My husband had a heart attack on Monday. I am thanking the powers that be that he survived it. He has been discharged from hospital and looks as healthy as can be. The cardiologist blames his speedy recovery on his youth. He is only 47.
Alfie is a bit of a larrikin. Likes a bit of a drink. Likes a bit of a smoke. Works really long hours so he doesn’t get to exercise as much as he should. Often comes home so late that he foregoes the healthy meal I have prepared in exchange for a hamburger or fish and chips he picks up as he passes the milk bar.
Lately, he has been smoking more than usual. What started off as 8 or 9 cigarettes a day quickly turned into a pack. He said it was due to stress, he needed something to take his mind off work. I wondered how long his body could fend off the effects of smoking for 32 years. It gave up the ghost on Monday.
I got a call at work at lunchtime. Alfie’s assistant manager said he thought Alfie was having an asthma attack as he was having trouble breathing. Alfie was asthmatic as a child but I’ve known him for over 20 years and he has never had an attack once – I’m the asthma risk in the family with my often bluish tinged lips and vampire-like complexion. Yet the fact that Alfie couldn’t speak to me on the phone got me concerned so I left work and drove into the city armed with all my asthma medication.
Driving into the centre of Sydney at lunchtime is a hair-raising experience at the best of times but on Monday it was pouring with rain. Sheets of watery glass fell, slashing at the windscreen, the car shook and rumbled with the weight of the water. I could barely see where I was going. Traffic stalled, horns blared, I contemplated running along the expressway waving my arms like a madwoman and then, like someone was watching over me, it happened. The rain stopped. Just like that. It was a blink and you’ll miss it kind of moment. The traffic began to move and before I knew it I was at Alfie’s work.
I knew straight away Alfie wasn’t having an asthma attack. He was clutching at his chest. His face was grey as an old dishcloth left out in the sun for too long. He was sweating. And his eyes – Alfie has these really expressive brown eyes, they are the colour of real chestnuts – they were panicked.
I bundled him in the car. Driving, reassuring someone who is having a heart attack and calling an ambulance all at the same time is not easy but I did it. I was 10 minutes from the hospital. I figured I would get there quicker than an ambulance anyway, so I drove. The paramedics stayed with me on the phone the whole time. They were amazing. I had found myself in a situation I had never hoped to see, that I had never thought I would have to cope with, but there I was, in it, headfirst and unflinching. There was no time to pinch myself to see if it was really happening.
When we arrived at the hospital the doctors were waiting for us. They whisked Alfie away while I was handed forms to fill out. The words were jumbled on the page. I think for a brief moment I forgot how to speak English. I couldn’t remember how to hold a pen, my phone number was at the back of my mind but I couldn’t retrieve it.
Then I was in the ER and Alfie was hooked up to all these machines. He wasn’t talking. My garrulous, affable husband was mute and still. I was wading through syrup. My feet were bolted to the floor. “We need your consent,” a doctor said. “To operate. Your husband has a blocked artery. You need to know the risks if we operate – we might damage the heart irreparably, he might bleed to death, he might have a stroke – but the risks if we don’t operate are greater. You need to decide right now. Time is of the essence.”
I signed the form. My handwriting looked like someone else’s. A nurse took me to a waiting room. Gave me a cup of tea. The tea bag had split and little flecks of tea swam through the hot water like minnows. The tea was so hot I couldn’t taste it. Some of the little flecks lodged on my tongue, clinging like ashes.
I pace, feel calm, feel sick, feel calm again. I read a magazine with an article about Martha Stewart who is planning to act as a surrogate for her daughter’s baby at 66 years of age. I shake my head at the irony that with all that money she still can’t have what she really wants. ‘A grandchild is all I’ve ever really wanted,’ she says smiling imploringly at the camera. I hope she is as barren as a cornfield in drought.
Only half an hour has passed. I remember one of my grandmother’s favourite sayings – ‘A watched pot never boils’ – the absolute truth in this case. I notice a sign in the corridor – Cardiology Idol, a get together for the staff in the Cardiology Unit. I wonder what the rules are – songs about hearts? Songs about doctors and nurses? Songs about hearts are easy enough to come by – Aerosmith’s Heart’s Done Time, Pat Benatar’s Heartbreaker, the old show tune from Damn Yankees, You Gotta Have Heart. Songs about doctors and nurses are harder to think of. Robert Palmer’s Bad Case Of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor, give me the news, I got a bad case of lovin’ you,) James Brown’s Turn Me Loose, I’m Dr. Feelgood; and following a similar theme, Aretha’s Dr. Feelgood.
It is an hour and ten minutes since I have been put in the waiting room. It has started to rain again, a solitary bird flies, swerving to avoid getting wet. The glass on the enormous window is as cold as a heart must be when it stops beating.
A lady wheeling an IV drip walks by the waiting room. She is wearing pink chenille slippers, plump as a robin’s breast. They squeak as she walks like they are pneumatic. She smiles broadly but her eyes are hollow. An elderly man passes, pushed in a wheelchair by an orderly with teeth as white as a movie star. A thick, blue blanket covers the man’s lap but I can still see the frail bones of his knees poking through.
A doctor arrives. The one who told me time was of the essence. I hold my breath, staring out the window as I wait to hear whether my verdict is life or death. Two raindrops race each other down the window, blown apart by the wind before they reach the bottom. A gum tree shakes its head, scattering rain and gumnuts onto yellow umbrellas. The girls holding them scream, jumping puddles like children.
“He’s fine,” the doctor says. The invisible brace I had wound around myself to hold it together should bad news strike, frays and rips, throwing me back against the wall. I stick like wet paper then slide to the floor.
“You can see him now,” says the doctor guiding me to a place full of bright lights and beeping monitors. Alfie lies on a bed. His eyes are open, coloured just like the chestnuts I used to gather as a child before Christmas. “I feel better,” he says, wrapping me in a familiar smile.
The rain has stopped. The sun eases through clouds more clear than white. Talking is difficult, my throat is lined with pebbles. A nurse hands me leaflets on ways to lower cholesterol, advice on quitting smoking. I cannot take it all in. Alfie’s chest rises and falls, he sighs as a toddler does in sleep. At home, in my room, when it is dark, I will cry; but for now I raise my head to the skies and give thanks – for he is with me still.