New York in Winter

New York in Winter

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Spark of a Memoir?

Recently I posted a couple of items on Facebook -- reminiscences of a key time my life. The reader response was emphatic: Write your memoir! So I may do just that.

Here are the two posts together in one document:

Very soon it will be April 5, 2017. I'm thinking back to April 5, 1957.
That date is important to me for two reasons. It was my mother's 31st birthday. And I underwent the heart surgery that has extended my life, so far, to the ripe age of 70. (71 in a week.)

I had a congenital condition that was an enlarged aorta. The blood pumped through very fast, too fast for it to become sufficiently oxygenated. Most of the kids who had this were called blue babies. I was rather tall for my age and had rosy skin, but I was given to the age of 15, tops 18, to live. The open heart surgery was at Boston's Children's Hospital, then as now one of the top such hospitals on earth.
People were fully prepared for me to die after the grueling surgery which necessitated packing me in ice so that my metabolic rate would slow enough to keep me from bleeding out. Nevertheless, 6 pints of blood later, given by volunteers in Salisbury and Newburyport, Massachusetts, paid for the blood, which was one of the few things not paid by the Commonwealth. (we were on welfare and very hard up.)
I did make it, obviously. And after surgeries like a triple bypass after a heart attack in 1993, it was still the hardest and most painful recovery of my life. The incision is still clear and visible after 6 decades.
I was showered with great kindness and generosity, which we felt all the more strongly given our poverty and desperation. I've never forgotten it, nor the value of living in a place like Massachusetts, where compassion often triumphed over crabbed parsimoniousness. If we had lived 2 miles north in New Hampshire, I wouldn't have made it.
Welfare has saved numerous lives. Who is to tell those who are poor that they aren't worthy to live? Who has the courage to face an anxious, struggling mother that her oldest child has no right to live?
I think back all the years to the doctors who diagnosed me correctly (Dr. George Danis) and the one who operated on me (Dr. Lombardo), and my tireless mother (with whom I had many many issues later on) and their grit in seeing me through the ordeal.
I think back to the many heart attacks -- which is what they were -- that I had from the age of 5 to 10, several of which almost killed me, and my good luck in having compassionate people around me, most notably my grandparents, long dead, whose love sustained me when life was at its bleakest. I even think of my annoying Aunt Dot, who lived with us with her two babies, sharing in our meager welfare payments, who held my hand and cried with me after I got back from Boston that first time; our tears covered the plastic tablecloth and rained on the linoleum.
I owe my life, misspent as it has been, to that time and those people. 60 years -- gone in a flash. But as vivid and painful as it was in 1957.

Regarding my heart-felt post of reminiscence last night...
When we were told that I would have to undergo what then was an exceedingly risky operation, the adults as usual experienced gales of anxiety. I was 10, my life was pretty awful -- poor, often not enough to eat, cold every day of every winter (my bedroom was the warmest at 55F -- I was a meteorology nut so I had thermometers all over the house -- and I really didn't care if I lived or died. You may say it was because I was too young to know -- I'm not so sure about that. I do remember kids dying all around me in the hospital, mostly those stunted, almost gnome-like creatures who had blue lips and fingertips. "Where's Billy?" "He died last night." "Oh." One part of me, the born-old me, the wiser me, thought, "It could be worse [for him]."
One funny thing. I was just getting into rock n roll on my own account, having been exposed to it by older kids for a couple of years. I was intensely interested in what was hot, who was up and coming, etc. I had a little (20 lb) portable 45-player that one of my mother's boyfriends had bought me, and in my twilight state after surgery I'd play it while I fell asleep. My mother told me that the other kids' parents looked at me askance as I lay there, out of it, snapping my fingers and grooving to Little Richard like a junkie in a movie.
Someone asked me what I wanted when I had survived and was conscious and I said, "Billboard." I was thought to be weird.
I remember too that when I was coming out of the anesthetic slumber, they kept asking me to turn over so that fluids wouldn't build up. Someone had left a stethoscope under me precisely at the incision, and when I turned over, I growled, "Shit! Son of a bitch."
Some things are consistent in your personality no matter what.