I have some old friends who have known me since I was seven. I phrase it that way because they were already adults at the time, an unknowable and inscrutable breed to a seven year old. We became friends a good deal later. So when they told me they were coming into town I was pretty excited about seeing them. Even when they suggested we meet for breakfast over on the coast “at seven thirty.”
I should mention here that normally at seven thirty I am just beginning to contemplate getting up. (I work late.) In order to be out of bed, cleaned up, and all the way over to the coast by seven thirty I would have to get up by…Oh, my God!
So I was not quite myself as I wrapped myself around my first cup of coffee. In fact, my body was still struggling to adjust to the shock of being up, washed, and dressed at six thirty when the phone rang…another shock.
I already knew it was going to be my friends announcing a postponement of breakfast. I also knew it meant my traumatic arising was completely unnecessary. Even before I heard the voice on the other end I was getting reflexively pissed off.
And I was right…sort of. The voice on the other end was, indeed, the lady of the couple. And, yes, she was announcing that they would not be able to meet me for breakfast as planned. But not for any feeble, how-dare-you-put-your-convenience-above-mine reason.
Ed had had a heart attack.
Thump! My heart dropped into my stomach and the little boy part of me started to gibber in panicked fear.
They had called the ambulance around two A.M., she explained, and they were still in the Emergency Room down at Kaiser. Blood enzymes confirmed at least a mild heart attack, but they were still waiting to find out what was going to happen next.
As I drove down, I thought how that confirmed what I had heard about Kaiser. They had a reputation for being a slow and impersonal bureaucracy at the lower levels with topnotch specialists if you ever managed to get that far. This episode had started about two A.M.; it was now going on toward seven and they were still in the emergency room.
Not that they had been abandoned in the ER. Ed had been treated while he was waiting and was nicely hooked up to a couple of medication drips and a heart monitor when I arrived. Kaiser had already decided that he would have to stay over for observation, and were just waiting for a room. Three hours later, we were still waiting for that room.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that Ed gets a first rate cardiologist who not only cares about his patients but can speak clear and concise English to the family as well. They are doing a full blood work-up to evaluate the severity of the heart attack. Chest x-rays have been taken and are being assessed. Meanwhile, he isn’t going anywhere for a few days, so we had better start letting people know.
I watch the ripples go out.
A luncheon date scheduled for that day has to be cancelled. A list has to be made up of other appointments planned over the next few days. They all have to be notified. A local grandson takes time off his brand-new, first-time lawyer’s job to come down and sit with us. Their first son is on an RV vacation. His itinerary is adjusted to add San Diego as the next stop. Their second son flies down to help. Their daughter has to be talked out of aborting her last nursing school term to fly in, too. There is a cruise planned for the end of the month: better cancel that, too.
The doctor announces that tomorrow they are sending him to Scripps Memorial for an angiogram. Good news is Scripps has best cardiology unit in the county. Bad news is the fear about why he needs the best cardiology unit in the county.
Next day, lots more waiting for the angiogram. Finally the cardiologist comes in with more bad news. Ed has multiple occlusions and needs surgery. Like tomorrow. The doctor will make all the arrangements once he has persuaded one of the most difficult human beings God ever made that the surgery is really necessary. (Better him than me.) Lots more telephoning to bring everyone up to date and re-convince daughter to finish her school term.
Back to Scripps the next day. Surgery is going to take many hours more. Back to the office to try and get some work done and wait for the phone call. Finally (after eight) it comes. Surgery went OK, Ed is fine, but they had to do five bypasses.
Next day Ed looks surprisingly good (ignoring the massive chest incision mark and the others running down both legs). He is already arguing with the staff about his medication. This is a good sign.
Day after that he is sitting up, refusing pain medication and complaining that the food tastes really lousy. A nurse friend informs me that he is a “Cabbage Five.”
Turns out inside the medical profession they abbreviate his surgery as Coronary Artery Bypass Graft (CABG – pronounced, with a stunning case of tone-deafness, “cabbage”). As he had a quintuple bypass, he is now a CABG Five.
More news: First son has had a hydraulic line blow on his RV’s transmission somewhere in Northern California. Since he is a marine engineer, he was able to fix it himself and they are now back on the road, coming down.
Next day: Cruise has been cancelled. All insurance companies informed. More relatives called. Ed looks even better, but nurses are worried he is not eating. We blame Ed for being so fussy. “Mended Hearts” (support group of heart surgery veterans) volunteer informs us that one of the side effects of the surgery and anesthetic is that food tastes really strange (bad) for as long as a month.
After another breakdown on the RV, first son arrives with significant other and some friends who had been following him down the state in their own RV. They are surprisingly nice about having their own vacation plans tossed into the air, but the ripples continue to spread.
I haven’t seen this many of the family together in years. We all go out for a reunion lunch. Ed demands we bring him back a cheeseburger! We suggest as gently as possible that perhaps that is not the wisest diet after open-heart surgery. Nurses tell us to bring him anything he wants. There is obviously something to be said for being difficult.
As I write this, they are scheduling Ed’s release for today or tomorrow. A day or so more and they start a leisurely drive home, chauffeured by second son (doctors veto flying). First son and friends are taking off to finish their vacation. Ed’s prognosis is good, provided he can be convinced to change his diet and exercise. Happily, that is not my job, so I can fall back on simply giving good advice.
As I come up for air, it seems as if all this turmoil in all these lives ought to tell us something. Uh…what exactly?
Beats the heck out of me.
Oh, sure, we all got the whatchamacallit scared out of us and lost a good bit of sleep. We all had our schedules turned upside down and became acutely aware of our own bad eating and exercise habits and found ourselves paying attention to our own heartbeats. Probably most importantly, we were all reminded of how frail life is and how precious are our connections to one another.
But today, I am most acutely aware of the suddenness of it all. Each of us resides in a normally unnoticed network of people all depending on things going along pretty much as expected. We are all tied to each other, but as long as no one yanks on the threads we can ignore them or rely on them or at least assume they will be predictable.
All of a sudden there is this explosion of contingency and we are all thrown. Some things are immediately changed. Some things suddenly can’t be changed: they have to be set aside to await events. On the one side there are suddenly so many things to do. On the other there is nothing to do but wait.
Maybe it’s supposed to remind us of what John Lennon used to say: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.