The Heart Will Break

The Heart Will Break, But Broken Lives On

Lord Byron

I was out early today, hacking away at an extraordinary amount of green waste for the bins that get emptied tomorrow, zen-thinking about how much actually grows in a desert (if you give it water) and how lethal every single plant actually is if one is on blood thinners, which as you will come to see, is an integral but side-story as we move along with the narrative.

So far this morning, before the sun has crested the mountains of Joshua Tree, I have filled two bins with Smoke Tree trimmings (so gray-lacey and lovely but that is their specific ruse), one bin of citrus orchard deadwood (yeah, yeah, once a year the fruit taste great but the other eleven months they are just lethal weapons), and one bin of Palm trimmings, sturdy mother-fuckers (they do make homes out of them in the tropics) but those fronds that looked so quaint on Gilligan’s Island are actually deadly weapons if not approached in exactly the correct manner; an eight step seize and dismember process.

As I was finishing up loading the last of the palm fans, now separated from their weaponized fronds, I felt a physical twinge in my chest in the general area of my heart.  Pain is too strong a word, but it was persistent enough to fracture my plant-zen and to direct my mind onto mortality, physical limitations, death, and final thoughts.

It’s a pandemic; these thoughts are normal.  Aren’t they?

As I was reviewing my own complicity in this immediate situation, I came upon some very long-submerged memories. Here I was, a 69 yo male with a history of heart issues (more on that in a bit), out in the desert amongst literally killer vegetation, clashing the loppers like they were matchsticks completely unaware of my own mortality and possible fragility.  But if I were not doing this, what? Lay about in an easy chair and leave others to do a lesser quality job that I would then fret over until I let them go and did it myself, again, anyway?  Catch 22.  Gotcha.

And then.

It flashed me back well over sixty years ago to my childhood in the forested landscape of rural Maryland. Massive 400-year-old oaks were the lynchpins of the forest we lived in, studded with poplars, beach, cypress and more.  In the fall, there were leaves; giant, made-for-jumping in, piles of golden-bronze, crackly, bitter smelling yet pungent leaves.  But to get these magical castles of dead foliage to play in we had to rake.  A lot. 

We lived on a few acres, the house next door (once the carriage house for ours) was on an acre, our lawns eventually merging over the years to become one huge expanse of lush, green carpeting.  But in the fall, there were divisions.  Someone had to rake those leaves, but only their leaves, the rest went to “others”.  The others were Ogden and Anita Velsor. They were quite literally the templates for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?  

While there were several things that struck me as notable about Ogden and Anita, one was their fighting; legendary, loud, and loquacious but we’ll get to that. The first thing I remember about them was Anita dying. March 25th, 1964. 

It wasn’t the leaves. Anita was 48 years old.

It was shoveling snow. The long, uphill drive was something no one liked to tackle, least of all Ogden but after one of their by now infamous, heard-by-the-entire-hood rows, a quite red-faced Anita took to the shovel and in expletives no 10-yo should have heard in those heady, mid-century, days proceeded to shovel her way directly to hell.  It became cemented in my developing brain that raking leaves (or shoveling snow), particularly if you were ancient like any adult seemed to be at that age, was a fatal endeavor. The neighbors talked about it, my parents talked about it (when they talked; again, more on that later).  The legend of Dying Young from simply raking leaves and/or shoveling snow was now a “thing”.  Anita was referenced in sotto voce tones at cocktail parties for years, at least until Ogden found a new wife, Virginia, quite the opposite of Anita in every imaginable way and then their ship of life righted itself and sailed on relatively happily for decades to come.

But I veer.

While Anita was still with us, the fighting was constant, intrusive, and colorfully peppered with vicious obscenities. My sister, ten years my senior, would take it upon herself to “take me for a walk” down the lane whenever their battles spilled into vocal range outside their house.  Those walks were awkward partly in that my sister and I never had anything really in common. She was born and raised in the forties and fifties (poodle skirts, literally!) and I was destined to be a true child of the sixties and seventies so the alienation we as a generation were to become famous for had already had its seeds planted, watered, and tended.  I just knew that this was an avoidance behavior designed to protect me from some unseen but certainly heard threat. This Savior Sister mode had apparently been in force for some time.  It turns out that my parents had their own made for prime-time series of threats and intimidations and accusations that they wielded with extreme regularity and vicious accuracy around our house. Think, “The Battling Bickersons”, a hit radio show from the 1940’s.  Google it. 

These walks had apparently been instituted to shield my virginal ears at a very young age from our own parent’s explosive vitriol.  As my sister once said to me before the denouement of our relationship decades ago when asked if they had always fought like this, since she had been around a decade longer than I, her response, “It started when you were born.”

Ouch.  Game Point, Set, Match.

My sister effectively left me alone in this House of Horrors when I was about seven years old to go off to college as far away as she could get.  In hindsight, I suppose I would have done, and actually did, the same thing years later.  But until that magic moment of matriculation into my own semi-adulthood, I was stuck with the Punch and Judy school of parenting, albeit without the physical battering but most certainly an ego-crushing barrage or verbal slings and arrows that would make any preteen quiver. 

And shake and shrink into myself I did.  Until I was old enough and emotional coherent enough to physically step between them as they engaged yet again into who was “ruining me” at which point I screamed “SHUT UP!”

They never spoke more than a barely civil word to each other again their entire lives.

At eight, I found a volubly lower family had moved in down the lane and so I packed up my emotional baggage and went to their crazy household where I could hide in plain sight and meld into the fabric of a more normal family that held none of the terror that my own did.  I have stuck around for sixty years now.

That is all heart-breaking stuff but stuff with a future and a resolution.

This heart break I am talking about this morning is an actual failure of my most vital organ. I know, long, windy, and confusing transition but that’s the way my mind works.  Keep up.  

Over the years I have had a combination of heart “issues” and procedures.  Nothing really out of the ordinary in today’s world but things that most likely would have and did kill people like Anita Velsor at 48.  I have had my heart cardioverted (the paddle/CLEAR thing you see on Gray’s Anatomy, etal) more times than I can count. Other than some sore abs and singe spots it’s relatively harmless.  I have also had two rather lengthy ablations; another odd, new-fangled, procedure where, under anesthesia, they feed lasers and cameras up from your groin into your heart and zap away bad spots which your heart immediately goes about rewiring.  Nothing too dramatic or particularly life-threatening; actually, all quite life-prolonging and affirming.  But mostly thought provoking and contributors to that little voice in your head that says your clock is ticking along with your heart and now that all those past elders of your particular tribe have left for their next journeys you are, in effect, in the batter’s box.

On deck, ready for the final strike out.

So, the dilemma now, for me, is what and when to take things seriously.  This bloody Pandemic has actually simplified matters to such a degree that I believe our entire medical system is on the verge of a major realignment.  We have all (and I speak for most of my friends here, if not most of all of us) jettisoned regular doctor visits to a huge extent.  If it ain’t broke, don’t go looking to fix it.  Zoom visits are a thing! MyChart accomplishes miracles without ever stepping foot in an office.

I did have an annual checkup “down there” recently not only because my history demands I am vigilant (a Zoom for that seems somehow pornographic) but my doctor is too cute not to pay a visit to once a year.  He wanted me to try a supplement instead of a prescription that I had been on for twenty years.  I was game, I trust him, and did I mention his soft southern eyes could make any resolve melt like chocolates in a hot car?

So, I started taking them.

And then it happened. Every time I stood up from a chair, got out of the car, elevated myself from anywhere, I was suddenly overcome with dizziness, grasping for handholds and looking for soft landings.  It continued.  Immediately I thought, “Oh shit, my heart is acting up. I’m in trouble here, better call the cardiologist” I made an appointment, on-line, complete with a symptom rundown, and felt rather intriguingly satisfied that so much could be done in this manner.  No one panicked.  No one suggested that I rush off to the ER or Urgent Care, just a confirming email of, “See you next week.”

And then I went one step further.  Dr. Google

I actually simply Goggled the supplement I had been taking and one of the rare but serious side-effects was extreme low blood pressure (did I neglect to mention that when I had these episodes my BP was 94/49?? Ooops.)  I quit taking them immediately. The symptoms went away. I cancelled the cardiologist.  I went back to living.

This morning, after slaving in the morning heat for two hours doing essentially farm-hand labor, my heart tugged at my chest, lightly, reminding me it was still there, still working, but that really, at my age, I might want to consider a soda and a siesta more often.  No need to panic.  No need to call or go see anyone.  It was just a gentle reminder that I am human, frailer than I once was, and far along the journey that I fought to start all those years ago.

We are all alone together at this point in the world’s malaise.  We are all suffering from heartache and heartbreak in every manner imaginable.  But broken hearts or not, as Byron once reminded us….

Broken Lives On