For over a year–no, let me be honest, a couple years–I had been struggling through a too small entryway into each new day, legs becoming more unreliable, arms and hands slower to respond, balance off enough to make me shake my head. I had to avert falling over when stepping out of bed and reaching for my hoodie. The hallway seemed to have contracted, leaving little room for me so that a shoulder grazed, then hit, the wall. I splashed chill water on my haggard face. Put in my contacts and blinked. Stared at myself and frowned. Another morning, another day of something… interesting. Maybe an experience gratifying in some small way at the least and at best, invigorating and even shot through with a brief mystical moment. But where was the get up and go, my genetically-derived indomitable spirit? Come on, I urged myself. Go forward. Complete shower, eat food, get organized.
And so I did. I learned from the onset of life that to fully activate one’s mind and body meant activating one’s will as well. It is the historically American way, anyway. And there was so much to learn, accomplish, and puzzle and even laugh over. Whatever the days and nights brought, a primary rule that powered my living was getting up and going despite days feeling ill or blue or just plain distracted by multiple options. I tell you this so you have the stage well set. I naturally have some less than sterling characteristics, but not sloth. A modicum of eccentricity, yes; a lack of motivation, no. A loquacious complainer at times but not a self-pitying bore when life gets bumpy. And for those of you new to my blog, it is important you know I was diagnosed with aggressive coronary artery disease at age 51. There were nearly zero risk factors for early onset of any heart issue. It seemed a mystery. (See other “Heart Chronicles” personal essays if that diagnosis resonates.)
Anyway, by the start of 2012 I simply “acted as if”–as if I felt energetic, well, able as ever. Unworried. I addressed all tasks at hand and attended to others’ needs. After I quit my job eleven months later (I was done with that situation; I wanted to write), I luxuriated in newfound freedom from twelve hour days as a counselor. Still, I had expected to feel better than this, to fairly leap from bed after soothing hours of sleep. I’d imagined a garden pathway that took me to–well, how cared? Stress levels had finally decreased which was great–less cortisol production equaled less inflammation in the arteries. If I was in a quandary about my life at moments it seemed reasonable: what came after the paycheck that afforded us some nice bonuses? What came after years of assisting others because it fit me well and I, it?
Maybe I was depressed and didn’t realize it. (I was a counselor–didn’t I know the signs by now?) But the fog that inhabited my brain increasingly harbored a voice echoing from an unknown frontier. This isn’t right! I heard, and told it to pipe down. Be calm. That was the way to do it, do anything. Patience, calmness, and thorough assessment of a problem were excellent tools, especially if intuition did not quite cover it. Brainstorming would help but it could wait a bit. Prayer was a necessary ritual. I daily clarified inner and external vision: Dear God, most Loving Light, walk with me and guide me on the path hewn of compassion; keep me humbly grounded in Your power.
I reached for my teal mug but missed it, hand sliding by with just enough velocity to knock it over. I said a bad word. How did that happen? I stood firmly and snatched the tea towel to mop hot liquid off me, the book pile, The Writer and Architectural Digest and my daily list of goals and priorities. The damp pages and pulsing spot on my leg brought a sting of tears. I got up with empty plate for the kitchen counter: made it. I headed to the washer to start laundry. Each armload of clothing felt heavier; my arms began to ache. I turned to the dryer and the effect was forgetting where my feet were. Catching myself as I fell sideways, my hands hit the wall. Steady now.
Another day under the Big Top of life, where the show limped on. I was getting aggravated by it all, chastised myself for not overcoming this trial. It had to be an old vertigo resurfacing as it did occasionally. I took some OTC motion sickness medication a few times a week. It helped but not enough.
I had already injured my shoulder from a fall earlier in the new year. Climbing rocks around Pacific Ocean tide pools, jumping carefully from spot to spot, I had mis-stepped, slipped on a mossy area and could not catch myself. My arms and hands heroically rallied to stop the slide down toward the sea but too slowly. The right shoulder took it hardest. I had been stunned. Not by the pain but by the fact that this was the second time in six months I had fallen at the beach. The other time left extensive bruises that hurt for a couple weeks and a testy scrape. I should have been able to avoid both. There was a reason why I loved the outdoors, had been a figure skater as a youth, loved to dance. I had trusted the strength and agility of my body even as the decades slid by. But now nothing was paying attention to the automatic cues of my biological systems.
A shiver of anxiety, then again the thought was tucked away to ponder another time. I had a life to live and live well.
But no matter how much good rest, exercise and nutrition I got, the symptoms continued. Why was writing checks harder? I had stopped enjoying handwriting cards to friends and family. The pen would not cooperate; the letters were unpredictable, sometimes loping away from me. My daily walk habit–for my heart, for peace of mind–had become more than small adventures. It became a challenge to see how long I could go without stumbling over a tiny buckle of sidewalk, tripping on a twig, stubbing my sneaker toe and nearly falling once forward movement began. Gravity was not a reliable friend. I felt like a barely contained drunk on the loose some days, when I hadn’t had a drink in well over twenty years. I was chagrined.
Marc, my spouse, noted the changes more often and asked me what I thought was going on. I laughed it off. See? I have great reactions ultimately so I don’t splatter all over the pavement! But he wasn’t too impressed.
“You stumble over your words more, too,” he said softly.
“Well, I don’t talk as much as I used to every day. I am not any longer addressing groups, presenting material. I write in solitude so I get out of practice, you know? Besides, I was actually in a coma for a bit there in 1986, remember? I lost some fluidity in all faculties. Took awhile to reset my nervous system.” I half-laughed. It was long ago, something I can mention without horror, anymore.
“Yeah, but you almost entirely recovered. You’ve always had a very fast mouth and a quick brain…” he noted fondly, then fell silent.
I married a bright man. He likes to create his own Sudoku puzzles, design labyrinths, solve logic puzzles. I caught him taking a Mensa quiz; I know it wasn’t that tough. He reads about statistics for fun, which strikes me as arduous pleasure. He is paid to be an expert problem solver. But I didn’t feel like consulting him one bit. He likes to think of me as in overall glowing health, for one thing. I need to stick around. I just did not want him to know the whole scenario. So we kept walking daily and hiking on week-ends. I did my exercises. And danced when alone, wheeling about the living room, feeling a bit like a top out of control. I pushed myself. When things are challenging, overcome them–that’s how human beings do it. I more often slept in later, ate better and less, felt more relaxed than I had in years of working in the non-profit sector.
It had to be because of aging; small changes occur and then voila! you are older than you ever imagined. White hair was finally worming its way into the brown strands, making it a bit curly. Plus, as a woman with a tricky heart I knew I was already enjoying extra years. I decided to take extra care of myself and keep going. Maybe call my cardio guy if my chest started to flash me any warnings.
I embraced writing daily which feeds my entirety, every inch. I stuck to my goals, and soon my poetry began to be accepted once more for publication.
I had been adapting, I realized, to the symptoms for a long time. Rallying human that I am, I adjust a little here and there and fix my attitude. It often works well. Great health had never been a given, anyway, with one chronic ailment with me since childhood. I was writing, learning, discovering. I got to be outdoors any time I chose. I could read all day if desired, listen to music I had long missed. There were people I loved and who loved me.
I had gotten on a boat to a potentially sweeter way of living–perhaps it was “semi-retirement” or maybe a lovely detour–so I wasn’t going to turn around any time soon, no matter the obstacles or risks. I settled in. Then one day I was going up the stairs with a grocery bag in one arm. My legs felt both wavy-boneless and heavy. With a twist of terror I felt myself falling backwards, my hand catching the rail just in time as the bag tumbled down. I started to see the future. It was not looking all that kind.
(Please come back next week for Part 2 of this post.)