The Heart in Denial

I have to be careful about what public broadcasting I tune into.  New Mexico’s offbeat branch of NPR runs weekly campaigns on cardiac disease and the many signs of a heart attack, as told by survivors or the children of non-survivors.  On any day you can enjoy a visceral description of heart failure as told by an elderly Hispanic woman, with panels on what you should do when you have your heart attack.  It’s gotten to the point that I have to turn the station the moment I hear the word, “heart.”  Shortly thereafter, the odds are I’ll drive by a billboard with a handsome, white paramedic that reads, “Heart attack? Call 911.”  Albuquerque is a cardiac minefield.

I feel a violent discomfort with the idea of billboards reminding me about the ever-present heart attack, like little mortality postcards on the roadside just in case you were feeling relaxed, but I begrudge the billboard its funny setup.  It seems like a weird memo, from a business that needs no advertising, with a weirder setup, like the way to talk about a cardiac event is the same way to ask about car troubles. “Heart attack?”  If they put enough up, anyone drifting around having a heart attack in Albuquerque and wondering what they’re supposed to do now will get the snappy reminder, “Hey, you can call 911 for that.”

My anxiety is generalized enough that any podcast or radio feature on illness either repulses or enthralls me.  I especially like stories from the ill, first hand, about their coping strategies.  How did they feel when they were diagnosed?  Do they have any funny quips about disease?  But you’re OK right?  But you’ll die?  Find me any successful person with a serious illness who isn’t full-out dying, interview him or her, and send me every minute you have.  It will either embolden me or ignite a downward spiral of mental anguish.

I recently listened to a podcast in which the hosts were interviewing Michael Kinsley, creator of the magazine Slate, about his Parkinson’s.  It was one of the better illness interviews I’ve heard, full of whit and unconventional observations about death, many of which hadn’t yet occurred to me.  This in particular stood out to me: when it comes to bad mortal news, “there are only two strategies: denial or confrontation.”  Usually people say you can accept or deny your terminal illness, but acceptance, Michael says, is frankly not a choice a person can make.  It either comes to you, or it doesn’t, so you’re left with denial or confrontation.  In the latter, you attack your own illness via support groups and doctor’s consultations and juicing.  You feel like you’re accepting, but the method is more akin to stomping on an ant hill until all the ants inside are dead.  You are in reality fighting, which any white American who’s read a book on Zen Buddhism will tell you is a very different animal from acceptance.

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The Mistrusted Heart

we used to trust each other.

do you remember?

trust isn’t what they say it is.  something aware, this person you make a choice over, this precious stone you look at in your window, acknowledge, appreciate.  that’s not trust.

when you trusted me, you barely knew me.  we were practically brothers, closer even, so implicit was your trust, you never gave me a second thought.  hot, cold, dizzy, awake, easy, we never looked at each other.

we didn’t need to.

we used to trust each other like that.

you didn’t think, he might fail me.  i mean, you knew i would, in the way we know the sun will implode.  like i will, like all of us, the things you trust will implode on themselves.  still, we aren’t that bad.   you’ve just forgotten.

i can still take you places.  i took you to so many before you forgot.  you placed at state because of me, first in 200 meter backstroke.  you climbed a goddamn mountain because of me, how many fucking feet?  you fell in love, because i gave you the blood to do it.

you thought you were dying because of me.  you didn’t die, may i remind you, i got you through even that.  but am i appreciated?

we were lying down the other day like we used to.  you were giving off heat like an oven, and you almost put your hand on me, wanting to press against me, the first time you’ve touched me in how long.  i felt nervous with it hovering over me, like it might swat me, or reassure me, and i thought, maybe this time.  but you pulled away.  couldn’t touch me.

my work used to be taken for granted, in the best way.  now i’m a disappointment?  i feel you watch my every move, and doubt.  you’re terrified of me, like a hag in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk.  you think that’s not disappointing?

jesus, i’m not even that old.

did I miss a beat?  how can i know? i do a lot of them a day.  it’s a big job.  one misstep, things crumble.  do you realize how much worse others have it?  you want to know what real failure looks like?
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