That first heart attack, which begins while I’m teaching a writing class, has the virginal peculiarity of my (a) not knowing what a heart attack is since I’ve never had one, which is true; (b) running to the bathroom to crap whatever it is out of my system, which doesn’t work; (c) believing prior to, but more important, during the attack, that were I ever to have one as my father and brother had I would fall to and writhe on the ground in pain, pound my chest with clenched fist, stare up at a circle of people and their tortured regard, a man with a fedora and a woman with an umbrella, whispering, “What’s wrong with him?” until someone calls an ambulance and I am saved, a fate I’ve managed to escape just now; (d) excusing myself to a dozen stunned students, driving to a hospital three minutes away, dreading the attack would worsen en route, my heart ballooning and popping, my chest exploding, which the longer it’s forestalled makes me certain it will occur; (e) feeling the imprisoning sweat on my clothes, its heat like a lawn-mower engine, which the night air does not cool; (f) arriving/parking/rushing-in/proclaiming to the intake nurse, “I’m having a heart attack,” and her saying, in the slackest of voices, “OK, but let’s get some information first,” to which I want to scream, “Call a doctor!” but I’m too frightened to so I comply; (g) stripping down, lying on a bed in an emergency bay, getting hooked up to the ECG, hearing the chart-reading technician say, “Mr. Larson, you’re right—you’re having a heart attack,” which is satisfying, even calming, because it confirms the menacing torrent of these last ten/twenty minutes; and finally (h) being half and wholly aware, both then and now, that (1) I’ve not been hit by a car; (2) I’m not lying in the street, kicking the invisible bike pedals; (3) I’m relieved, almost giddily, to be alive and laid low, like a badly wounded soldier who gets a flight home to recover or die; (4) I’m surprised this heart attack is a longer and not a shorter event, which means I have time to stomach its yaw and gauge the pain, be lifted onto the altar of having a heart attack and not yet having had a heart attack, which is short-lived once they stabilize me with the blood thinner and the clot buster; (5) I’m being wheeled down the loud, slick hallways on a gurney to the catheterization lab; (6) I’m the back-flat center of attention, fluorescent lights above me clicking by like film frames, shocked survivor, Ismael adrift in Queequeg’s coffin; and (7) I’m thinking, as I’m submerged for the angioplasty, a semi-conscious drugged state that flat-lines the fear, of my father and brother who years before died minutes after their angina began—one on a hotel bed in St. Louis, the other on his living room floor in Ashland, Wisconsin, his two-year-old daughter crying in a crib close by—long before any ambulance arrived, before any CPR or Coumadin or coughing jag or vomiting jolt might have revived them, my father and my brother, so much alike as to be at each other’s throats all during my childhood, whose lives were, not unsurprisingly, lopped off at the ankles by heart disease and who in their final throes would not have known the moment they were dying as the moment they were dying, which, praise be, neither do I for now.
Journalist, critic, and memoirist, Thomas Larson has been a staff writer for the San Diego Reader for thirteen years. His latest book, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” is in paperback. He teaches in the low-residency MFA program in creative nonfiction at Ashland University, Ashland, OH.
Photography by Eleanor Leonne Bennett