Coronary Episode #1

Just My Luck  –  Chapter 5

 

Genetics being what they are, and my father’s family having a proclivity towards heart disease, I figured I had a 50/50 chance of facing my father’s fate. My grandfather, Pop Sam, was the only one in my father’s immediate family who lived to celebrate a 70th birthday. My mother’s family, by contrast, was 100% comprised of sturdy Swedish stock. My paternal grandparents both died of heart attacks while I was a small child. My maternal grandparents both died when I was a man in my 30s.

Pop n LaurenMy mother’s parents, Carl and Ebba Johnson, played a big role in the lives of my mother, sister and me after dad died. Every day I wear a simple silver ring with a rectangular garnet stone that belonged to my grandfather. If I turn out to be half the man that he was, I will consider my life a success. He’s with me when I wear that ring and I wear it all the time.  (photo left is Carl holding my daughter, Lauren, in 1980)

If I had a genetic Achilles heel, it would be if the genes that made my heart were from my father’s side of the family. I took some precautions in case they were, but was not obsessed with coronary physical fitness.

While in high school at age 17 I took up pipe smoking thinking it was less hazardous than cigarettes and made me look erudite (though it certainly didn’t improve my IQ). I tried it more or less as an experiment but found that I enjoyed it. By my first year of college at Virginia Tech, I added smoking an occasional cigar to my repertoire, especially when it bothered my roommate’s girlfriend.

When I transferred to Central Connecticut State, I lived off-campus with two other guys. At times we’d sit down in the living room for a bull session and a smoke. My roommates lit their cigarettes and I my pipe. Cigarettes are much less work than pipes. Pipe tobacco will go out if not properly attended and when finished requires a special tool to dig out the burnt ash from the bowl and a pipe cleaner to take out the tar that invariably accumulates in the stem. I really had to work hard to ignore the probability that the disgusting, black tar on a used pipe cleaner was probably also gathering in my mouth, throat and lungs.

One day I ran out of pipe tobacco as we sat in the living room and said the fateful words, “Gimme one of those, will ya?” The following morning I had a pack of cigarettes in my shirt pocket and a new, more dangerous pack-a-day habit.

Fooling Myself

Fast forward four years to the morning of April 1, 1975. In the teacher’s lounge at Stamford High School I rose from its huge conference table, cleared my throat, and announced to nobody in particular, “Happy April Fools Day! In solemn tribute to this hallowed date, having been a fool for the last several years, I hereby quit cigarettes!” To the thunderous applause of my three colleagues there present, I strode to the garbage can, tossed away my half empty pack of Old Golds, returned to my seat, pulled out a pipe, and lit it.

The following September, on the morning of the first day of the new school year – probably the most depressing day of each year for me – I was in that same teacher’s lounge when I quietly asked a buddy for a cigarette, the first one I had since April Fools Day. I figured that I had kicked the habit, but now I could allow myself the occasional cigarette to calm down when needed.

When I arrived home that evening, I had a fresh pack of Old Golds in my pocket and had been forgiven for my neglect by my pack-a-day habit.

April 1, 1976, the fool commits the swearing off the smokes celebration once again, this time with no fanfare. This time, the fool knew he could not ever be an occasional cigarette smoker. His license to bum a smoke from a friend had been revoked.

I’ve never smoked another cigarette.

But the pipes and cigars were another thing.

The Good Old Days of Second Hand Smoke

Today, it’s hard to imagine, but when I began my new career at Marsh & McLennan, in Manhattan there were no restrictions on when and where you could smoke in the office, in restaurants, bars (of course), or in public buildings. The commuter trains had “Smoking Cars” that filled will dense tobacco smoke before the train even started rolling. If you happened to walk through a smoking car while in search of a seat, you probably inhaled enough second-hand smoke asphyxiate a cow.

I was known in the office as the pipe smoker. My suit pockets bulged with the equipment – pipes of various styles and sizes, pipe cleaners, a bowl scraper, a tamper, a pipe lighter, and of course the pouch stuffed with tobacco. People complimented me on the aroma of my tobacco, which was a special blend I found in a little tobacco shop while on a long weekend excursion to Pennsylvania Dutch country. Whenever I ran low, I’d send a personal note of greeting and a check to the proprietor of the shop in Intercourse, PA who would write me a note to accompany the tobacco sent in the mail. I always enjoyed writing the address on the envelope of my tobacco order and note to Intercourse, PA. I wonder why.

In a way, smoking my pipe had become more like a lifestyle than a pastime.

I was 34 years old and hosting my annual Super Bowl Party when a friend, who also happened to be a Marsh client, commented to me as I puffed on my pipe beside him, “Hey, you inhale on that thing, don’t you.”

I started to say “No,” but realized he was right. I had just inhaled the pipe smoke as I would a cigarette. I wondered how long I’d been doing that.

My wife, bless her, said, “I’ve told you that a thousand times and a thousand times you denied it. Rick says it to you once and it’s a revelation?”

I started pipe smoking when I was 17. I’d been smoking for half of my life.

I’ve never smoked since.

Too Little Too Late?

With good reason, I was worried that the damage might already be done. My father took up smoking when he went to war in the early 1940s. Just about every soldier did. The Red Cross packages handed out to the troops in WWII included packs of cigarettes. The rumblings about smoking being linked to lung cancer and heart disease in the early/mid 1960s inspired him to quit. But he had nearly 20 years of pack-a-days behind him. Now I had 17.

Two days after my 44th birthday, 10/10/1995 I crossed the line. My lifetime now exceeded my father’s by a day. Maybe I did have my mother’s coronary genes. Maybe I’d be okay.

Three years later, while on a walk through the neighborhood on a Friday evening, I felt a sudden stabbing pain in my left armpit and I became short of breath. Of course I was roughly at the mid-point of my walk so it didn’t matter if I continued on or doubled back, I was about a half mile in either direction from home . I remember praying as I walked, “If I drop, please God, let someone find me soon.” I wasn’t being melodramatic; I meant it.

When I arrived home, Doris called from the kitchen, “How was your walk?”

“I’m not feeling too good; can you take me to the hospital?”

She immediately stepped out of the kitchen and looked at me. “You’re really pale. I’m calling an ambulance.”

“No,” I shouted. “By the time it takes them to get here, we could be at the hospital. I’m really scared. Please, let’s go.”

Note to self and you: That was a bad call. The nurses at the hospital scolded me seriously for insisting that Doris drive me to the hospital. The logic hadn’t occurred to me. “What should she do if you passed out on the way? Does she continue on or pull over to try to resuscitate you and ask incompetent strangers for help? Always call an ambulance.” I could hear the unspoken “, you idiot” that belonged at the end of that command.

On the bed in the Emergency Room, over and over I silently prayed, Please God, not now. Doris was scared as she held my hand. I didn’t want my kids, who were roughly the ages of my sister and me when our dad died, to go through what we did.

Gradually the pain subsided, whatever medication they gave me was working.

Eventually, the ER nurse told me that I hadn’t had a heart attack. It may have been close, but the enzyme test was negative. I was very relieved. I mentally prepared to go home.

Like Father Like Son

But the cardiologist on duty that evening wanted to keep me overnight and do an angiogram. They put a very small thread with a micro camera into an artery from my right armpit and snaked it to my heart to have a look around. The following morning, Sunday, the cardiologist sat with Doris and me to say that one of the arteries of my heart had an 85% blockage and a second had a 70% blockage. “This is what they used to call ‘hardening of the arteries.’”

Those were the very words under “cause of death” on my father’s death certificate.

Not to worry though. Two days after the angiogram I had an angioplasty, also called the balloon procedure.   Working through the same route taken for the angiogram, the surgeon ‘rooter-rootered’ the blockages and inserted three stents to keep the arteries open and free flowing.

This procedure that was unheard of in my father’s day was by now very routine. I had been on the third of four patient-carrying gurneys waiting outside the Operating Room in a line, like kids at Disneyworld. A second parade was going to line up after lunch.

It all went off like clockwork without incident. The only entry point for the procedure was a little incision in my right armpit. No sutures were required. I went from the recovery room to my hospital room for an overnight sleep and was discharged on Tuesday.

I was better than new three days after entering the ER.

I nearly had my father’s fatal heart attack, but thanks to advances in medicine over the ensuing 30 years, the doctors knew what was wrong and how to fix it – quickly.

 

Just My Luck.

©2016 James Ash

An Untimely Death – Part 2

An Untimely Death – Part 2

Just My Luck – Chapter 4 Part 2

Rituals

I really suffered death for the first time when my father died.   His wake and his funeral were the first I ever attended, and they were terrible experiences. Laid out for all to see in his open casket, though his face looked like wax and his lips were unnaturally red, he was there.  He wasn’t gone yet, I could see him big as life, but dead. His was the very first dead body I ever saw.  I wanted it to be anybody else. Dad - camera

Knowing that when the lid on that casket was closed I would never see him again, I tried with all my not-too-formidable might to will him back to life. I prayed as never before that his eyes would open, the mourners would cheer, and he’d sit up in the coffin, smile his great smile and be as good as new.  He couldn’t really be gone, could he?

Finally accepting that he was became my first living nightmare.

Being so young, he was among the first of his friends and peers to die, so flowers and visitors to his casket were plentiful. As people arrived for the wake from the cold January night, they greeted one another with smiles and occasionally some casual laughter came from their conversations in the foyer of the funeral home.

Dad ObitHearing that, I was as furious as a suffering 13-year-old could be. How dare anyone laugh at anything here while my father was lying dead in the next room?   I was angry at the implicit disrespect they obviously had for my great and wonderful father (his pedestal was well built in my mind).  I knew I had to swallow my fury rather than disturb the solemnity of my father’s last couple of days on the surface of the earth.  I didn’t want to make a spectacle of myself. But if any of the revelers (my exaggeration) were to look me in the eyes, my loathing would be unmistakable.  None of them did.

But in the back of my mind I knew I was jealous at the same time. I knew when these visitors left the building they would all go home to resume their lives as usual.  At that moment in the funeral home I had no idea of what my future held. The only thing I knew was that nothing could ever be the same

A jigger of grief and a dash of fear – a potent cocktail for a 13-year old boy.

In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t gone to the open-casket wake. For many years thereafter when I called my father to my mind, the first image I’d have was of him in the casket. I had to get past that sad gateway before I could get on with a good memory of his playing catch with me, or taking me to a railroad station to watch for long freight trains and count the cars as they sped by. Eventually, the casket image faded in my mind, but I think I would have been better off if the casket was closed.

I didn’t know that one of the early stages of grief is anger; I just knew my stomach was burning.

But of all my memories of those few days, I will never forget the pure distain I had for the unforgivable funeral performance by the Rector of our church. He was the head of the church where my grandfather sang in the choir for more than seven decades and where I too sang as a chorister, where my mother and father were married (by him), and where my sister and I were baptized and confirmed.  He was God’s paid representative and leader of the rituals honoring the departed. This “man of God” wore a scowl indicating he had no patience for our grieving and obviously wanted to be someplace else throughout my father’s funeral.  Ultimately, I wished he had been somewhere else too.

Likewise, the cemetery was under a thick layer of snow and the air was crisp and cold, so this priest flew through the words of the burial service with absolutely no inflection or emotion. Just a meaningless fast-paced babble of words and an I’m cold, let’s get out of here demeanor. My father was ten times the good man this priest was, and he deserved much better than that as he was lowered into his final resting place. For the first time in my life I was truly enraged, and of all people, the target was our priest.

I have since come to know a great many superb men and women of the clergy who each  re-confirm my respect for those who hear their callings. But my respect and regard for the Reverend SFH died forever for his unforgivably cold  and demeaning performance on my father’s last cold day above ground.

My memories of people and events that transpired over a half-century ago remain vivid in my mind still. Such was the enormity of my loss.

Sobering Realizations

My father’s premature death changed me fundamentally. Up to then, my childhood had been idyllDopey meic. I was secure in my world, had a strong middle class support system that kept me fed, warm and sheltered, and was personally untouched by the woes if the larger world.

I had a fine life. I may not have fully appreciated all I had, but I knew I was happy.

Then the lightning bolt obliterated my tidy existence and left me vulnerable for the first time in my life. When I re-surfaced from the rituals of departure, it was to an uncomfortably unfamiliar world.  We were in the same house, on the same street, with the same neighbors and friends and relatives.  We ate the same food cooked on the same stove on the same dishes that were washed in the same sink in the same kitchen.  But now we were three.  The “head of our household” was gone and we were weepy and downtrodden. I’d never had a dull, throbbing pain before.  What happened to us simply wasn’t fair.

Most disturbingly, I fully understood as never before that the good portions of my life would inevitably be unfairly interrupted, mostly with little or no warning, by terrible times. I could never be complacently comfortable riding a wave of security now that I knew that at any moment disaster might strike. While any kind of tragedies might happen, I knew with certainty that people I love would die in my lifetime.  The recurrence of dull, throbbing pain would be unavoidable.

That dark revelation made me face the workings of the larger world.

Eventually I realized there are two ways of living with life’s ups and downs. I have been fortunate to experience my life as mostly good and secure times that are occasionally interrupted by painful challenges. Unfortunately, many others have lived mostly in hard times interrupted by too few good times.

It’s an important distinction that I think we need to take into account when we deal with one another.

If only…

The circumstances of sudden death (from an accident, random violence, wartime, stroke, heart attack etc.,) often inspire “if onlys” after the fact:

If only Beth had left for work just five minutes later…

If only the peace talks had ended the war sooner…

If only that fool hadn’t run the red light….

If only I could have convinced him to ride with a helmet…

If only Mary hadn’t taken the doctor’s advice seriously…

If only my father’s nitro pills had worked…

These “if onlys” expose the wrinkles in the events of our lives that are simply products of the randomness of our environment that neither favors nor disfavors anyone. Good folks and evil do not necessarily get what they deserve. As time progresses it becomes increasingly clear that life and death are not designed to be fair. When you bust that bubble, a lot of what didn’t make sense comes into sharper focus.

Face it. Luck, good or bad, can visit anyone, good or bad, at any time, good or bad. Live accordingly.

 

I am writing this on Friday, February 5, 2016. Today, during an early morning snowstorm a huge construction crane in the Tribeca section of Lower Manhattan was being moved to a safer position due to the high winds that accompanied the storm. Before making it to safety the crane was blown over by the high winds and its massive tower came crashing to the ground. Two people were seriously injured and one man was killed.

The dead man never knew what hit him. God didn’t do it, nor did God stop it.

It wasn’t this man’s “time.” A random, improbable, coinciding series of events conspired to topple the crane onto the victim who, through no fault of his own, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Likewise, the injured were the innocent victims of misfortune/ bad luck. It could just as well have been me…or you. No one is immune from the outcomes of random occurrences. We can’t count on always having more time.

It’s a hard truth.

 

©2016 James Ash

An Untimely Death – Part 1

An Untimely Death – Part 1

Just My Luck – Chapter 4 Part 1

 

8:00 p.m. January 14, 1965. Shippan Duck Pin Bowling Center. Thursday Night League, Lane 34

Dad bowls a strike.duck pin bowling dad

Smiling, he returns to the bench behind the scorekeeper. It’s been a good day: his first full day at work since his heart attack, dinner with the family, and now rolling some high scores.  After lots of hard work, he’s finally healthy again. He’ll sleep well tonight.

A stranger behind the bench catches his eye.

GR:

     Hey man! Nice strike!… Wow! Look at you! You look a lot better than I expected

 

Dad:

     Do I know you?

 

GR:

     What, you don’t recognize me?

 

Dad:

     Afraid not.

 

GR:

     Think hard. Who do you know that wears a hooded black robe and carries garden tool?

 

Dad:

     Listen, I’m kinda busy here. Is there something I can do for you?

 

GR:

     Yeah, Sure. Can you tell me what time it is?

 

Dad:

Looks at his watch and then looks at GR questioningly.

     My time?… My time?… What’s that supposed to mean?

 

GR:

     Whadda-ya think it means, man? Your time in this world is done. I’m here to take you away.

 A bony hand grasps Dad’s shoulder. Dad takes out his little bottle of nitro pills and puts a couple under his tongue.

 

     C’mon with me. It’s your time.

 

8:25 pm, January 14, 1965. The Living Room at 56 Palmer Street, Springdale

The telephone rings and my mother, who’s been watching television in the living room with my sister and me, gets up and steps into our small dining room to answer the phone. My sister, Marge, 17 years old and a Senior in high school, and I, 13 and in 8th grade, continue to watch the show.

As my mother picks up the telephone receiver, none of us has the slightest inkling how drastically our lives are about to change.

 

A Member of the Greatest Generation

Consistent with all good fortune in my childhood, I was extremely lucky that James Fredrick Ash was my father. A veteran of World War II, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge in Patton’s 3rd Army in B1_0038elgium and was among those who captured the Mauser Works, the main manufacturer of rifles, hand guns and artillery for the German Army. Dad almost never talked about his experiences during the war. I know he saw combat and assume there must have been some difficult memories carried home when the war ended. Part of the “greatest generation” and co-contributor of two entries to the Baby Boom, he was reticent about his Army days but was proud that the Army had “made him a man.” So much so that he’d told my mother he wanted me to join the Army when I came of age too.

Dad suffered his first heart attack in June 1964, a decade or two before doctors made the connection between high cholesterol and heart disease. He spent several weeks in the hospital, initially under an oxygen tent. Absent any effective treatments for heart disease at the time, the standard protocol was painkillers, lots of bed rest, avoidance of physical or emotional stress, the blandest of diets, and gradual recuperation. Only about 20% of heart attack victims in the 1960s survived the ambulance ride to the Emergency Room. Thankfully, Dad had been among the 20% – the first time.

His recovery was slow but steady. After several weeks he was released from the hospital. A couple of weeks later, my cousin, Dad’s God-daughter, was married in the church we attended. Though no longer hospitalized, Dad was still confined to his bed so he missed the event. Between the ceremony and the reception, my cousin and her new husband were driven in their wedding limousine to our house to surprise my Dad. I remember how touched he was to have been brought into the wedding day. He was a happy and thankful, loving and well loved man.

My Dad took his doctor’s orders seriously and followed them to the letter. He walked a couple of miles a day, every day, along the sidewalk separating the beach from the parking lot at one of the municipal parks in our city. He wore a pedometer to be sure he fulfilled Dad CUhis obligation to his recovery. He changed his diet and lost weight. He took his medicines (such as they were at the time) strictly as prescribed.   When cleared by his doctor, he returned to work for half-days at first and gradually lengthened his working hours as his strength returned. In short, he did everything in his power to stave off another heart attack.

After six months of recovery, my father’s doctor finally cleared him to return to full workdays starting Thursday, January 14, 1965 – the day after his 44th birthday. This marked the culmination of his recovery and with it, our whole family’s return to life as it had been before his heart attack.

All was well.

A Great PPB Announcementlace to Work

My Dad went to work right out of high school in 1939 on the loading dock of Pitney-Bowes, the maker of postage meters and related equipment for sorting mail and expediting the deliveries of the US Post Office. Pitney-Bowes was a great place to work – they genuinely cared for their employees, so much so in fact no labor unions were ever able to organize the workers at PB. PB management appreciated all of the company’s workers, paid them
well, and recognized and upheld workers rights in their shops. The company made safety a priority, was generous with vacation time, and annually hosted an all day summer picnic for all employees and their families at an amusement park. When my Dad was drafted into WWII he, and every other PB employee who joined the military in wartime, was guaranteed that his job would be waiting for him when he returned to civilian life. And it was.

PB’s health insurance paid all the medical bills from his heart attack and the company kept him on the books at full pay while he was away. And, like it was when he returned from war, his job was waiting for him when he was able to go back to work after his heart attack.

On top of all of this, PB recognized every employee who reached the 25 years of service milestone by giving him or her a paid, three-month vacation. My dad surpassed that goal while on his coronary sick leave and so he and my mother were planning a cross-country trip for us in the upcoming summer months.   Dad was well again and I was finally going to Disneyland!

Dad had a great sense of humor and was devoted to my mother, my sister, and me. Like others of his generation, my father wanted his children to have a life better than he had. He had no notions of going to college after high school; the idea wasn’t even on the table as he and his family, like so many others, couldn’t afford the tuition.   He went to work and he went to war instead. He and my mother married shortly after he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army and, like so many other returning veterans and their wives, they wanted to start of family.

It might not have been audible, but the Baby Boom was plenty powerful.

Dad at PBThough he never went to college, my dad was quite intelligent. He was very mechanically inclined and had both a talent for model-making and a natural deductive logic that saw him quickly emerge from the loading dock to the tool & die machine shop at PB.   Always intent on promoting from within, PB then sent him to night courses at Cooper Union in New York. Eventually he was promoted from the tool and die manufacturing group to the tool & die design group, working side by side with newly graduated engineers from colleges like Rensselaer, Brooklyn Polytechnic and the like. Ten or more years senior to these wet-behind-the-ears newly graduated collegiate colleagues, my father was determined to save the tuition money needed for my sister and me to go to college so that we might have the head start he’d never had.

Of course I was to go to college only after the Army had made me a man.

After more than 20 years at PB, my father became the second in command of the Tool & Die Design Group. With no engineering degree but with years of experience at PB from the ground up, he was managing a group of degreed engineers. The Chairman of the Board of Pitney Bowes, Walter Wheeler, knew, liked and respected my father. Like so many of his peers, he was simply a good, hard working, fun loving, responsible man. It’s hard to be exceptional when the normal standard is that high, but to me he was wonderful.

(to be continued)

 

©2016 James Ash

My Mother’s Worst Nightmare

My Mother’s Worst Nightmare

Mom and me 2Just My Luck – Chapter 3

When I was a pre-schooler I nearly lost my (up-to-then-very-short) life. The event is one of my earliest childhood memories. When I think back on it, which is not often anymore, I realize how lucky I was to be around to start Kindergarten later that year.

The neighborhood where I lived the first 18 years of my life was a great place. The houses were modest, middle class homes with nothing more than the width of a driveway separating them on either side. By the time I was seven I knew everyone who lived in all of the 30 or so houses on Palmer Street – kids and grown ups – and they knew me.   Our’s was not a busy street, but neither was it a dead end. It was one of a warren of local residential roads that terraced a broad hill. Our little 1/8th mile road was one of the terraces cut into the hill and was bracketed by perpendicular downhill roads at both ends.

Roughly half the meager traffic flow on Palmer Street was made up by our neighbors coming or going and by visitors to them. It was hardly a popular destination. Any other folks driving by were most likely on the way to their preferred downhill route to the major artery of our village, Springdale. There were plenty of destinations down there – variety stores, grocery stores, a few bars, barber shops, a lunch counter, churches, gas stations, a liquor store, dry cleaners, an elementary school, a branch of the city’s library, a post office, our Little League field, a Sealtest milk processing and packaging plant,and even a train station on a ‘spur line’ serving commuters to New York City.

The residential streets on the hill had a lot of kids of different ages – the babies of the boom – and our playgrounds were our back yards and the street. Whenever we played games on the street, the first kid to see a car turning onto our road would shout “Car!” (clever huh?) and we’d all politely step aside to yield our space to drivers as they drove by.

It was the summer of 1956, the year Don Larson of the New York Yankees pitched the first and only perfect game in a World Series on my fifth birthday. A bunch of kids from all around were playing war (if someone ‘shot’ you, you counted to 10 and then rejoined the battle). I was only four-going-on-five years old, but I was excited because for some reason the “big kids” were letting us little ones play with them. The battle lines had been drawn on either side of the road right in front of my house and the combatants hid and shouted “bam” while pulling the triggers of their toy guns aimed from behind cars parked curbside.

The leader of our pint-sized army called us all together and laid out a plan for us to charge through the no-man’s-land and engage the enemy on the other side of the road close up. A plan! A coordinated attack with and at the big kids! I couldn’t wait! So on his count of three we fearless little soldiers charged across the street to meet our foes.

When I arrived at the other curb, the biggest of the big kids on their side stood up right in front of me and bellowed at all of us to get back to our own side of the street before he started knocking heads together (or some such thing). Genuinely frightened I turned and made a mad dash towards the safety of the cars parked in front of my house, completely oblivious to the car driving by that met me side-on as I darted in front of it from between two parked cars.

1948 Pontiac Torpedo Deluxe Convertible 2 framedI remember the collision of steel (no aluminum in cars yet) and the side of my head and I vaguely recollect being airborne. The next thing I knew I was lying on the side of the street and my mother was on her knees next to me crying.

Apparently, when I landed on the street after the collision I either was or became unconscious and remained that way for several minutes during which time my mother had come to my side and a neighbor had called for an ambulance. In shock, fear and pain I started to wail – a good sign.

Years later, when my mother recounted the scene, she told me she saw the accident as it unfolded. From our dining room windows she saw the car, she saw me turn and run into the street, and she dashed for the front door. By the time she opened it I was in the air and she saw me land flat on my back. She was at that moment embroiled in her worst nightmare and powerless to control whatever was to happen next.  Pure despair.

Her trauma was far worse than mine because she knew how close she had been to losing me. I, on the other hand, learned to cross streets safely but had no appreciation of the danger I’d been in. I’d learn about it someday, but not right away. I learned no lesson about Death that day.

Fortunately for me, the lady driving the car was going about 15 miles per hour as she drove amongst the playing children. When I darted out right in front of her car, she had no chance to avoid the accident; she saw me for only the briefest of moments before I hit. But because of her caution the collision of my head and shoulder against the front and hood of her car did not do great damage to me (or her car) and she was able to turn the car away from where I fell and quickly stop. If she had done otherwise there’s a good chance I would have been run over.

In the end the net result of my headlong charge into a moving vehicle was an ambulance ride – sirens and all, an egg sized lump on my forehead, a concussion, an over night stay in the hospital for observation, a bunch of new toys when I got home, and a vulnerability to headaches that didn’t go away for the next 20 years.

My first potentially fatal situation was behind me. It could have been far worse.

Just My Luck.

 

 

 

©2016 James Ash

Dealing with Death and Time – 2

Dealing with Death and Time – 2

(continued)

Just My Luck – Chapter 2 – Part 2

Death in the Third Person, A Primer

In terms of family, guess what: I have been exceedingly lucky.

Because of my family I know that I have been loved unconditionally and continually from the moment of my birth (and probably even before). And through family I had the great pleasure to begin learning how to give love. There is no greater joy.

As a child I was lucky always to feel safe and valued. Growing up I doubt I ever realized the importance of my support systems, protection, advocacy, belonging, security, sustenance, privilege, personal values, modeled behavior, and all the other benefits I had by virtue of my loving family.   I was a happy, well-adjusted, upbeat kid in my early years, and I knew I had it good. I didn’t know that an astounding number of kids didn’t (still don’t) have it good.

Encountering the loss of a loved one for the first time put the first grey cloud in my spotless blue sky. Once identified, Death introduced the first significant cause of real worry to my juvenile mind. Death was a difficult reality to consider, but when my age was in single digits I was actually less concerned about my own death than I was about the gonna-happen-some-day deaths of my loved ones.

Meet the Reaper

As is probably very common, grandparents were the first of my close relatives to die while I was alive. My paternal grandmother, Myrtle (Krum) Ash [yes, she transformed from a Krum to an Ash when she married] died within a year of my birth. She’d known and loved me, held me and cared for me, but I have no recollection of her. Family photographs confirm she was a nice part of my life, but she passed away before my lasting memo1_0040ry was enabled. Thank goodness for the photos. The love in her eyes and smile of her kind disposition are easy to see, even in black & white. By all accounts, she was a gem. But her death didn’t faze me in the least. Changing my diaper was the only relief from discomfort I needed then, not much else.

Her husband, my grandfather Samuel Bailey Ash, survived her by about five years, so I knew and remember “Pop” Sam. He let my sister and me stay up late when he babysat us for our parents. He smoked cigars and read the paper and talked with us while we played with our toys on the floor. He always got us to bed and asleep before my parents returned home, so we kept our little stay-up secret with him always. He had been a milkman and later worked in the train yard of the New York and New Haven Railroad before he retired. After Myrtle died he moved in with my dad’s sister, Aunt Evelyn, her husband Uncle Charley and their four girls. Theirs was a small home full of big hearts. Pop volunteered as a school crossing guard; he smiled a lot and was great with kids.

I have a fond memory that ‘pops’ up every now and then. Whenever my parents took us to visit the small house of big hearts, I’d run upstairs to visit Pop’s room and to smell his pipe tobacco. Next to7_0059 his easy chair stood a combination side table/floor lamp that illuminated his newspapers and held what I thought of as his best possessions – his ash tray, rack of briar pipes, a pipe tool, and his leather tobacco pouch. I’d climb up on his lap and he’d reach for the tobacco pouch, open it, and give it to me. I’d bend my head and stick my face into that pouch to breathe in the aroma of pipe tobacco and leather. I loved it and he always got a kick out of that.

I was six years old when Pop died. He had a heart attack while coming home from someplace in town, and drove his old Plymouth into a telephone pole. He was dead before they got him into the ambulance but was only pronounced DOA (dead on arrival) at the hospital.

I still remember when my sister and I got home from school that day (all of the neighborhood kids walked to and from school in those days, even at six years old) I was surprised to find that my father had come home early from work.   He lifted me up, looked me in the eyes, and gently told me that Pop had died. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but I did know that because he died, I would never see him again. That was enough to make me bury my face into my dad’s shoulder and cry.

The most vivid memory I have from that afternoon is that when Dad put me down I ran to one of the soft upholstered chairs in our living room, knelt before it and cried into the seat cushion. To this day, whenever I look at photos taken in that living room and I see that chair, I remember it being the altar I cried on for Pop.

Youth is resilient and the death of one in a family’s elder generation, while painful and sorrowful, is not an unexpected tragedy. In the 1950s the life expectancy of a male in the United States was 67.6 years. Today it is 76.3. So when my grandfather Sam had his fatal heart attack, he was very near his average life expectancy.   When he died, Pop’s four offspring were all adults, all married, and all with families of their own. He even had a great-grandchild.

Pop was a widower and was in the end of his days. In the natural course of events, Pop Sam’s demise was unwelcome but not surprising. I was too young to go to the wakes and the service at the funeral home; my introduction to the rituals of death in my native culture was postponed to a later date. Early in the following week, my Dad left for work as usual and my mother got my sister and me prepared for school. The return to normalcy was comforting; our lives resumed essentially unchanged.

But I occasionally felt Pop’s absence among us and would sometimes think about the implications of this death thing while trying to fall asleep at night. I’d never really worried about anything like this before. When I tried to wrestle with the thought that I would also someday die, it was beyond my comprehension. I would end up thanking God that I wasn’t an old man and took some comfort that I would not be one for a long time yet. The only way I could deal with the concept was to tell myself that I would “cross that bridge when I got to it,” (which is what I am doing now). My immediate future was my outermost reach; considerations of old age and death could wait.

As mentioned, I was far more worried that my parents and sister might die than that I would. I was too young to die, but they were older so it was easier to conceive of their demise than of my own. I remember one day making all three of them promise that after we died, we’d wait for one another in heaven so we could be together forever.

Even at the age of six, I somehow understood that the suffering of death was left to the living. I was much more afraid of suffering than of dying. I remember ardently praying that I would die before my parents did.   Not now, not soon, but first. I’d be the trailblazer and would pick out the place in heaven where we would all meet after we died. I’d know they were coming so I wouldn’t miss them. If they died first, I’d be very sad and would miss them every day. I simply didn’t want that to happen.

My childish prayers were not answered.

 

 

©2016 James Ash

Dealing with Death and Time – 1

Just My Luck – Chapter 2 – Part 1

We know that without exception that which lives eventually dies. To “save” a life, one’s own or another’s, is actually just to postpone a death – nothing more and nothing less. Saving a life is a gift of time. We may not always fully cognizant that every moment of a lifetime is precious, but as long as living trumps the alternative, each living moment counts.

In the aftermath of each time my mortality has confronted me in adulthood, I have come to appreciate living more and have a growing need to lead a life worth living. As I make my way day-to-day I take fewer moments for granted. No news there really. That’s the common lesson learned by most “survivors.” Eat your dessert first.

But what has surprised me is, after each situation where my demise might well have been at hand, I’ve become less afraid of dying.

It Was Just His “Time”pocket watch

Most people first encounter death in the third person well before worrying about it in the first person. Deaths of ‘loved ones’ (or even just well-liked ones) create painful and lasting memories for survivors of all ages   Obituaries typically say that the departed “suffered death” on such-and-such date.   Actually it’s the other way round; the survivors of a dear departed soul are the ones who suffer the death. The living grieve, the dead are beyond that.

While I’m not anxious to meet Him or Her face to face yet, I believe in God. In this context I have done a great deal of soul-searching since 9/11, trying to make sense of a senseless event. As a result, I can state unequivocably that I do not believe that any death, whether by accident, disease, old age, or human mayhem, happens because God made an individual, conscious decision to take someone at a specified time in a specified way at a specified place.

The idea that each death is pre-ordained in Saint Peter’s Reservation Book or some universal game plan drawn out and administered by God is ludicrous. It is likewise ludicrous to say that the real reason I survived my incidents was that it simply wasn’t “my time.” That infers that some other time and place has been selected for me to die, I just haven’t arrived there yet. If I could see the date book, I’d know my destiny. Really?

My father died the day after his 44th birthday. He was a young man, still very much in his prime. There was no way for us to anticipate he would no longer be with us two days after we sang Happy Birthday to him. The idea it was “his time” can only be posed from 20/20 hindsight. Death in the future tense is hazy, uncertain and conceptual; only death in the past tense is real.   It’s easy to know when my father’s “time” was, but on his birthday the day before, who knew when it would be?

If God knew, so what? God wasn’t telling anybody so what does it matter? For we mere mortals, it is immaterial whether there is a date book or not if we have no way to read it. What other schedules does God administer? Shooting stars? No one has any knowledge of the date, place and time I will die or you will die anymore than they know the date, place, or time the next shooting star will be seen.

Pre-destined Death only makes sense if one believes that all moments of every life are pre-destined. Short of that, why would death be the only scheduled event that happens in the midst of otherwise random chaos. No matter where I am or what I am doing, when the alarm clock goes off I will fall lifeless to the floor. If deaths are the only God-scheduled events in the Master Plan, much of God’s influence in our world would be based on subtraction, the removal of a player from the game board.

Does God design “exact moments of planned obsolescence” into his products to make way for future production?

There, that’s done. We’ve scheduled the times and places for all the deaths that will happen next year. Okay, now let’s schedule when people will have ice cream. What’s that? What do you mean we can’t? Why not? We ran out of calendars? Well that’s easily fixed. Call the life insurance companies; if anyone owes us calendars, they do.

Philosophers have long observed that if unbeknownst to us God has a Master Plan that pre-defines every moment of every life, we have no free will; we’re each simply following an invisible path not of our own making to our individual, inevitable destiny. In that context, whose fault would evil deeds be?   We are not responsible or accountable for these actions; blame God.

No, the “it was just her time” and the “it just wasn’t your time” rationales simply do not hold water. Nice try though.

 

(to be continued)

 

©2016 James Ash

An Extraordinary Stroke of Luck

Just My Luck – Chapter 1

Let’s start at the beginning. Everyone who has populated this planet necessarily had a great deal of good fortune just to be born here.  Think about it, of all the billions of planets in the universe, we happened to have evolved on one that is just far enough away from its sun and at the same time close enough to the sun to sustain life as we know it. Water, carbon, an atmosphere of non-lethal gasses, electric lightning, and other environmental conditions had to exist in sufficient supply in order to support life on earth. Devine providence or scientific phenomenon, the fact that life was created on Earth out of a crucial combination of non-living elements in just the right environment had to have been miraculously lucky.

Now, consider the incredible luck involved in just being born. Virtually every human that ever lived beat some insanely long mathematical odds simply to be created.

Question: 

I took the familiar route to birth. I was conceived when one of my father’s sperm cells attached itself to one of my mother’s eggs and together they fertilized into a human embryo that ultimately became me.  

But what if…

What if a different sperm cell had been first to cross the finish line of that evening’s running of the Fertilization Cup; would my mother have given birth to someone other than me? Certainly a different embryo, fetus, and child would have been conceived. That child would have been the lucky one, not me. But, of course if I’d never been created, there wouldn’t have been a “me” to have had any luck, good or bad, would there? I’d just be one of an infinite universe of possibilities that never happened.  

Never to have existed at all. There’s a concept to ponder.

Just How Long Are The Odds?

Casino1A unique, specific pairing of sperm cell and egg was necessary to create each distinct person who ever lived. Presuming that the selection of the lucky cell and its hostess is random, what are the odds that a specific, tail-wagging sperm will fertilize a particular egg?

A normally healthy woman produces an egg every month or so for let’s say roughly 40 years. By that premise, she will have produced plus-or-minus 480 eggs in her lifetime. How many of them might ultimately be fertilized? On average perhaps somewhere between 2 and 4.  Conservatively then, let’s say 4 out of every 480 eggs that a would-be mother produces will actually yield a human life. So on the distaff side, each egg has a 0.83% chance to become an embryo. Only one of each 120 eggs is lucky.

Those are some dauntingly long odds, but when measured against the chance a single sperm cell has, the egg’s chance at fertilization begins to resemble a sure thing.

A healthy man releases a veritable deluge of sperm cells every time he ejaculates. To listen to locker room exaggeration, some potential fathers sometimes do that two or three times a day (with or without help). But according to credible sources “A healthy adult male can release between 40 million and 1.2 billion sperm cells in a single ejaculation.” * I don’t know, that seems like a monumental waste of sperm cells to me.

Okay, lets get this straight (no pun intended), for every one of an individual female’s 480 eggs, there can between 40 million and 1.2 billion squiggly suitors per “try.”  Now there’s a long shot.

Only one of my father’s hundreds-of-billions of sperm cells, the super-duper lucky one that helped create me, out-squiggled all the others in that fateful time that the stars and life cycles were properly aligned when my parents made love. And when the sperm cell with my dad’s contribution of chromosomes to my genes found and attached itself to my mother’s egg before all other competitors, two distinct sets of genes combined elegantly to produce….me.

I am therefor the product of astoundingly incredible luck. Look around you; the same is true for all of us. We need to realize that in the broad realm of possibilities, every single human being’s mere existence is so improbable and so exceedingly rare as to be excruciatingly precious.

Of that there is no doubt.

You’re Not Just One in a Million, You’re One in 1.92 Trillion!

Let’s be Ultra Conservative about the chance that a particular sperm cell/egg pairing will take place and say that:

  • One of each 120 eggs the woman produces will be fertilized (four kids)
  • Her partner, who will remain loyal to her throughout their lives (told you this was Conservative), is on the lower end of the sperm production meter at only 40 million per ejaculation
  • The couple has intercourse just once per month (now we’ve reached Ultra Conservative):

 The total number of sperm cells released by Dad in his once monthly attempts to fertilize one of Mom’s 120 eggs would be 40 million X 120. That makes the odds on the Ultra Conservative tote board 1: 480 Billion to conceive one child.

In the Ultra Conservative, not-trying-very-hard-to-make-it-happen scenario, each sperm’s chance at human life is: 1 / 480,000,000,000

Not to beat a dead horse, but that’s 1 winner and 479,999,999 losers.

Now (forgive me, but I’m having fun) if you increase the love-making frequency assumption (always a good thing) to a still conservative four times per month, the denominator of this fraction becomes 40 million X 120 X 4 = 1.92 Trillion.

A very tough bet, but what a prize!

How Commonplace is the Extraordinary?

This is how common this extraordinary luck is. There are roughly 7.4 billion people alive on earth right now with an average life span of 71 years. So for each of the past 71 years the nearly impossible miracle happened an average of over 104 million times (7.4 billion folks/71 years)!

Is this just a gargantuan waste of sperm cells, or Darwin’s survival of the fittest taken to the extreme?

An Extra Helping of Luck

In the Become-a-Baby Mega Trillions Lottery, I needed and got an extra helping of luck. My parents wanted two children and ultimately that’s what they had (my sister is four years my senior).

So why did I need an added portion of luck?

I was a young man before I learned that my mother had a miscarriage during the four years between her pregnancy with my sister and her pregnancy with me. It was a sad and unfortunate event for my parents, but a lucky break for me. How crazy is this? Years before I was imagined and conceived, when I was nothing more than the slightest inkling of a minute possibility, I got lucky. Had my parent’s second pregnancy produced a healthy child, it is conceivably (no pun intended again) very unlikely that the sperm cell and the egg that joined to produce me would ever have met.

A Trojan warrior would have seen to that.

Just My Luck.

Okay, You’re Here…. Now What?

I hope you’re pleased to know how impressively you won the person-to-be sweepstakes. In the realm of possibility you are a bona-fide champion. Take a moment to digest that thought.

In the context of the whole wide realm of non-events, the platitude “Every life is precious” takes on real significance. What we do with, and in, our lives determines if we keep life precious, or if we waste the brightest of golden opportunities.

After a great deal of introspection, much of which occurred in the context of nearly losing my life prematurely a number of times, I arrived at three goals that I believe are worthy of my precious life. They are:

  • learning from living long,
  • living a life worth living, and
  • being content.

 The first goal simply supplies the tools needed to accomplish the rest.

Being lucky at avoiding death has become my specialty.

*Wikipedia

 

 

©2016 James Ash