Two days ago I was discharged from UCSD Hospital after open-heart surgery, during which one of my coronary valves was replaced with a metallic (rather than porcine) one. I have been moving very slowly since then, from the bank to the Cricket store (for phone time) to Denny’s across El Cajon Boulevard; my torso carved, mottled, and stained with Betadine, blood clots, and scalpel tracks. I have never felt older. A phrase: “The inner fragility of the heart-attack victim,” is replayed sourcelessly in my skull. I have never felt weaker, more vulnerable.
Yesterday, I learned that the IRS has levied my checking account for a few thousand dollars. I am sitting in a motel room in an uncharming part of North Park and watching, without seeing, a television commercial for aspirin: old guy looks at the camera: “The doctor told me, ‘You just beat the widow-maker.’” The guy, the actor, appears less shot-out than I am but still, somehow, looks like one of my parent’s friends — all of whom I believe are deceased.
This is roughly where things stand as I perch at the edge of this bed, short of breath, head bowed — not in piety but like a punch-drunk boxer — and squint down the road a few days to my 60th birthday.
The Buddha says, “A man can be born a blind leper in a ring of fire and know only Nirvana.” I have always felt there was truth to this Zen saying, though I’ve been unsure why. Nonetheless, that blind-leper factor seems at play at the edges of things here. Example: yesterday, after climbing painfully out of a taxi and entering a shop to buy minutes for my phone, I dropped a handful of change. Dropping to my knees to retrieve the money, I nearly wept. It would have been the first time in decades that physical pain had caused me to cry, but instead I laughed — not a reassuring sound but oddly just as helpful.
I asked myself: What is the principle here? How can misery provide a kind of lotus pad beneath a bodhi tree in a moment of bitter bliss? It was only a partial answer I was given. Most of it had to do with the fact that I had just spoke with my son who had told me not to worry, that he had a few hundred bucks put away and that he would get angry at the feds on my behalf rather than me fuming around and opening incisions. The balance of that partial answer I was given yesterday, on my knees and teary-eyed in the Cricket store, was the single word “Vicodin.”
Ironies, as they say, abound. Why do I strongly suspect that this siphoning of my money was the result of being ushered zealously through the application process for County Medical Services by workers anxious, it would seem, for me to have the surgery so long as I were left with little else.
Not dissimilar is, possibly, UCSD calling me within 24 hours of being discharged to arrange for an immediate follow-up at the clinic to monitor my INR levels (whatever they are — it has to do with the probability of bleeding to death as a result of inaccurate dosing with the blood thinner Warfarin), telling me the clinic is a private one (which I can no longer afford), and then asking me if I am familiar with Saint Vincent’s Clinic at Father Joe’s Clinic? Don’t know if you are able to follow that or care to, but if not, trust me, irony abounds.
The rug is pulled out from under you, you are presented with an alternative, shabbier public rug, then regaled with Catch-22 absurdities as to why you are inappropriate and/or ineligible to qualify for said rug.
That area rug (I picture it just inside a front door, like a thin welcome mat) is another way of looking at that metaphorical, meditational lotus pad — constantly being slid out and substituted for another — but constant in its nature: misery.
Which brings me, at age 60, to Woody Allen (and not for the first time). In particular, his dualistic rule-of-thumb that life can be constituted of either the miserable or the horrible. This is a truly transcendent bit of philosophy that presents itself as comedy, transmogrifies into the mundane and eventually arcs back — though not completely — to the comic.
A perfect distillation of this slow epiphany is the example of the recent theft of my raincoat and the calloused and moronic disposal (as in trashed) of the only single and completed manuscript of a particular novel of mine by “brothers” in a fellowship of ostensibly recovering inebriates. The loss of the manuscript: horrible. In a more practical, painful way, the loss of the raincoat is a fine example of the miserable.
Happy birthday to me.