The ophthalmologist who diagnosed me with a retinal stroke called it “the canary in the mine” -early warning of worse things that might come, like a brain stoke. Last Wednesday I had an MRI to investigate what danger might be lurking down the tunnels of my arteries.
Apparently there was one. Some ominous blockage on the left side, but it was “not completely imaged.” An angiogram was immediately ordered.
As I awaited this new test, I took the arcane MRI report, whose jargon I will spare you, and like a fool sought to elucidate it by going online. Within minutes I was staring at horrors like Wallenberg syndrome. It can cause difficulty swallowing, until you need a feeding tube inserted. Or hiccups that can go on non-stop for months, driving you crazy. If I get those please just shoot me.
Maybe that wasn’t waiting for me. But what certainly was lurking was a bigger stroke, like my father had. After which he could barely walk, and couldn’t write any more.
Here’s the strange thing. I have suffered all my life from an anxiety disorder. One of its characteristics is a tendency to “catastrophizing.” The smallest concern – a missed phone call, an awkward social moment, too few gigabytes left on my hard drive, no clean socks –often leads to a feeling of dread, that the world is coming to an end.
Yet here I was, faced by a serious, life-threatening condition, and I was almost calm. My father had told me about the boy who cried wolf and sternly warned me never to do that. Yet suffering as I do from anxiety, I’ve been crying wolf – at least inside – most of my life.
Now the wolf was actually scratching at my door. Had been for some time, while I was busy crying over spilt milk, over chipped paint on the bathroom cabinets, a stain on the rug.
Canaries in mines, wolves at the door…the metaphor I prefer is someone shooting at me. At all of us. All the time. (Never mind who that someone might be. THAT’S another post.) Oh, I’d known intellectually that they were shooting. They’d slain a close friend last year. But now a bullet fragment had hit me in the eye. Seeing those MRI results I started hearing the bullets whizzing past.
Another could strike my brain at any moment. Paralyze me. Kill me.
My calm in the face of this knowledge was tinged with fatalism. The bullets were gonna hit or not, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
Fatalism, and sadness. Suddenly I wanted more time. More time to spend more with my wife, children, and friends. More time to write.
The next day, after the angiogram, the doctor emailed me. “This looks pretty good.”
Yes, I’d caught some shrapnel, but I felt like a large shell had just whizzed by my head.
Missed, you fuckers! Mrs. Muse said, “What should we do today?” I looked at the weather. 70. “Let’s go to Point Reyes –may be the last chance before we leave SF.”
For years I’ve read people’s accounts of surviving cancer. They talk of being blessed with a new lease on life, which becomes deeper and richer. I never understood it. From my anxious perspective all I could think about was every moment fearing that the cancer might return. That didn’t sound deep and rich. It sounded like hell.
But here I was, driving up Sir Francis Drake boulevard, past the magical hills of Marin,
towards a favorite spot on Point Reyes, McClure’s Beach. And I could taste that deep and rich on the tip of my tongue. Something about seeing magical hills, knowing now it might just be for the last time, made them appear as if I was seeing them – seeing period –for the first time. Something like the first hours of my first trip on LSD, before all the crazy evil stuff that came later.
As we drove onto Point Reyes, saw more magical hills, the elks looking back at us,
a new calm descended on me. Not the sad, fatalistic calm of the day before, but one suffused with a subtle but sustained joy. I remembered all the trips to favorite places we’d taken before. How the journey there was so often poisoned by a sick kind of anticipation – Is it going to be there when we arrive – that special thing? And then the place itself, always somehow disappointing. Too many bugs. Too hot, too cold. Too many people. Not as good as the first time. And so on.
But there was none of that this time. As we hiked down the canyon,
got that first glimpse of the ocean,
yes –stopped and smelled the flowers –
it was all perfect, just as it was.
Not a degree too hot or cold.
The perfect spot to eat simple sandwiches.
Strange rocks. I love strange rocks.
What is that pelican doing there? Has he come all the way from Florida?
And what’s past that crack in the rock?
Another beach, even more deserted than this one, with a big strange rock.
Yet even my lifelong seeking for the mysterious, my longing for the surprising image, the new kick-ass sound, paled next to the experience of this day, this moment, now, walking barefoot on the beach with my honey.
That experience is the real goal of all the longing and the seeking, the striving and that sick anticipation.
For many people a fun day at the beach is an old story. This was the first time I’d ever really had one.
But all good things must come to an end.
We were driving away from McClure’s Beach when a hubcap popped off our car, skittered down the road and struck a young guy who just happened to be sitting by the road with his girlfriend, admiring a stream.
I jumped from the car. He didn’t seem to be bleeding. But he looked extremely freaked out.
“Are you all right?”
“Uh, yeah. It missed my head.”
He gave me an inscrutable look. As I turned to leave, he said one word. “Random.”
I asked my son later about it. He said, “Yeah, I hear random a lot. It’s used in a negative context. Maybe because life for our generation seems so uncertain.”
Yesterday morning at 5:30 AM I felt the bed shake. My first SF earthquake. A small one, 4.0. My friend Dan, who’s lived here 30 years, said, “Yeah, that was a small one. There’s always that moment when you wait – Is this the big one?”
Random. Those bullets they’re shooting at me. At you, at all of us.
Maybe it takes one getting close, one hitting, to wake us up. Not to Amazing Grace. But this breath, this step, the typing of this sentence.