Gaps in the fence

The other day I was driving home when our neighbor’s wife called to say her husband had died. We didn’t know them well. I’d only ever spoken to the wife over the telephone, though I knew him to say hello or wave. He and the Hubbit were friendly; they’d call on each other for help as needed – to borrow tools or equipment, or work together on some or other repair. For a while we took care of their pasture in return for grazing our cattle there. More than once he zipped over in his golf cart to help us chase down a runaway steer.

Somehow I never got around to inviting them over to barbecue, and we had no idea that he’d been diagnosed with throat cancer in February.  When I got home I told the Hubbit the news and he was dismayed. “Well, dang!” he said. “I’ve been thinking I should go over and visit, but…”

A few weeks ago I learned that my Aunt Marietjie had died. She was in her nineties and I knew she’d become frail, but the last time I saw her – just a few years ago at Marmeee’s memorial service – she was as I’d always known her: calm, unfalteringly kind, resolute. We weren’t close; I didn’t see her that often and in the 23 years since I moved to the US we’ve never corresponded … but when I named this blog it was with her in mind, because she was someone I kinda wanted to be like – strong, unflappable, salt-of-the-earth, a woman of strong faith and stronger Scrabble skills, a quiet source of wisdom and comfort food.

My father, the Olde Buzzard, used to refer to her as a soustannie, and it was only after I named this blog that I learned that the word didn’t mean an intelligent, powerful woman with excellent culinary skills. It’s not a compliment. It means someone who is female, fat and bossy. Well, some might say that makes it a fine name for my blog …. Oh well. [Insert shrug emoji here.]

Moment of truth: the Olde Buzzard was intimidated by strong women, and that made him mean. He had uncomplimentary nicknames for me too. He died a few years ago, and … well, all I want to say is, I’m grateful that in the end I was able to do my duty, to treat him with love and kindness, and that everything needing to be said and done between us was indeed said and done.

Getting back to Marietjie … I thought of changing the name of this blog, but decided instead to stay with the image I’d originally had in mind – an image largely inspired by this aunt, whom I am not at all like, yet who was extraordinarily kind to me at random intervals throughout my life. She was the one person I could trust to love my Girl Child when she needed it and wouldn’t accept it from me. I always meant to write to her care of my cousin, but…

Some years ago I wrote a post that won a response from a different cousin, from the other side of the family. I replied, but he never commented again. But from then on, every time I wrote about dogs, a small part of me wrote for him, because I grew up hearing stories about his extraordinary ability to connect with animals.

I grew up loving him.

I have many cousins and I’ve had crushes on several of them, but Michael was special. He was so handsome, tan and blue-eyed and blonde, with ruggedly regular features and a smile that reached out and pulled you in. When he invited me up onto his lap and taught me how to tell the time on his big wristwatch, he made my four-year-old heart flutter. I was convinced I would marry him, and I was devastated when he married someone else.

The Old Buzzard had adored my cousin – they were close in age – and he disliked the wife, and now I realize that she’s probably strong and intelligent as well as being “a damn liberal who thinks we aren’t good enough”. Back then, viewing her through the distorted lens of his resentment, I couldn’t warm to her. But I spent a month with them, while I was a university student with a vacation job in their city, and I remember she was kind, and their home was beautiful, and they seemed happy. (Who wouldn’t be happy with Michael?) I remember that she collected silver, so at the end of the visit I spent almost everything I’d earned on some too large and probably tacky addition to her collection because I needed to prove that I’d been raised right. I remember I fell and sprained my ankle getting off the bus, and Michael – who was a successful vet by then – bound it up. When I complained that he hurt me, he laughed at me for making more fuss than a dog with far worse injuries. But I forgave him because he still made my teenage heart flutter.

After I got that message from him on my long-ago blog post, whenever I wrote about dogs and hoped for another message I thought about making contact. I imagined going to see him on my next trip to South Africa. And then a couple months ago I heard that he’d died. Hoping for more detail I looked at his sister Midge’s Facebook page – and that’s when I learned that her daughter had just died – a beautiful, bright, happy woman that I’d never met, barely knew existed, just gone. There are wedding photos on Midge’s Facebook page, and she shines. I wept over them for several days – I don’t know why the loss felt so agonizing; I didn’t know her! And then I tried to write to Midge, but…

Then I got a message on my last post, from Michael’s wife, reaching out, and that’s when I learned that he’d actually died long before I heard about it – last January, of covid – such a horrible, horrible way to go! And I wanted to write to her, but what to say? Where to send it? We’re not even connected through Facebook – which I rarely visit anyway. It’s not that I can’t figure this out – and I will – but…

But I want a do-over. I want a neighborhood barbecue, and after that maybe conversations and coffee with a few new friends.

I want to talk to Michael and his wife, and see her with my own clear eyes. I don’t know what we’d talk about … dogs, probably, but what else? I want to know!

I want another game of Scrabble with Marietjie, with a plate of koeksisters and big mugs of rooibos tea. And I want to walk on the beach and then loll about comfortably and talk about cats with my cousin, her daughter, who is still this side of the dirt but on the far side of the planet.

I want to hug Midge, and meet her daughter, and maybe be invited to the wedding, or at least send a gift. And I want to meet her niece, my goddaughter, whose parents thought it would be cute to make 12-year-old me a godmother, since they didn’t take such things seriously, only I wish I had. And actually I’d like to see her parents again too.

And then there’s the other cousin who used to look so hot in his SA Airforce uniform, and his brother who was in a quite popular band and then became a DJ. They used to tease me, and one time I played in their mother’s cactus garden and ended up sprawled over my mother’s lap, butt exposed to the sunshine and their gleeful mockery, while I shrieked my outrage and she picked out tiny needles with a pair of tweezers. Those cousins are still alive, as far as I know, round the other side of the planet, and one day it’ll be too late for a do-over, but right now I have no idea what to do about that. We had a friendship – the DJ cousin and I did, anyway – and then it fizzled and we drifted and … truth be told, there’s probably no way back. None on my map, anyway.

I have cousins scattered all over the world, and others – nieces and a nephew, second cousins – so many people that I love or have loved or wish I’d loved. And although I know I don’t have the capacity to reconnect deeply with all of them – or even with more than a very few – being strangers just feels wrong.

And then there are friends. Like Deej. I want to sit with Deej and lay out all my questions about God and ask him how he, one of the finest and fiercest champions of Christ I ever knew, could possibly think well of Donald Trump. I actually tried to ask him that, via WhatsApp, but he didn’t answer, and over time he ghosted me. That stung, because he was my pastor more than anyone else ever was or will be, and I want to look him in the eye and ask why he wounded me. But I can’t, because he’s gone, and there are no do-overs. He died last December, a week shy of his eightieth birthday, leaving me still burdened with so many questions and no one else I’d entrust them to.

I ache every day to go on a road trip with Twiglet, the sister my heart gave me. Talking on WhatsApp doesn’t cut it, especially as her connection is so bad that usually I just listen to her voice; it’s impossible really to follow what she’s saying. I want a cream tea with Luscious. I want to talk about God and poetry with Fair Bianca. I am homesick for the friends of my young womanhood!

I want to kick back and laugh with the Kat, and talk deep talks with the Egg and Homeboy, and argue face-to-face with the Girl Child instead of getting mad and frustrated over WhatsApp. I want to laugh and talk and eat with my foster kids, and watch the granddaughters they gave me grow up, and be there to love them through it when their mothers make them angry, and go to their weddings and cuddle their babies – or not, if they choose a different road. But they’re all, all on the wrong side of the planet.

I want to find a way back to the Stranger, but I don’t think there is one, and the meeting place where I’d hope to find him might not even exist.

I remember my blessings. Here I have friends, a few anyway, some quite elderly, and a Hubbit ditto, that I love as best I can – although never enough. I have neighbors that I may invite to barbecue next summer.

I’ve been thinking that the people we touch are like fenceposts. They enclose the fields where we grow our lives.

I look at my fence, and there are gaps in it. It’s been standing a while and has reached that stage in the life of a fence that gaps form more and more frequently. Some of the timbers are broken, others are weathered and warped and working loose, and many are out of my reach. Beyond the fence I see the wilderness pressing in.

I’m not afraid of the wilderness. Often I’m drawn to it … I stand next to the fence and imagine what it would be like to push through and see what’s out there. Then I remember that I have work still to do on this side and I turn back.

But it troubles me sometimes to think that one day the gate in the fence may open, and it won’t matter because the fence itself will be down. I’ll walk through, as one must, but I wonder who will know.

Photos by Denise Karis and Foto Maak on Unsplash

Breathless

I bitched so much that they hung this on my door, and after that people tiptoed in and apologized for turning on lights even at midday. And, yes, keratoconus does mean sudden bright light hurts my eyes … but actually the spirit of my bitching was more along the lines of Proverbs 27:14 – “He that blesseth his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be counted a curse to him.”

Today didn’t start well.

There was a thump at the door, the rattle of a trolley full of sharp implements, a hurting blaze of lights. I yelped and clamped a pillow over my face. With a trill of merry laughter my tormentor took my hand, stuck a needle into it, and plundered my blood, then made her galumphing departure.

I wanted to go back to sleep, but – of course – I needed to pee. I disentangled my legs from clutching sheets, hit the call button, disconnected the wires attached to my chest, and tottered all the way to the bathroom without tripping over my IV drip. I assumed the position. Released the flow into a little plastic stetson-shaped thingummy positioned at the top of the bowl, because they measure my bladderly essence. And woke abruptly to the wet and horrible realization that it hadn’t been emptied after my last visit.

The toilet hat – can you see it? When you’re being pumped full of fluids, they have to make sure what’s going in is finding its way out. But if you have a capacious bladder, you don’t want to use it twice in a row without someone emptying it out first.

By the time I’d swabbed myself down and had been tucked back into a freshly made bed by a sympathetic nurse who managed to control her laughter until after she’d left my room, I was wide awake. And I was irritable and feeling sorry for myself – in short, completely over the sense of euphoria I had been feeling for the previous few days.

I should probably tell you about those days.

They started last Tuesday, when I visited Wonder Woman and caused both of us some perturbation by almost collapsing when I reached the top of the flight of stairs leading from her garden to her living room. “Dang I’m unfit!” I wheezed, mopping my sweaty face. “I have got to quit talking about getting more exercise, and start walking! Just as soon as I buy a Fitbit!” Well, it turned out she had a Fitbit that she’d bought for herself before she realized that setting it up would take at least half an hour of technological tinkering. Wonder Woman is nearly 90; she figured she didn’t want to spend one of her last remaining half hours that way, so she gave it to me. And although that’s somewhat peripheral to this story, if I were writing actual Literature it would count as Dramatic Irony, which proves that sometimes life does indeed imitate art.

Anyway. To get back to my point.

Wednesday I was draggy. I spent it trudging through the bare minimum of chores, yawning over my news feed, and wishing the black dog would just damn well let go and let me breathe. I didn’t feel especially depressed – just so, so tired, and when I thought of all the things I wanted to do -happy things, like gardening and writing and giving the horses a bath and taking Argos to the river for some training time and baking bread and even shining my little house – I felt overwhelmed and weary. I’d felt that way for a while … but on Wednesday just breathing felt hard. And late in the afternoon, when I went outside to feed my chickens, I had to lean quite heavily on my cane, and when I came back inside I was staggering and I had to sit down and just quietly pant for a while.

While I was sitting I consulted Dr. Google about Reasons To Be Short Of Breath. His insights were disturbing.

I told myself to quit being stupid. When you’re lazy and obese, of course you’re gonna be short of breath, I said to me. This isn’t rocket science! No further research is required! I got myself up on my hind legs and moved laundry around and was going to swab down the kitchen counters, but … first I needed to take another little rest. I chatted a bit more with Dr. Google. I decided that if I didn’t feel better by Thursday morning, I should probably call my doctor.

This isn’t something I do lightly. This is America, the Land of Hell-no-it-ain’t-free, and I don’t have health insurance, because the Hubbit and I inhabit that awkward gap between people who qualify for subsidized (and therefore affordable) insurance, and those who can sniff judgmentally at the Affordable Care Act. That is, the Hubbit has Medicare and supplemental insurance, which is just as well given his penchant for dancing with heavy machinery, but I pretty much just keep chugging along and trusting God to keep me going as long as he wants me around. It’s worked for me.

I’d been looking forward to Wednesday night, because we’d been promised a spectacular show by the Perseids – no moon, clearish sky. In 20 years of trying I’ve never actually seen the Perseid shower, and it’s become a bit of an obsession – so this year was definitely going to be The One. I planned to go out into the backyard with a blanket at around 11.00PM and just lie and watch them.

Only, between an increasingly insistent Dr. Google and sheer lack of oxygen to the brain, by 11.00PM it was dawning on me that maybe this shit was real. So I texted the Hubbit from the bedroom (he was in his study) to tell him I was worried … and waited for him to come busting through, brimming over with husbandly concern (and maybe a hug or two), to insist that it was only money and drag me off to the hospital. Only he didn’t, so I sent a couple more texts phrased to make him feel like a heel, and then I went to get dressed so I could drive my own damn self to the hospital, and found his phone lying on the floor of the closet.

He does this. He scatters his phone in his wake like one-at-a-time confetti. It drives me completely insane.

Turns out you can’t stomp and shout very effectively without breathing, but I did my best, and after delivering his phone to him I went and got dressed, stopping as needed to inhale. Then the Hubbit wandered into the bedroom and said that of course he would take me to the hospital because that was his responsibility as my husband. So I came a bit unglued and broke my phone, because it doesn’t take that much breath to thump things.

On the way to the hospital we stopped so I could hang my head out of the car window and look for meteors, but I didn’t see any.

I don’t remember much about the ensuing 20-or-so hours, which is a pity, because the whole time I was blogging about it in my head, and it was hilarious. But I couldn’t write it down because I had to keep my arms straight on account of the IV drips inside my elbows, plus the persistent interruptions by people with machines that needed to interact with me, and other people who kept sticking me with needles and taking more and still more of my sluggish, unwilling blood. I remember snapshots…

Did you know that getting an MRI is almost exactly like going through a wormhole in space? You lie down and someone injects you with a magical substance that uncoils a delicious heat in unmentionable places, and the world moves and you’re inside a giant halo, and lights flicker and the voice of God tells you “Stop breathing” and then, just at the moment you absolutely have to, “You can breathe”.

I asked for water and they told me I was “nothing by mouth” while the doctors decided whether or not to do a procedure to blast the blood clots out of my lung, and I thought that was strange because I’d thought my heart was failing, but it turned out my heart was fine but one of my lungs (I’m not sure which one) was all clotted up and icky, and this was sort of a good thing, relatively speaking, because if caught in time it will heal, whereas a failing heart can only be helped, not healed. And then after a while someone brought me a menu and told me to order lunch, and that’s how I found out that they’d decided the procedure wasn’t necessary, which was also good news, especially as I was hungry enough to eat a doctor by then.

They asked me questions about my family medical history and I did sums in my head and realized that my father was about the age I am now when he had the heart attack that turned his life around, so I decided I could turn my life around too.

The tech who did the echocardiogram helped me look at the screen so I could see inside my own heart, and it was working so, so hard! It didn’t flop helplessly like the sad, sick heart of the transplant patient I told you about, and nor did it rat-a-tat like the young, new heart that patient received. My heart is like the little engine that could, and the sight of it working with such steady determination to take a too-heavy load up a too-steep hill made me weep with gratitude and shame.

Eventually – it was Thursday evening by then – they brought me up to the room where I’m writing this. It’s a spacious private room, and even has a small sitting area with a recliner and a view of the hills. They tucked me into a real bed and fussed around asking what they could do to make me comfortable, and all I could think to ask for was hospital socks.

Hospital socks – conceivably the greatest achievement of medical technology.

At some point during the ensuing days I learned the name of what had happened to me. I had a pulmonary embolism, and it probably happened because I spend too much time sitting and feeling sad instead of getting up on my hind legs and living my life. I let the black dog harry me into the Valley … but I skirted the Shadow, and I’m coming back out into the light, and as God is my witness that dog is going to learn to walk to heel.

I haven’t had much experience of hospitals. Prior to this adventure, the only times I’ve stayed overnight in a hospital were after I was born, and when I was 10 years old and had my tonsils out, and when the Girl Child was born. But I’ve heard enough about hospitals from other people to have learned that they’re dehumanizing places, where one becomes a patient rather than a person, where the food is awful, where a good night’s rest is less important than the staff routines. So my own experience has been surprising.

The fact is, I have felt cherished. Protected. Provided with a refuge where I had one job and one job only: to heal – first my body, but it’s also given me a quiet place to begin healing my soul. Little by little my breath has come easier. On Saturday I had an actual shower. Yesterday – Sunday – they said I could go home, and disconnected the IV and taught me how to inject myself.

Now I’m just waiting for my final visit with the doctor, and then I can peel off the sticky pads that keep me connected to the heart monitor, and they’ll remove my last IV port, and I can take off the hospital gown and put on my real clothes. They’ll wheel me down to the main entrance and the Hubbit will come, and we’ll go buy me a phone and swing by Yokes for a supply of fresh vegetables – because mealtimes in the Took household are getting a radical makeover. And then we’ll pick up Argos from boarding and we’ll go home.

*****

A little over a week has passed since I wrote this post. It took a while to get my computer hooked up again and download the pictures, and I’ve once again been spending way too much time just sitting. I think about getting up and moving … I think about how I’ll die if I don’t – not right away, because I’m on drugs that keep my blood safe and runny, but I’ll come off them in a two or three months, and then if I haven’t changed my habits … Well, I have to change my habits. That is all. I’m putting it in writing. And I have a Fitbit. Surely that will make a difference!

Blogging while distracted

Lately I’ve been trying to blog more often than I did before. Before what? Well, before I started trying to blog more often. I’ve realized that some of my favorite bloggers simply rabbit on about their everyday lives and random thoughts. Others among my favorites put serious thought and research into their posts.

In a spirit of blatant self-indulgence I have to confess that I’m too lazy to emulate the second kind – at any rate, not on a consistent basis. Also, who am I to pose as an expert on anything except my own small life? Fact: this blog is intended to entertain (mainly me) and also to record Thoughts And Happenings That Are Interesting (at least to me), as well as getting the old verbal juices flowing so that I’m able to glide smoothly into Serious Writing Of The Novel. So that’s why I want to blog more often, and if I manage to do so in a way that makes you want to stick around for the coffee and donuts served after, so much the better!

The problem I have with blogging … Well, there are several problems, actually. Sometimes the Black Dog pins me down and … I … just … can’t. Other times I’m so busy Doing or Being Done To that I don’t have the time or energy to write about it. That’s frustrating, because I’ll be going through the doings, and quite often my primary link to sanity and a sense of “this too shall pass” is the mantra “blog fodder”. I write so many posts in my head while on the run!

Road trips with Argos
Road trips – so much more fun with a Malinois!

Somewhere I have one of those little digital recorders. I really need to learn to use it.

Actually, I think my phone might have a digital recorder app. Hmmm.

Right … where was I? Oh yes – another problem is the perpetual presence of distractions. I mean, just two paragraphs up I was about to abandon this leaky little boat and go in search of the digital recorder. The only thing that stopped me was the recollection that the Evernote app on my phone might do the job.

Do you know how much I want to get up now and rush off and find my phone and test it???

Seriously … where is my dang phone?

Moving on! Then there’s deciding what to write about, and when to write about it. Should I start a post in the middle of the events I want to write about? If I do, will I remember to come back with a second post to tell how the story ends? (So far that would be a no; usually I wind up telling the ending in the comments, if people ask.) If I wait until I know the ending, will I still feel like writing about it? (Quite often not – either because I’m in the middle of something else, or because I’ve blogged about it so relentlessly in my head that it’s just not entertaining any more.)

Anyway, all this is merely a prelude to telling about what happened yesterday, which I can do very quickly because it’s not that big a story, but it caused some palpitations and foaming at the mouth all the same.

There’s this blogger I follow, David Bennett – his photographs are lovely. You should go take a look. Not now – later! For now I’ll just tell you they make me want to rush out and take pictures – which is a challenge all on its own because a few birthdays back I bought the Hubbit a rather nice camera after years of listening to him boast of his photographic prowess, and he has lost the charger.

Okay, it’s possible that I put the charger Somewhere when I was reorganizing his Hubbit Hole while he was in rehab early this year – which, by the way, is a classic example of an activity I blogged about extensively and hilariously in my head for so long that I could not bring myself to sit and write it all down … The point is, the charger wasn’t in the fancy camera case I also bought him. So now the camera is friggin’ useless.

Not that I ever really figured out how to use it. Cameras have changed a lot since I bought my first one, a Box Brownie I got for R5.00 (that’s five rand, South African money, which back then was worth US$10, but today would be worth around US$0.75) that I carefully saved up when I was ten years old. I take pictures with my cell phone, and sometimes I’m pleased with them – they’re better than anything I managed with the Box Brownie, anyway. In fact, since this post really doesn’t lend itself to illustrations, and just for the heck of it, I’ll include a few of them here.

Suffusion of yellow
A suffusion of yellow. I spent fall gorging on colors until I was ready to burst with pleasure.

The reason I mention David today, however, is that in addition to sharing his photographs he tends to write his way through various technical challenges, and lately he’s been fiddling around with the design theme of his blog. So there are these posts referring to this theme and that theme that he’s been trying out, and to be honest I don’t read those in depth … but I notice them.

So yesterday I slapped myself around the head because it’s been more than a month since my last post, and I’ve been writing and writing inside my head but never quite making it as far as butt-in-chair, fingers-on-keyboard. After the head slap I plonked myself down, fired up the laptop, and prepared to Expound.

Garcia
Two-dimensional horse – Cherry Garcia at the vet a couple days after he moved in with Vos

But … about what? I have things to say about Trump – but those require research if I don’t want to be just another liberal whiner. I want to update you about Zeus, and I have other thoughts to share about rescue. I read a post recently that calls for a response. I don’t think I’ve ever told you about Garcia – did I  mention I got my horse a horse? There was a minor disaster with our Thanksgiving turkey, which has led to the production of fabulous bone broth, and I really should tell you about bone broth. So Many Things!

Well, I clicked over to see what other people were writing about – not so much for inspiration as to give my subconscious time to chew over the matter – and there was David, with a gorgeous picture of an iris, yattering away about his latest blog theme adventure.

He distracted me! It’s his fault!

Because obviously after that I wandered over to the WordPress collection of themes to take a look. After all, I’d been thinking my blog needed sprucing up. One theme looked interesting, and I wondered how it would look on my blog.

There were two icons – one labeled “Activate”, the other “Preview”.

Just then, the dogs broke out in an uproar, and as I irritably rose from my seat to find out what the problem was … guess which icon I clicked?

Just like that, everything went beige! It was horrible! And there was no way to un-activate it!

I wrote a frantic appeal for help to the WordPress Happiness Engineers, and spent a palpitating few hours restlessly clicking between forum responses to people who had also accidentally destroyed the careful design of their blog, and also bouncing around the house distracting myself with chores, and, of course, periodically clicking hopefully on my blog to see if it had magically returned to normal.

It hadn’t. Also I learned, during the course of all this clicking, that the theme I’d been using was “no longer supported”.

So eventually last night, at only about half an hour past my intended bedtime, I went “Screw it” and sat down and test drove a bunch of themes. Found one I liked. Got it all set up. And here it is! Voila!

It doesn’t do all the things I want … but for that I’d need to (a) spend a lot more time searching through hundreds of themes, (b) probably pay for it, and (c) figure out how to make it work. Ehhh … Life’s short. I think this one works, and the picture I took last summer of our little farm and our cows is okay – don’t you agree?

Between one beat and the next

Photo by Patricia Tser on Unsplash

My friend Bridie and I used to ride our bikes to school together. Every morning I rode the half mile or so to the corner near her house, and then we rode the remaining two or three miles side by side, giggling, ignoring her bossy older sister Jan who pedaled and puffed behind us. One morning Bridie wasn’t there so I rode to her house, leaned my bike against the wall, started to walk through the back door.

Someone – her mother? – grabbed my arms and stopped me. Told me Bridie wouldn’t be coming to school that day because her father had died. He and her mom had gone to bed the night before, but only her mom had woken up. His heart just stopped beating.

Some time later I stormed into her house, raging over the latest fight I’d had with my father. “You should be grateful you still have him,” Jan told me – so pompous! I snarled at her, “You have no idea how lucky you are!” and her face went white as her heart missed a beat. After that we didn’t speak for a long time.

By the time my father had his first heart attack, I think in 1997, which was the year before I married the Hubbit and moved to the US, he and I had achieved a truce of sorts. I was on my way to an interview when someone – my mother? – called me on my cell phone and I changed direction and sped to the hospital. The Egg and her husband were already there, huddled together on one of the long benches in the large, empty waiting area. They directed me to another waiting area next door, where I found Marmeee standing beside him, clutching his hand and looking scared. He was on one of those narrow, wheeled metal hospital beds, gasping for breath, his face the dull yellow of old fat that’s been exposed to air.

Not far from them was a counter, and behind it an empty reception area, and beyond that a room full of nurses engaged in loud conversation while they drank their tea. There was a bell, which I rang furiously with one hand while slapping the wood of the counter with my other hand. A nurse emerged and looked me up and down. “Yes?” she asked.

“My father needs attention!” I demanded.

She glanced dismissively at him. “We are waiting for his file,” she said.

“Where is his file?”

She flipped a languid finger back toward the room where the Egg and her husband were waiting. “The messenger will get it. But now he is on his break,” she said. I stormed through the door, rang a different bell, slapped a different counter. Demanded the file, which I carried back and slammed down in front of the nurse. She rolled her eyes, flicked the file open, froze. Called more nurses. Moments later they wheeled him away, Marmeee scurrying alongside as he clung to her hand.

There was nothing left for me to do, except … I could call for favors. I called Cass, a cardiologist I’d interviewed a few weeks previously. He was a hot shot, associated with a private hospital. My father, who didn’t have medical insurance, was in a state hospital. Cass had liked the story I wrote about him, and had asked me to write another story about organ transplants and the need for donors. I’d told him I would, but that it would be a better story if I could actually witness and write about a heart transplant. So at that point – the point I was at, sitting in the waiting room while my father clung to my mother’s hand in a different room full of machines beeping and nurses scurrying and doctors barking instructions – at that point, we were waiting for one of Cass’s patients to be matched with a donor heart.

Well, if your father has a heart attack and you happen to know the top cardiologist in town, maybe happen to have impressed him enough that he wants a favor, obviously you call him. And even if he can’t personally get involved in the case, he makes a few calls, lets it be known that he has an interest, and the awed cardiac team responsible for your father’s care snaps to attention and gets the job done. The Olde Buzzard had surgery and it went well and he got medical insurance and started seeing Cass regularly, and his heart kept up a steady thump for nearly twenty more years, until Marmeee’s stopped and his no longer had a reason to keep on beating.

It was late Friday afternoon, a hot day at the end of a too-long week. The voice on the phone was warm. Sexy. “Hey there – would you like to spend the night with me?”

My pulse quickened … but … I was in Johannesburg, and the only man at that time likely to make me such an offer was on the other side of the planet. “Who is this?” I squeaked.

He chuckled. “It’s Cass,” he said. We had a heart!

I met him at the hospital a couple hours later, and he took me to meet the patient’s wife. I had forgotten the wife until I read my notes today. At the time she was merely background, barely relevant to the story. It’s interesting how life has a way of teaching one empathy.

I had my laptop with me, and I made my notes in the form of a letter to the Hubbit. He wasn’t my Hubbit yet, of course; we were still at the internet romance stage of our relationship, he in the US and I in South Africa. We didn’t yet expect to meet, but we’d got into the habit of sharing the events of our lives.

Hiya, honeybun!

I’m sitting on the floor of a large passage in the hospital. Nothing much is happening … I need to write down what I’m experiencing, and – hope you don’t mind – it’ll be a lot easier just to tell it all to you. I guess it’s one way to spend the night with you … <smial>

Oh yeah – we got pretty steamy back then. Even with the full bulk of the planet between us he could make my heart flutter!

I told him about the family – Hindu, a large crowd, the women all dressed in saris. The mother, who sat lotus-legged and praying on a plastic chair, one eye covered by an eye patch held in place by masking tape – she’d had cataract surgery a few days previously. Three sons, the youngest 13. A brother who was a cardiologist, who later showed up in the operating theater.

The patient is only 47. He has had heart disease for about six years and they had been keeping it under control with medication, but early this year he went into heart arrest and Cass said it was time to plan for a transplant. He’s been incredibly lucky – he’s had to wait only five weeks. Some people wait years.

An orderly brought him his pre-med while I was there – a tiny plastic tot glass of water and a handful of pills. The orderly told him not to drink more of the water than he absolutely had to, but he must have been thirsty – he downed the whole lot almost compulsively. Then they had to give him an injection; wanted to give it into his shoulder, but he’s so thin there’s not enough flesh there. They had to inject him in the buttock.

Suddenly it was time to take him away. Orderlies pushed his hospital bed speedily toward the operating theater, and his family streamed behind, keeping pace with his bed until a nurse stopped them, gently told them to say goodbye, that they’d see him the next day. They stood in a small cluster, waving and smiling with determination, and kept waving even after he was out of sight, their fear surrounding them like a fog.

Then a nurse brought me a hideous green overall to wear. Needless to say the one-size-fits-all trousers didn’t, but she found me some bigger ones. I had the MOST frustrating time trying to persuade my hair to stay tucked inside a silly little cap. I’m wearing nothing but thin plastic overshoes on my feet, because I didn’t think to change into sneakers and the overshoes won’t work with the heels I was wearing. My feet are freezing! Now I’m sitting in a little room outside the theater, drinking tea and waiting for something to happen. In TV hospital programs hospital life looks like one adrenaline rush after another. Not so. This evening has been mainly waiting.

And now I’m in the theater! I rushed in and was promptly chased out – I’d forgotten my face mask! Put it on – how do doctors wear these things? After less than a minute I felt as though I was suffocating.

The operating theater was a small room crammed with equipment and crowded with people – several nurses, an anesthetist, two cardiologists, all chatting and joking as though they were at a party. The perfusionist – the person responsible for the heart-lung machine – sat next to the patient reading a Playboy magazine. The two cardiac surgeons had their own extra-high-sterility area, separated from everyone else by a low divider covered with hanging towels.

At the center of it all is the patient. He is very still, and is almost completely covered by green sheets; even his face is covered, except for a little slit where a tube goes in. On the cardiac monitor his heartbeat is erratic, frantic… They’ve started cutting and his heart is going crazy… They’ve sawed open his sternum. It looks like meat, but the smell is strange, nasty.

Okay … I went to stand above the patient’s head, and watched the surgeon cut open the pericardium. I saw inside his body. I saw his heart, laboring sluggishly to keep going. And now … we wait. The new heart is on its way. They are ready.

Time is of the essence in a heart transplant. The donor heart must be in and beating within four hours or tissues start to break down. In this case, the donor heart was flown up to Johannesburg from a town on the coast. To save time they opened up the patient and were ready to go, but they didn’t disconnect his old heart until the new one had actually arrived.

The heart is packed in ice, inside a plastic bag, the whole kaboodle inside the kind of polystyrene cooler box one uses for picnics. They’ve put it next to an identical box that’s full of ice and soft drinks. The packaged heart looks like someone’s groceries.

They have taken out the old heart. It fibrillated for about 15 minutes while they were connecting the heart-lung machine, before they removed it and the monitor finally fell silent. Now it’s lying off to one side in a kidney dish, still trying its best to beat. Cass says it wouldn’t have lasted longer than a few more weeks. It makes me sad to think of it being thrown away now, though, when it’s tried so hard.

The new heart looks more solid, meatier, than the old one. The surgeons agree that it’s a nice heart. It used to belong to a 43-year-old woman who lived in a small coastal town. Today she had a cerebral aneurysm – she had a massive bleed and died – just like that. Well, technically, she didn’t die until they took her heart out about two-and-a-half hours ago. I wonder what she’d planned to do today.

And right now, technically, this patient is also dead. A machine is doing his breathing and moving his blood, and his temperature’s right down at 28 Celsius. Every now and then a nurse takes some ice out of the picnic box and puts it into his heart cavity to keep it cold. I touched his head. It felt … horrible. Icy. Not alive.

The surgery I watched was something of a milestone. I’d forgotten that too, until reading my notes. It was the first time of using surgical superglue in a heart transplant in South Africa. They spent an hour stitching the heart and supplemented the stitches with glue. I’m sure by now surgeons use glue alone to connect the blood vessels to the heart tissue. According to my notes that was the goal, anyway.

They’re trying to start the heart by pumping blood into it, massaging it gently by hand, and shocking it. It doesn’t want to start. They massage, shock, look at the monitor. It fibrillates, then stops. They try again and again. They look like Sunday afternoon mechanics huddled around a car engine, coaxing it to life.

Ten minutes in the beat is strong and steady. There are a few little leaks, which the surgeons are stitching and gluing. There’s gore everywhere, and the surgeons are spattered with blood.

Everyone is tired, coming down off a high. The final stage of the process is mechanical. They disconnect the heart-lung machine and the perfusionist packs it and his magazines away. Release the clamps that have been holding his rib cage open, remove the swabs, finish cauterizing the wound – that disgusting smell again. Insert drains and sew him up.

I thanked the hot cardiologist for giving me one of the best nights of my life. “I learned a lot!” I told him, and went home.

The Hubbit’s new cardiologist isn’t especially hot. He’s a large, blustery man, a kind man, I believe a good doctor, but as hard to pin down as a picnic blanket on a windy day. I’m learning from him that the language of the heart is imprecise. Love … fear … loss … failure … What do these words actually mean? I tried to ask him: in the context of this husband, in this consulting room, at this moment, what exactly is heart failure?

I asked him question after question, and his words were like bits of dry grass swept up by a dust devil. They had no shape or pattern. He tried to answer. He opened a folder and showed me printouts – the results of many tests over the past few weeks. He used words like “ventricle”, “left”, “right”, “congestion”. I think he may have showed me a diagram. At last he gave up, ordered another test. It’s scheduled for the day after tomorrow.

Perhaps it’s not his answers that are imprecise, but my questions. I will rephrase them.

Will his heart keep going, or will it just stop between one beat and the next?

Will I wake up one night, hear the soft snores of the dogs snuggled between us, raise my head and strain my failing ears, hear silence from his side of the bed, reach out and touch him and find him cold as ice?

Can you fix it?

In the context of right here, right now, how best should I cherish him?

Usually I end with questions for you, dear reader. An invitation to engage. This time, my questions are all directed elsewhere … but please engage anyway.

So I got phished

Well, that’s three hours of my life I won’t get back.

It’s my own fault. I was supposed to be Writing The Book, and instead I let myself be distracted by a [presumably fascinating, but I don’t really know, since I didn’t actually get to read it] article about how some stars appear to be older than the universe.

Suddenly this enormous red square bloomed on my monitor, and upon it a lot of words, the largest of which read MOZILLA FIREFOX CRITICAL ERROR. The gist of the subsequent, smaller words was that my computer was being hacked, my data was at risk, and I had to call the Microsoft help desk.

There was also a phone number.

Which I called.

Yes, really.

rachel bloom bang head on desk GIF by Portlandia

Look, that square? It was really red. Not a bright happy red, like cherries or a toddler’s cheeks on a cold day. It was a gory, gloomy sort of red, like old ketchup the morning after you brought dinner home in a paper bag because you’d had a shitty day and were too tired to cook, but you’re not a complete slob so you ate off plates, only you were too tired to wash up afterwards. And it took up the whole screen.

Anyway, the young man who offered was so helpful and sympathetic, and he explained that it was our “home network” that was infected, not just the computer. We don’t actually have a home network, as such … but I figured he meant the bad stuff was leaking in through the modem and into both the Hubbit’s and my computers and our smart phones.

Naturally, when he said he needed to access my computer over the internet in order to see what damage may have been done, I couldn’t wait to say yes.

234153

Well, sort of. I did have a moment of sanity. You see, you have to hold down the Windows icon key on your keyboard and another key – I think “S” but not sure – and then a window pops up on your screen. And you type some things and click on things and then you have to input a special number, which the helpful person on the other end of the phone gives you. And then your computer asks you if you want to give that person permission to access your shit … and at that moment I did hesitate.

“Wait,” I said. “Give me a moment. I need to verify that you’re real.”

He was a little impatient, but polite. If he’d been more impatient and less polite he’d have lost me … but he was reassuring. He gave me his name and his employee number. So when Google didn’t immediately scream “SCAM!” I went ahead and clicked yes, and he was in. Then I sat and watched as he poked around my computer. It was a bit like having a plumber in to fix a leak and to do it they have to empty your sink and – oops – you have underwear soaking in there. I mean, my internet habits are boring (as is my underwear, to be honest) … but still.

Eww.

So then a display appeared on the screen, and it was this long list of attacks. More than 1,500 warnings (bright yellow) and error messages (bright red) zipped up the screen. My new friend tutted in my ear. “See?” he said. “This is just from this month. You’ve been under a heavy attack!”

“But what could anyone possibly want?” I asked plaintively. It’s not as though we have any serious money, or interesting secrets.

“Well,” he said. “They could be using your personal data to commit international fraud. See there?” He showed me columns where the action was headed “Local” and “Foreign”. “Or maybe they’re after your money. It doesn’t matter how much or how little it is – they want it all! Tut tut tut. This is terrible. I’m so sorry,” he said. Then he showed me where I had a trojan – only, he said, he couldn’t fix it. It wasn’t clear why not.

229362

Helplessly I sat and watched file names scroll rapidly up my screen, and after a while he said he needed me to wait on hold for a minute or two while he spoke with his supervisor to try to figure out the best way to help me.

Well, waiting is boring. And since I wasn’t actually doing anything with my phone, I clicked over to Google again … and found … this.

Sigh.

So I ended the call and ignored his attempts to call back, and logged off my computer, and unplugged the modem just to be sure. And then I went and confessed to the Hubbit, who sighed and rolled his eyes but was otherwise forbearing. I figured out how to change the access to my computer, and I changed our most critical passwords. And then I called Microsoft – the real one, this time – and paid $99 for a year’s worth of technical support for all the internet devices in the House of Took. And after that I spent about an hour and a half on the phone with a very nice young man, who also requested permission to prowl around in my underwear computer, and while he was in there he did a whole lot of necessary housekeeping.

Which is something I didn’t get to do today, owing to spending the entire damn day on the computer – and not a fresh writerly word to show for it.

Except this post, of course. Does this count? Probably not … but it does make me feel better!

Have you ever been scammed? How stupid, exactly, did it make you feel?