I felt dizzy and a bit out of it. Summer in Greenpoint
, a somber, sometimes downright depressing Polish and Latino enclave in Brooklyn
. Working as a teacher and trying to finish a paper on Montaigne
for a graduate course at NYU Comp Lit from the semester before. And living in a beautiful old brickfront house that stifled in the summer heat. And my girlfriend was gone for the next 9 months, touring with her ballet troupe... So there were objective reasons to be a bit blue and rundown.
I started feeling like I was passing out and decided to go home. On the G train I started seriously blacking out and got nervous enough to think about going to the doctors. At home I changed into shorts and flipflops, grabbed the collected Montaigne. NYU grad school health insurance didn't work through the summer so I went to a Greenpoint clinic that catered to the neighborhood.
After waiting for an hour or so in a waiting room reminiscent - in overall dinginess and Eastern European flavor - of the clinic that Tomas ends up in after displeasing the government in The Unbearable Lightness of Being... And the doctor was surprisingly good. He did the perfunctory listening to the heart and taking the blood pressure type things. And got noticably concerned. He put me on a truly ancient EKG and ripped off the chart and waked into the other room.
When he came back he told me that my heart was slowing down and indeed stopping for seconds at a time. And said he had no idea why. He then said I had to get to an emergency room immediately. He then stopped and reflected on the fact that if he called 911 I'd be taken to a Brooklyn hospital and might die waiting for care. He told me to come with him and he walked straight out of the clinic with its packed waiting room and into his car. Through the Queens midtown tunnel and to St Vincent's hospital in the West Village. Me nodding off the whole time.
In St Vincent's emergency room they had my papers ready, i signed then and went on another gurney and another ekg machine that set off an alarm everytime my heart stopped. After 10 minutes or so of this one doctor came over and told me in a matter of fact way that they would have to put a pacemaker in my heart and that because of my condition they couldn’t use any general anesthesia. The nurse was right next to him with the requisite forms. For the first time I felt real fear – not at my condition but imagining some kind of open heart surgery. I felt horribly alone and ridiculous in my plastic sandals and bathing suit shorts holding on to the copy of Montaigne’s essays.
Turned out to be nowhere as dreadful as I imagined. And with moments of emergency room humor. “We call this a Bronx tan” he said while the nurse scrubbed my neck with betadine. The pacemaker was external and the wire passed down though my jugular (or my carotid I’m not sure) into my heart. The most unsettling thing was a kind of dull pressure down my neck and the doctor’s running commentary as he affixed the electrode to my heart.
Then passed two weeks of hospital bed rest, the blood tests that revealed Lyme disease and the Montaigne paper to finish. I was writing on sickness and monstrocity in the essays. And relating it somehow to Caliban in Shakespeare’s “Tempest” as this is what one does in Comp Lit. I found myself unable to write this simple paper. I’d read everything I needed to, had plenty of notes and thus didn’t have to do more than transform the notes into a paper format. And have never done it. Dropped out of grad school soon after. Not through anger – just loss of desire for it. Perversely being stuck with Montaigne and a few other books but mostly Montaigne. Reading about his kidney stones, his cannibals, his cripples and monstrous children… it wasn’t morose or depressing. Just being stuck in a hospital bed was probably enough to realize that I was just hiding out in the Program for Comp Lit and I’d never have enough desire to do what was necessary to get the PhD and then get a job.
Never a moment with a bright light at the end of the tunnel. I was evidently fairly close to death but never really felt danger. Didn’t feel a great sense of importance or urgency. Didn’t particularly want to see anyone at my bedside (not even the ballerina) felt a sense of balance. Guess it was the effect of what I was reading. A kind of Tibetan Book of the Dead. Not to say that I’d reached some kind of satori or anything. My existence wasn’t painful at that point and I certainly didn’t want to die. More of a feeling of passivity or equanimity. Like ‘this is the best of all possible worlds’ as the character in Candide asserts but at the same time it is no ‘Mega Ti’ – not a thing of great importance. And the universe would continue quite well without me.
Similar experience – though more instantaneous – reading the Tao Te Ching while on a business flight to Atlanta and lightening struck the plane - but that’s another near death experience…