The pain was never insignificant, but neither was it debilitating. I fought it at night mostly, losing sleep, but still I managed the workday and family matters without my discomfort being noticed by others. Keeping it concealed, that’s what I thought was important, because the symptoms were certainly those of a heart ailment. Had I told anyone, they would have surely suggested or even insisted I go in for a checkup.
I didn’t want a checkup. Forty-six was too young for a trim and fit man like myself to need a checkup. Besides, checkups discovered things you didn’t even suspect. And too many times I had been for examinations that resulted in even more examinations that turned up nothing. Doctors and hospitals and medical labs were inconvenient in the extreme, and so I decided that unless the pain became worse or other symptoms developed, I would wait it out. Already I had waited more than six weeks. Surely if anything were serious wrong, my body would have given me some kind of additional signal. That’s how our bodies work, right? I figured it was stress. But I have to say that I worried. The heaviness in my chest was just so darn consistent.
I knew that stress could cause all kinds of aberrations in healthy people, including chest pains and headaches and nausea, the very things that were bothering me. And I had plenty of stress weighing me down—enough stress to make a guy wonder why he wasn’t sicker than he was. Big Bill had it in for me at the office, Julia had turned colder than a dead woman for no reason at all, and my daughter hated me.
So I put up with the pain and dizziness believing I could make it better by eliminating the stress, which meant doing what I could to demean myself in front of Big Bill, paying more attention to Julia, and trying harder to understand the unreasonable behavior of a fifteen-year-old.
I think Julia thought I was having an affair. “You’re taking me to the Royal Coachman? We haven’t eaten there since our fifteenth anniversary. What are you up to?”
“Can’t a man take his wife to dinner?” I asked. I fumbled past the chest pain to get at the little box in the breast pocket of my coat. “Here,” I said. Looking back, I probably could have said something a little more romantic.
“What’s this?” I heard the suspicion.
“It’s the ring you’ve always wanted. Twenty-four friggin’ karats.”
She took it out of the box and slipped onto her slender finger. “It’s a nice fit, she said, “but really, Robby, what’s the occasion?”
She hadn’t called me “Robby” for years.
“I love you, that’s all.” That should have done it. That should have mellowed and warmed her heart, thereby un-stressing mine, at least to some degree.
But there was no lessening of the chest pain. In fact, it seemed a little worse in the days following. Maybe that was because Big Bill had no capacity at all for compassion. He was too full of himself to leave room for anyone else.
The production line shut down one morning and he blamed me, which was no surprise; he always blamed me. But this time the fault was mechanical. If anyone had been negligent, it was the maintenance supervisor, a fact obvious to everyone except Big Bill.
Ordinarily, I would have called that to his attention, but this time I meekly advised Big Bill that I wouldn’t let it happen again. I practically begged him to forgive me. He smiled with victory and went back to whatever stinking and festering ambush hole that he usually hid within.
But I got no relief in the pain. It got so bad that same evening that I threw up in my own car on the way home. I found a Jeep with no top in my driveway. Lisa was coming out the front door with a shaved-head boy who might have looked better without the earrings. Lisa’s skirt was sufficiently short to be all but absent. She had enough make up on for ten girls twice her age.
This was my last chance. “Have a nice time, honey. Do you need any money?”
No response, except the “look,” which I had come to interpret as, “Please die.” I watched them leave, two freaks in a Jeep.
I made it to the front door before blacking out. When I came to, I saw Julia in the yard talking to a neighbor. She had her back to me. The paramedics had me strapped to a portable bed with rails and were headed for their van, the back doors of which were gaped open like the jaws of Hell.
“Julia,” I croaked.
She didn’t hear. Or maybe she did.
But she came into the ER before I heard someone announce that I’d have to be admitted for observation.
“They say I might have suffered a heart attack,” I told her.
Obvious fake concern. We talked no more at all before they rolled me toward an elevator.
I remember taking yellow medicine from a cup, and I remember seeing Jeopardy on the television above the door. I must have slept. My next awareness was daylight filling the room. Two well-dressed men, both with stethoscopes around their necks, were talking at the door. Obviously talking about me. I heard, “One hundred percent blocked.”
“Do I have to stay here,” I asked.
They ignored me. I sat up and checked myself for intravenous or oxygen tubes and found none.
“Doctor, do you think I could get something to drink?” I felt dry and drained. And like all hospital rooms, it was too damn cold. “I’d like a blanket, please.”
Neither man responded. Their conversation never skipped a syllable. That was just rude. Was I not a paying patient? Did I not have insurance? I swung my legs off the bed. Maybe that would get their attention.
It didn’t. I stood. I was wearing a regulation gown, except this one had daisies on it. While I was wondering whether or not the hospital had different gowns for men and women, the doctors left. I fought my anger, knowing I might aggravate my condition.
But I had no pain. For the first time in several months, I had no pain. They’d given me something to stop it. Surely they had. Morphine or Lipitor or the yellow pills or whatever the heck it was that heart patients took.
I stepped from my room into the hallway. “Nurse,” I said, maybe too loudly. “Nurse, I’d like my clothes, please.”
No one came. I went back in and pushed the little panic button on the bed control that was supposed to alert the nurses to come a’runnin’. They didn’t. I looked in the closet and found my clothes. Put them on. Still, no one had bothered to check on me. If this was how they treated heart patients, I’d do just as well as home.
Where was Julia? Shouldn’t she be here? I remembered how unconcerned she seemed when I told her about the heart attack. I was glad I had told her I loved her when I gave her the ring. At least she knew that much. I might tell her again when I got home. It would be nice if she said it to me.
I was putting on my coat when I saw that the staff had left my chart on the door. It was on a clipboard hanging by a nylon cord. I checked the hallway before reading it.
. . . dorsal artery 100% closed . . . patient apparently ignored warnings . . . terminal . . .
Terminal! I checked the name to make certain it was my chart. It was. I was terminal!
I went back to the bed and sat down beside the discarded gown. I picked it up and held it in my lap, staring at the daisies. I was going to die. How long did I have? Why couldn’t the doctors have talked to me? Were they afraid to tell me? Afraid the strain would take me that much sooner?
And where the hell was Julia?
Not wanting to go by the nurses’ station to get to the elevators, I followed the exit signs to a stairwell. The door was propped open with a mop, and a fan set on high was blowing stale air from somewhere below. I didn’t know what floor I was on but I started down hoping the descent would not prove too strenuous. I didn’t want to die on the stairs.
The stairwell was ill lit and my vision seemed blurred. Light headed. Couldn’t feel my steps upon the stairs. Almost floating.
Maybe this was it. Or maybe they had given me too much medicine. That would account for my lack of concentration. When I found the street, I could not remember how many floors I had descended. The afternoon sun did nothing to warm me.
Even without the pain, I knew I was too sick to be leaving the hospital, but I had a real need to be with Julia. I crossed the street against a light at the first intersection, headed for the pay phone at the laundry mat. A driver using a cell phone nearly hit me before I got across; I don’t think he even saw me.
Maybe he did hit me. I’ve made the crossing from the hospital to the phone thousands of times now, and no one tries to avoid me.
But there’s no pain.