My First Heart Attack

I went home to have my first heart attack. Yes, a whopper of one, possibly fatal, was coming; Dr. Smith couldn’t prevent it but he did pinpoint the approximate day. Besides, coronary types like me always know to the hour the arrival of the fateful event and can make certain preparations, not that these always save us.

My childhood room in my parents’ house seemed the ideal place to suffer the chest-crushing pain and ignominious defeat of the attack, so I headed there. It was better than horrifying my co-workers on the job by being carted off by the life squad while they were trying to choke down lunch, or having the blaring, flashing, truly tasteless ambulance pull up in front of my condo with all my neighbors gawking. In fact I couldn’t imagine dying anywhere, if it came to that, other than the small black-walled cubicle with its plywood schoolboy’s desk and rickety single bed where I had lived as a boy. Life should be a circle, I felt, or as close to a circle as it could be.

I hadn’t been home since Christmas nine months ago, but it wasn’t far, and I drove over at suppertime. I figured I might as well get a meal along with the other parental consolations. I parked on the street in front of the familiar house, and Mom and Dad met me at the front door. Hello, hello. Since I’d phoned ahead they were expecting me, and almost managed to be pleased.  Of course the heart attack had them worried a bit, too.

“Is it going to be fatal?” Mom asked.

“Dr. Smith doesn’t think so,” I said, giving her a hug. “But we really don’t know. You’re aware an emergency call is 911, right?”

“I’m not liable to forget that,” she said. “Just last week I had to call for a baby raccoon abandoned by its mother right in our front yard. Oh, my poor boy!”

“Remember, don’t call until I tell you to, probably not till around ten tonight. We don’t want to waste their time. Hey, Dad. Is that vinyl siding up there?  Looks great.”

“Yeah,” Dad said as we shook hands. “So how are you? Sure you don’t want to go to a hospital right away?”

“Naw,” I said. “I’m fine. For now, I mean. Maybe I’ll dash over to the ER later. Anyway, this is the way it should be. With my family. Dr. Smith okayed it.”

Mom said supper was ready, and I found my old place all set for me at the good old kitchen table where always took our meals. At my request we were eating in. On the phone Mom had suggested eating out, since she and Dad hadn’t seen me in nearly a year and this was their usual night to go to the smorgasbord, as they called the local buffet, but I said no, let’s eat in. I wasn’t feeling well enough to eat out, I said.  But Mom said that was fine, they weren’t really feeling up to eating out either. They both were getting over colds and felt drained. I offered to bring over some carryout Chinese, but mom said no, she’d cook one of my favorites, chops with Tater Tots.

So we sat at the round, uneven-legged kitchen table and ate. Along with the meat and potatoes Mom had prepared new peas, tossed salad, and poured each of us a tall glass of milk.  Good heart attack fare, I thought, and I ate heavily.

“Did I really used to drink milk?” I asked. I could have used a beer.

“Yes, you did,” said Mom.

“And lots of it,” said Dad, who probably didn’t remember.

Mom asked how Mary and the kids were. I’d said on the phone that I’d be coming alone, so I guessed she was wondering how my wife and kids were taking my medical emergency.

“Oh, everyone’s all right,” I said. “Mary and I are working through a few problems right now, and she and Robert and Kimberly have gone to her mother’s to live. If all goes well, they’ll be home in a month. That’s sort of why I came over here tonight. One of the reasons, anyway.”

“Robert used to hit Kimberly so hard, I worry about him,” Mom said. “Boys who treat their sisters like that grow up to be criminals.”

Dad chewed his chop as if he were afraid of nothing. I admired him so much.

“How’s the job going?” he asked.

“Oh,” I said, “I’d like to quit, but until something better comes along, I guess I’m stuck.”

Dad grunted his lack of sympathy.

After supper Mom had a surprise, a birthday cake for me.

“But Mom,” I said. “My birthday’s not for a couple of weeks.”

“Well, we might not see you then,” she said, which sounded true enough. The chocolate cake sat like a small brown castle on a serving tray. Mom had kept it hidden in the cold oven. Her baking days behind her, she had picked it up that afternoon from Charlie’s, the local baker, after she learned I was coming home. Happy Birthday was written across the top in green icing. It had 32 unlit blue candles on it. I had never before seen such an unappetizing mixture of colors. Stuff from Charlie’s had always made me gag anyway, even when I was a boy.

After I helped Mom pile the supper dishes in the sink, she placed the cake and some dessert plates and clean forks in front of me on the table. Also a book of matches. I lit all 32 candles, as mom insisted I do, and then quickly blew them out. The smell of burned wick and hot paraffin was not unpleasant, but it always embarrassed me. That was because, at my childhood birthday parties, my parents used to spank me in front of my friends. I sliced three thin pieces of cake and put them on plates. Mom said she would eat hers later, since sweet things  didn’t agree with her, and Dad ate his only after scraping all the frosting off with his fork.

“Icing ruins a cake,” he said.

No one sang “Happy Birthday,” thank heaven, but there were presents. Golf balls from Dad and underwear from Mom.

“Do you still play?” asked Dad.

“Yep,” I said. “And I still wear underwear.”

When our servings of cake were gone and our forks had rattled against our plates for the last time, I asked Dad if he cared to go for a short walk. I felt if I didn’t breathe some fresh air my heart would fail on the spot.

“Sure you’re up to it?” he asked. I couldn’t tell if he was smirking or not.

“Maybe you’d better lie down,” Mom said to me. Or was she speaking to Dad? He looked about ready to slide under the table with age and fatigue.

I said I was fine so far, and Dad went to change his shoes and find a jacket. I helped Mom clear the dessert plates. I wasn’t much help, but it gave us a chance to get reacquainted a little. I was amazed how quickly she forgot my problems in order to dilate on her own.

“Your father,” she told me as I handed her a plate, “is about to drive me insane. Why a man of his age, and sick as he is, doesn’t retire, which he could do tomorrow with good benefits, but instead wants to take on a brand-new job with greater stress and more money that we don’t really need, is beyond me. Why, he can barely drive the car now, that’s how bad off he is. Twice in the past two months he’s backed into the lamppost at the end of the driveway, so that we’ve had to put in two new ones. I simply refuse to ride in the car with him anymore. I’m thinking seriously about leaving him, the strain on me is so great. But I suppose I’ll end up staying; he’s getting too ill to go on alone.”

“That’s complicated, Mom,” I said. She’d been complaining of dad’s senility for the last ten years, and it was always the same old crap.  She’d never leave him; she was too old herself. Both she and dad were something like 60. Something like 60! That shouldn’t have been old, but in their case it was death’s doorstep. “Your father is ill” had become Mom’s mantra.

Dad came back in the kitchen ready for our walk, so I picked up my jacket and together we stepped outside. It was a chilly dusk, and the old neighborhood seemed peaceful. To judge by the unfamiliar cars parked on the street and in the drives, new families had moved in since I lived here. I doubted that many of those I remembered were still around.

Dad confirmed this, indicating those I knew who had died, moved to retirement centers, or whose children now owned the home. We’d had the identical conversation at Christmas, but it was good to be reminded of it.

“So how do you like your new neighbors?” I asked him.

“Bunch of damn snobs you wouldn’t want to know,” he said huffily.  It was the same answer he’d given over the holiday.

Once we were well away from the house, Dad lit up a cigarette.

“Don’t suppose you’d better have one,” he said with a wink. “Bad for the heart, so I’m told.”

I’ve always hated winks; they’re so conspiratorial. In this case I knew that Mom had clamped down on Dad and forbidden him to smoke in the house ever since his doctor had outlawed his smoking. The real reason he had agreed to a walk, I saw, was for a cigarette, though Mom must have known what he was up to. He would have found some excuse to get out of the house even if I hadn’t been there, or sneaked a smoke in the bathroom. But by suggesting a walk I had played right into his hands. I felt so guilty about this that my heart had a difficult diastole.

Dad didn’t say anything more until he had finished his smoke and tossed the butt away.  Then, as though the nicotine had triggered his speech center, he began.

“You know, lately your mother is of great concern to me. She complains constantly and will hardly leave the house anymore. I don’t dare tell her what’s going on at work. I burned up one of the machines, just let the damn thing run too long, and now there’s talk of laying me off.  Laying me off, when I can retire next year if I want to! Your mother knows something’s up, but I told her I was up for a promotion so she wouldn’t worry so much. But she worries anyway. She’s sick day and night, too. I’m just about at the end of my rope.”

“Gee, Dad,” I said. “I hope the union’s backing you up.”

It hadn’t taken Dad long to forget my problems, either. But then, what was there to say about them, really?

“I’m more concerned about your mother, Son. I’ve thought of leaving her, but what would she do? I come home at night now and she’s sitting alone in the dark living room swallowing aspirin and rearranging her porcelain birds. No, I can’t leave her, but I’m damned if I’m going to retire early and stay home all day with her. That’s what she wants, but forget it. I still have a few years left in me before I take to moping around the house with a sick woman all day.”

“I guess so,” I said. Still true to form, Dad had spoken about the horror of retirement and staying home with Mom back when I was in high school.

After our walk, which even counting Dad’s soliloquy had been mostly in silence, we two joined Mom in the dim living room for TV. While my parents sat on the sofa absorbed in a rerun of The Golden Girls, I wandered around the room looking at the books and framed photos on the shelves, the magazines on the coffee table, and the view of the neighbor’s lit-up house from the window. The books and pictures hadn’t changed in years; even the magazines seemed to be ones I had flipped through in my childhood. They were the archives of my life, and I couldn’t get enough of them.

“You’re so restless,” said Mom. “Is the attack starting?”

“There’s a book on CPR around here somewhere,” said Dad. “If you come across it, hand it over and I’ll browse through it, just in case.”

I sat down on the sofa with the two of them and forced myself to quietly read a news magazine with Gorbachev on the cover while The Golden Girls played itself out. When the show ended Mom and Dad said they were going to watch another. It was only eight, and too early for bed, or would I like to turn in early since I was anticipating a bad night?

“You know, I think I will turn in,” I said. “That’s a good idea.”

“Your room’s ready,” said Mom. And since I hadn’t brought anything with me, not even a toothbrush, she said, “I’ll get you a pair of your father’s pajamas.”

While Mom got the pajamas that anyway I had no intention of wearing, I said good night to Dad who already seemed more or less comatose. He only nodded his head to me without taking his half-closed eyes off the TV. Still conscious at eight, what a drag on his reserves of energy. Mom returned with the neatly folded pajamas and I took them from her with reverence. They were never-in-fashion orange with green dots—quintessential Dad. I headed toward the stairs with the pajamas under my arm, saying I felt tired.

Mom told me to let her know if there was anything I needed when the trouble started. I said I certainly would, that I was counting on her and Dad, and I climbed the stairs. While climbing I placed my hand on my breast to monitor my heart. Nothing unusual yet.

I flicked on the light in the familiar chamber. I always felt all ages when I looked in. There was the narrow bed I slept in from the fifth grade through the twelfth, when I went away to college swearing never to return. It replaced my bed of the earlier grades, which to my memory collapsed and was disposed of when I became ten. It looked less inviting than my queen-size bed at home, but would do as a rack for my pain.

There also was my scarred desk, where the seated high school student nightly translated his Latin. Omnia Gallia est divisa, I excavated from my past, and veni vidi vici.  The old lines were fragments to me now, but I had translated them brilliantly in my day. At  any rate I passed. Barely.

The only thing missing was my old stereo, since I’d taken that with me when I went away. At home I used to put the speakers on two chairs and my head in between and crank up Jeff Beck. What a trip, as I used to say. Now Mom had a glass table of avian knickknacks in its place.

The only other change was that the room was a lot cleaner and tidier than when I lived in it. Obviously Mom went over it at regular intervals with the Hoover and Pledge. Of what use was this space to them now, I wondered. It wasn’t even fit to be a guest room. Why they didn’t remodel it was beyond me, since it made no sense for them to have a schoolboy’s room in the house. On the other hand, they never had guests and didn’t need any extra space, so why touch it?  I had these thoughts every time I looked at it.

I checked my watch: eight-fifteen. Almost two hours left, since I was fairly sure my innards would begin to erupt about ten. Then, who knew, it would be goodbye cruel world. I put Dad’s remarkable pajamas, still folded into a square, on my desk. Then I attempted to sit there in my old chair. Alas, the flabby thighs of early middle age wouldn’t pass under the student’s desk without scraping. Of course I knew in advance my drumsticks weren’t going to just slip under; I performed this same experiment when I was over on Christmas, with the same result.  But I couldn’t help trying again.

Still jammed in at the desk I opened the drawers. These were three on a side, and I pulled open the top right and left, then the middle, then the bottom, closing each pair before descending to the next. Half full of things at Christmas, the drawers were empty now. After fourteen years Mom had finished cleaning out boyhood’s accumulated dross.

Except in the right-hand bottom drawer, way back in the dark and stuck in a seam, my fingers encountered an object I didn’t recognize. I had to bend over and touch it repeatedly before anything came to me. I had also felt it at Christmas, but with less curiosity and no definitive identification. I now decided it was a ribbon awarded to the young athlete for capturing third place in the soccer ball distance kick at a track meet for sixth graders 21 years ago. I refused to pull the thing out to verify this guess, but just shut the drawer; shut, at the same time, its left-hand counterpart. That sealed the desk back up and stopped me from thinking of more school shit.

I sat sideways at the desk to relieve my legs and prepared a thin stick of marijuana, taking the ingredients from my wallet. I smoked it, and thought back to the 11th and 12th grades when I first began to abuse this substance. Usually I smoked outdoors or in cars with friends, but sometimes at this very desk too, late at night after the ’rents retired. Going to bed with a buzz was cool. The beginning of a wonderful habit.

My watch now showed nine. I heard Mom and Dad downstairs move from the living room to the bedroom. Bed at nine! Was it worth living to such a fragile age and condition? I sneaked downstairs to the living room, switched on the TV, and watched part of a Columbo episode at low volume. The TV naturally pulled in those good old shows. Her ears sharp as ever, Mom heard me and came out to see what I was up to.

“Are you all right?” she asked, barefoot in an aged flannel nightgown.

“Oh yeah,” I said.  “It’ll be another hour before anything much happens. Go on back to bed.”

“Are you sure?” she asked. “Is there anything I can do?”

Her pestering annoyed me, and I responded to these questions with noncommittal grunts and yawns. I considered asking her for a spray of Bactine antiseptic. When I was a child she treated every external malady with that spray, and who knew, perhaps my malady was external.  I was sure she still had some of that magic potion around the house, even if it wasn’t sold anymore. She preserved it in a storage vat somewhere. But I wasn’t in the mood for joking. The sensation of a fish swimming through my chest put  me suddenly on the alert. She went off to bed again, and I got back to Columbo. At a few minutes before ten I got up, turned off the TV, and went back upstairs. I had to be quick; from certain soft sounds I heard I knew that Mom, never a sound sleeper, was getting ready to put in another appearance.

In my room I sat, for the first time that night, on my former bed. This produced a great creaking of worn-out springs and a groan from the old wooden frame. I took my shoes off, but didn’t change into Dad’s pjs or turn the bed down. I wasn’t sleepy, but knew the bed was the safest place to be.

At ten sharp the attack began. My heart, as measured by my hand over it, beat terrifically fast, as though it would rupture, then slowed almost to a dead stop. Lightheadedness and nausea accompanied this, and I had to lie down. In this position I commanded my fragile heart to be steady, but against my will it repeated again and again the cycle of fast followed by slow beats. I didn’t know if I was going to survive from one flurry to the next. In my opinion I needed triple bypass surgery at the earliest opportunity.

As the two-step cycle continued, I became sweaty and cold. I thought, as once more my prime mover accelerated to the bursting point, Should I call out? The child I had once been called out, from this very bed too, on many occasions of lesser urgency, when he had a stomachache or simply needed company. And Mom and Dad came charging up the stairs to see what was the matter. During a bout of strep throat, I remembered, I called out while lying on my bedroom floor, where on a hot day I had collapsed after climbing the stairs. I was 13 or 14 then, I called out without hesitation. Well, with some hesitation, since even a 13-year-old is a man. But now I was 32, with a birthday cake downstairs to prove it, and I couldn’t call out like a boyish man though at every moment my heart was lapsing.

And yet, had I not come home to call out? Yes, surely. As a defense against the galloping contractions, I grabbed my childhood blanket and pressed it to my face. This old friend, that I found folded at the foot of the bed as neatly as Dad’s pajamas, gave off an odor I at once recognized.  It was my stink. Or it was detergent, I couldn’t tell. I threw it aside and cried “Mom! Dad! Help me now!” It was a pitifully weak sound that came from me, though, and I doubted they heard me.

But right on cue the life squad came into my room and began strapping me onto a stretcher. Mom appeared in the doorway already dressed, and Dad in his overcoat, bleary-eyed and with wisps of hair floating about his head.

“Forgive me,” Mom said as the attendants began to hoist me down the stairs to the ambulance parked outside. “I waited till ten, and called them when I didn’t hear from you.” She was crying, I thought.

“You’re going to make it,” said Dad.  “I know it. Damn, it’s late.”

“Thanks Mom, thanks Dad,” I said. My parents followed the emergency team and me all the way outside to the waiting vehicle. “I knew I could count on you. And yes, Dad, I think it’s going to go all right. You’ll come see me get settled at the hospital, of course?”

“We’ll be right behind you,” said Mom.

“We’re getting in the car now,” said Dad.  “Soon as we grab some coffee.”

“Terrific,” I said as I was lifted into the ambulance and felt an oxygen mask lowered onto my face. Before the doors shut I saw my parents’ elderly next-door neighbor staring in at me. He had his little dog, a new one, on a leash and was walking it in our yard. I had hated this man and one or another of his repulsive pooches since I was a boy. I caught his eye and sneered, then stuck out my tongue at his mutt. If for no other reason, I would pull through just to keep hating these two.

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