A few years back I had heart surgery after a trip to the doctor for a plugged ear surprisingly morphed into a stress-test and trip to the hospital. During an angiogram, the doctor found two blockages – one blood vessel 50% plugged and the other 99%. He didn’t run the scope through my 100% blocked right ear, but I wished at the time that he had. It was bugging the hell out of me.
As I watched the borescope traverse my heart on a big screen monitor, the doctor pointed to my innards and offered advice on the things he could do and things he couldn’t. Together, we decided that even though he could repair both blockages with angioplasties, he couldn’t guarantee that one of them – the 50 percenter – wouldn’t clog again.
When I asked how I’d know if it blocked again, his answer was, “You’ll have a heart attack.” I decided to have the bypasses right then, on the table. Waiting for a heart attack didn’t strike me as a particularly good method of risk management.
I didn’t really give the decision much thought. In fact, I viewed it as just one more everyday event in a bumptious, careening life. I went home. I had a nice weekend, and reported back for my surgery on Monday afternoon. The Omnipotent Dad flew cross-country to be by my side while my calmness distressed Mrs. Poobah.
I had the surgery, but afterward, I had none of those “A-HA!” moments that signaled a new perspective on life. No great revelations about staring down death or feeling the beauty of each day I’d snatched away from the grim reaper. After a shorter than average recovery period, I simply went back to doing what I’d been doing before.
After a few months, I noticed that my memory wasn’t quite as sharp as it used to be. I’d always been able to recall thousands of trivial bits of information at the drop of a hat.
What’s the best way to kill flies? Aim slightly behind them, because they jump backwards to take off. How many rooms are in the White House? That would be 132. Who was the voice in the TV sitcom – My Mother the Car? Ann Southern. And for bonus points, she played opposite Jerry Van Dyke. Mr. Ed “talked” because they slathered peanut butter on his lips, Peter Jennings never finished grade school, and the first person to achieve controlled flight was Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont (the Wright bothers were the first to achieve controlled powered flight).
Suddenly, I found my vast store of knowledge frustratingly difficult to access. I began to forget names of people I’d known for years – while I was talking to them. I forgot what I was supposed to buy at the grocery and forgot to run errands, finish small details of everyday life, or go to doctor’s appointments. While these things weren’t happening often enough to become unmanageable, they were still pains in my gigantic omnipotent ass.
One day I realized that I’d begun to have trouble reading, not a lot, but just enough to make it less satisfying. Of all the things that happened, this was the main event.
Before the surgery I’d been a life-long, voracious reader. It was a happy compulsion for me. I frequently read books in a single sitting. My tastes ran the gamut from classics to noir. Newspapers, magazines, and the backs of shampoo bottles. It didn’t matter. It was all interesting to me. Reading had always been a refuge from a troubled life. It as a way to transport myself to some place that was more appealing, whether that place was staring death in the eye by running the Amazon or sitting on a front porch in the warm Georgia sun.
And it was a shocking capability to lose.
My doctors and all suspected the surgery. I learned that people who had the type of surgery I’d had sometimes develop minor memory loss or diminishment of their attention spans. The doctors sympathized that my developments could be frustrating, but that I was generally OK and that it wouldn’t get any worse.
And it hasn’t.
I can cope with not being able to recall trivia at will. It doesn’t really matter that the White House has 132 rooms when I can recall that one of them is inhabited by a congenital idiot. Forgetting a name isn’t so bad. When it happens, I compensate or fess-up that I’ve forgotten and chalk it up to having a “senior moment”. Sometimes I even get a laugh out of it.
But the loss of books as a favored companion is tough.
I still go to bookstores and look at the racks. There are plenty of titles to interest me. I’m still on the lookout for the odd title like, A Wolverine is Eating My Leg, or favored author like Steinbeck, Kerouac, or Russo. But the experience is like a recovering alcoholic in a liquor store. You can stare longingly at the graceful necks of the bottles, but you know that’s about as far is it can go.
I haven’t read an entire book in over a year, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. It was so difficult, the starts and stops spread into a 6-month long ordeal. I finally finished the book, but only by force of will and a disjointed journey that made it unpleasant.
I can still master some reading. Since I’m a writer, I read a lot at work – though it’s not the most scintillating stuff. I can manage a blog posting. Newspapers still work and magazine articles do too – if they aren’t too long. I still get a little charge over reading the ingredients on the back of a cereal box or the chemical names on the backs of shampoo bottles. Old habits die hard.
But books? Fugedaboutit.
Don’t get me wrong. On the whole, the surgery was a success. I might not be here today without it. I’d have lost other, more important pleasures, like seeing the Poobette grow up, spooning with Mrs. Poobah, or stroking the dog and hearing her groan in pleasure.
But losing the books? That’s tough. Really tough. Like losing a close friend.
So that’s why I chose this topic today – so you could read it and I could read vicariously through you.
It’s a neat trick, but it’s still not the same – like margarine isn’t butter.
BTW, did you know that margarine was invented because of a request from Napoleon’s personal chef? He developed it because butter always spoiled on long campaigns.
I learned that from a book you know.