I was walking as fast as I could as the incline increased. Perspiration bloomed at my forehead and chest, and my legs were straining. The thundering in my head seemed reasonable: 136 beats per minute and rising. It was hard to talk, so I concentrated on breathing steadily, mouth slightly open to allow more oxygen. I noted the rate of speed– 4.5 miles per hour on a good incline.
“Had enough?” the nurse asked after fifteen minutes.
“I’m getting a bit tired,” I replied, “but I want to–”
“You’re right up there for having taken your beta blocker last night. Did just great.”
And with that she slowed down the treadmill and I had no choice but to jump off, lie down and be still as possible so I could submit to the echocardiogram procedure. I was courteously commanded to hold my breath over and over although I was desperate for air. Breathe quickly, hold again, my lungs ready to burst, the muscle of my heart working furiously. But the beats were even and they slowed gradually. In less than five minutes I was on my feet, breath easy, no pain. Still, I had wanted to go longer on the treadmill, work harder, until I could do no more. How much better could I have managed this time? Had the daily walking in every sort of weather and hiking in the woods on week-ends plus roller skating a few times, random dancing in the living room–had they made enough difference to improve my heart’s strength and overall functioning? Were the arteries still good enough?
“I train for this every year, you know,” I said before leaving the cardiovascular institute staff. They laughed. “Okay, it’s not a marathon, but it’s a little sprint, and I exercise as much as I can. I almost look forward to it–it’s a challenge. See you next week for the results.”
Every year I enter and depart the medical building, my previous visits are recalled. This is not just because I am hoping to mark progress and express gratitude. When I stand in front of the elevator, I can see the hospital where I’ve arrived by ambulance more times than I want to recall. It is also the place where my cardiologist–capable, good-humored, frank, and attentive (what more could I ask for?)–saved my life by propping open a narrowed artery with two stent implants. He has accomplished even more by motivating me to change my thinking about health and well-being.
Still, there is a greater reason I pause at the window. My father was a patient in that very hospital at age eighty-three. He and my mother were visiting four of their children and a few grandchildren here in the Pacific Northwest when he became very ill. He had already survived a heart attack when he was seventy-one and had managed well enough in the intervening years. But the quadruple bypass he ended up having during that visit did not go well. Although he was released from the hospital, we all knew he was not long with us. The day the procedure dramatically failed, I sat with my arms around him, listening to the siren wind up the hills to my sister’s house. The EMTs had to pry my arms away. We had all gathered to spend time with him; our beloved father passed not long after.
I never imagined I would need medical care for heart disease, and at the same place (did we have the same operating room? I anxiously wondered one time). Return to the building next door year after year. Gaze out the window. Ponder us both, father and youngest daughter.
My father’s heart: it lives on within me. It is not the illness I refer to, but, rather, the ways in which he has influenced my walk through this world. Lawrence Guenther was a charismatic, public man who was well-loved as a musician, conductor, music arranger and educator, and as a person. Our house hummed with students who came for private string lessons. He tutored five children, including me, in the discipline and wiles of classical music. The phone rang constantly as people sought his advice or asked whether he was free to play in another quartet, at a church service, for an operetta. I used to complain of being his secretary after my siblings were gone, taking messages, checking the wall calendar. Which night was symphony rehearsal? Which Saturday morning was free to make extra money tuning a piano? When could he appraise a great-grandfather’s fiddle found in a dusty attic?
But of more significance to me were the activities in which he engaged that allowed casual, closer proximity. A man who had a keen interest in sciences, we enjoyed naming the constellations and discussing ever-changing landscapes explored during summer vacations. Later, when my parents travelled abroad, he excitedly shared slide shows, and I thrilled to the images of grand cathedrals as well as narrow sides treets packed with people of many cultures. He had a great curiosity about the mechanics of things, whether it was a sailboat, stereo system or toaster, or anything with wheels that he could repair and drive–from motorcycles to a three-wheeled foreign car to well-used bicycles. I recall riding to school on the back of one of his motorbikes. He was dressed in his suit and tie. I held his briefcase in one hand and hung on with the other, my hair streaming and skirt riding up, enjoying the stares of my classmates as we pulled into the parking lot.
A person who loved games and puzzles, he created several of both. We snatched time to play dominoes, Scrabble, Chinese and regular checkers and card games. Naturally competitive, he held me to the rules and made me work for every “win.”
He had a tiny basement repair shop I loved to visit. The sounds, smells and sights were exotic to me as a child. People brought their stringed instruments with hairline fractures in lustrous wood, or brass and woodwinds in need of refurbishment. His specialty was working with violins, violas, cellos and basses. Watching his long-fingered, ambidextrous hands at work was a comfort, no matter what work they were about. I would lean close into the pool of workbench light as he evaluated, by listening, touching and using discerning vision, every telltale sign and symptom. The glue-pot simmered; he also repaired bows, re-hairing them with care. He explained what he was doing and why. All the work tools of his trade were lined up on a long pegboard, and I handled them carefully, putting them back. When my father was finished with a violin, he hung it on a clothesline strung across a larger room and we would admire the burnished wood shining under the lights. And he would play each instrument to make certain music issued forth just as it was intended. It would send a frisson of happiness through me to hear it made right again.
I can see him at the head of the dining room table, the table cloth set with iris-adorned china and lovely crystal water glasses. He would reach to hold my hand and another’s, and say a simple prayer of thanksgiving. Throughout the meal he might talk a bit about a concerto mauscript he was studying or upcoming arts events, share a joke from Reader’s Digest, quiz me about classical music playing on the radio. But most of the time he wasn’t one to waste words. In fact, they were often fewer than I would have liked. Yet it was what he did, who he was, that made such a difference.
Once when I was a youth I told him how much people valued him, as I wondered if he really knew. I shyly shared that one person even said he was “a great man”. He was silent a moment, and then quietly answered, “True greatness comes from humility. So I would hope to be known as a humble man, and as someone who dedicated my life to what I love.” I felt his embarrassment, so left him and found something to do, but I understood well and never forgot.
And I was certain what he loved: God, my lovely and strong-willed mother, the children and extended family, teaching and making music. The mysterious universe. Small adventures. Learning. Being kind if at all feasible. I watched him and learned: beyond our shared heart disease and despite my struggles to live well, my father’s heart still guides me. He set the bar high; I work towards reaching it in my own way.
Next week I will return to Dr. P’s office and learn the results of the stress echocardiogram. I will linger at that window in the hallway, think about my father and hearts that have faulty mechanics. But I will remember his love, and then move on.