My youngest daughter and I have embarked on a mid-afternoon walk. Sunshine chases a bluebottle dragonfly ahead of me; shadows scatter. The scents of plants, flowers and warming earth fill me up. I am climbing an overgrown, irregular hill, leg muscles responding, the forward momentum aiding my progress. Perspiration reminds me it is summer at last.
Near the top I feel a small lag between what I need and want to do and what is happening: breath comes faster and harder, feet find a hold and push on, hands look for something to grasp. My daughter suggests we could head back down, maybe find another route. I have a few more yards to the summit and so I keep climbing, slow but steady. My life is rooted in a few simple committments, one of which is this: to enjoy utilizing this body as I give over to the vagaries of beauty in the Pacific Northwest. And beyond.
But before I reach level ground, I stop. My heart is thudding, enough that my ribs feel too small and frail to contain it. A complicated structure putting out powerful energy, this heart demands my attention. I am at a standstill. Pulse/respiration/blood pressure up: I am suddenly tired even though dopamine and serotonin are skyhigh. Although happy, here are the reminders that I am not quite the woman I had hoped to be back when I was thirty, forty and then fifty, still envisioning the best. Even a week ago. And it stings as I wait for this to pass. A wave of anxiety passes through me.
A week ago I was given a brief review of the results from the yearly stress echocardiogram test. My own cardiologist was on vacation so a PA delivered it without ado. Arteries: really looked great (“as far as we can see”). Valves: not so great.
I had known there was a mild problem a year ago. The flu had taken me down for a hard couple of weeks and the ER x-ray was sent to cardiologist, Dr. P. He had prescribed an ace inhibitor to reduce blood pressure in addition to the other medication I was taking. To put less stress on the valve, he noted, and keep my slightly enlarged heart from enlarging more. The new pill’s side effects had caused me to drag from the moment I awakened and all through my work days. It felt as though I was forced to downshift when I needed to upshift and put my foot to the pedal. But I adjusted. I hadn’t thought about that mild valve problem again. I was busy participating in work, social events, family gatherings. My exercise routine was maintained at a more consistent level than ever before. I had improved endurance, and with that came greater confidence.
But now I heard: “Surgery in next few years to replace the deteriorating valves…don’t want to wait until it gets too bad…” and tried to memorize what he said without success.
After I got the news I went on with my day. Somewhere in the bread aisle at the store my chest constricted; sadness rose up in me like a bitter tide. I had planned on something other than this, something better. A small reward. I had worked hard; I had withstood the challenges for ten years. The stent implants were still doing their job, so why this?
I paid for my groceries and went home, then sat down to write fiction about people and events that had the opportunity for auspicious developments. I can transform nearly anything with the alchemy of words. In the sphere of imaginings, beginnings and endings always lead me to another path of intrigue, and usually to higher ground. I forget the most mundane or damaging moments, and call on a broader and deeper view, a multiplicity of experiences: my writer’s voice. Anything can happen. Miracles stop by as though they are neighbors. I make my way in the world like this, both literarily and otherwise, as often as possible.
So, near the top of this hill where we stop, I acknowledge the uncomfortable hammering of my heart but also the distance from the bottom to this point. Several years ago I was unable to climb that far, that fast. I would have had to hold on to someone, and then return before reaching my goal. But now I put a foot forward, then the other until I make the last stretch. The top of the hill is nothing much. It was the view I’d come looking for, but sometimes pinnacles are surprisingly ordinary. The breeze is soothing in the intense light. My heart rate slows; all trace of the earlier fear has left. The way down is easy. My daughter follows, talking lightly about life, her laughter sweet. I relax a bit too much, almost slide over the dirt and plants, through the fragrant, cool woods, but a crash landing is likely.
And that is not what I intend on happening–a crash landing. I have had enough of those over the years. I long to keep at bay the more terrible possibilities that could hijack this life, so I try to make the right choices, remain diligent in my tasks, develop more acute vision and give rein to any inspired moments. I would like to be a better conduit for Divine Love.
Meanwhile, it seems I might need more repair–for strength, for stamina, for a bit more longevity. I wasn’t that sold on trying to become so much more normal, anyway. It has always been the odd bits and pieces that have seemed to make the whole richer in the end. What appears to be the weak link can become the thing that makes the better difference. When all is said and done, I’m up for the next go ’round.
(Thanks, Alexandra, for all your encouragement and love.)