I’ve been on somewhat of a John Prine kick lately. I dunno why but his lyrics, simple as they are, somehow strike a chord that seems to resonate either in my mind or in my heart.
Woke up this morning
Put on my slippers
Walked in the kitchen and died
It must be going on seven years or so when I had that first heart attack. No warning signals were on the horizon and if they were, I was ignoring them. Sure, I was a smoker and a drinker, (still am) and fresh off the pain of divorce. My kid was about two at the time and my job called for me to travel…a lot. But stress? That was bullshit! That was a liberal myth for those folks who couldn’t get a handle on their own life.
I had just gotten off a plane from Boston and was heading over to my then girlfriend's house to say hello, maybe have some dinner and unwind after a long trip. I remember we were ordering a pizza and while we were waiting for the delivery, her son asked if I wanted to play ping pong. We went down the basement, had a couple of laughs until the pizza guy came and we were making our way up the stairs when all of sudden…BOOM!
You ever get the flu? I mean a bad case of it when you can just about pinpoint the exact moment that you felt sick? I managed to make it up the stairs and sit down at the table. My then girlfriend took one look at me and asked me what the hell was wrong. She said I was white as a ghost and the sweat was pouring out of me. I told her I must’ve caught something on my trip and that maybe the combination of that and a long day of travel had taken its toll. I decided to get in my car and drive home.
And oh what a feeling!
When my soul
Went thru the ceiling
And on up into heaven I did ride
I managed to make it home, perspiring the whole way. Grabbed my luggage out of the trunk and proceeded to make my way to my apartment. It was a short walk, maybe a hundred yards at most but I had to stop three or four times to catch my breath. I made it inside and flopped on my couch.
I had what might be best described as a sense of panic. Something was wrong, really wrong and I didn’t know what. I was only 39 and had been sick before but not like this. I remember the phone ringing and hearing my girlfriends voice asking me how I was doing. Apparently I was pretty incoherent and I think I remember telling her I’d call her in the morning. I flopped back down on the couch.
When I got there they did say
John, it happened this a way
You slipped upon the floor
And hit your head
Apparently, my then girlfriend wasn’t buying it. I found out later she tried to call back and got no answer. The most important phone call of my life was made by another.
I remember hearing a pounding at the door and thinking to myself “who the hell is this?” I wasn’t able to get off the couch to answer in person so I think I might’ve asked whoever it was that very question. They identified themselves as paramedics and asked if I was ok. I remember telling them I couldn’t get off the couch and that was about it. They bust through it.
And all the angels say,
Just before you passed away
These were the very last words
That you said:
I woke up in the emergency room. Apparently, the paramedics recognized what was happening, stuck me with a bunch of needles and hauled my ass onto a gurney and into an ambulance. A nurse was now trying to ask me questions and I had tubes sticking out of my arms and legs. I was awake but everything was either happening too fast or was too surreal for me to comprehend. One of them shoved a nitroglycerin tablet under my tongue and told me to relax – it was going to be ok.
I woke up a few hours later with one hell of a headache. Apparently, my condition had stabilized somewhat and I was out of the woods for now. A doctor was explaining what had occurred to me and what needed to be done. Terms I had never heard before were being bantered around. Angioplasty. Stents. Which arteries were clogged and at what percent. Do you have any relatives nearby? Is there anybody you want to call?
Well, by that time, my then girlfriend had made to the hospital and was waiting to see me. The nurses asked if I was up to having a visitor for a short while. Of course I told ‘em yes but in a bit of gallows humor, I asked to be covered head to toe in a sheet when she came in. That got me a laugh but that was about all.
I guess I got glimpse of my mortality. I remember her coming in, tears pouring out her eyes. I started crying. I think we were both afraid of what might come next. I don’t remember how long she was allowed to stay or what we talked about. I hope it went something like this but I doubt it.
Please don't bury me
Down in that cold cold ground
No, I'd druther have "em" cut me up
And pass me all around
Throw my brain in a hurricane
And the blind can have my eyes
And the deaf can take both of my ears
If they don't mind the size
The surgery was scheduled for a day or so later. They went in through my leg (femoral artery?) and I was awake through entire the procedure. I saw them poking around my beating heart. I saw the stent go in and work its magic and that was the easy part. The hard part came after they removed the tube from my leg and I had to keep it held in what can best be described as a vice for about three to four hours. Essentially, I couldn’t move.
Lucky for me, the surgery worked and I went home a couple of days later.
Give my stomach to Milwaukee
If they run out of beer
Put my socks in a cedar box
Just get "em" out of here
Venus de Milo can have my arms
Look out! I've got your nose
Sell my heart to the junkman
And give my love to Rose
When I got there, I was amazed. The door was closed but still busted. There were bloody towels, used syringes, cotton swabs, and empty vials scattered around the living room. It looked like a crack house. My then girlfriend cleaned up the joint and I rested. It seemed that even without any complications, it would be close to two months before I could go back to work.
Two months is a long time to think. I played a lot of computer chess and other assorted video games but those things just couldn’t fill the void I was feeling. I thought about what had happened and what was going to happen. I thought about people I had hurt and people who had hurt me. I felt sorry for myself. I moped, I brooded, I complained to whomever would listen. I was a real pain in the ass.
I think my then girlfriend summed it best when she said something along the lines that I was already dead.
Give my feet to the footloose
Careless, fancy free
Give my knees to the needy
Don't pull that stuff on me
Hand me down my walking cane
It's a sin to tell a lie
Send my mouth way down south
And kiss my ass goodbye
Well, not all of me.
I was finally able to go back to work but my company insisted that I resume my heavy load of travel. I quit shortly afterwards and managed to land a gig as an independent consultant. The money was great and my travel schedule was cut in half. I had more time to play golf, more time with my kid and more time to myself.
I came to realize certain things. I wasn’t so jaded towards life anymore. I took time to appreciate people and in turn, I think they took time to appreciate me. I was able to stop and smell the proverbial roses. Most of the times, I was greeting each day with a sense of anticipation rather than dread.
That seems like it was so long ago but for the most part, it still holds true. Whatever part of me died on that day or in the months that followed seemed somehow destined to die. Maybe that little brush with death was the best thing that ever happened to me.
My then girlfriend and I have since parted ways. She’s now married and living somewhere in Wisconsin.
I owe her a debt of gratitude that I’ll never be able to repay.
Lyrics for "Please Don't Bury Me" copyright by John Prine and released on the album "Sweet Revenge"
All the rest comes from life itself...