Sunday, November 7, 2021

How to Remain Amiable While Your Life Hangs By a Thread

An acquaintance named Rob, a very good and unassuming guy and a talented writer, has serious cancer way too young. He's an army vet with kids, and he works in a beer store while publishing in places like Paris Review. He's been working on a book rumored to be a big deal (at least, so say our beer geek and bartender mutual friends). He does not come off like a hotshot writer, but, hey, neither do I.

Please consider joining me in contributing to Rob's GoFundMe. He is not the type who'd normally launch his own GoFundMe campaign. That's how I know there's legit panic.

I'd like to share with him the story of an epiphany I had a few years ago while near death in the hospital, but I don't know him well enough to approach him and start blabbing about my shifts of perspective or whatever. So I'll put it out there for general purpose, and perhaps he'll stumble upon it and find it useful.
Important: people are way too terrified of heart stuff. I had to go through all the events described below to learn this invaluable truth, so please read this posting explaining why a small heart attack can actually give you a leg up, health-wise.

This is not 1965. "Heart attack" is a whole other thing due to awesome advances in medical tech. There's no need to hold onto it as a horrific blurry monster in your peripheral vision. It's very often not that big a deal. I, for example, am absolutely fine. In fact, I never felt better!

But I did not know any of this at the time...

I'd entered the emergency room at 4am with a wonky EKG and heart attack symptoms, was transfered via raging ambulance to a hospital with an elite cardiac center, deemed stable, and left on my own for a few minutes. I was told to speak up if symptoms returned. They did, and I did, and nurses literally ran to my bed, shouting orders that all ended in "STAT". Very, very M*A*S*H.

So that was two heart attacks right there: the one that brought me in, and the sequel, quickly stanched. An IV hovered over my bedside, bulging with potent blood thinners and nitroglycerine. I was finally truly stable, but if you'd taken away the IV - or knocked it over, or clogged the line - I'd have died sooner than later.

On the other hand, I was in no pain, with no symptoms. My heart was happy, obliviously gobbling yummy oxygen, its clogged plumbing temporarily hacked open via the industrial medicines in my umbilical drip. I was, essentially, suspended in a sci-fi state one nanometer from death.

It would take another day to arrange an angiogram to explore the gory details. But a few hours later, blood results came back, revealing telltale markers of heart attacks. The news was stiffly broken by a senior cardiac nurse with the demeanor of a Swedish mortician.

Me, I was having a lovely day. First, the hospital meals included something I hadn't seen since childhood: sherbert. I'd forgotten how good sherbet was. Sherbert is amazing. So I was still blissing from the sherbert. Plus, loads of people in the hospital were sincerely interested in how I felt - quite an unfamiliar and touching position for a middle-aged dude. Plus, I'd made friends with the nurses and orderlies, many of whom were legit nice. Plus, I'd had an epiphany.

Everything was happening around me, not to me. And it had eternally been thus. Nothing had ever touched me. I was not this ever-changing body, this ever-changing mind, this ever-changing set of memories and stories. I am the unchanging ever-present payer of attention. The framer, intrinsically aloof from the action.

I'd realized this already from many years of meditation and contemplation, but there's knowing and there's REALLY knowing...and then there's knowing while in suspended cardiac animation with an expiration date of "several-seconds-after-the-IV-runs-out".

If this body were to die - and it easily might have - that would be just more change. More stuff happening around me, not to me. The world changes, the body changes, the thoughtstream and memories change, the constituents and particulars of this Jim Leff character (and all the other ones) change moment by moment, but the humming awareness peering out from these eyes - my unnameable subjective presence - had never wavered. It's perennially rock steady; the only constant amid the tumult. Objects change and die while the pure awareness of Subject simply Is, taking it all in, framing at will.

Awareness/presence had observed the heart attacks, the ingestion of the almighty sherbert, and would also - sooner or later - observe the death of this body and of this Jim Leff character. That sounds eerie/spooky, but it's literally the most familiar process for any of us. I've awoken from zillions of dream worlds, where I'd played zillions of dream characters, effortlessly surfacing into another strata, another storyline, another bag of swirling, changing stuff. Same whenever the credits roll in a movie and I realize, with surprisingly little disorientation, that I'm not actually, say, Luke Skywalker. Same after every daydream, fantasy, or reverie. Our presence blithely pipes in setups, identities and circumstances (We LOVE this stuff! Just as bees make honey and birds build nests, we cook up drama to identify with!). And we blithely tolerate the violent transitions into and out of character like the veteran actors we are.

The dour head nurse squinted uncomfortably at my oddly bemused smile as she glanced up from her clipboard full of bad news. "Ok, so what's next?" I asked, as chipper as Bugs Bunny assuring the mobster that he'd totally love to be "taken for a ride"!

The nurse, startled and revolted by my oddball response, began speaking louder and more slowly, like to a crazy person: "Sir, you have had a heart attack. You now suffer from cardiac disease. This is who you are now!"

She needed me to act the part. But I honestly just couldn't. I was 100% certain I was still me. The same me who's received loads of good and bad news, and who's been mesmerized by this kaleidoscope of a world all along.

Most cardiac patients moderate their dramatic performance to reflect the somber new development in their plotline. But my perspective was far above that drama. We are all far above the drama, but most choose to pretend otherwise (suspension of disbelief being key to keen dramatic immersion). So my unusual choice to opt out of pretending confused the bejesus out of the head nurse, who began writing up an order for a psychologist to come pay me a little visit.

"That won't be necessary," piped up my dapper Indian cardiologist, who'd just arrived at my bedside, and to whom I'd previously introduced myself as a yogi. He recognized that my state stemmed not from denial but from transcendence. It gave him a charge, leaving him mirthful, even delighted, like me. The nurse swiveled her head hopelessly between this pair of fools and quickly stormed off, thoroughly appalled.

I left the hospital with a spiffy cardiac stent (a bona fide miracle!) and lived happily ever after. My job in this movie was to be terrified for the weekend, and to take on the role of frail sick heart dude going forward. But all that seemed silly and gratuitous. I'm not that guy. It all happens around me, not to me.

At some point this body will be written out of the script. I'll miss it as much as I miss the character I played in my dream last night - which is to say, not at all. I barely even remember. I've zealously identified with characters in millions of dreams, movies, novels, daydreams, recollections, worries, and reveries. And I've spent much time being nobody at all while absorbed in work. And for all that time, through all those transitions, I've remained entirely, comfortably at home within my presence; my nameless awareness. That's the constant. Beyond that, it all happens around me, not to me.

Here is the same observation approached from a more philosophical angle.

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