“You look troubled,” my houseguest told me.
“I have an appointment with the cardiologist,” I replied. “I don’t have any reason to think I’m not all right, but I know that he could tell me something bad.”
And so he could–though so far he never has. Still, no day goes by that I fail to recall the fact that I, like you, am working without a contract, and that my continued tenure in the land of the living is subject to termination without notice. In my case, of course, this arrangement ceased to be mere theory two years ago next month, and since then I’ve looked upon my cardiologist in somewhat the same way that the fighter pilots in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff look upon flight surgeons:
As a result all fighter jocks began looking upon doctors as their natural enemies. Going to see a flight surgeon was a no-gain proposition; a pilot could only hold his own or lose in the doctor’s office. To be grounded for a medical reason was no humiliation, looked at objectively. But it was a humiliation, nonetheless!–for it meant you no longer had that indefinable, unutterable, integral stuff. (It could blow at any seam.)
Kindly don’t bother to point out how irrational this attitude is. I know that should my doctor ever have reason to warn me that my heart is exhibiting symptoms that might (as he puts it) impact on my longevity, he will doubtless also tell me to do certain things that will have a equal and opposite impact. Or maybe not. Because sooner or later, the right stuff that keeps us all flying is destined to blow at one seam or another, and when that happens…well, you can only take so many pills.
I wish I were able to look upon the prospect of my ultimate demise with the same jaunty equanimity that Frank Skeffington, the septuagenarian hero of Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah, succeeded in preserving throughout his latter days. At one point in the novel, Skeffington lights up an expensive cigar, turns to his nephew, and says, “One over the limit. A happy shortcut to the Dark Encounter.” I sometimes affect a similar jauntiness, but I’m just kidding. The truth is that I love my life, more so since the arrival of Mrs. T than ever before, and I am absolutely not prepared to give it up, or even see it significantly diminished by ill health. Which is why my thrice-yearly visits to the doctor always make me feel prospectively nervous–even when I have no objective reason to be anything other than confident.
Not to worry, by the way: I got my usual thumbs-up report from Dr. Minutillo, the East Side specialist who keeps track of my ticker. I expected good news, and this time I just about took it for granted. It was different when I learned last year that my 2005 brush with death had left my heart unscarred. That time the news that I’d dodged the bullet left me feeling briefly disoriented: “Two minutes later I was standing on East End Avenue, basking in the bright blue sunshine and hailing a cab. My mind was unexpectedly empty. Thank you, I kept saying to myself over and over again. Thank you, thank you.”
I’m no less thankful this year, but somehow it doesn’t seem as urgent–which is a good thing. Only a fool goes around constantly muttering to himself, I’m not dead yet–better make the most of this day. Yes, the sentiment is right and proper, but the more time you spend thinking about it, the less time you have to think about other things. I’m alive and well and happy to be both, and (as Dr. Johnson said in a very different context) “there’s an end on’t.” The point of life is living, so on to the next play, the next painting, the next lunch with a friend, the next trip to a place I’ve never been–and, come March, the next visit to East End Avenue.
In between these (mostly) happy occurrences, though, I expect I’ll spend a fair amount of time thinking about the Dark Encounter, and that, too, is right and proper, and even productive, up to a point. Not long after I got the good news from my doctor last year, I had occasion to reread Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, in which a character makes the following remark:
If I had my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practise, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.
I still think that’s good advice–in moderation.