[my brother] lay motionless on his back under a taut white
sheet pulled up to his neck. An oxygen tube had slipped
from one nostril, and his matted hair looked pasted to the
pillow. His ashen face needed a shave and his swollen,
puffy lips had turned deep purple. But, thank God, he’d
come through it well enough to have the tube removed from
Two plastic tubes, their interiors filled with tiny moist
bubbles, sagged under Ken’s bed. Attached to one of the
drooping tubes, a clear plastic bag contained an inch of
My eyes began burning.
Ken turned his head toward me and opened one eye. But he
wasn’t fully conscious and the eye rolled up, showing only
the white. Stunned, Ed [my brother] and I stared at each
other. Ken had been the most physically fit among us. He
was a good athlete, as well as a clown. He always had a
smile and a joke. But now he looked like he’d been in the
ring one too many rounds with a professional boxer.
Now plastic tubes and cold, sterile mechanical devices
kept this vibrant man alive. I pulled out my
handkerchief, wiped my eyes, and blew my nose.
The nurse walked in and whispered, “Ten minutes are about
...Ken’s surgeon’s keen dark eyes darted from Ed to Denny
to me. “If you men have not had a stress test in the past
twelve months, I recommend that you get one.”
Mary Ann [my wife] looked lovely, descending the stairway,
wearing a pretty navy blue dress and heels.
After the movie, we ordered wine and shrimp cocktail and
danced to a three-piece combo. Conversation came easy for
me this time.
Back at her home, we sat side by side on the living room
couch, chatting late into the night. Sometime before
dawn, I walked over to the window and pulled back the
curtain. Big fluffy snowflakes floated down through the
street lamp’s hazy blue halo. I didn’t want to leave her
warmth.... We were married six months later.
Mary Ann put down the magazine and walked over
to me. “Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.”
It had become her mantra: don’t worry; it’ll be okay.
Now an unadulterated, bona fide optimist, she could
conjure up a positive attitude at will. But I didn’t
trust her mantra voice. The tone sounded almost
indifferent, as if she didn’t truly comprehend the gravity
of my plight. Her voice and demeanor didn’t seem to match
After twenty-five years of marriage, she was still an
enigma to me. Her mind seemed to skip off my dilemma like
a flat stone skipping off smooth water. But she would
have collapsed if our nervous little poodle had been
diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.
“Please,” I said in an unpleasant tone, “I’m not in the
mood for another Norman Vincent Peale spiel. I flunked
the stress test and I’m here for a catheterization.”
My mind relentlessly recycled the day. I didn’t need to
speak to my surgeon to have him explain the procedure: I’d
picked up literature at our local American Heart
Association and researched the procedure online,
practically memorizing it.
No, I wanted to meet him to size him up. I wanted to see
heartfelt compassion in his eyes. I wanted to sense
self-confidence in his bearing. I wanted to intuit
extraordinary competence. I wanted to grasp his hand, the
hand that would hold my beating heart, and feel reassured.
Then she [a nurse] removed the urinal catheter. “You can
use the bathroom now.”
The first time I tried to pee, only air whizzed out. I
was sure something vital had been severed and just as I
began to feel panic, a weak yellow stream began flowing.
I couldn’t wait to take a hot shower. Still physically
and emotionally traumatized, I stood rigidly under the hot
water, letting it drench my entire aching body. Shoulders
hunched forward to protect my chest incision, I made tiny
circles with the tip of my finger, massaging the incessant
itching. Then, worried I’d slip and fall and split my
chest open, I stepped out of the shower with protracted
caution, onto the floor towel. The long red incision
running from my inner thigh down to my ankle burned. And
the raw, crimson red drainage-tube wound on my stomach was
sore and swollen.
Toweling off, I avoided the mirror. Finally, unable to
tolerate it any longer, I swiped condensation off the
mirror with the towel, grasped the sink with both hands,
and stared at the gruesome gash running from my collarbone
to just inches above my navel. The punctured skin, pulled
taut by the blue nylon stitches, had turned yellowish
black. And a puffy red bead of swollen flesh—the diameter
of a pencil, made redder by the hot water—had formed over
Tears stinging my eyes, I stared at the sad gray face
needing a shave in the mirror. I’d never seen such an
ugly chest scar. No more beach vacations. Was God
I pulled on the clean hospital gown and limped back into
the room. Depressed, I sat on the edge of the bed and
cried again. I’d never cried so much in my entire life,
and Mary Ann and Claudia were in and out of the room, but
I managed to keep it together in their presence.
Lying in bed, exhausted, I fought sleep because the
medications caused such ghastly dreams.