Thank You

Just over two weeks ago, on April 7, my chest was cut open and blocked arteries were bypassed by sections of veins cut from and taken from my legs.  The day before, I experienced pains so severe that I thought this might be it, this might be the end.

Today, I had a follow up appointment with Dr. Stone, the heart surgeon who quite simply saved my life.  Nearly all of the incisions, the several cuts to my legs and the deep channel down the middle of my chest, have either healed or are well on their way to completely healing.  He told me that other than lifting or pulling or pushing ten pounds or more, all restrictions are lifted.

I still have some pain and tightness from the incision in my chest, but even that’s improved to the point that I’ve scrapped all the prescription pain pills in favor of the occasional Moltrin.   I still have ten weeks of cardiac rehab (I go three mornings a week, and am in the middle of my second week) to complete, so I am by no means a finished product just yet.

Still, it boggles my mind how far I’ve come in these fifteen days since I was sliced open.  It’s taken a team of nurses and doctors, led by Dr. Stone, as well as the kindness and support and aid of friends and family.  I owe these people everything, and intend to start the payback by taking the rest of my recovery as seriously as possible. I have no choice -it’s going to take a mighty strong heart to express the love and gratitude that these remarkable people have all earned.

Today is Earth Day, and my normal impulse is to rail against the selfish and thoughtless harm that humans, in their greed and self-absorption, have enacted on this amazing planet. But while those sentiments may be true, this year I’m also aware that I have benefited from the incredible capacity for kindness and caring and love that is the best of human nature, and I’m reminded that we’re all in this thing together. I am convinced more than ever that we can and we will fix this planet, and that we can overcome our petty differences and do what is right for each other.

Whatever I can do to help – well, sign me up.

Sunday Morning

Saturday was hustle and bustle, my daughter home from college for a short weekend, my sister driving down from Oshkosh to visit, my brother-in-law over and doing yard work for me, and my oldest son having flown in from the twin cities. It was a beautiful and warm spring day, the sun shining and the sky blue and cloudless.  In the late afternoon, my wife prepared a big dinner, and my mother-in-law joined us.  And there was laughter and smiles, the whole day was just about perfect, and it wound down into a quiet and comfortable night.

Sunday morning arrived with more sunshine pouring through bedroom window shades.  We woke up and my wife helped bathe me, patting down my sutures, and helping me get dressed.  We were up and about while my son and daughter slept in, and as I ate oatmeal for breakfast, I looked out to the living room to where my wife sat, in her reading chair, the morning sun bright behind her. She reflected and glowed, and it struck me how perfect everything –the oatmeal, the sun, my sleeping son and daughter, and my wife – is, and how grateful I am for this chance to still be among them.

Each day I’m getting stronger. The scars are healing and the pain is lessening. I’m being very careful not to overdo things, not to do anything that would jeopardize a full recovery. I am doing my breathing exercises and taking my medications and following all of the instructions I’ve been given.

I have to be very careful because there are such heavy demands on my heart, there is so much for it to love, so much perfection and beauty to appreciate, that not one beat can be wasted.

Coming Home

Last Thursday, I missed the first big spring storm of the season. It occurred without me, and it left behind a fresh layer of dark green on the grass, and gave birth to flowers that popped up from the softening earth and blossomed and bloomed. It’s an annual rite of passage, the announcement that spring is here to stay, and that the warm air and the music of songbirds will be the norm for a while.

I’d heard the rumble of its rolling thunder in the night, but I couldn’t look out my window to see its driving rain, the puddles that formed on the sidewalks, the sudden creation of backyard rivers and lakes. All I had was sound, the sound of tumult and violence, and the driving waves of rain against my window. Beyond the window was a foreign darkness that revealed nothing to me.

I was far from home, in a foreign place. According to Google Maps, the distance from the hospital bed I laid in and my home was only fourteen minutes by car.  But measured in terms of where I was and where I’d recently been, I may as well have been galaxies away from home.

Home is an apparition, a state of mind, a moment in time, longing, things lost. It’s familiarity and comfort, it’s the aggregation of all we care about and love. It’s illusory and tangible, both real and fabricated. It’s memories suppressed and exaggerated.  It’s sacred.  It’s the place we all hope we’ll return to at least one last time.

Last Tuesday, I had emergency triple bypass heart surgery, after checking myself into the ER on Easter Sunday with bad chest pains.  I came home yesterday after just over a week’s stay in the hospital. There was a period of time that I wondered if I’d ever see home again. In fact, on Monday morning, the pains were so severe that I actually had the conversation with myself, the conversation that asks the questions, what if I die, right here and now?  What if this is it?

During the operation, they cut about seven gashes in my legs, to harvest the vein segments they’d use to bypass the heart arteries that were as much as 99% clogged. The gashes in my legs look harsh and violent, but are nothing compared to the one that runs deep and wide from the top of my chest to my abdomen.  But as I began healing, it became clearer that I would recover and make it home again.

My wife took me home yesterday, in the middle of a bright and warm spring Monday afternoon.  I marveled at how, while I was away, the landscape had transformed from brown and dead winter grasses to the bright green and growing carpet that now covered the ground.  And it occurred to me that a storm that had taken place in my heart had transformed me, too, driving seeds of rebirth and regeneration deep into my moist soils.

Spring is birth and growth, promise and opportunity. Home is the place where these things are realized, where they come into fruition.  Home is the reason for spring, and the place where we rest our souls and nurture our beating hearts.

Main Street

(a very rough draft of a short piece of fiction – needs a lot of work)

I’d see him from time to time, his black hair thick and matted, his beard a gnarled hornet’s nest. He looked to be in his late thirties or early forties. He wore a quilted acrylic vest over a faded flannel shirt, even on the warmest days of August.  He wasn’t small, standing about six foot, with a stomach that protruded beyond his belt.  He would shuffle down the sidewalks, muttering to himself.  Stepping off of or up onto the curb while crossing the street was always a challenge.  He’d get to the end of the sidewalk and stand motionless before lifting a leg and raising a foot to knee level, then take an exaggerated step down onto the street, often times stumbling onto the pavement.  I’d never seen him fall, but his worn and weathered face usually had a scar or contusion on his nose or beneath one of his eyes.

He’d shuffle up and down the Main Street sidewalks on the north side of the street from their beginning at the stop sign at Highway 67 to the west to the A & W that marked the end of the business district to the east. He walked so slowly that it would take him a couple of hours to complete the mile long trek.  He’d sit in the inside dining area of the restaurant for a couple of hours, then he’d leave, cross the street, and walk the mile back to Highway 67, walking west this time, on the south side of Main Street, the whole time mumbling an incomprehensible murmur.

I asked my co-workers at the window factory about the man, and they’d all seen him, but no one knew who he was.  He just appeared in town sometime between June and July, about a month before I moved in to the Mayflower Hotel.  Someone had given him the name “Mister Stinky,” and that seemed to stick. I’d describe him to people and they’d scratch their heads, but when I said “Mister Stinky” everyone knew who I was talking about.

August turned to September and I started dating Amy, the girl who worked in the office. She had dishwater blonde hair and big breasts. She worked days and I worked nights, second shift, so the only real time we had together was on the weekend, Saturday nights.  We spent most of them in Gene’s Place, a neighborhood bar near the factory where a lot of the workers hung out, or The Uptown, the new place on the east side of town that had a dance floor and catered to the eighteen to twenty one year olds.  They had big speakers and an impressive sound system and a DJ who would play the top forty hits of the day, everything from the Bee Gees and Donna Summer to The Cars and The Knack. It was 1978, the time in Wisconsin of the eighteen year old drinking age. I was nineteen and new to town, Amy was twenty and had lived in Neil all her life. She still lived at home and the manager of the Mayflower, Mr. Williams, didn’t allow unmarried tenants to bring girls in, so our intimate time was spent parked in my 1976 Chevy Nova outside the town limits in the dark of County Highway T.

Meanwhile, as far as I could tell, Mister Stinky was gone, just as mysteriously as he’d appeared.  No one knew exactly when he left.  The day came when everyone realized they hadn’t seen him for a while.  I think I saw him once in October, I seem to remember the trees having changed, but it’s fuzzy.

Amy and I started growing apart. Turns out we didn’t have that much in common, and it became apparent that our episodes out on Highway T didn’t have the same impact on her that they had on me. The week of Thanksgiving came and I spent it with my dad at our cabin deer hunting.

She broke up with me on the Monday after Thanksgiving, over the phone, which was ironic, as my apartment in the Mayflower didn’t have a phone.  It started during the day, when I tried to call her at work from the payphone on Main Street.  She said we had to talk, and asked me to call her at home that night from the factory when I was on break.  I did, and she told me it was over, that she wasn’t happy anymore, and that she wanted to date other people.

It was cold that night, around fifteen degrees when my shift was over and I walked out into the parking lot. I was tired and pissed off and feeling sorry for myself, and things only got worse when I tried to start my car and got the clicking sound of a dead battery.  I finally gave up and decided I’d take the thirty minute walk home to the Mayflower, thinking that the cold fresh air would clear the debris Amy and my car had clouded my head with.  It was already 12:45. I turned the collar of my army fatigue coat up and headed up hill on Mill Road into town.

The air was cold and heavy with unfallen snow, but it felt clean and pure. I turned onto Badger Avenue. All of the houses were dark. The sound of my feet on the sidewalks echoed between the gusts of wind from the north.  I was thinking about Amy, about the shape of her breasts and the cool smoothness of her skin, and how that was over, how my fingers would never trace the curve of her back again. We weren’t in love, even in the cold midnight darkness I knew that, but I loved the feel of her body, the scent of her neck.  I’d never experienced such heightened physicality before Amy, and now I couldn’t help but wonder if I ever would again. As I approached the A & W, it started to softly snow.  I turned onto the beginning of Main Street, the sidewalk on the north side. From the A & W, looking out to the west, in the streetlights’ soft glow, I could see all of Main Street stretched out before me.  It was empty, the wind blowing snow dust around on the sidewalks.

I made my way past the auto parts store and the pharmacy, the empty storefronts shielding me from the cold north wind. The clock on the bank said it was 1:15. I was a block away from the Mayflower and home. I was tired and cold and all alone on the sidewalk. I thrust my hands deeper into my coat pocket and studied the accumulating snow on the sidewalk, when to my right, my eyes caught the sight of a shapeless dark mass on the ground in the doorway to Richardson’s Appliances.  I stopped and realized it was a person, a human being, curled up in a ball, his legs and shoes sticking out from under the wool coat he’d tried to cover up with.  I could make out enough of his face underneath the stocking cap to see Mister Stinky, sound asleep in the cold. Curled up like he was in the cold doorway he looked small and slight.  I didn’t know what to do, my first thought was to wake him, but it occurred to me that might be dangerous, there’s no telling how he’d react.

I decided to go back to my apartment and get some warm things.  I ran the rest of the way to the Mayflower and climbed the stairs up to my apartment.  I took the extra blanket off of my bed and my blaze orange deer hunting coat and bundled them up in my arms and ran back down the stairs and out the door, under the red neon of the sign that said “Mayflower Hotel.”

Main Street was still and empty and silent, the snow coming down harder now. I thought I’d let him sleep, and lay the blanket and my hunting coat across him, and then I’d call the police from the pay phone, and he’d be warm while we waited for them.

I got to Richardson’s Appliances, and the doorway was empty. It’d been no more than five minutes since I’d left Mister Stinky there.  I must have woke him, I thought.  I looked up and down Main Street but there was nothing. The snow was coming down harder and coating the sidewalks.  I looked down and I could see my footprints and it occurred to me that wherever Mister Stinky went, in that slow and shuffling walk of his, he’d leave tracks, too.  But the only tracks I saw were my own.

I ran up and down Main Street, looking into every doorway of every locked and darkened storefront, cradling the blanket and hunting coat in my arms, but I never found a track, not a single footprint.  I looked in every alley, every nook and cranny. I stayed out for what felt like another hour, the snow coming down harder, but I never found a trace of him.  Finally, with the bank clock reading 2:00 and the blanket and coat in my arms wet and covered with a fresh layer of snow, I gave up.

I went home and crawled into bed, exhausted and confused, thinking about Mister Stinky, wondering what had happened to him. Did I really see him? I’d decided not to call the cops, knowing that the town’s two officers were off duty at that time of night, and that without any evidence of Mister Stinky it wasn’t worth rousing one of them out of a warm bed to look for an apparition. But as I laid there in the darkness of my apartment, I wondered if I’d done the right thing, if I should have called them. If I really did see Mister Stinky, he was still out there, and it was still snowing and cold.

The next thing I knew it was light out. I looked out my third floor window, and the town had awakened. It was still snowing. People were digging out, clearing driveways and scraping car windows, and out over the river cars were crossing the bridge. The day had begun, and the streets that had been so silent and empty a few hours ago were bustling with life, and I knew that out there, in the middle of it, there was my parked and dead car, and Amy, and Mister Stinky.

I never saw Mister Stinky again, and as far as I’m aware, neither did anyone else.  But I swear in that lonely night he was there, huddled in the doorway of Richardson’s Appliances, and then he was gone. I looked for him in that cold and snowy night, and I’ve looked for him in every darkened doorway in the almost forty years since.

Someday I’ll find him.