This is how they get in…

So there I am at the half moon window in the Bohemia loft, Sunday morning, writing away with my trusty fountain pen, when a familiar feeling comes to me.

Tightness in the chest, building pressure into pain travelling up the neck into my ears.

Ah shit, not again. Third time’s a charm.

I try to continue writing but the pain renders my handwriting nearly illegible.

I wait for ten minutes, trying to breathe it away. Angina usually disappears in that time.

Half an hour later it’s still there.

Pack up, walk slowly downstairs, tell the servers what’s happening. I sit. Or rather I get told to to sit. One of them is a fourth year nursing student. She holds my hand and talks me through.

Call 911.

The ER nurse finds out I’m a musician. Her daughter is a jazz singer in Toronto. We talk about music and how she hates country music and its affected drawls. I said there should be a country song about an ER unit.

“Totally!” she says.

And I say,

“Yeah, something like, ‘Who’s boots are under your bed? And why are there feet in them?”

Good ol’ dark ER humour.

We laughed ourselves silly and highfived. “I’m so gonna remember that!” she said.

More tests, More waiting. It’s a patient time in all the senses of the word. I think people are so afraid of nothing happening that they fear the fear inside themselves of the unknown.

I sit – or lie down – with the unknown, with the dark, with the fear, offer them a glass of water and have conversations with them. Quiet ones. It’s totally useless to scream or complain to the unknown, fearful dark. It just listens and doesn’t answer. And the nurses and the staff and the doctors are doing their best in an increasingly tight situation.

So I wait. Listen to the beeps, the muffled voices, the complaints from the other rooms. I have my phone with me, and call family and friends. Blood taken. EKG and printouts – ticker tape, eh?

Victoria is there. My son and his wife come up from Toronto. I get a call from my other son in BC.

I call my former spouse. Sister. Brother.

The night is not good. Hospital beds are not made for sleeping. I get news the next morning that I am due, at the very least, for an angiogram, or quite possibly an angioplasty. Just to make sure. I get a heart ultrasound. I hear the whoosh and suck of that fist-sized pump in my chest.

I get my wrist shaved. I get my groin shaved. I refrain mightily from making jokes about that.

Just before I go to the procedure room, I hand my watch, my wedding ring, and my glasses to the nurse for Victoria to pick up. She already has my wallet, my journal, and my notes. I’m glad I didn’t bring my guitar. I am denuded of everything except my body as I am wheeled into the hallway next to the inner sanctum.

I am in an existential paradox of being utterly alone and surrounded by love.

The nurse tells me about the medications they use to calm the patients. Apparently the effect of one of them is,

“It makes the patient not care about what’s happening to them. They look around the room and say, ’Oh that’s a nice clock on the wall, or ceiling tile pattern.”

“I know the name of that drug.” I say.

She gives me a quizzical look.

“Oh?”

I say,

“Yup. It’s called Fuckitol.”

It’s a large room. A bed. Arm rests, foot rests. Robotic controlled x-ray machines. Huge video screens. The prep is quick and efficient. Everybody, including myself is covered in lead-lined protective sheets.

Pin pricks in the wrist. Insert the guide tube for the catheter. I see a bit of bright blood and I don’t faint. Good so far. And sure enough they find a blockage. Two of them. I can see them on the video screen. I am fascinated, not just at the technology and the skill of the surgeon and procedure room nurses, but at what my cardiac arteries look like.

Spiders. Monsters. Tree branches moving in the wind, back and forth with the beating of my heart.

And in just over a half an hour, it’s done. Two stents in. I don’t remember being wheeled back into recovery. The Fuckitol must have been really good. There is an inflatable pressure bandage on my wrist. I’m told in no uncertain terms not to move it, or pick anything up with that arm.

It’s a plastic hollow strap with a filling valve attached. A syringe-like pump adjusts the air pressure. It looks interesting enough to try it out, so I insert the pump into the valve. What I don’t know is that inserting the pump opens the valve, releasing the pressure.

Immediately I start leaking red stuff like a river. Silly me. I don’t know how to stop it. I say some words to the effect of, “Dear me.” the nurse hears, looks, rushes over and says, “Oh, don’t do that!”

Yes, that is what she said. Had I been in her position, I would have said something quite different.

There was blood all over the place. She pumps more air into the bandage, and cleans up. I am very careful from then on. I don’t faint. I’m getting better at this.

I’m in recovery, sending and getting messages of reassurance and support. Victoria is there. Johanne comes later with Elijah. One more overnight. And then I’m home.

This genetic predisposition is irritating and life-threatening. It’s like living with a small bomb inside you, a constant and insistent reminder of the shortness, the unpredictability, the amazing preciousness of this thing we call life.

I’m grateful. That’s all I can say. Right now it’s all I need to say.

December 30, 2019

Photo credit: Laura Frederick

Time passes. Tempus fugit and all that. The calendar turns yet another arbitrary number and we hear the cries of “Here we go again! This year will be the best of all!”

That and jokes about 2020 vision.

I am reminded of someone simpler. Her name is Billie. It’s the name of one of my guitars. I named it after, yes, THAT Billie.

Billie Holiday.

My Billie is a Gibson guitar. Let me tell you a story.

Some years ago I found myself in the Halifax Folklore Centre. It is a dangerous place for me. I was on the hunt for a tenor guitar when I spied with my little eye a lovely specimen hanging from the ceiling beam.

“What is that?” I asked.

“It’s a Gibson L3. Wanna try it?”

Do I like ice cream?

He brought it down for me. Small, parlour size. Carved top and back. “The Gibson” inlaid on the headstock. Narrow frets, almost wires. An ancient manufacturer’s sticker on the inside with the model and serial number written in pencil. Black varnish worn from the first to third position on a “V” shaped neck – no truss rod, then.

This was an old guitar. I played it. Beautiful, bold, brassy. Lead licks sounded, oh, so sweet. Rhythm could cut through damn near anything.

How old?

“1914” the man at the counter said. “Previous owner couldn’t play anymore because of arthritis. He’d had it for a very long time.”

Long story short, I took her home with me. I christened her Billie.

And she’s been with me ever since. She is 106 years and wears her age well.

She was born when the first world war began in Europe, one year before the real Billie Holiday came to this earth. When Ernest Shackleton survived his Antarctic expedition without losing a man in his crew. Not even twenty years had passed since Louis Riel was tried, convicted and hanged in a five day, trumped-up trial in Winnipeg. The great depression. The Winnipeg General Strike. Lived through second war, the Korean war, the cold war, the Cuban missile crisis. She was born before amplifiers. When 78’s were all the rage with the Charleston and the Flappers, and Prohibition. When Al Capone did business in the backwoods of Eastern Ontario.

Open tunings on her sound magical, harplike. I have had her re-fretted, made some changes so she could be plugged into a sound system.

And I can already hear the purists say, “Ohmigawd, why are you doing that to a collector’s item?”

I will tell you why.

Billie is meant to be played, to make music, to bring joy to a desperate world. I refuse to hang her on a wall and show her off like some hoarder’s trinket, to value her worth as an appraised resale item.

No, sir. Billie is meant to make music. Billie Holiday, “Lady Day”, one of the most influential musicians in vocal jazz and pop culture in the mid-twentieth century, died when she was only 44 from her demons, both the ones inside her and the ones who mistreated her.

My Gibson has outlived her two and a half times. I call her Billie to honour the memory. To keep the music going.

(The recording you hear on this blog edition is an original song, “Boogie with the Reaper” played on the Gibson. It will appear on my upcoming CD, “Caught” (c) 2017 Edward St Moritz)