Four weeks. A long time? A short time? Not enough time?

Mt. Finlayson
My former colleague, Dave Godfrey (, sent an email to say that having a triple bypass must have been frightening.

Shocking, yes. Frightening, no. No time to be frightened.

It was a sunny day. All was right with the world. I went to see my GP for a seven minute appointment. It was about something minor, a bashed toe or something. Then he said, how are you doing? And I said, fine, no problems except I’m short of breath carrying groceries up the Rise. It was only worth mentioning because I’m a former rock climber, hiker, folk dancer. Before I retired, I was walking over Mt. Tolmie and back on my way to work at UVic and home. Although, after retirement, I’d moved, I was still walking up to 2 miles a day. And, I added to the feeling of breathlessness, one time there was this odd pricking feeling on the left side of my chest.

“You’ve got my attention,” my GP said and whipped out a form. I said yes to every question he asked. I hate that. I hate saying yes to doctor’s questions. That never leads to sunshine and ponies.

I hurtled from him to the cardiologist. This is absurd, I was thinking. I was often walking two miles a day, sometimes further on hilly ground. Nobody, but nobody, with a heart problem could do that.

More questions, more saying yes, and I was launched onto a treadmill. And someone shot me up with radioactive waste. I’ll glow in the dark, I thought, promising myself that I’d stand in a closet that night to see if it was true.

I grasped the treadmill bar, walked as whips cracked around me, haul that barge, tote that bale, except I couldn’t finish either of the tests and having miserably failed them, I hurtled back into the cardiologist’s office where he said something like your heart isn’t getting enough blood. It’s okay, I thought, I’ll talk to it. I’ve had this heart for seventy-four years. It’s always been reasonable.

Except I was launched into the angio department at the hospital and, before I could catch my breath, I was lying on my back, staring at a TV screen. I felt like I was in a medical reality TV show. There was my heart, not that it looked like anything exciting, and a wire moving around like a mouse sniffing for something good to eat.

“Looks like a bypass,” someone said. Shortly, someone said he could do a stent but there were problems with that and I said, “Bypass.” And lickety split, I was walking down a corridor with my daughter who had come to take me home.

I lay down, slept, got up, met a heart surgeon who drew a diagram that did not look promising. A triple bypass, he said. You need to sign these forms. One for the operation. One for a blood transfusion. Operation in four to six weeks.

Somebody greased this slide. I slid into a lawyer’s office to update my POA and my will. I typed up a list of my assets, my possessions and which ones might be worth something if sold at the auction, my passwords for my various accounts, and I walked, walked, walked, 1.2 miles to the mall, 1.2 miles home, around and around Playfair Park.

As I circled around Playfair Park one day, I explained to a young woman I’d pulled in behind that I wasn’t following her, I was getting ready for surgery. Nowadays, men of a certain age, who walk behind young women need to justify their behaviour. Especially when they’re walking circles around a park for no good reason.

Circles, circles, circles. Little did I know that I should have also have been doing squats because for 12 weeks, I wouldn’t be allowed to bend over. Squats for strong thigh muscles to help me get out of bed without using my arms. Too late we learn these things.

Four weeks. A long time? A short time? Not enough time? There were tests. There was trying to get a messy life organized so that if I didn’t make it, I wouldn’t leave a disaster behind.

I’d been POA and Executor for my father and mother and even though their estate was simple and straightforward, it was filled with frustration and grief at times. I considered piling up all my manuscripts, correspondence, furniture in the middle of the house and setting it on fire with me in the centre. That way there’d be nothing left except the bank and retirement account. And it would save on a cremation fee. There wasn’t time.

JO came from Salt Spring and we raced through the halls of Jubilee hospital into a day long session on the operation and post operation. That evening was a frantic rush to do everything that needed to be done, pills to take, a sterile shower, change for the metres (no situation is without its compelling trivia), clothes packed for post op, then sleep until the alarm at 4:30, no liquid, no food, rocketing through the darkened streets of Victoria to be at the hospital at 5:30.

And then it is all a blur, memories driven away by the anaesthetic that erases a chunk of one’s life. JO tells me of things of which I have no memory. She says there was a wonderful nurse. JO walking with me as my bed was rolled to the operating theatre.

She says that after the operation, I woke up many times, but I have no memory of these times. When she asked if I was in pain, I apparently pointed to the breathing tube. All I remember is waking up and thinking that I was waiting for the operation, then realizing the operation was over. Shock.

JO says that on day two we watched a cartoon movie on the TV for an hour. I remember nothing. Yesterday, she showed me part of the movie on Netflix. Nada. Nothing. It may be because it was a terrible movie. I deliberately forget terrible movies.

So, no, no time to be frightened. There was too much happening, too much that had to be done to get ready to die, ready to live.

And later, there were the crazy challenges. They’d cut my chest in half with a rotary saw, they’d picked up my heart, checked the back of it, made three bypasses, wired me together and a nurse sat beside me and said, “I’ll help you sit up.” “Next,” she said, “we’ll go for a walk.” And then there was a shower. And painkillers and using a Spirometer and coughing to keep my lungs clear and five days after the operation, climbing a set of stairs and down until I had proved I could go up sixteen stairs but by that time I was less crazy and life was less incoherent with stretches of time connected instead of disjointed.

And seven weeks later, the big change is that life has slowed down, has become coherent, one day is connected to the next, and the challenge is to get ready for the treadmill tests on September 25 and hope like hell that the operation has worked and I can finish them.

I’ll know the operation worked when I can hike to the top of Mt. Finlayson. I used to climb it every Wednesday, winter and summer, in sun, rain, snow. When I get to the top, I’ll be able to see Finlayson Arm and whether the swans still float like an armada of small white ships on the blue water.

On A Moderately Successful Poet


ON A Moderately Successful Poet

Heart attack, heart attack
You’re dead.
There’ll be a cross behind your head.
Alack, alack
The crows will say.
The cows behind the fence will pray.
Last year’s stack
Of hay decays,
The graveyard grass bends with the breeze
When winter comes the rose will freeze.
The sun will wear away the days
Until no one knows that you are here.
New hands will lift the hotel’s beer
And falling leaves will be your praise.

A poem for myself brought on by the fact that hiking up McInnis Rise, the ridge on which I now live, left me breathless. Unusual for someone who, for years, climbed Mt. Finlayson every Wednesday afternoon no matter what the weather, who walked over Mt. Tolmie to the University and back.

I mentioned it as a curiosity when I was seeing my GP about something so trivial that I don’t remember what it was. Probably, a bashed and bloodied toenail.

You’ve got my attention, he said. Then he started asking me questions. I don’t like questions asked by doctors and I like it even less when I’m forced to say yes to them. In the morning do you cough up clear phlegm? Have you had a pain in your chest? A pain in your left arm? Etc. Yes, yes, yes. Unfortunately. Do you get short of breathe? Yes, I said, but that’s because I have a history of asthma.

“You need to have a stress test,” he said and arranged one.

Nonsense, I thought, I’m as fit as a horse, an older horse, mind you, a seventy-three year old horse. However, when I got an appointment for the stress tests, I said, “No coffee? You’ve got to be kidding. For an entire day and a morning? How about half a cup?” No. No. No. These people in the angio department aren’t into negotiating.

I went without coffee. I went to the hospital. I let them shoot me up with nuclear waste from Chernoble. I stood on that ramp and went walk, walk, walk. It didn’t work too well. Or, I didn’t work too well. Somebody sat on my chest. The second day we did it again. I didn’t make it to level three. A shot of Brennavin and I’d have been fine but they didn’t have any.

“I think,” the specialist said, “you may have a blockage here and here.” And he showed on a plastic model of a heart. “A CT scan of your heart will tell me what I need to know.”

“I was supposed to be in Gimli, Manitoba four weeks ago. I have a lot of work to do there.I’m writing a novel. I need to know when the pussy willows bloom.”

“A CT scan,” he said. “We’ll arrange it as soon as possible.”

I suggested they just rip out my heart and replace it with a polar bear heart. Grrrr. Unfortunately, polar bear hearts are in short supply.

After the CT scan, the specialist showed me that plastic heart again. Who makes these kinds of things? On Mondays we make hearts. On Tuesdays we make kidneys. On….

“Your artery is blocked 70% here. And this artery is blocked 50% here.” He pointed at two holes in the plastic heart. “We’ll arrange an angiogram.”

I don’t want to jump out of this plane. I don’t care if the engines are not working right. Just give them the gas. They’ll speed up.

Today, the phone rang. There’s been a cancellation. I’m to be at the hospital tomorrow at 9. Operation at 1:00. My daughter or my friends, Richard and Trish Baer, are to pick me up in the early evening or, maybe, the next morning.

I’m sure all will go well. The angiogram will probably be followed by an angioplasty. That’s where they inflate a balloon and squash the muck in the artery against the artery wall so more blood can flow into your heart. Personally, I’d have preferred a polar bear heart. Too bad they’re in such short supply.

(If you find yourself short of breath, have a pain, no matter how small in your chest, a pain in your left arm, have it checked out. Better before a heart attack than after.)