Lamp Lighting in a Darker World

The Lamp Post in the City by Erik Hennigsen, 1897
The Lamp Post in the City by Erik Hennigsen, 1897

As Pacific Northwest rains subdue the palette of nature, I find the light that much more remarkable. It flares, retreats, accumulates in small places, bores through density of fog or shadow in a brilliant beam. It pools about treetops and people in opalescent auras when least expected. And it seems to hide for long periods. Though grayness leaches warmth from our emerald green, I know the sunlight is there. I am heedful of its oft-ephemeral illumination, discover it in watery reflections, the clinging air, a wind-upended sky. Although I am at home in shadow and dark (both are gradations of light in my thinking), the light calls me.

I have often felt my living is a motley, persistent series of advancements toward greater light. Toward more expansive and intriguing horizons than the one left behind. The locomotion is naturally not always rapid or connect-the-dots forward movement, but it incorporates motion even in apparent stillness. As we live and breathe, the body, mind and soul effect a rhythmic synergy. And both literal and figurative walk/run/pause/walk/run/pause includes this very moment, a kaleidoscopic experience. Aliveness offers such creative largess.

Humans are such restless creatures. So much to be explored, embraced, utilized, redesigned, discarded. We feed the engine of curiosity even in rest and sleep. And the soul seems to circle ’round us, waiting, when we are not attentive to its well-being, too. My belief is that Grace interacts with free will as we construct and inhabit our lives. (Note a meaning of synergism defined in my old The American Heritage Dictionary: “2. The doctrine that regeneration is effected by a combination of human will and divine grace.”)  I awaken from the refueling and instruction of dreams, sort their meanings, get up, seek what may be next. I start the day with optimism tempered with prudence.

I do not think often about the past, nor the future. Intellect, intuition and feeling guide me in daily choices. I believe God also stirs us, beckons us. And moves between and within our global and personal spheres–and far beyond.

But for some time I kept setting up camp in the past, no matter how far I had come, regardless of updated versions of reality. Magnetically sly, the past would pull me to both nostalgia’s perfection and various brutal remembrances. It is said that familiarity is more secure even if not good for us. Perhaps that is so, otherwise we’d be moved to improve more, faster.  Still, I looked backwards to better gauge where I ended up, to help determine where I wanted to go. It was inefficient at best, self-defeating at worst. There was, I found, relief to be had by remaining in the moment. And more than that, ubiquitous opportunity for change. There was no time to waste on what had gone before. I started a new habit of pulling my mind from past to present by attending to what was in front of me–the work, the play, the person, the place.

The future is much trickier to manage. Even with decent foresight, with calculations to gauge odds and extensive history to inform decisions, I find myself unwilling to predict much of any significance. Experience tells me very little I imagine for good or ill will be quite as I imagined it. It is often, in fact, another thing altogether. I prefer it that way. I cannot think of life without wide-ranging and unknown factors. What motivates me is having expectancy, not of something in particular, necessarily, but of just something. I always want to know what’s coming around the corner. I draft a loose plan and move on, all the while keeping a look out as the next moment happens. And there is always more than I can absorb even when I fell acutely aware. The future is really only the moment following this period. And even that is up for grabs.

As 2015 draws to a close I look over my shoulder deliberately, as we all do, I suppose. It has been punctuated by losses and struggles. My oldest beloved sister died in April near my birthday. I was hospitalized for heart arrhythmia and tests in June. A family member was plagued by suicidal ideation; it was a long summer of recovery from her debilitating depression. I lost another relative to suicide some years ago and still feel his leaving, so this was a time of constant vigilance for me.

And, too, I damaged my foot and was unable to walk much for a few months. My other sister had a bad hip replaced and I stayed with her for a week to assist. One of my brothers had an emergency heart surgical procedure last week. And my brother-in-law, the husband of my deceased sister, passed suddenly eight months after she left us. His funeral service was also last week.

And then, Paris. And San Bernardino. Ceaseless tragedies and crises continue in our world. Grief is a river that gathers us all and we hold to each other, try to float the best we can. It can be disorienting. Stupefying.

None of this did I clearly anticipate happening. I have had premonitions, concerns, anxious moments. We know we take a chance daily in this world; we are mortal. So as life has unfolded these ways, I have done what most of us do: pray and ready myself for the hard road ahead.

And yet. And yet. I am filled with surprise at the wonders, too. The outpouring of care from friends. The edification and warmth of my weekly church women’s circle. My children’s and husband’s love and steadfastness. Finding the humor in seeming limitations and small absurdities in my busy days. Noting good improvements in many lives. The deep appreciation of the health I have, the freedom it affords. Visitations of miraculous moments with nature. The blessings of service to others. Thought-provoking, meaningful creative activity others engage in and my own sharing of writing and other arts. The presence of God in my life every moment. Here, now.

After Roland, my brother-in-law, died and I was treading that current of sorrow, I sat at my computer and downloaded and imported my camera’s photos. Then I clicked on “open folder” as usual and what filled the screen was not my latest pictures from a walk but three of Roland and my deceased sister, Marinell. The pictures were from over two years ago: one of my sister, one of her spouse and one of them leaning close together. They were smiling at the camera I had been taking pictures with at the barbecue on my niece’s deck. I frowned, frustrated, and then a chill shot up my spine. They were smiling right at me. They were right there. This folder had not been opened in over two years. I had not been searching for other photos before importing my current pictures. Their pictures just came right up, for me, that day, that moment. I began to cry, but in relief and gratitude.

Say what you may, but I felt the room fill with their presences. They both believed in eternal life; they believed in angels. Especially Roland, a fearless pilot US Navy and then for decades a commercial airline pilot. And he died in a major airport that was the main hub for his flights.

Roland liked to share stories of how often he felt his life had been saved by what he felt was divine intervention. He knew how connected to God I feel and that this life is a thin veil. He used to tell me how important it was that others knew, that they needed to understand there were angelic beings watching over us, helping us. He once insisted I write of angelic guides and his usually laughing and deeply blue eyes–those of a bright, discerning, courageous man–gleamed with deep emotion.

So I am sharing this experience for him: they came to me even though I wasn’t searching for anything, even though it was impossible that those pictures would suddenly come up like that. I understood they were just saying: Hello, we are together again. We love you. 

But I have not been able to find the pictures–none of them–since that day. Maybe one day I will sort it out; I’m in no hurry today.

I have been enjoying an interactive Advent calendar in the style of Victorian times. There is a lamplighter who methodically lights each lamp along a darkening street very time it’s evening. If I was walking along with him, I would glance back at the glowing spots spilling into the velvety dark. I could note where we were coming from and it would be a different story than the one I saw before I had moved on. I would be able to see things I had missed before because it is our perspective which changes things.

But I would rather choose to see the newly illuminated portions of the journey, to glance right and left and just before me. I am not afraid because I am not alone here on this planet. And there is much coming forward into the amber light. Life is the thing afoot and it takes on varieties of form. What lives seeks regeneration here and in the universe, yet the complexity at the heart of it all is simple in its wholeness. We are made of star dust (water and carbon), after all.

The darkness of the walk before my feet and the distant pathways–all unseen. Sensed, perhaps; glimpsed, even–but the specifics remain unclear. They will most certainly be disclosed step by step. Revelation is that beacon light, a call to seek and find, the Spirit that startles and fills me to overflowing and gives me peace. And sometimes  unpredictable, even difficult change. But there are always chances to get stronger and deeper, to discover and solve, to praise amid the letting go. To better fit my true nature. Let the living expand and glow within the grayness, inside the light.

Keep your own beautiful lights burning. When you think the flame is flickering, shield it, watch over it, give it air and space, seek aid from others. I’ll be looking for you and passing on peace along the way.

 

Postscript: Since it is Christmas soon and we will have a full house, I am taking a brief vacation from blogging. If I find extra time and am so moved to write, I’ll toss a few words in. Otherwise, I hope to see you all in January 2016.

And for those of you who celebrate it, have a lovely Christmas!

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

Exodus from Tattler Falls

Photo by Pierluigi Praturlon
Photo by Pierluigi Praturlon

At the end of the season–ending in August for some, late September for others–people left in droves so that the town felt like an over-inflated balloon losing its shape. Then finding a new one. The outward flow left the population at a measly 897, a number that jumped to about 1300 via magic arithmetic each summer. They noted the changes each summer and fall, then soon readjusted. Tim Melton, age 9, didn’t give it a lot of thought but found himself counting the days until they all disappeared. Then he could get back to his own business without all the “foreigners” interfering.

Once it had been a nondescript wayside requiring three turns off I-75. The road might be missed if you didn’t pay attention to the small green and white sign at the last turn. Tattler Falls had been voted one of the “Twenty Most Popular Great Lakes Tourist Spots” in the state’s tourism magazine. That was in 1978. The only reason it hadn’t grown a lot more is that there were very conservative zoning laws set in place by Garver T. “Tommy” Melton, Tim’s grandfather, and his crew back in 1950. Little had been altered despite occasional heated debates so there was only so much land to go around. The developers compensated for that by building upwards as much as possible. The fancier houses and a couple of hotels poked above the treeline and were eventually tolerated like warty growths.

Almost two-thirds of the year-around residents were third generation or more. They weren’t well-off but held the power because they held the land. Everybody feared a last family member dying off, as who would the will leave their land to? Often enough, it was bequeathed to friends or the Congregational church or the newer (1989) wildlife refuge at the far edge of town. It was a safety feature, something that folks had dreamed up back when Tommy ran things, more or less. Now he was faltering and staving off a nursing home. Tim liked to visit with him since he could still play a mean game of slap jack from his wheelchair. He also told him interesting things about the woods and lake. Historical stuff.

Tim, like his grandfather, wanted to run things but he was still in training. He knew he was smart but apparently not smart enough to get everything he wanted when he wanted it. Patience was not something he favored, as his mother said, but something he would eventually find.

He pulled up to their long oak table.

“Gosh, I don’t want chicken again, Mom. I want some yummy grilled steak, the ones you bought today.”

He poked at the plump piece of white breast meat that was huddled between mashed potatoes and canned peas. He hated canned peas. Who had come up with that idea? He might have to learn to cook one day.

“Sorry, the steaks are for tomorrow when everyone comes for our end-of-season party. As you well know. Oh, and Gus will be coming. I think.” His mother raised one arched eyebrow high, her mouth pulled into a crooked shape.

“Uuuh.” His mouth was stuffed with potatoes or he might have said ‘ugh.’ Gus was now thirteen and a menace. That’s what Gus’ dad called him when he got mad. Tim could have told him that long ago. But they’d grown up together; he used to be like a big brother. “Nice. I like the end-of-season parties.”

“I do, too, son. Except for all the preparations!”

He studied his mother from under his longish hair and worked on the chicken. Lynne, thirty-six, married to Adam, his dad. Only his dad was downstate working on some bridge construction for a couple more weeks. He was gone more than Tim liked. But his mom was a great one to have around in more ways than he’d admit in public. He peeked up at her. She looked pretty, too, in her blue and green plaid blouse and her reddish-blonde hair held back with a golden headband. Her freckles had been shared with him.

Just this morning she had gone out in the canoe with him. It was early with translucent fair skies. Since so many had left, the water was still and smooth near land’s edge. Quietness floated over the water and them. They watched eagles and red-tailed hawks dip and soar. She had taken pictures, her favorite thing besides fishing and her family.

“I like how empty it feels again. How things go back to the right places,” he said.

“You always say that–always so serious.” The words lit up in light laughter. “I know what you mean. We all do. Like everything is jostled around when the summer people come, things feel close and tight, even the trees feel off-kilter.”

Tim nodded and attacked the whole piece of chicken, put one end of it into his mouth and bit hard before she frowned at him. It tasted good and he kept nibbling away.

“I wish your dad was back,” she said, then bent over and kissed his forehead so softly he barely felt it. But he did feel it and this time did not complain.

“Me, too. He should be here for the party.” It came out as resentful but he couldn’t help it. He was usually scolded for being disrespectful but this time she didn’t say respond.

He finished his meal and carried the plate to the sink. His mom was humming to herself, counting the days until Adam returned–three–and thinking over her “To Do list” for the last big cook-out. If only Adam could be there. He’d been gone most of the summer. Tim saw her face set itself to the Things aren’t easy but I will get on with it and be fine mode.

“Mom?”

“Hmm?”

“Is Charlene Young going to be there? At the party?”

She turned to look at him, her hands in mid-air and dripping soapy water. “I think so, yes, she said she’ll try to make it. You remember to be nice to her, especially.”

Tim nodded, then left the kitchen and picked up his Frisbee. He stepped into their wide enclosed porch, pushed open the screen door and let it slam, heard his mom yell after him to “let it go easy not so hard!” He ran down the steps and stood gazing out over the lake. The air was laced with damp pine, chilly water, rich earth and far off winter smells. He took it all into himself like a powerful energy needed to recharge. There was a rustling movement to his left and Gator, their half-Lab, half-shepherd, dashed out of thick bushes and jumped up on him, eager to play. He threw the disc to Gator but thought about Charlene and June 21, then his dad being gone and for a moment he forgot he was happy.

********

It had been a perfect summer day. Tim and Missy had taken the rowboat out earlier and fished a little with homemade poles. Then they went swimming by her big old cabin.

“I can out-swim you any day!” She swam out to the floating dock.

“Beat ya!”

He took off after her. They were neck-and-neck until the last few feet when he burst ahead and he called it.

“Victory!”

Missy dunked him and they tussled in the water, gulping some lake, coughing and laughing. She dove deep and he followed, grabbing her toes. The plants waved at them as they torpedoed by. Fish grazed their legs and arms. They resurfaced, pulled themselves up, caught their breath as they leaned back.

“I’m getting my hair cut before school.” She pushed it back from her face now, long dark strands catching on chin and nose.

“So? We always get our hair cut for school. I don’t know why. I’d rather keep mine long.”

“No, I mean, I’m getting it cut really short. Like this.” She pulled the wet mass back so it looked like her head was a seal’s or a wet puppy’s.

Tim tilted his head, wiggling his index finger in his ear to get out the water. “That’s too short.”

“I need something new.”

“Why?”

“Because…I want to, because…it will look better shorter.”

“That’s stupid. You’re not even ten. You don’t have to change anything. Or ever.”

Missy scooted to middle of the slick wood surface and brought her knees to her chin. “You can change for no good reason. Or for fun.”

“Yeah, I guess do what you want.” He looked at her sideways. “Makes me think about Annie Young.”  He’d wanted to talk about Annie for once.

Missy’s head whipped around. “Annie? Why? Anyway, I’m not sure she’s having fun. You’re joking, right?”

“Maybe she’s having fun her own way but not such a great way. We hear stuff and I wonder.”

Missy sighed and stretched out white, bony legs. “I know. I mean, we live in Tattler Falls! Not the humongous city. How can she get that stuff? She’s just fifteen…”

“Dad says drugs just travel from downstate and before you know it, it infects all the best places and people. I agree. It’s awful when  nobody needs that stuff for anything good. Ridiculous!”

Missy shivered. “It’s gross. It’s spooky, too. If it can get to Annie, who’s next?”

“It won’t get us, right?”

“Right.”

Tim leaned toward her, shoulders making contact for a second, then kicked the water hard. They dove in one after the other. Missy won the race to shore by a length. They ambled ashore talking about playing badminton when Missy’s mom rushed out with big towels and wrapped them up. She burst into tears.

“Come in the house, kids, okay? I have bad news about Annie Young.”

********

“If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a smart ass,” Gus said, toothpick bouncing between his lips.

“I didn’t mean anything by it.” Tim tossed a flat stone into the water and watched it skip.

“Well, then keep it to yourself.” He smacked Tim on the back so it stung.

“All I said was–‘

“I heard you the first time. You told Missy you wondered where I was the afternoon Annie died. Everybody knows I was out on the dirt bike. I get so sick of everyone pointing their fingers at me!”

The lake rippled as the rock punctured the calm, burnished water. Dusk was gathering about the trees, and the sunset had left its afterglow upon the lake’s mirrored surface. Tim wished Gus would go away. He could smell the steaks about ready. There was a bonfire and he knew Missy and the others were finding good spots. But Gus had called him down to water’s edge.

“I’m going soon, anyway.” Gus picked up a knobby stick and tossed it into the lake where it floated away.

“What? Where to?”

“Maybe Ohio. My dad’s parents. I need a breather. Just because I like weed and tried a little meth…I’m good now but mom and dad…” He turned Tim around to face him, then drew himself up before plunging in. “Look, I of course saw Annie that day.  We were…more than friends, so I thought. That’s what I told the cops, too. I saw her with Jubal– they were on his BMW–when I headed to the trail. I knew Jubal was up to no good but Annie didn’t listen to me… So when I heard about the crash, I was as shocked as anybody, I was freaked out if you want to know the truth because I told her to stay away from him. He’s totally no good. So now he’s in jail after they found the drugs and good riddance. But Annie!” He covered his eyes, then stared into the distance. “I need to get out of here.”

Tim felt frozen to the stony earth. “Why are you telling me all this?”

Gus picked up a rock and threw it so hard Tim couldn’t see where it arced in the fading light. Laughter and loud voices overtook the soft shusshshusshshussh of lapping waves. Tim felt himself drift a moment. It would get windier soon, rain, then snow. He knew the fire was blazing and wished Missy would come down with some of their friends.

“I’m not sure, buddy. You’re pretty smart and I guess I thought you’d understand but maybe you’re too much of a kid, still. Yeah, you’re just a runty, snotty-nosed kid.” He backed away, then turned toward the house and rich smells of food and the bonfire. Stopped.

Tim watched the older boy’s face as the orange glow of the flames fell upon his face. Gus used to look so much bigger. Now he just looked worn out, a lot skinnier. Was it that meth drug or was it Annie leaving? Okay, the truth: overdose and death.

“But I kinda get it. You want to leave that day behind. Maybe the whole summer. And Ohio might have an answer…or something.” Tim dug the heel of his shoe into the dirt and rocks. “I wish that day had never happened, too, it’s like a nightmare took over our town and nothing is really the same.”

He was afraid he was going to let it jump out, the sharp-edged sadness, the fear that had crept into his life. New worries about his dad going so far away for work; why couldn’t he stay home? His mom feeling lonely sometimes, he could just tell. The summer people could come and go as they pleased, make things better or worse for the rest of them. But this was their own place, and it had been so right and good for so long. It was home. There were new things every year Tim didn’t understand. Or even want to. And this summer had been the hardest so far with Annie being taken.

Gus didn’t look at Tim but hung his arm loosely around the younger boy’s shoulders. “Yep, you’re a genius. A decent kid.” They started to walk back.

“Gus, I never told anyone, but the week Annie’s funeral took place? Her mom, Charlotte, saw me in town and she put her arms around me, squashed me so tight I thought I was going to choke. It scared me. All I could smell for hours was her perfume, something way too sweet…I’ll never forget it!”

“Yeah, that’s grief, buddy, that killer hug. I don’t know much about perfume yet.”

Missy saw them then and trotted down to grab onto him as Gus drifted into the boisterous, milling group. Tim thought for sure he was seeing things when his father’s face moved out of the shadows and into the beautiful October firelight but no, he was back. He had come home early, just for the party. Just for them. Tim started running, Missy calling after him to wait up.

 

Finding the Rightness in What Seems Wrong

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

I could hear the birds softly chiming in the new morning but my attention reverted to throbbing pain in my neck and head. Just another morning dominated by flagrant nerve responses to deteriorating discs. I eased myself from bed, first legs and feet, then pushed up with hands until I was upright. To the bathroom cabinet for a last pain pill though it was 50% effective, if that.

Want to get this under control before the nuclear stress test in a few hours. Hope I can get more sleep.

But my heart must have heard that thought, as its earlier steady rhythm began a rapid increase on the way back to bed. I lay down a few moments; it rushed onward. I pressed the carotid artery on the left side of my neck to verify what I already knew.

Tachycardia…not now! Quiet, heart, keep things running well so I can rest another two hours. 

I resurrected meditation breathing, those slow, metered breaths in and out that can (somewhat) help control a rapid heart rate. After what seemed a long while, the heart rate calmed a bit, fell from around 130 beats per minute to around 90. I turned over, relieved. I thought it must have been the sudden movement from bed to bathroom to bed, as sometimes–not for a couple years, however–the motion from happy repose to ambulatory action can set my heart roaring. Temporarily, mostly. I plumped up my pillow and smoothed the pillowcase.

Rest. I need to be ready in a few hours for that test.

I had had unusual chest pain three weeks prior. A nuclear stress test had been scheduled after an emergency room doctor determined it would be wise. Since I’ve lived with coronary artery disease for well over a decade, I don’t wait too long to get help but neither do I believe all arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythm) need to elicit panic. All had turned out well enough that day but the attending doctor decided it would be helpful to obtain more complex images of my heart’s inner workings. We would see what the arteries were up to fourteen years after two stent implants.

I hadn’t been thrilled about the upcoming procedure. I couldn’t explain why. I have had plenty of stress tests involving treadmills and ultrasound but not a nuclear test. There is always some risk. I had been in the hospital at least a dozen times over the years. Yet a feeling of unease about this time hovered in my consciousness.

Was I just anxious, was that the issue? Be calmer, I told myself.

The anvil of pain in my head didn’t help. But it failed to keep my attention as my heart began once more to race, the heartbeats to gather more speed each second. Then decreased. It was an internal equivalent of a siren becoming very loud and then becoming quieter, up and then down, over and over. It was getting tiring. I was breathless and dizzy.

What irony! A heart stress test in a few hours and I am having unpleasant heart stress right now…It has to be not taking my beta blocker for over 30 hours in preparation for the test, right? So I have a galloping horse of a heart now…what now? My life is always in Your hands, Lord.

I reached for my phone as the heart rate cranked up once more. Dialed 911.

The fire engine came, then the ambulance with EMTs and they hooked me up for an EKG as they encouraged me to go to the hospital. But I hesitated. Did I really want to go to emergency again? I had a big bill from last time. My heart was settling down. They stood in my living room with arms dangling, patience their strength as much as medical skills. I knew this: they wouldn’t advise otherwise, especially when you are a heart patient. We headed out to the hospital where my cardiologist practices.

On the way to the emergency room I glanced out the back windows at a man driving an SUV. He looked at me, I, at him. What is that man thinking about? Being late for work? An important dinner date later? Is he wondering what I am doing in the back of this ambulance, grateful it isn’t him? I was wondering why I was there, too, as my heart rate was getting closer to livability again.

At the emergency room, I insisted, “It has to be the absence of the beta blocker, I had to discontinue it about thirty-two hours ago for a nuclear stress test appointment later this morning. It was intense. But I’m not sure why I’m here now.”

It bothered me, the time it was taking, the money it was costing, my heart seeming less imperiled. I worried about missing the nuclear stress test across the street at my cardiology clinic.

The energetic nurse with short blonde hair positioned more adhesive patches and wires to me chest and legs.

“Those beta blockers are powerful, so could be, but you never know for sure until we can check you out. We’ll get you fixed up here. Better to be here than in trouble at home.”

My beta blocker medicine ordinarily has this wonderful power–it slows and steadies heart action so I can live a life that is as close to normal as I can likely get. I had not been off it for fourteen years until this occasion.

Things did not get better just because I was in the emergency room. It was overcrowded as they were remodelling. The patient next to me had severe abdominal and stomach pain with nausea. Strangers poked their heads in and out. There were needles that finally found my veins. The heart monitor showed every little variance and I tried in vain not to watch.

I did not want another procedure; I wanted to get up and leave. My chest was alright so far, high blood pressure was coming down and heart rate was no longer threatening to take me under. Further, I wanted my head and neck pain to stop but there it was, the one constant in the background.

But it was determined I would have the nuclear stress test in the hospital. I would be admitted, likely.

“I want to get up and just walk over to my cardiologist’s office now,” I insisted. “I can have my test there. They’re expecting me. I’ll have to cancel it if I don’t go now.”

“I cannot advise your leaving the hospital; you have had significant tachycardia; you have heart disease. But you can choose to leave as an adult, of course,” a pressured, kindly doctor stated.

My sister arrived. After some discussion it was decided I would stay. I was already there, and more answers were needed to evaluate the state of my heart health. I cancelled my appointment with apologies which the receptionist seemed to find odd.  Maybe I was operating from an altered state; things did feel a bit askew. Adrenalin, maybe.

My spouse was on a business trip in Mexico and it seemed he was in another galaxy. I texted him and he said he’d get a flight as soon as possible and he was praying for me. I was notified of the stress test since my heart rate had stabilized.

A nuclear stress test is generally deemed safe but has potential, if rare, complications including, per Mayo Clinic info: allergic reaction to the small amount of radioactive dye given intravenously for imaging; abnormal heart rhythms; heart attack; flushing sensation in upper body and head and/or chest pain. A substance called an arterial vasodilator is administered to patients when unable to use a treadmill; this chemically increases stress on the heart for data gathering. It dilates arteries to allow more blood to flow to and from the heart, which also allows for good images of the heart muscle as well as arteries.

The first part was simple and easy. I was injected with radioactive dye; it seemed strange that something we associate with deadliness was not even noticed. The amount was no more than when one has an X-ray. Images were taken for twenty minutes without any heart stress. Th stress part came second, when my heart was to be agitated by medicine in a way that exercise might. More images were then to be taken.

And then, as the vasodilator medicine was infused into my arm, I developed sudden, intense tachycardia, a thunderous, chest-pounding very rapid beat that was so fast it nearly took my breath away. In a few more seconds I felt as if I was starting to detach from my body.

This is what I was afraid of, I realized, and that I might have a heart attack and die.

“I am having trouble breathing. My chest hurts,” I told the attending cardiologist who was not, unhappily, my own. She was studying the EKG monitor.

“It will peak and fade in a minute or so, the heat and discomfort you are feeling is normal,” the technician reassured me.

“I don’t think so,” I said. It was getting harder to breathe, my chest feeling heavier, the ache deepening, spreading. “The pain is worse.”

Lord. Help. Breathe. Lord.

“Reverse vasodilator now!” the doctor commanded. “This tachycardia isn’t relenting, EKG shows …other signs. Cancel the last imaging set for now.”

She instructed another drug be injected. And in less than a minute the “reversing” medicine was spreading throughout and my heart rate quickly slowed. The pain receded, leaving a tender feeling. My head hurt more. It was as if I had been pounced on by a giant, ravenous cougar, my adrenalin wiped out in less than a couple of minutes, and then that cougar melted into the sun streaks that filled the room. It was as if a dream. But I felt unable to move, despite reassurances. I had seen terror again and it had left traces behind even though my heart rate magically returned to normal and the chest pain finally was erased.

I felt as if I had been having a heart attack all over, like that afternoon when I had been hiking in the forest, climbing up ancient railroad ties that led to another pristine waterfall, each step suddenly impossibly hard as I climbed, my chest crushed by an enormous, formless weight, mind numbed, spirit overtaken. The agony of it. I closed my eyes.

It’s over, Lord. I’m okay for now.

“Even without the rest of the nuclear stress test I would admit you to hospital. I need to find out more after that,” the cardiologist informed me and then left.

I rested for an hour, then returned to have the second set of images taken, as my heart was still stressed, so more could be documented.

The hospital admittance was for the next-day angiogram, which requires cardiologists to enter a femoral artery with a tiny camera to look for any blockages or other anomalies. The doctor wanted to see if there was anything further to be addressed, due to the response I had during the stress and the earlier tachycardia. I had had six of these before; I was not worried about this test, but I could not sleep. The headache was by now a familar, like a shadow of myself. I was given more pain medication which did nothing. But with relief I resumed beta blocker medicine to help my shaken heart pump steadily.

I wasn’t hungry. I waited through the night between doses of light sleep, wondering what the new day would bring. Prayed. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…” Lay on cool white sheets listening to the music of my heart, thinking of my husband far away in a land I didn’t know at all. Thinking of my children and grandchildren, the shapes of their faces, the designs of their lives. My heart stayed tranquil, as if telling me it had already endured this long and rather much; it could endure longer, more.

The angiogram felt like old home week. I relaxed and chatted with the nurses, feeling the haze of an anesthesia that left me conscious yet with little memory when done. I floated while they worked.

Someone said. “No new stents today…lack of beta blocker likely provoked tachycardia….extreme response to vasodilator…”

When I awakened fully I wondered if what I had heard was right. I was hesitant to to hope all went well.

“Yes, that’s what the report says,” a chipper, brunette nurse confirmed. “I think you’ll be home by evening.”

She read me the rest of the report but I had no interest. I could go home again after two days of confusion and fear and relief. My son came to get me. I looked terrible, wan and dishevelled and exhausted but he hugged me and told me he loved me and we left.

When my husband arrived at midnight from his trip, I was half asleep on the easy chair but his smile and hug all but dismissed ongoing aches and utter weariness. In the morning we lay in bed for hours, often silent but our arms about each other, noting blue sky through the blinds and the chatty robins, sharing stories and dozing. I hadn’t felt so safe and joyous in a long while and I praised God for it.

It has been four days since this latest heart adventure. I’ve pondered it, replayed how it unfolded, what might have been done better by myself or the staff.

Then, yesterday, I had a follow-up with my own cardiologist, Dr. P. It seems I am one of a fairly small number who have such a reaction–“rebound tachycardia”–to stopping a beta blocker that long. I am also one of “approximately five to seven percent” who are noted as having an extreme reaction to a vasodilator. Well, it was no real surprise, I responded. I have had many adverse reactions to medicines, including those for the heart. And I had had a feeling it might not go well.

“But I feel foolish for calling 911. I should have waited it out since I suspected what was wrong.”

“No. Too many people wait to get help too long, ignore the symptoms or are in denial that worse could happen. They’re the ones who are found dead in their homes when everyone thought things were just fine. You even waited until the next day to get medical help when you had a heart attack in the forest, remember? You never should regret calling 911 when your heart is acting up. Give yourself some grace on that one, alright?”

“Alright, I get it.”

“You know, all this told us that your stents are still holding well after fourteen years, that your arteries are clear with no new blockages, and that your heart itself is strong. You are doing so well, still a star patient of mine! It’s all because you’ve taken my advice and done what you needed to do. You exercise daily, you eat healthily, take care of your stress levels.” He paused and leaned forward. ” So what’s wrong?”

I stared at bruised skin on my arms where needles delivered medicines that both hurt and helped me. I didn’t want to cry, not then. “My sister passed from congestive heart failure, had a heart attack just a month ago. It has been unsettling.”

I almost added: How is it that I can live while she does not? And when will I have to pass on?

“Oh, I’m sorry. That’s hard, more so right now.”

“I loved her so much; she was vibrant, talented, so good.” I looked at his tired hazel eyes. “Do I show any sign of congestive heart failure?”

“No, none.”

“She died from multiple heart attacks…she was only 78….and my brother has arrythmias that worry me but insists on travelling all over the world…My parents had heart disease, too, as oyu know. It’s everywhere.”

“It’d not just genetics, but many factors including general health and stresses. And it’s how we can help heal ourselves.” He leaned back.” I know mortality gets close and personal when you lose someone and could lose others.. Nut remember, Cynthia, we’ll all die from our hearts stopping. That is the organ we must keep well if at all possible. It is the one that gives up the very last when all other organs are giving out. It fights. It keeps on beating till it cannot, anymore.”

I am silent, in awe once more of this remarkable reality, this heart we all have that propels us through life.

“And I would say that you have many more years of life ahead, as your heart is glad of the work you do to keep it beating strong.”

“Okay.” I smiled  and sighed, let go of the last ounce of weightiness. “Wahoo!”

He laughed. “Right–wahoo is right!”

“So I can try river rafting, more strenuous hiking, salsa dancing and whatever else I want to do.”

“Go for it, sounds good,” he said and pressed my hand, “and keep on taking such good care. Call me if you need help, though.”

Then he left, on to the next patient. I thought how he had also aged since I first met him, and how many people he would not have good news for that day. He would tend to them each with compassion and straight talk. I have been blessed to have such a heart doctor.

I had thanked God many times since getting out of the hospital. Yet I still had wondered, why did I have to undergo the trials of the last few days? And then it turned out that the tests showed nothing remarkable. It would cost me more money, as well.

But the fact that I got the message that my heart is working well is certainly something to celebrate. Despite the coronary artery disease diagnosis that seemed an early death sentence in 2001–per doctors then–I am thriving thus far. I have become stronger and healthier because I still had too much to do, have so wanted to live it with vigor and enthusiasm. I have a stubborn streak, and it has guided me well in this. I am on intimate terms with my heart as well as my soul and will not back down from hard work to ensure saving both. I have followed recovery instructions. But God has been right here through the messiness, the times of doubt and error, eluding death’s pursuit, finding new ways to care for myself and others. Resetting my compass. Just going on.

I had a dream last night. Three people came to me in good cheer who have passed one: my mother, my sister and my ex-husband, the father of two of my adored children.

“You’re watching over me, aren’t you?” I whispered as I came up from sleep, to a light-imbued room. And they smiled, then drifted off and my heart, it was at peace.

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Postscript: I am not a professional health care provider and can only attest to my own experiences. I am familiar with tests, procedures and medications noted as well as my own heart conditions. You may have greater knowledge or different experiences. But if you have troubling heart symptoms, please do not delay in seeking proper medical care and prepare yourself with your own knowledge. Women often exhibit different symptoms of heart attack than men.