Chest pain. All new. Not good. So on Wednesday, when it hadn’t stopped for three days and the pain scale hit 6 on the 10 scale, I called McHealth. They insisted I go straight to my doctor—and she quickly ruled out everything but the ticker.
Board an ambulance, they said, or arrange a driver—and head straight to the regional trauma center with top-ranked heart care. Now. Upon arrival at the ER, I was greeted by a gatekeeper in police uniform, who let me into the triage zone where a nurse with sniffles loaded me into a wheelchair, asked me a litany of questions, and talked on a voice-activated intercom to tell them to ready the EKG room. Within minutes, they rolled me in, stripped me down, pasted on the stickers, and hooked me up.
As I lay there trying to relax and slow my pounding heart, my mind drifted…out of the room and to a warm beach…with my perfect children…
We were on a BreakAway. On an unspoiled island. We were oceans away from the frenzied pace of the sickbay and the day-to-day routine.
What does your mind go during your final hours? Who knows? But in years past, I had given it some thought. I’ve even described a sabbatical as a way to gather “deathbed memories.” Imagine your mind seeing a short movie of your life (like in “American Beauty”)—with images of sandcastles and fjords, not just hospitals and cubicles.
Back in the ER, I was wheeled through an endless warren of halls to my own little nook with a curtained door. Soon an army of medical scrubs entered my “cabana” and drilled me like interogation agents. They knew not that their beeping and jabbing competed with the crashing waves that were washing over my invisible offspring and me.
I’m fine! It’s not my time!”
I wanted to yell at them. But the medicine people treated me as though they may know differently. Even the notion of living with a heart condition made me sick to my stomach. And truth is, people I personally know around my age are dying at the rate of about one a month.
So while the resident palpated, the nurse poked and the glass vials filled with purple blood, I escaped to my mind. There, I replayed the days my son and I would sneak away on kayaks—and hoped that I’d been a fine father. I re-celebrated our many traveling Christmases not at home—when my daughter would get a simple felt-art board and I’d get nothing—yet could ask for nothing more.
All I want now is to go home”
my brain pleaded. “Sir? Sir? Let’s wheel you off to the x-ray room and take some pictures,” warned an orderly. In my mind, I pictured wheeling around a West Indian island on little “dollar buses” named FAITH and BLESSED—indeed feeling blessed because my kids sat beside me and loved the booming reggae as much as their dad.
What matters, anyway? Besides living, that is? The answer changes often. But during the parenting years, it becomes evermore less about you, and evermore about them. About showing them, as countless West Indians did, that one doesn’t need lots of stuff to be content.
It’s about ensuring they are aware of the history they are experiencing—like the day Obama was inaugurated and, on the remote island of Bequia (where we were), natives and tourists alike wept and danced in the streets knowing that we are all of the same skin.
It’s about daring to pull them out of their surroundings, sports, and schools to show them that the world is a very, very vast place—full of variety, wonder, and moments of bliss that are worth chasing after.
At the end of a BreakAway, the return flight can bring on a case of the “go-homes” that feels rather like flu, only worse. At the end of an ER visit, there’s no place…you’d rather go.
On Wednesday, I was lucky. I was caught and released. I returned home (where the heart is) 5.5 hours after I left it. The young ones knew little about my episode. We ordered in mediocre Chinese takeout that never tasted better, and played basketball in the living room with nary a care about the fallen vase. The boy simply asked,
Are you alright? Well, good! So what about my…”
As it should be. This is their time. I had 37 years before they arrived. And God willing, I’ll have a bunch more after they grow away and set themselves free.
Meantime, we’ll try to again free ourselves, now and then, from the mountains of responsibility that surround us. In fact, a plan that will take us to Europe for much of the summer is in the works. A heart scare like yesterday’s suggests: Let’s not wait.
This Career Break advocate believes that every break needs a mission. And one dreamy mission I’ve held for years is taking my children to Scandinavia—to show them where their kinfolk came from, not long ago. To show them we are more than Americans. They’ll learn so much.
Or rather: I’ll learn so much—because they have so much to teach me. We’ll have buckets of fun. We’ll see the big old world. And we’ll experience, one more time, the thrill of simply being together, and being alive.