This is an unusual sight. I’m sitting in a bustling Starbucks by I-25 and out the window a bunny rabbit just hopped across the patio. And now I can’t see him any more.
A few weeks ago I rode up the Apex trail in the wind and got something in my eye and all night it itched. The Latin word for tears: lacrimas. To shed tears: lacrimas profundere. Like the word profound, which is clearly a derivative. Pro means in front of or on behalf of. I think fundere means to fill or produce.
It’s been a while since I thought about Latin. In high school, I loved Latin. Amo (I love), amas (you love), amat (he/she/it loves).
Speaking of matters of the heart, last week I went to see a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis for a persistent irregular heartbeat. He called them “extra beats.”
Turns out I have a thickened heart muscle along my left ventricle, The Latinate term for it is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The abbreviation is HCM.
At Starbucks, a very skinny man in a leather jacket (though the leather looks fake) keeps getting up and walking outside. He steps around the patio in a small circle, then returns to his café table. He sits facing the window. He’s alone, has the thin look of a smoker. He must be waiting for someone. (Probably Godot.)
My eye keeps weeping slowly and it itches, but I am not sad.
Best of all, I didn’t die of sudden heart failure! (Sardonic laughter here.)
Which is a possible outcome of HCM. Luckily, the doctor—the world-leading specialist in such things—said I have a very mild form of the disease.
Holy crud, I have a “disease.”
By “mild” he means that I don’t display any of the dangerous markers, which are:
- dangerous arrhythmia on my EKG (though it is abnormal);
- my blood pressure doesn’t drop dangerously when I undergo a cardiac stress test;
- the valve between my left atrium and ventricle doesn’t get stuck in the open position;
- I don’t lose consciousness suddenly.
I’d be lying if I said that I don’t think about my mortality and HCM. When I’m riding. Or driving. Or falling asleep. Or all the damn time.
When my heart rate is maxxed out (173 beats per minute, give or take), and I’m struggling to climb, climb, climb, a steep section of trail for example, and I’m sucking wind, I feel my heart thumping away, and wonder if it’s going to betray me.
And then I think it’s me—it’s My Heart, and boy, has it endured a lot. It’s been a good heart, it’s kept on, kept on, kept on no matter what I’ve put it through. All the hard work, the emotional dramas. I should not think of it as something separate, as antagonist, betrayer.
I should be nice to my heart.
Who wants a free venti chai? a barista asks, and there’s a polite but mad scramble. Some guy gets there first and then he’s off to embrace his Monday with a free drink.
I am 48 years old. At Apex, my riding buddy Ed and I climbed over 3,000 vertical feet in 10 miles of riding. I cleared some very technical sections. I didn’t crash, didn’t lose any blood. I’ve already biffed way too much this summer. Probably because I’ve been so distracted by the heart thing.
Funny thing is: when I’m working out and my heart rate is elevated, it pumps smoothly and there are no extra beats. The doc said that was because there’s no time to toss in an extra beat when it’s beating fast. As if the heart is thinking about it. As if it’s sentient (from the Latin, sentire, to feel).
As if it wants to make me nervous by beating extra times, but then I really get it going and it can’t do that. Silly, mischievous heart.
The doc said the extra beats are benign. In the thickened muscle there’s probably some scar tissue, which can throw off the heart’s electrical impulses.
My heart has scars. (Oh boy, doesn’t it.)
Some nights as I lay me down to sleep my heart goes haywire with extra beats, and it thumps so powerfully my entire chest shudders and my neck flushes with blood that backs up, since the atrial valve closes off too quickly and pumps nothing, an empty chamber. The blood that should be in the atrium gets backed up, and that’s why I feel it in the veins of my neck.
Benign, he says. (From the Latin benignus, literally “well born.” How snooty.)
If I had a bad case of HCM, the doc would have recommend I get an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) installed, under the skin of my chest, right below my left collarbone. Then, if I ever got a dangerous arrhythmia, it would shock my heart back into shape. Like an internal version of those paddles you see on those medical TV shows, when the doc rubs them together and shouts “clear” and the patient’s body is shocked and spasms violently.
I have to go. I have to go to work. My latte is finito. The traffic on the highway should have cleared by now. I stand up and sense my heart, that thing that most people hardly ever think about.
It thrums a few extra beats beat and I feel woozy for just a second, and then it catches and goes back to normal. Or as regular as it’s going to get. And I appreciate that.
Here’s a Shakespeare sonnet that suddenly holds new meaning for me….
O, never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seemed my flame to qualify.
As easy might I from my self depart
As from my soul which in thy breast doth lie.
That is my home of love; if I have ranged,
Like him that travels I return again,
Just to the time, not with the time exchanged,
So that myself bring water for my stain.
Never believe though in my nature reigned
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stained
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good;
For nothing this wide universe I call
Save thou, my rose, in it thou art my all.
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