When we first moved to North Andover, Massachusetts, in late summer 2002, I made an effort to make new friends. Easier tried than accomplished, even when you have something obvious in common. An ancient bent geezer down the street from us spent a whole afternoon talking about his and his family's history in the area, fascinating stuff, full of wit and humor.
Then I ran into the fellow a few weeks later, hailed him by name, and found myself in the same conversation all over again, him having no clue who I was.
I used to walk our old dog Cody past one of the rented houses on the Edgewood Farm property. All winter long, at late dinner time, I saw a lady with a shining face and long gray hair, obviously talking to her counterpart at a small dining table.
"Boy, she looks nice," I'd think.
The following summer, I passed that house, with its windows and doors standing wide open, and from inside I could hear a fiddler sawing away at "Soldier's Joy." I called out a greeting, walked in, and found a man of about my age with a droll grin and a moustache and a fiddle. That was Jim Walsh, the husband of that very nice looking lady, Susan, who is the only female steward at a major race track, Suffolk Downs. We are now all great pals.
But the one man I could never get to know I think of as the heart attack walker. You can find him every day maintaining a grim pace around the neighborhood, covering great distances, four and five miles at a pop. I've nodded and tried to start conversations many times, but no luck. Tramp, tramp, tramp goes the walker, in all weathers and lights, and I can only imagine his story.
It will soon be mine.
ON OCTOBER 20, I HAD A HEART ATTACK, serious enough that our neighborhood hospital could not handle it. They shipped me by high speed ambulance to Brigham & Women's Hospital in Brookline, which cranks out bypass operations like a factory. My attack did not come on with a bang, the way it's portrayed on TV -- no, just a series of grinding little agonies taking place over a period of many hours.
"You're having a heart attack right now," I was told. And I was rapidly prepped for a triple bypass coronary operation, stripping a big vein out of my left leg, waking up with an oxygen mask on my face. I couldn't get a breath high or low. My rehab sheet says, "The most important exercise is walking."
I have a cane. I have to set goals every day. I have to work on getting about 20 extra fluid pounds off me, through hemodialysis.
"You have a new heart now," says my wife Sally. "And you're going to have to walk regularly to get it working."
Tramp, tramp, tramp. I will soon be joining my unnamed neighbor. "Just give us 72-75 days' worth of health," my transplant coordinator in L.A. told me. Then we can get back on course for my kidney transplant. Excuse me a moment now. I have to go eat an apple. I'm expecting a phone call from an old friend in Chicago who has been through something similar. He's in Boston now for a five-day bridge tournament.
MY FRIEND AND I FINALLY RANG OFF after an hour of conversation. We could have gone on all night.
"I expected you to sound weak," Bob said. "But your voice sounds strong."
I am indeed weak. Puffed up with fluid when I was discharged from the hospital, I pulled on sweat pants and just barely managed to squeeze my feet into shoes. A tee-shirt, a flannel shirt over the top, and a cap. Son Joe pointed out to me that I had been wearing the same clothes for two days.
Time for a sponge bath -- can't shower with the new catheter, which runs straight into my heart. That'll be my first real obstacle, dealing with the cold.
Thankfully, and surprisingly, I have come out of all this wanting to live. Maybe it's something Bob said, about how our fathers had had the same conditions we have had -- except that they had died, Bob's father at 57 and mine at 59.
"Who ever knew we were going to have to figure out what we wanted to do when we grew up?"
First, tramp, tramp, tramp.