a routine task, thinking about nothing in particular, when suddenly I became aware of a sharp pain emanating from both calf muscles. It was the sort of pain you might normally get after a period of endurance-taxing exertion, which signaled that the demand for oxygen had temporarily outstripped the supply, and by the way would you please stop. And if I had been running or lifting weights or pushing something heavy or engaged in any type of hard physical task it might not have even gotten my attention. But in fact I was just walking to the mailbox, and the effort of transporting this body, not particularly heavy, a mere two hundred feet was enough to bring on a pain that was impossible to ignore.

Denial is a many-splendored thing, and mine began working overtime almost instantly, conjuring up all manner of reasons as to why this was no big deal. You’re just run-down; you’re probably coming down with something; you probably got a mild case of carbon monoxide-poisoning from the fireplace; your potassium level must be off. I figured it would go away in a few days.

This insouciant assessment suffered a pretty big hit, though, when a couple of days later, a second, much more alarming round of symptoms descended. It was toward the end of Sunday-morning breakfast with mom, a weekly ritual of many years, when at some point I became aware of a shimmering at the far edge of my peripheral vision. This odd effect, similar to the visual noise you see when you press your fists against your eyeballs for a few seconds, rapidly spread inward until only the central cone of my visual field remained unaffected. The visual weirdness was accompanied by a buzzy light-headedness. Near panic, I realized that I might be having a stroke, and rose quickly to leave, thinking that if I was going to have a stroke, by god it wasn’t going to happen it in front of all these strangers.

But within seconds of standing, the frightful symptoms simply vanished. And everything returned to normal, but for a lingering jittery weakness that faded gradually away over the next day or so.

The visual weirdness did not recur, and over the next couple of months the thing with the legs didn’t get any worse, so I relaxed a little. But it didn’t get any better either, and one by one the excuses I had fashioned fell by the wayside as they became increasingly improbable. With a little research it became clear that I was likely experiencing some kind of arterial blockage of the legs, “peripheral arterial disease,” as it is called.

The leg issues were potentially just the tip of the iceberg, though. If the legs were blocked, there was at least a chance that other vessels, including really important ones like the arteries supplying the heart or the head, were similarly blocked. Was my stroke-like episode a sign of such blockage? More worrisome, was there a ticking time bomb lurking somewhere in my cardiovascular system? a chunk of plaque with my name on it, so to speak, waiting to break loose and lodge in a critical spot, killing or crippling me?

It wasn’t as though I was a physical wreck. For a guy in his mid-fifties who didn’t exercise, ate what he wanted when he wanted, and drank like a fish I was doing really, really well. Sure I had a few extra pounds around the middle, but not even the beginnings of a gut. Resting heart rate of sixty-four, blood pressure one twenty-something over seventy-something. Decent wind. It could have been a lot worse.

My relative healthiness despite years of bad habits was not totally unexpected because I had had the good sense to pick most excellent parents, and for this reason had been blessed with very good genes. But for a couple of accidental deaths, my immediate forebears all lived exceptionally long and healthy lives, and I had always had every reason to expect the same.

The scope of the problem became clear, though, when my girlfriend and I went away for a long weekend to a favorite place deep in the woods of East Texas. The land behind our rented cabin sloped steeply down to a pretty little creek a short distance away, which beckoned invitingly. One afternoon I answered the invitation. Getting down was easy enough. But less than ten steps into the return trip, it became apparent that something was wrong. It was a pretty steep slope, so if you walked directly up it, every step forward also carried you a couple of feet upward. And not too long ago this would have been no big deal. But at this particular moment it was in fact a very big deal. With every step, daggers of extraordinarily intense pain shot through my legs. I gasped from the shock of it. This was not normal. Houston, we have a problem.

Now at this point you might be wondering if maybe it had occurred to me to, you know, see a doctor. And in posing this very reasonable question you demonstrate that you do not fully grasp the power of the Guy Code, which forbids such foolishness if there is any alternative. And there is always an alternative. “I can fix this,” I thought.

Clearly, there was a lot of room for improvement, starting with a laundry list of rather bad habits. Happy hours four or five times a week usually featuring tankards of margaritas and piles of greasy, cheesy nachos. A carelessly indulgent, fat-rich diet. A drinking habit, rooted in pure boredom, that was starting to get seriously out of control. Being under more or less constant stress and doing almost nothing to counter it. No regimen of physical activity whatsoever. A once-active lifestyle gone sedentary.

Ultimately there was no defending these behaviors. The eating and drinking and happy-houring provided some enjoyment, for sure, but if the cost of this minor bit of pleasure was going to be a big hit to my lifespan, it seemed a poor bargain. So I instantly cut way back on the Mexican food and the margaritas, banished hard liquor from the house, and began a program of moderate exercise. Very moderate because that was all I could handle at first.

I began walking laps at a local track every evening. At first, I could only go a hundred yards or so at a time before intense pain would force me to pause. Which was pretty embarrassing, but also excellent motivation to improve. So I ignored the pain as much as possible, kept after it, and within a couple of weeks was able to circumnavigate the four hundred-meter track without absolutely having to stop, which seemed like a major milestone at the time. Though it hurt like bloody hell, it was bearable.

But that’s when the fun really started, because this disruption of corporeal equilibrium came with a cost. I was visited with a wave of new and disturbing secondary symptoms. The visual weirdness of December came back with a vengeance, much worse than before, striking frequently and unpredictably. Hot and cold sensations rippled though my legs and feet. I experienced episodes of numbness in my face and hands. At odd intervals a strangely metallic taste would settle in my mouth. It was a festival of sensory glitchiness.

Much more concerning, though, were the perceptual and cognitive effects. For extended periods I endured the hallucinatory, unsettling sensation of not really “being there,” accompanied at times by the equally hallucinatory, equally disturbing sensation of experiencing the world at a great distance, as though from the center of a deep and dark, enormously expanded self. Light and sounds came at me from odd angles, filtered and distorted. My hands felt clumsy and slow to respond, as though mounted at the end of comically long, spindly arms. Floaters and spots by the dozen skittered like water striders across my visual field. If I turned my head too fast I saw flashes of light. Tasks I had performed routinely many times I simply forgot how to do. At times words, even simple ones, would not come. People would speak and it would take a moment or two to comprehend them. There were attacks of heart-pounding anxiety that froze me in my tracks. Worst of all, but for a fitful sleep there was no escape from the malaise, parked as it was at the center of my consciousness.

I adapted to this new normal as best as I could, developing assorted coping strategies. Out of necessity I also developed a palette of excuses for deflecting the growing number of questions from friends, employees and customers, who sensed that something was wrong and were concerned, even alarmed.

It is at such times that you are unpleasantly reminded of your fragile, entirely organic nature. When everything is working normally it becomes possible to imagine yourself as a kind of idealized being, independent of natural laws, blending seamlessly with the larger world, whose physical manifestations pass straight into you, as light and sound pass through an open doorway into an interior space. Only when your systems start to malfunction do you remember that you are, in essence, a machine, and that you experience the world by way of imperfect and fallible biological mechanisms, which render the physicality of the world into a form that your brain, likewise imperfect and fallible, may understand.

The conclusion seemed inescapable that something was seriously wrong, and it dawned on me that I might not be alive for much longer. The future, once comfortably indefinite, simply evaporated, leaving only the present moment. Of whatever gods controlled my fate I mutely requested one simple favor: Please make it quick. I did not want to linger in some awful twilight state, a burden to family and loved ones, my life over but not yet ended.

Only after the initial shock had passed and the self-pity ran its course was I able to see the thing in perspective. It occurred to me that I really had no right to complain. Because, logically, I should not have been alive anyway, having survived, improbably and by only the narrowest of margins, a close brush with death at a very young age. So every moment since had been a gift. Having never married, I did not have a wife or kids to worry about. There was no long-term plan. Really, I was just marking time. It seemed fair somehow, maybe even right. I had never liked the idea of growing old anyway.

I wondered about the exact mechanism of it. Would it take me in mid-stride or in my sleep? Would I understand what was happening and have a moment or two to reflect, or would I suddenly just not be there anymore, as though a plug had been abruptly pulled?

I told not one single person about any of this, of course. No need to cause a fuss. I composed a farewell note with my final instructions and placed it where I knew it would be found. I settled a couple of seriously lingering accounts and mended a few fences. And I waited for the inevitable. For several weeks running, I went to bed each night fully expecting not to awaken.

But a funny thing happened: nothing. The other shoe never fell, and to my utter amazement I continued to exist. After a time it began to look like maybe I wasn’t going anywhere after all. And since the new program of diet and exercise and semi-clean living seemed to be working out pretty well I kept it going, even taking it up a notch. And gradually, very gradually, the frightful apparitions that had taken up residence in my head began to withdraw. In a matter of weeks I lost twenty five pounds. People commented on this obvious change in appearance. Gee Scott, you get a young girlfriend or something, ha ha?

When you make a major change in your life, people notice. So you have to be prepared to deal with their questions. Most of the time I would meet such queries with a forced smile and a throwaway line. Had to get ready for that centerfold photo shoot, you know. Most people correctly interpreted the obvious bullshit as a signal that I did not wish to discuss the matter, and would let it drop. Those who persisted usually got a terse fallback answer: I had a health scare. Period. But every now and again the look in someone’s eye says “Please let me in.” And in the face of such sincerity you are completely powerless. So you tell them everything.

When you open up about some life-altering event, people almost always take it very seriously. They recognize that in sharing such a personal experience you are expressing trust in them, and likely as not they will reciprocate with some revelation of their own. In mere moments a barrier is breached. A bond forms between you, and from then on you regard each other a little differently. You might even become close friends.

In a typical life there are a handful of truly important dates: the day you enter this world, the day you get married, the day your first child is born, the day a parent dies, the day you die. Today marks the third anniversary of the day I made the decision to fight back against encroaching darkness, and it is every bit as important to me as my birth anniversary because it signifies, in a way, a re-birth. Had I not realized what was happening and made some changes, I do not believe that I would be alive now.

For the time being life has returned, more or less, to normal. A qualified normal, because I am not exactly the same person as before. The vector sum of neural interactions that makes me, me, has been altered, perhaps irreversibly. Though mostly recovered, my memory and thinking have clearly been affected. The physical symptoms, though greatly abated, have not yet gone entirely away. Every once in awhile I catch a faint echo of the scary sensory strangeness.

I am alright with it though, because these things are useful reminders that I am indeed mortal, and can no longer simply take good health for granted. Providence was kind enough to grant me a warning and I have heeded it, gratefully. You do not need to tell me twice.

I never returned to the little taco stand on South First Street. He has probably long since forgotten by now, but for a time Primo must have wondered whatever happened to that friendly and talkative guy who used to stop by every day, reliable as a clock. If I ever see him again I plan to thank him, though, because he did me a huge favor. In a roundabout way, he might actually have saved my life.

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One Comment

  1. I don’t know what to say, I read every word. Your style of writing and way with words surprised me.
    I still don’t know what to say, other than I care, want the best for you. Want to see you shine and be a force in the world.

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