Friday, February 20, 2009

The lower 48

In forty-eight hours my chest will be cut open, my heart stopped, and certain repairs and alterations made to it. What the effect of all this will be on me I cannot tell. The conventional wisdom is that it will make me healthier, but the fact is that I do not feel unhealthy now. And so, to avoid the prospect of my suddenly dropping dead I face the prospect of having my life as I have always known it changed forever.

For the heart is not just a pump. It is the symbol of all that we feel and hold dear and desire and hope for, the repository of our joys and regrets, the organ that, more than any other but the brain, defines who we think we are. And I wonder now whether that can be exposed and handled by strangers and altered without profoundly changing one's life.

Yet even as I write this I realize that precisely that has occurred all through the course of my life, and through the course of the life of every human being. There are moments - stark, defining moments - when our hearts are exposed, in expressions of love, for example, or admissions of guilt. And our hearts are often handled by strangers, some of whom abuse them and others of whom brace and breathe insight and caring into them. And these experiences alter our hearts in ways that, usually, we cannot predict.

And so, I have, in effect, had nothing but surgery on my heart throughout my life, because I am human among humans, a self among strangers, longing for love and finding and losing it, making myself vulnerable in the hope that I shall find fortitude, and finding it sometimes, and sometimes finding its opposite - betrayal. And filling my heart up like a library of experience and remorse and reward, only to find others opening the books that I have stored therein in search of their own peace or plunder.

So perhaps heart surgery is not so alien to me after all. Perhaps it is merely a metaphor for life itself, in which we are dissected and examined and strengthened and wounded and changed as often by strangers (or by those who turn themselves into strangers), as by those who care for us or claim to.

Though I cannot help but feel that when my heart is stopped, and while those sterile hands dissect and reconstruct it, my soul will be wandering somewhere and wondering who and what this creature is which it inhabits. And that it will make its own decision whether or not to return to that abode in which it has suffered so much of turmoil and striving and despair.

Were I it, were I to make that decision, I think I would hope for something purer and more peaceful; I think I would choose repose over repair.

Vale, pax tecum

I leave for my heart surgery in a few hours, no doubt sleepless ones. I am told that my chances of survival are very good, indeed, overwhelming. Yet there is a mortality rate in such procedures, and so I would feel remiss if I did not tell those of you who have taken the time to read this blog how very much I appreciate your attention. And especially to those who have taken the trouble to post your own thoughts here - I am moved as well as grateful. I had hoped to create a forum not only for my own ruminations, but also one in which others could respond and offer me theirs. That many of you have seen fit to do so is a source of joy and enlightenment to me.

Tolstoy used to end his diary entries, in his later years, with the initials 'sjv.' That stood for the French expression, si je vis, or, if I live. And so, I will resume these mental meanderings on the other side of the surgery, sjv.