“Coronary Care” by Tony Devlin

Denis, pacing near the bed beside me, is waiting for his Stress Test. He’s been waiting most of the day now. Maybe this endless wait, this prolonged tension, is itself the stress test ? Certainly there is anxiety in his every glance and gesture. Denis’s patience is being sorely tried. He’s a cheerful man and he likes always to look on the bright side of things. He’s spent these last few days listening to music tapes on his Walkman, chatting to us, his fellow inmates, helping in small ways with the work of the nurses and orderlies. He’s a model patient, and his good nature has done a lot to brighten the atmosphere here in this room where we brood, obsessively, on our variously broken and arrested lives. But now, the trial weighs heavily on him.

This morning he was fearful, knowing that this one event will settle all the questions for him, for better or for worse, and that its outcome will consign him definitively to treatment or release. But they’ve been stringing him along now, hour after hour, and his uneasy anticipation has given way to frustration and disappointment. His heavy sighs carry an undertone of resentment as he watches and waits, with the afternoon slipping away.

And now, suddenly, with their characteristic bustle and sweep, their officious buzz of activity, they’ve come for him. With a nervous, childish smile he surrenders himself and is led away. Some of us call out our encouragement, he waves in acknowledgement, then he’s gone.

We’ve seen this ritual before. In an hour he’ll be back, grey faced and breathless. They will drive him right to the edge of the precipice and he will feel the horror of not being able to draw himself away from it. He will be pushed beyond his physical limit by their implacable treadmill and he will feel the awful despair of losing control. And then they will reprieve him, they will

allow his hammering heart to settle and they will wheel him back to await their verdict. They won’t tell him anything straight away. That would be too simple.

No, they must calculate and consider and decide just what formula of words will adequately express the message of the several metres of graph which his straining steps have scrawled and spiked. Meanwhile Denis will wait and wonder and beset by alternating images of doom and salvation which, being merely human, he will be mostly unable to suppress or deflect.

Perhaps he’ll have to wait like that ’til morning. That would be tough. Tough, yes, but not unbearable, given the sustenance of our great evening carnival, the visiting hour. Yes, the babble of the visiting hour offers all the best of optimism and bonhomie. It’s so nice to see all the good hearted supporters flocking to bedsides with their smiles and their cajoling laughter and their comforting words. They throng the hospital during this time, faithful and generous, busy about their corporal work of mercy. The atmosphere is determinedly one of encouragement and optimism, a tableau of reassuring words and phrases and a deft and careful skirting around the abyss of tragic possibilities – and we, the sick, are more than happy to collude.

Here and there, of course, the mood is more sombre, as a parent or son, or daughter, or wife picks carefully through the details of a particular case. The depth of worry and the bleak edge of despair are momentarily visible in these earnest interviews, but always the tone and the tempo are lifted just at the end as a clasping of hands, a firm encouragement of smiles bonds visitor and patient in a commitment to the struggle and to a vision of the prize, that persistent hope of recovery and release.

We are all lifted and inspired by the visiting hour and the slow trickle of hospital routine always takes some time to draw away the reservoir of optimism and the fresh fragrance of normal life which these kind souls have left us. To be sure, the nurses will be working to subdue us, for, though kindly, they are, in truth, disturbed by the buoyancy, the ebullience which we have drawn from the visiting hour. We are less manageable now, and disinclined to resume our pattern of mute submission to the hospital’s routine.

We will need to be threatened, to have our confidence undermined, to be reminded that we are indeed sick men, before we can be rendered fully compliant for the nightly regime of medication and sleep. And what subtle ploys and strategies these white clad carers use to subdue us.

Tut-tutting over charts, invoking the names and instructions of doctors, applying thermometers, blood-pressure strappings, ECG equipment, all the tools of their trade to focus us back on the intimate workings of our sick bodies, on the knowledge that something, somewhere inside them has gone mysteriously, perhaps irretrievably wrong, until we are again their creatures, dependent, and manageable.

Ah, but here comes Denis now, grey and distressed as predicted. He is helped onto his bed, and lies there, panting still. He tells me his heart rate has been driven to some dizzy pace which eventually he couldn’t sustain and he slumped into exhaustion and nausea. Neither of us is sure if this is wholly bad or even partly good nor indeed is either of us sure just exactly what would constitute the performance needed for an unconditional discharge. He becomes quiet, subdued. His eyes are open but he doesn’t focus.

I imagine he’s playing out scenarios again, our favourite game, our obsession in these precarious days of our confinement. He fears, no doubt, what we all fear, that this is just the beginning, that there will be more tests, a progressively more invasive catalogue of investigations which will sooner or later uncover the secret process which is threatening his place in the great concourse of life. Is there perhaps, some subtle accretion of arterial debris which will deflect his course, divert him out of the mainstream and force him, eddying, fearful and limited and incomplete, into some backwater. He sees himself there, a floating leaf, revolving slowly, delicate and vulnerable, pale on life’s margins, until a ripple of night breeze, the blind mindless movement of some branch or fern will trap and enclose him and still his motion for ever.

This is the hardest part of it all, life goes on, out there, outside these walls, in busy indifference. We are out of it, and, though our absence may be noticed here and there, truly we are not missed. Such is the way of the world, there are always enough people and enough events to absorb the attention of the population at large and it is quite permissible, quite normal for casualties like us to drop from sight and from memory.

We leave but a temporary gap, which, like a small bare patch on the lawn, quickly erased by the growth and encroachment of new events and entanglements. Except of course in our own domestic hearths where loved ones keep their anxious vigil. And we are consumed with longing for them; all through the days our hearts pine for those small communities which have become, for us, the only places where we now would wish to be. We are appalled and unmanned by the thoughts of our separation becoming permanent, of the world going on, in its liveliness, and its intense web of interdependencies.

Which of us here, has not, I wonder entertained thoughts of a Mephistophelian contract for just a day in ease and harmony with family and friends, free again with the knowledge of our grim interdict temporarily erased, happy and content in an affection and a simple companionship, which we have come now to value above all else.

Day ebbs and the light pales outside now as Denis breathes quiet and evenly. He is sleeping and they have not tried to wake him for tea. I’ve said a furtive prayer for him – confused, as ever about the efficacy or even the meaning of such a gesture, but willing him well. His hope is my hope and maybe, who knows, we’ll all get out of here in time. This waning hour just before twilight is my favourite time, for since my own dark encounter with the mortal threat which pins us here, I have learned a thing or two. I have learned the value of now, of the moment, in which all things are present and eternal, even as they pass away. I can hold this sense of now, of being, only briefly, only at special times, but I am learning, even though my teacher has long gone.

My teacher ? He was Stephen, a brief transient for hardly more than forty eight hours. On the way to a more advanced facility he was held with us, a wraith of a man, barely able to breath unaided. He slept with an oxygen tank by his bed, and moved about slowly, panting gently all the while. Nothing less than a new heart and lungs would save him and yet his eyes were bright, his eyes were crystal clear and he was vastly more alive, more passionate and more certain in his encounter with the world than I have yet learned to be.

It was in this clear, declining light that he guided me to a window, the evening before he left, and held my shoulder, patient and quiet as the minutes passed, until we observed the passage of a hare along the edge of the tree outside. The moment was timeless, as we followed the movement of this creature of grace, followed its cautious progress across the open grass and back into the shadows, and since then I have pondered it and I have tried to learn. I wonder if perhaps I could convey some of all this to Denis. Perhaps it might calm him, take the edge off his all too human fears………

But now, wait a minute, something’s happening! Here it comes, we’re suddenly on the brink of an announcement. A white coated messenger of fate has swept in and drawn the curtains around Denis’s bed and we can hear the murmur of his voice, low and earnest.

There is a pause, then some rapid exchanges, question and answer, and the white clad medic is gone. Denis sweeps back the curtain and punches the air, he’s radiant. I reach out a hand to his, my prisoner’s salute to this already free man.

There’s little point in mentioning any of that stuff about serenity now. He’s out of reach of that concept, euphoria is his game, and good luck to him, let his joy be unconfined. Such happiness in his face, such breathless relief, he can’t stop smiling……clutching a borrowed coin he strides out for the phone, our hero, off to break back, triumphant, into the world.

Biographical Note:
Tony Devlin, Dubliner, writes poems and stories, getting old now, but not tired yet…….published in Stinging Fly, SHOp, Revival and other journals; included in Writing4All Best of 2010 Anthology; recently completed a first novel (Season of Snow), set in the time of the Albigensian Crusade; looking for a publisher…….

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