No one dies without leaving a story for us to discover and savor. The Dead Beat intends to search out, find and report those stories. The story may reside in a survivor’s heart or a victim’s last words. It may be legend or it may be fact. It may be recorded in stone or on yellowing newsprint. It may warm the heart or break it. It may explain a lifetime or illuminate a single moment in that lifetime. It may tell us more about the living than the dead, more about ourselves and the way we live than the way that others have died.
When I began writing the Dead Beat column last year, I knew I’d never run out of stories. But I never dreamed that on a chilly, overcast April morning, I’d qualify for inclusion here myself. I did so, quite against my will, by dying.
I’m not speaking metaphorically or poetically here. I flatlined. Coded. I shuffled off this mortal coil. Here’s my story:
I’m 68 years old, a retired daily newspaper reporter, occasional essayist and avid grandfather. A few weeks before I died, I noticed that my sense of balance seemed askew. I drew the usual Google-inspired conclusions: incipient ALS. Parkinson’s. Brain tumor.
Uncharacteristically, I went to my doctor and we began exploring possible causes, which meant securing appointments with a string of other doctors: a vascular specialist, a neurologist and, when I added mild periodic chest pains to my list of mysterious symptoms, a cardiologist.
Everything looked copacetic until the cardiologist’s visit. Lacking an explanation for the chest pains, the doctor ordered a treadmill stress test, about which I had reservations. Eager as I was for a diagnosis, I feared what that diagnosis might reveal. While awaiting the test, I was left to stew in the juices of undeniable personal accountability.
Hadn’t I been feeling run-down for months, if not years? Hadn’t I dreaded walking up stairways? What about my midafternoon craving for a nap, the longer the better?
I tried to tell myself that I was just plain getting old. But I knew, deep down, it was more than that. Between my age and my abiding fondness for life’s sedentary pleasures – reading, writing, eating, playing FreeCell – I knew that I was reaping the harvest of an all-but-stationary life.
This realization brought little comfort, but it was something. It allowed me to imagine (not for the first time) ways by which I would straighten up and fly right. More walking! Fewer carbs! I swear!
And so it was that I drove to the Kingston Heart Center that April morning, hoping with all my heart that I would somehow dodge the bullet I believed awaited me.
Did I voice my fears at the heart center? Of course not. I may be a “senior,” but I’m still a man, and men don’t voice their fears in public. I resolved to put my anxieties manfully to rest by mounting the treadmill and finally taking my first panting steps toward a new, healthier life.
A young man named Kelvin ushered me into a small room where stood the dread machine. Kelvin introduced me to Melissa, the technician who would run the machine and monitor my progress.
I hopped on the treadmill and started walking. Within a minute, I was race-walking. Beginning to pant. Mildly amazed that I was still standing.
Then everything changed.
I remember Melissa shouting words I couldn’t understand to Kelvin while the treadmill ground to a stop. My head went balloony and my legs went rubbery. I remember staggering backwards off the machine, where Kelvin caught me and set me on a nearby couch.
I’d suffered a cardiac arrest. My heart’s electrical communication system, whose job it is to provide the heart with a good steady beat, had quit on me.
Having been dead, I can’t testify to exactly what happened as I lay on my back. When I opened eyes that I didn’t realize had been shut, I saw a big, friendly-looking face hovering over mine. His name, I soon learned, was Gus. I could see by his uniform that he was an EMT.
I know I looked perplexed. The room was crowded with people who hadn’t been there before. Gus recognized my confusion. He assured me that everything was okay. “We’re taking you to Vassar,” I remember him saying.
Cool, I thought. I knew Vassar Brothers Hospital had the best local reputation for its cardiac/heart care department.
Gus sketched the outlines of my situation as he and his crew trundled me into the ambulance. He told me I’d been revived with two jolts from a defibrillator: the gizmo you see doctors use in TV dramas, where they rub a pair of charged-up paddles together, shout “Clear!” and – sometimes – raise the dead.
“I didn’t feel a thing,” I told Gus. He laughed. “That’s a good thing, man.”
I remained conscious as the ambulance glided through midtown traffic. I was feeling no pain. Familiar buildings and barely-budded trees slid past the rig’s narrow back window. I was warmed by the sight of my daughter Annie’s place of business on Broadway. I imagined the thrill I would give her three-year-old son Conor when I told him I had ridden in one of the ambulances whose periodic, screaming appearance on Kingston’s streets fascinated him.
Still rather stupidly unaware of the seriousness of my condition, it didn’t occur to me that I might not ever get a chance to tell him about my ride.
Gus and his crew delivered me to Vassar, where the very serious work of making me whole again began. It began by the very careful and professional act of tearing me apart: I underwent triple-bypass surgery the next morning.
Credit for those lifesaving efforts extends from Kelvin and Melissa and Gus to a battery of doctors, nurses and aides too numerous to list here by name: the men and women at Vassar whose attention, skill and professionalism brought me farther and farther from Death’s door over 12 grueling days. The people who continue to provide that care, along with heaping doses of love, are easier to list: Their names are Patty, Grady, Annie and Carrie and our four grandchildren. They’re the people who have made the life I nearly lost worth living.
When I sent an abbreviated version of this story to friends and family via Facebook, I concluded it with a YouTube clip of a favorite song that begins with these words: “If you have a friend on whom you think you can rely, you are a lucky man / And if you’ve found a reason to live on and not to die, you are a lucky man.” Then as now, those lyrics go straight to my recuperating heart. I have been, and continue to be, as lucky as a man can get.