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December 15, 2005

TT: Time off for good behavior

My friend Nancy LaMott, the cabaret singer about whom I've written in this space and elsewhere, died ten years ago Tuesday. It wasn't an anniversary I'd intended to spend in a hospital room, two months shy of my fiftieth birthday, waiting as patiently as I could to find out just how sick I was--but, then, life has a way of pitching curve balls at your head.

As I thought back over the past couple of months and remembered some of the things I'd been posting, it hit me for the first time that I must have decided somewhere in the deepest recesses of my mind that I was dying, and that I'd been spending the preceding days and weeks trying as best I could to come to terms with the seeming arrival of what Henry James called "the distinguished thing." Why had I been so shy about calling a doctor? What made me respond so immediately and intensely to the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd? Why did I quit listening to music for pleasure after hours? All at once I knew.

The long slide toward the blank wall started in earnest two weeks ago. I continued to do the things I absolutely had to do--hitting my deadlines, going to the theater, sharing a platform with Maud and Sasha--but when they were finished I would retreat to my couch, pull a comforter over my fast-weakening frame, and alternate between watching old movies and dozing fitfully. By then I was pretty sure it wasn't asthma that had laid me low, but I was afraid to face the possibility that my heart was implicated, and the fact that I still had occasional good days made it possible for me to pretend that all I really needed was a couple of good nights' sleep. That's what I told my friends, and myself, too. The difference was that I didn't believe it.

Time finally ran out on me last Thursday night. I took a cab to Broadway to see a press preview of Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, and no sooner did I arrive at the theater than I knew something was very, very wrong. After the show was over, my companion for the evening (bless her!) helped me up the aisle and a press agent (bless him!) hailed a cab. It took me ten minutes to climb the two flights of stairs to my apartment. I collapsed on the couch and spent the small hours deciding what to do. I packed a bag and straightened up the apartment--very, very slowly. My plan was to descend carefully to the street in the morning and hail a cab on Columbus Avenue, but when the sun came up and I saw that it was snowing, I came at last to my senses, called 911, and unlocked my door. Two minutes later a two-man team of paramedics was slapping an oxygen mask on my face and slipping an IV into my right arm.

"So you're a drama critic, huh?" one of them asked as they carried me down the stairs. "My grandma is coming to town for Christmas--I want to take her to a show. What do you suggest?"

"Oh, definitely The Trip to Bountiful," I said, my voice muffled by the mask. "I guarantee she'll like it."

Soon I was stretched out on a gurney in the emergency room of Lenox Hill Hospital, where I'd been brought five years before when an undiagnosed case of work-exacerbated pneumonia had reduced me to a similar state of disrepair. By then I knew that what I feared most had come to pass: I'd been stricken with congestive heart failure. My body was full of excess fluid--lungs, legs, the whole shooting match--and had I waited much longer to seek help, I would have drowned in it. Instead, the doctors stuck a nitroglycerine patch on my shoulder, pumped me full of a fluid-expelling diuretic, and handed me a phone on which I made a half-dozen necessary calls: my brother in Missouri, my co-blogger in Chicago, my editor at The Wall Street Journal, the woman with whom I'd planned to have dinner and see Waiting for Godot the following night. To all of them I made my regrets, thinking wryly of a favorite saying: If you want to hear God laugh, make a plan. Then the diuretic kicked in and I hung up the phone abruptly. "If you'll just point me toward the men's room," I said to the nurse, "I'll be perfectly glad to go there myself." She laughed, not unkindly, and handed me a plastic bottle.

Three hours later I was tucked into a hospital bed, listening to a friendly but firm doctor read me the riot act. Before long I was strolling up and down the corridor, feeling better than I had in two months, staggered by how far I'd let myself slide.

On Saturday morning I inhaled a trayful of hospital food (cream of wheat, yogurt, a bagel, and a banana). I propped myself up on the edge of the bed, twisted a pair of earbuds into my ears, plugged them into my iPod, and hit the shuffle-play key. The slow movement of Michael Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra, a set of darkly luminous variations on the folk song "Ca' the yowes," came pouring into my head, and I burst into tears. I'm not ready, I told myself, not the least little bit.

No sooner did those words form in my mind's ear than a passage from a novel I love, Edwin O'Connor's The Edge of Sadness, snapped into my memory as plainly as if I were reading it off the page. The speaker is a middle-aged Boston priest:

I believe with all my heart in the mercy and providence of God, and I believe in a future unimaginably brighter and better than anything I have known here--and yet of course the whole difficulty is that I have known and have loved "here." Very much. So that when the time comes for me to go, I know that I will go with full confidence in God--but I also know that I will go with sadness. And I think for no reason other than that...well, I have been alive. An old priest who was dying, one of the saintliest men I have ever known, one of those who had greatest reason to expect God's favor, many years ago surprised me by telling me, with a little smile, that now that he was going, he wanted desperately to stay.

"A single memory can do it," he said.

And I suppose he was right. The memory of an instant--of a smile, of leaf smoke on a sharp fall day, of a golden streak across a rain-washed morning, of a small boy seated alone on the seashore, solemnly building his medieval moated castles--just this one, single, final flash of memory can be enough to make us want to stay forever....

For the rest of the day I listened to music, lapping it up as if I were a starving man gulping a bowl of broth. I devoted most of Sunday to answering the phone and receiving visitors, marveling that so many people seemed to care so passionately about whether I lived or died. On Monday I underwent a six-hour-long stress test designed to determine whether my heart had been permanently damaged, then spent the rest of the evening and a bit of the night wondering what I'd learn the next day.

I already knew one thing that was at least as important: whatever the verdict, I wasn't going to give up without a fight. I have music to hear, plays to review, paintings to see, etchings to buy and treasure, a book to finish writing, a blog to keep, dozens of friends who claim quite convincingly to love me, and many, many memories, a few dark and desperate, far more full of light. In the last few days alone countless things have happened, small and large, that make me want to cling as fiercely as possible to whatever time remains on the ticking clock whose face I cannot see. I have felt this way once before in my life, in the months immediately following 9/11. It took nothing less than a congested heart to make me feel the same way again.

Ten years to the day after the distinguished thing came calling for my friend Nancy, I learned the results of the stress test. It was normal. My heart muscle is weakened but undamaged. If I do as I'm told--exactly--I have a very good chance of being around for a very long time to come. I even get to go home for Christmas tomorrow morning.

A few hours later I was walking gingerly up the same stairs down which I'd been carried four days before. I pushed open the front door of my apartment and beheld once more the welcoming glories of the Teachout Museum. I glanced down at the floor and saw that it was strewn with strange debris: a plastic syringe cover, a box that once had held some life-saving drug, a rubber glove.

"You know what?" I said to the friend who had brought me home. "I think the e-mail can wait." Then I picked up the trash from the floor, opened the blinds, sat down on the couch, and started gazing at the walls.

Posted December 15, 2005 4:27 AM

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