IT IS SELDOM useful or entertaining to write about one's own ill or good fortune. At the end of this year, I will break the rule. It is not often that one can say with certainty that one has enjoyed the best year of one's life.
When I was admitted to the hospital on Jan. 31 my life was in danger. My condition was the culmination of long and increasingly debilitating illness, caused by the advance of a congenital heart disease and by the deterioration of two of my heart's valves. On April 8 at Georgetown University Hospital I was the subject of a rather complicated exercise in open heart surgery. When I had my most recent checkup I was told by my doctor that my heart "could hardly sound crisper." That has been my year.
I had been given back my life. After living for years with a wilting heart, I find it forgivably enjoyable to have a crisp one. Of the performance of the hospital, the nurses, the surgeon and the doctors, I have nothing but praise and a gratitude which I can hardly express.
My experience gave my friends a momentary relief. For years I have bored them with stories of the London blitz. For a few weeks they appeared to be almost gratefully entertained by my accounts of the blitz on my body. I am even slightly disappointed that my saber-wound scar is beginning to pale.
A few friends have asked me about what one of them calls my brush with death. I find it hard to think of my experience in that way. It was not so dramatic as that. There had been only an increasing depression over some years at an illness whose existence I refused to admit, and it is only to the closest friend of all that I have been able to talk of that with any forthrightness. It is not easy to speak of a time when one was incapable.
But there have also been the moments when a few friends have asked about what each has called my resurrection. It is a word which at first caused me embarrassment, but which I at last came to accept. "OK, my resurrection, then." Of that, I can talk; of that, I can write.
When my mind first admitted the seriousness of the operation which I was to undergo, I had one night-long nightmare in which there was more blood than when the Tiber ran red. As I lay in bed after so strenuous a night, I decided that if I could survive the dream of my operation, it meant that I would survive to talk of it. This might not be what a psychiatrist would say; I still prefer my own interpretation. I never dreamed of the operation again; the nightmare had exorcised the fear.
But as the day of the operation approached, I had increasingly one eerie feeling. For longer hours than one normally gives to any activity, my life would exist only in a huge machine. It would do the work of my heart, while my heart was patched by an embroiderer. (When I think of the surgery, I think of it as needlepoint.) If one defines the line between life and death in terms of the beating of one's heart, I would for several hours in fact not be living, and that is strange to imagine.
I was readmitted to the hospital at 4 on the afternoon before the operation.
The evening was like that, I felt, of a condemned man in his cell. A succession of priests came to tell me what they would be doing for me the next day: not praying for my soul, but working for my life. The last visit was from the surgeon himself, a man of such clear caring in his manner that I never doubted the skill in his hands, which one doctor had told me was awesome.
"I can only say that we will do the best for you," he said, and as he turned to go he patted my knee: "See you tomorrow!" He was already out of the door before I chortled my reply: "You may see me. I won't see you."
Having my body shaved from chest to crotch again seemed like a condemned man being prepared for the electric chair. Taking my shower and throwing a bottle of iodine over my body seemed like a last rite of purification. Being given two sleeping pills seemed a kindly act of drugging me into a peaceful oblivion. I slept very well; I woke very fresh.
In the morning, everything went as they had said, to a split second. I was at last wheeled into the operating room. I stirred to look. Already there were 10 people there in their hospital gowns and their backs to me, no doubt chatting of a party as they appeared to me to be polishing some instruments as if they were good silver. I looked for what I wanted to see. There was the machine. It loomed above me as towering and grave as God. I whispered my prayer: "Please Pepco: not a power failure today." That is the last that I remember: I passed out, as if from a jumbo martini. t
If there was a brush with death, it lies, for me, in the hours when my life was that machine.
The misery of intensive care seems to me to be as hard to describe as torture: barely conscious but occasionally conscious enough to feel one's misery; and then one more protracted battle to be fought for my life. My temperature shot up; pneumonia was threatening. Pounding through the wall of the pain-killing drug was the insistent voice of the nurse: "Cough -- or you will get pneumonia -- cough." Cough -- with 17 tubes down my throat. Cough -- when my chest had been ripped apart. Cough -- when they had sawed through my sternum. Cough -- when I barely wanted to fight any more. Did they not know what I had been through? Could they not just leave me alone to my misery?
The fists of the nurse beat on my body. No gentleness in that; she had a job to do. Strong fists from strong arms drummed their fierce and unrelenting tattoo on what felt to me like my corpse. I woke from my coma for one moment, to bleat my one protest: "Bullying doesn't help." She went on bullying. She was fighting for me.
Talking of my time in intensive care to one friend, I said that I wished that I had been more awake during it: "I would have liked to be present at -- " and he interrupted me and said: " . . . your resurrection." I accepted the word as he said it; it seemed to fit.
Twelve days after the operation, I was discharged from the hospital. I picked up the pieces of the jigsaw which my daughter had sent me; I gathered the remaining half bottles of wine which a friend had brought; and I went to the home of two friends to find my feet, under a care from them which they showed as the easiest hospitality. Three hours out of the hospital, on a lovely spring day in Washington, I took my cane and I went out. Slowly and deliberately I picked my way. I hesitated many times; I stopped only once. have read of the moments when others have suddenly felt one with the universe.cannot describe the moment with the mystic's passion. It is enough to say: I was visited by joy. The warm sun, the leaves on the trees, the hard paving beneath my feet, the bypassers, the cars that flashed by, the cathedral, the children returning from school: I was one with them, they were one with me. There might even be a God. I was alive.
I describe 1980 to my friends as the resumption of my life: pulling back much that I had for so long been unable to use. Reaching to the old friendships in England; forging the new friendships here; opening the greatest friendship of all . . .
The preciousness of life, yes, how can I not sing it? But in what does that preciousness lie? No doubt one should, and must, and does, and will, wrestle with the question. There has to be a meaning. One may never find it; one will try to find it. But at least I know, in the resumption of my life, the beginning of the inquiry. It may even prove to be the end of the inquiry as well. The preciousness of life lies in the people one meets, and especially in those one picks to be one's friends.
People are most strange. They go down byways to find what all the time is lying to hand. They refuse to be simple. They search into every nook and cranny of themselves, for one speck of dust, rather than be satisfied with the shining reflections of their decency. They insist on being complicated. One thinks one knows them, and then unfailingly they baffle. It is very satisfying to be able to join them again. At the end of this year I am not clear why we search for any larger meaning in life than that for a long enough time we are given the chance to know some people. And find how impossible they are.
I find it horrifying to look back to the time, not long ago, when we were told that man is only a naked ape. We are no beter than animals, perhaps even worse, we heard on all sides. The stuff sold in millions of copies. W.H. Auden at one moment answered with deliberate crudeness, saying of the person who explains his humanity in terms of his descent from the apes, that he "does not know his ass from a hole in the ground." It was one of the last of his rebukes.
The heresy is no longer popular, but its relics remain. Perhaps the first task of the last two decades of our century is to recover our sense of the elevation of human life. It has not been easy to sustain that sense in the fearful tumult and barbarity of this century. But it has not been banal. Exacting new definitions of what it means to be human have been proposed and tried and wreaked their havoc. For all the "isms" of our times, we have paid every penny of the cost.
We know more of the dreadful reaches of our hearts than we knew at the beginning. Well, too bad! We have lived in one of great turbulent centuries of man's history. We may not count it a blessing; we ought to count it a privilege. For we have survived and are -- just -- still recognizably human. We may not be better, but we also are not worse, as a result of our travail. "Count this human life enough," wrote Auden in his "Lullaby"; it is the voice of the sanity we have kept.
Perhaps only someone who has been away from and then returned to human society can really tell of its charms and its infectious pleasures as well of its harshness and its spitting furies. The first are ample compensation for the second. 1981, come. I am ready for you.