I was watching television that day in 1955 when Pinky Lee had his heart attack. Our Admiral set was in the “sun room” and I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of it. Pinky Lee was one of my favorite shows, and I liked his crazy, energetic dancing and rapid patter. He was dancing around singing
“Yoo hoo, it’s me,My name is Pinky Lee.
I skip and run with lots of fun
For every he and she.
It’s plain to see
That you can tell it’s me
With my checkered hat
And my checkered coat,
The funny giggle in my throat
And my silly dance
Like a billy goat…”
when suddenly he staggered, looked directly into the camera and said “Please, somebody help me!” and then keeled over. The cameras dutifully followed his descent, then held on his writhing, prostrate form to see if it was a gag. It was not. Then they panned to the audience, a bunch of kids and their moms, who were cheering and laughing because someone off-camera was urging them to do so. Then they cut to a commercial.
I had my heart attack fifty-nine years later. I was living in Chiang Mai. Thailand, and unlike Pinky, had not been dancing. I had been checking my email when it felt like someone grabbed my esophagus and started squeezing. The pain was sharp and growing. I had read that in circumstances like this you should eat an aspirin, so I found one and gobbled it down. The pain did not subside. Feeling like I was probably making too big a deal out of small thing, I nevertheless grabbed my wallet and passport and walking downstairs to the front desk, calmly asked the guesthouse owner to drive me to the Emergency Room. He did, and this probably saved my life.
Four days in Intensive Care and three stent operations later, I was sent home to recuperate. During this time, the Thai military staged a coup, and all TV channels left the air, to be replaced by one showing the top military brass sitting at a table, looking uneasy on camera while one man speaking in Thai reassured the public that everything was under control. He later nominated himself prime minister and is still in charge. Anyone who disagrees with him in invited to come in for an attitude adjustment. Some of those people are still having their attitudes adjusted.
Since I don’t speak Thai very well and on that show there was no singing or dancing, and I felt too weak to watch TV anyway, I spent most of the next week lying on my back, staring at the ceiling and trying to process this sudden and unexpected turn of events. I did manage to be grateful for air-conditioning as it was the hottest time of year, but as I had just arrived in town and had few friends or visitors, I had plenty of time to wonder how badly I wanted to live anyway. Theoretically I did, but since I wasn’t sure what was in store for me, I wasn’t quite sold on the value of longevity.
Now it is ten months later and even though I haven’t set the world on fire, I feel reasonably content. I lost a lot of my savings paying my hospital bill, but I’m lucky it happened here, where medical costs are a tenth of what they are in the States. In a couple of months I’ll be 65 and will be covered by Medicare, so I can fly across the world if I choose to visit a hospital again. From what I’ve seen of them, I think I will pass on that opportunity unless I can see an obvious benefit.
Today, I swim and bicycle regularly and have lost about 25 pounds. My cholesterol level and blood pressure are easily managed by inexpensive medicines. I take a baby aspirin a day to prevent a future heart attack.
If I stop and think about it, I’ve never had it so good. There is cause for hope and nothing to be afraid of, except death itself, which is inevitable.
This inevitability of death thing is so enormous that nobody talks about most of the time because there’s really nothing to say. The ship is sinking. No doubt about it. We’re all going to end up in the drink eventually, and the only variable is when. How we fall into the water doesn’t matter so much. Yes, the ship is doomed and the Captain may already have left in a lifeboat, disguised as a woman. No matter, we all have just today.
here’s a link to an audio version of this essay