It is an age-old cliché that when in the process of shuffling off this mortal coil, one’s entire life flashes before one’s inner vision (“eyes,” they say, but I assume “inner eye” is what is meant). It may well be that I have discovered a kind of root of this wive’s tale (if that is what it is — I pretend no expertise here) following some recent and penultimately undesirable medical news.
This is metaphorically a Friday or weekend piece if one considers his or her life as a kind of workweek and it’s winding down a sort of horizon of liberation or oblivion — whichever. I have spent much time hospitalized recently and was told by a man who graduated from medical school that I have developed congestive heart failure. I was also assailed with several other medical terms that have left me more confused than informed: “Systolic, diastolic (failure), aortal stenosis,” and more. Some phrases were clearer than others, but the cake-winner was “Life expectancy over the next year abbreviated,” followed by “An undesirable candidate for surgery (no insurance, for one).” That surgery being a reasonable source of hope of surviving another decade or more (especially if I get an actual pig’s heart valve instead of the other kind, whatever that is).
Since this news and its debilitating evidence (basically being thrashed out: energyless, literally breathless as the heart fails to efficiently pump fluid from the lungs), I have experienced a slow-motion flash of my life before my eyes.
Hardly a flash. In recent weeks, merging into months now, I have revisited mundane as well as seemingly transcendent pleasures: overwhelming evidence of intrinsic mediocrity I try too absurdly at times to surmount. A large part of this slow-motion flash is unremarkable anecdotes I recall vividly now that seem a compilation of evidence of the character flaws that are ingrained in otherwise sound raw material. For example, I find myself grateful for certain memories in an otherwise unreliable — no, nearly worthless and void memory bank on any given day...but there is this one:
It is the mid-1960s, and my father returns from his advertising job in Chicago to our suburban home. He is comically disheveled, his hat and tie, lapels askew. His matinee-idol hair in chaos. He leans against the inside of the front door in mock breathlessness and announces to me, my sisters, and one brother, “I barely escaped…I used too much, an extra dab.…”
He goes on to explain that he had used the hair-slicking product Brylcreem before leaving work and had been attacked by lascivious women on the train home. For those in need, the TV advertising slogan for that product was a jingle, “Brylcreem, a little dab’ll do ya, use more only if you dare/ But watch out the gals’ll all pursue ya. They love to get their fingers in yer hair.”
My siblings and I stifled genuine laughter and groaned inwardly — and aloud — at Dad’s corniness. It was our job, as Dad was doing his.
Other memories — less warm, but they all have the stench of resentment, useless to everyone. It is the profligate flood of mundane recollections that stun me. Nearly 60 years of life now, packed, I believe, with at least a half dozen lifetimes and yet so much of it inconsequential, unremarkable. I had grander ideas for myself, naturally, but with age they have become near comic.
I cling to the comic now. But it is so hard to qualify much anymore as truly funny. The punch line may very well be a short way down the road. In the meantime, I breathe.
Greeted by friends I haven’t seen in a bit, they say, “You’re a survivor.” Or, “I don’t know how you survive.” I have no response. I tell myself I have outlived my father by more than ten years. I search for consolation in this idea but have found none. Survival, in my case, has been an act of a power beyond myself — whatever — not pluck or the triumph of the will.
There must be a reason for all of it, one thinks, but I have witnessed, for example, my own son enter madness looking for reason as a means out. It seems, too often, unavailable.
So, Zen Buddhism presents itself as a sane alternative. But I am a city-bred, Catholic-raised cynic/misanthrope. I could go on, of course, but to judge oneself is a vanity, and I have enough of that going on as it is. I am, at the moment (and that’s what we are given, moments), simply a man stringing words together in sentences, flawed, yet this is what I am given to do. I love sentences, abuse them as I may.