It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live. Marcus Aurelius
I lie on the floor at the end of my yoga session. Savasana, corpse like, flat on my back, eyes closed, listening to the soft soothing music and the gentle hypnotic voice encouraging me to relax toes, calves, thighs, belly. I mentally move through my body letting the tension subside. “Gently turn onto your right side and when you are ready slowly come into a seated position.” I reluctantly let myself return and brace myself to leave the lovely after yoga feeling to return to the rest of my day. As I stand up, I glance at the letter open on the coffee table; it’s from my cardiologist. I smile at the irony of leaving my corpse on the yoga map only to be confronted by my very real mortality in the words of a letter.
“Come on dogs, let’s go”, I put the leashes on my two canine companions, grab my Led light and stride out into the pre-dawn. The air is crisp and frosty, the black velvet night sky with its stellar jewels is, this morning, eclipsed by the field of diamonds at my feet where the frosted grass winks and sparkles in my head light. I gasp at the immense beauty of it and shudder at the familiar thought that I may never see it again.
I have always been afraid of dying. My earliest memories are of that dread of no longer being. Where had it come from, I wonder, was there something dark in my childhood that had planted this fear, or was it just common to all mankind. My rational self plumps for the latter.
When I was younger, up until my early twenties, I had suffered from a recurring death dream, usually when I was becoming ill and running a temperature. The vividness of the residual feeling of distress it left me with remains, but the details have faded into the past. These lasted until my mid twenties when a spiritual awakening dispatched the fantom back to the darkness.
Since those earnest days, I have not exactly abandoned my faith, but the things I believed back then, are not what I believe now; life and all that it has thrown at me have changed my mind about many of the tenets of orthodoxy. Strangely though, I have not been bothered by my nightmare since. It seems, however, that despite my spiritual beliefs, I am firmly attached to this life, the sensory world I occupy; not longing for the essential life hereafter. This has come to the fore once again as I am having to confront my finiteness in a way that sixty years of living now makes very pertinent.
As I turn from the road onto the beach and watch my younger dog dash into the sea, my thoughts turn to my son, whose collapse while training for a marathon a couple of months ago, was the trigger for a series of events that led to the letter from my heart specialist. My man-child, fit, healthy, living the dream of every young man, in snowboard heaven in the French alps had collapsed while running with a friend in England’s midlands. Out of the blue, no hint of trouble previously, he nearly died as his heart went into atrial fibrillation and he lost consciousness twice. I think of how often I run on my own in fairly remote places, and ponder how things might have turned out very differently if my son had not been with a running companion. I catch my breath and pant as the alternative once again hits me and my heart skips as tears well.
For two weeks the family had gathered round our computers, in New Zealand, the Middle East and the UK, we are a scattered clan, but rallied together to share digital hugs and ignore the hours of home to talk in international time zones. His doctors wanted the whole family tested, ECGs, echo scans, the whole shebang as they tried to identify the problem, tachycardia or cardiomyopathy. They wanted to know about family members who had died untimely deaths, the baby sibling, the uncle, the grandfathers. I had been pretty sure it wasn’t my side of the family, I’m an avid family tree researcher and most the of the untimely deaths were on my husband’s side, so I was confident that I wasn’t to blame. But the doctors kept asking about my youngest who had died at 6 months of bronchiolitis. At the time, I had been too distressed to question what I was told and had accepted the fact that although usually a relatively harmless virus, occasionally and in some people, it turned virulent. But now, I wondered.
I turn off the Led light on my forehead and blink as my eyes accustom to the starlight and the softly glowing sea reflecting the illuminations of Lyttelton across the harbour. The night sky always awes me; sometimes I find looking into infinity disturbing, the enormity of the universe overwhelms my comprehension.
But I take comfort in identifying Orion, my companion constellation, the one I track across the sky on my sleepless nights, clouds permitting. I see it now, the archer drawing his bow, just above the dark shadowed hills.
I had gone to my local GP and told him the saga, so an ECG was done on the spot and I heard the odd sounds, the galloping hoofbeats, the pauses. The nurse too quickly said that she wasn’t qualified to comment, effectively cutting out my unvoiced question.
Yes, there was some erratic heart beat, and I readily confessed that I had been aware of it for years, but had always assumed it was the stress that I had lived under for the last thirty years, my marriage not always the easiest, and I have been through anguish many times.
I look back over the last few weeks and am surprised how calm I had been when the echo scan showed that I had the same condition as my son and like him, I could be struck down at any time. Doctors expressed surprise that I had had no symptoms and that I was so fit for my age. Familial cardiomyopathy was the final diagnosis; the familial bit, I was told, is quite unusual, although a dilated left ventricle is quite common in athletes
The shell shingle crunches beneath my feet as I stride across the strand. If I can’t run, I can at least walk at a brisk pace. The cardiologist hadn’t actually forbidden running, just he would rather I didn’t until he could ascertain whether the possible clotting in my heart has dispersed, maybe in three months when the meds have had time to take effect; I will know hopefully at the next scan. When I had complained that running was my stress relief, he conceded that I could continue what I had been doing as it was better for the heart to not be stressed than to be exerted.
I’ve been fit and athletic most of my life, so it goes against the grain to feel so vulnerable. A fistful of daily pills (Warfarin thinning the blood, ACE inhibitors expanding the blood vessels, Beta blockers lowering the blood pressure) to match the plethora of emotions: from numbness to dread to simple pleasure at the beauty all around.
I look around to check the dogs are following; Fluff and Scruff, those aren’t their names, just the seeds of an idea for a children’s story I have wanted to write for my grandchild, but not got around to. I have lots of those seeds, lying in the drawers of my mind, waiting for the right conditions to be planted, watered and tended, but I always have an excuse: no time, too stressed, too tired, too many other things to do. The words of a poem learned so many years ago at school, flash across my memory, “What is this life, so full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” The confrontation with mortality is a spur to to finish projects that have been on hold; to treasure each beautiful morning walk on the beach; to create a legacy to leave to my children.
Since knowing about my “condition” I have felt fragile and vulnerable, easily moved to tears, in fact, starting to feel my age. I’m in a battle with myself. My heart has been playing all sorts of tunes in my chest, thumping and skipping, growling at times. Rhythms I have lived with all my life and just put down to stress, now sound stereophonically in my ears. More than ever before, the awareness now that my life depends on that beat.
I reach the stream and linger so that the dogs can slake their thirsts in the fresh tumbling waters. They lap long and deeply, how sweet it must taste to them. Somewhere downstream where the tide meets the fresh water, I can hear the honking, and squawking of Paradise ducks. Upstream a cock boldly crows declaring, “Day is coming” and further up the valley, an echoing less confident cock crows, “Is it really coming?”.
The rather uncomfortable knowledge that death could come at any time is also strangely reassuring. At least, with heart failure, the end is likely to be blessedly quick and out of the blue. I hate the idea of becoming decrepit and slowly descending into a long drawn out illness.
Cutting across my melancholy, snatches of a song stir in my memory:
Birds flyin’ high, you know how I feel…
River runnin’ free, you know how I feel…
I turn again towards the sea to the black horizon and see the sun beginning its display. No lyrical rosy fingered dawn today, but a blood red, fiery orange passion. My heart lifts and I join the ghostly voice of Nina Simone in the final chorus:
“Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me.
Yeah, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, ooooooooh…
And I’m feelin’ good”