I awoke at six a.m. on Tuesday with sentences forming in my head. Knowing there was no point to staying in bed, I got up to write my Friday drama column for The Wall Street Journal, the first time I’d written anything for money since I went to the hospital.
This time, though, I didn’t stick to my normal obsessive-compulsive routine of going straight from bed to desk. Instead I headed for the kitchen of my mother’s house in Smalltown, U.S.A., where I popped an English muffin in the toaster, poured myself a bowl of raisin bran, and sat down at the table with a small glass of orange juice, there to reflect on my changed state. At forty-nine I’ve made a discovery: Breakfast Is the Most Important Meal of the Day, especially for overweight workaholics with slightly enlarged left ventricles. So now I eat my raisin bran every day, like it or not, and the exasperating part is that I do like it. Somehow I doubt anyone really enjoys finding out in middle age that the rest of the world has always been right. Breakfast every morning, a vacation every year…what next? Am I to become a reality-TV addict?
From there I shuffled down the hall to my bedroom, pulled a folding chair up to the rickety card table next to the bed, turned on my iBook, and dialed up the Web to find out what was happening in the rest of the world (my mother doesn’t have a computer of her own, much less a high-speed connection). I downloaded my e-mail, checked out the latest details of the New York transit strike, eyeballed a couple of favorite blogs, logged off, and started writing. Save for the change of venue and the fact that I was writing on a full stomach, I might almost have been at my own desk in Manhattan.
Of course I wasn’t, nor am I the same person who sat at that desk two weeks ago and knocked out a review of The Trip to Bountiful. For one thing, I’m twenty pounds lighter, and both my arms are still covered with the bruises that heart patients invariably bring home from the hospital as souvenirs of their stay (every shot the nurses give you leaves a bruise behind when you’re taking daily doses of a blood thinner). Nor did the words that gush forth from my fingers on Tuesday mornings come quite so easily this time around. It took me an hour and a half longer than usual to finish my column.
Those weren’t the only reminders of what I’d been through. I reviewed two plays this week. One was the last show I saw before going into the hospital–the one from whose preview I had to be helped into a cab by a press agent–and the other was the first I saw after coming home last Tuesday. It felt strange to open my notebook and look at the random phrases I’d scribbled down in the dark while watching Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, wondering as I scribbled whether I’d live long enough to file my review. One of them was a line from Terrence McNally’s script, a description of Bob Fosse, the director of Sweet Charity and Chicago: “All smiles and cigarette smoke.” I thought of All That Jazz, the movie in which Fosse dramatized his first heart attack, the one he survived. (It was the second one that killed him.) The line was perfectly legible, as if the person sitting behind me had been shining a flashlight on my notebook while I wrote it down. I made a point of including it in the review.
At length I finished the piece and e-mailed it to my editor at the Journal, afraid it might not be up to par. I thought it was, but what did I know? Perhaps I’d lost my touch. A couple of hours later the copyeditor kicked it back with a couple of minor queries, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever else my brush with death had done to me, I could still write. The trick, I thought, will be to write a bit less, to spend more nights sitting at home listening to music and looking at the Teachout Museum, to knock off earlier each day and go to bed earlier each night and take a day or two off each month. Or maybe even each week.
All changed, changed utterly, I told myself, knowing too well that it won’t be so easy as that. Every day I’ll get out of bed and do battle with the demon who drives me, and every night I’ll go to bed and rest up for the next day’s fight. Some days I’ll win, some days I won’t. The trick, I suppose, will be to win more often than not, to slowly drain the congestion of overwork from my life as the doctors at Lenox Hill Hospital drained the excess fluid from my heart and lungs. Would there were a pill for that! Instead I must teach myself to make more room for life and love and everything else I spent the past few years pushing away. That’s something I learned in the hospital: if you want to be loved, you have to make room.
I spent the rest of Tuesday watching old movies on TV, idly chatting with my mother about nothing in particular, and talking on the phone to friends who longed to know more about the changes in my life that began when I called 911 last week. I slept deeply and well, then awoke at six with new phrases forming in my head. Knowing there was no point to staying in bed, I got up to write my “Sightings” column for Saturday’s Journal–but not before breakfast.