Don’t Blame My Icelandic Heart (Part II)

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There is the myth of immortality. At some time we all believe in it. More people believe in it than in any organized religion. Without it, there would be no armies. High risk jobs would be shunned. Crazy antics and stunts would not happen. Although, before we enter into dangerous activities, we do not kneel and pray to the god of immortality, we do offer him obeisance in our complete trust in his power.

I distinctly remember, at noon hour on a school day, racing along the highway outside of Gimli in a new Ford Fairlane owned by a friend’s parents. The goal was to see how fast it would go. No seat belts in those days. No air bags. Big motor. Big car. Public highway. Going at a speed that allowed for no mistakes, no farmer crossing the highway with his tractor, no rocks on the road, no potholes.

The land outside Gimli is flat. There’s no downhill skiing. Didn’t stop us. We found an old pair of cross country skies, tied a rope to the car bumper and raced along the highway, one of us driving, another in the ditch, skiing. Whooohoooo. We didn’t know how to stop so when we were coming up on a traffic sign or a post or anything else, we let go of the rope and fell over.

We worshiped the god of immortality. Yet, around us, teenagers died from drinking and driving (oh, did I mention that? Drinking and driving. Only an idiot would have thought you could drive properly without a few drinks to loosen up, sometimes, quite a few drinks.). Changing drivers at 60 miles an hour was a good trick. So was trading positions with someone in the back seat. You climbed out the window and into the back, then the person in the back climbed out the window into the front seat.

Hunting was usually an exercise in bowing to the god of immortality. You know, two friends in a duck boat in the marsh at Willow Island, one yells duck, his partner stands up and says where just as his buddy lets fly with his twelve gauge shotgun. The god of immortality took care of them that day. Left one of them with a throbbing headache but at least he still had his head.

Sometimes, worship wasn’t enough. There was an airbase next to Gimli. The young pilots were learning to fly Harvards, bright yellow trainer planes. From time to time, while we were watching, one of the planes would fall out of the sky. We’d be shocked, say something like “Did you see that?” and there would be sirens followed by a day of gossip but it made no difference, we never wavered in our belief in our immortality.

Getting older robs the god of Immortality of adherents. Older men don’t make as enthusiastic front line soldiers. They are inclined to wear seat belts. They calculate the odds, insist on wearing safety helmets and steel toed work boots. They lose friends and family members to accidents, disease. They sit at bedsides and hold the hand of someone who is dying. They have kids, kids are hostages to fortune, kids may believe in immortality but mom and dad know too much about head injuries, have read too much. They’ve lost the faith.

Later, later, as the years slip by the god of immortality is revealed as a fraud. No one gets out of life alive. No one has found the fountain of everlasting life.

Recently, I had a triple bypass. My belief in my immortality was long gone but now with an unexpected disease that was on the verge of killing me ((I saw the cardiologist’s report. It said “Urgent”), I felt vulnerable, fragile, exposed, of little more substance than the fish flies that rise from Lake Winnipeg each summer, then turn into empty exo-skeletons.

I denied there was a problem. My parents didn’t have heart disease. My friend Dennis Stefansson died of heart disease a while ago but his family is known for having heart disease. I took the stress tests as a bit of a joke except that I discovered to my dismay that I couldn’t finish them. I just need more exercise, I said to the cardiologist. He wasn’t impressed. An angiogram sorted that out. Ninety percent blockage in the artery called the widow maker. Blockages in other arteries. I protested. This is crazy. I’ve been a folk dancer, hiker, rock climber, wood cutter. My diet, while not perfect, is good. I seldom eat packaged food. I cook from scratch most of the time. I eat a gluten free diet. I was only five pounds overweight. I was often walking two miles a day.

Protesting did no good. JO came from Salt Spring Island to see the surgeon with me. She was still hoping that diet changes, supplements, stents would do the trick. The surgeon said, “Too late.”

Bad DNA was the most likely culprit. But from where? Mortality forces one to confront various truths. My mother’s parents were from Ireland. The internet reveals all secrets. Mortality from heart disease is high in Ireland compared to other countries. Ireland has the highest rate in men and is third highest in women.

Iceland, all that fish, I guess, is #158 in the world for heart disease. That’s in spite of butter, skyr and whipped cream. Icelanders love desserts. There was always such a shortage of fat in Iceland that there are folk tales about trying to obtain it. Maybe a shortage of fat isn’t a bad thing.

My Irish grandmother’s favorite saying was, “Butter betters everything.” Except your heart, of course. Slather your heart in butter and it’s going to plug up.

I’ve been checking my family’s health history. On the Icelandic side, my father’s eldest brother did die of a heart attack. My father died of pneumonia. His younger brother died of cancer. His youngest sister died of a stroke. When my grandfather’s wife died from the effects of diphtheria, he married again and had four more children. The eldest has had a quadruple bypass, his younger brother has a couple of stents, the third brother, and the youngest sibling, a sister, have no problems that I know of. So, from where came the heart disease in the eldest and next eldest? Their father was Icelandic. Their mother Polish-German.

It is hard to pinpoint a villain in this. I suspect the Irish side of the family for the dangerous DNA. However, would it have mattered if I had not believed that I was immortal, immune to vast numbers of perogis, vinarterta, rich gravy, lots of meat, pie, butter tarts, cookies, French fries, as I grew up. My mother was an exceptional cook and food was an expression of love. When my father got married, he said, “I’m going to have lemon pie every day.”

Our families had come from hard times. To be thin was the mark of poverty. To be chubby, if not fat, was a sign of prosperity. One mother, after her son had died of a heart attack in his forties said, “I thought his being fat meant he was healthy.”

If I had known, when I was young, what I know now, I would have gone Icelandic. I’d have eaten dried cod, baked cod, cod heads, rotten shark, lamb, skyr, potatoes, some occasional desserts for the calories. Would it have made a difference or are Irish hearts, slathered in butter for generations, doomed? Even when it’s only half an Irish heart.

When I am over this operation, I’ll change my diet, swallow supplements, walk every day. I’ll do my best to live until the bypasses wear out.

Stress test

I had a stress test today.

I thought they were going to get me into a  room and say stressful things like “We just got a phone call. Your house had burned down.”  Or “The Income Tax dept. called wanting to see your records for the last twenty years.”

Instead, they hooked me up to a bunch of electrodes. I thought they were going to electrocute me. “Make it quick”, I said. “I don’t want to suffer.”

“You must be really anxious about this test,” the technician said. “Your blood pressure is 1 gazillion over a million.” That made me nervous.

She turned on the machine. My soles had sticky sap on them from the Fir tree outside my garage. They stuck to the treadmill.

“Help!” I said. I was hanging onto the wooden bar for dear life while the machine tried to turn me into Plastic Man.

“Walk,” she said. “Walk.”

“The gum,” I wheezed. It did no good.

She turned the machine up. Faster, faster, higher, faster.

My heart hit 133. She turned off the machine. I was only on stage 2. Never even got close to stage 3. I could have done better without the gum.

“Let’s do it again,” I said, “in my sock feet.”

“Your chart looks fine,” she replied. “You’ll hear from your family doctor in a week.”

I could have avoided this by not telling my GP that I got short of breath hiking up McInnis Rise to my house. McInnis Rise, if it was in Europe, would be one of the Alps. To buy groceries, I have to walk up the rise to the top, then down, down, down until I get to the corner of Cook, Cloverdale and Qaudra, then risk my life sprinting across the corner where all streets converge.

On the way back, I have one bag of groceries. I feel like a Sherpa in Nepal. Sometimes, I have two bags of groceries. I feel like two Sherpas in Nepal. There was a time when I would have run up this road. With the groceries. Those were the days of rock climbing, hiking, folk dancing. My idea of exercise nowadays is lifting my cup of coffee.

I got home and exercised my arm by using a large cup full to the top but the treadmill haunted me. What if, instead of those little blips on the chart, the line had been flat? What if she’d looked at the chart and said, “You may not know it but you’ve been dead for some time.” That sort of thing.

I went to Playfair Park and walked around it three times. So there. It’s a start.

The problem is inertia and cookies, inertia and puddings, inertia and ice cream. Occasionally, inertia and chocolate bars.

Tomorrow, I promise, I will, absolutely, go for that walk around Playfair Park again. For sure. No matter what. Every day. Rain or shine.

And buy a heavier coffee cup.

(You know this isn’t me. He’s got hair. He’s young. He’s good looking. I can’t imagine why he’s taking a stress test. )