Errata Literary Magazine
Bucks County Writers Workshop
Awesome Fear by Dolores Mentis
Death, of course, what else? What underlies all other fears? But death is also like Thomas Mann's Vergaenglichkeit, which gives meaning to life. Roughly translated, it means passing; because all things pass they take on cosmic importance. Because all men must die, death makes every moment potentially awesome and infinitely precious.
When I take my wife into my arms and we make love it is always for the last time. When I hold my granddaughter and feed her it is as if it will never happen again. When I recall the childhood of my children, which has passed as swiftly as white water rapids, leaving me exhausted, almost ready for death, incapable of another such intense ride of passage, I see death as a friend. Relieving me of intense joy, so intense as to cause a sword to pierce my heart.
I want to repossess my children like some greedy car salesman, or anxiously as some aging actor living on residuals waits for the mail. I don't believe in the myth of eternal recurrence as articulated by Nietzsche. I want more.
I want to build in other universes, to enter that door I used to fear in my childhood's captivity. In some parallel, superior, interior universe where the ideas and love which came to me in a wife and children in the thousands of children I have taught, I want to climb on top of that skyscraper and touch the heavens. I don't want to go back and the only way forward is through death's door, a somber wall, an unspeaking friend, a silent partner, a mute companion, so deceptively simple, but the answer to all the unanswerable and difficult questions.
Fear! I am most curious about my personal demise.
When I suffer rejection and am outcast I know that my death is the only thing which is my own, uniquely mine, in time and place, no one else's and this gives me dignity and I can face my detractors and say I am special. I am he who will die his own personal death. I shall pass the dragon and reach beyond my grasp.
And when did this Awe speak to me in a gentle reassuring voice and take away its sting? I walked on a rainy, balmy winter's night, to the mailbox with a friend and I got angina.
"Tom, something is wrong, it doesn't hurt much, but I know it is my heart. I think I had a heart attack."
"How can you be sure?"
" I don't know." Now I tell people that I am intuitive. I just think people know things and don't know why. I was intuitive, not wise or knowledgeable. "Tom, it can wait until tomorrow. I'm not going to tell my wife."
The next morning I called in sick and went to the hospital. I was taken in immediately because I said the magic words that open the vaulted doors of bureaucracy. "I have chest pain I think I had a heart attack." I was taken into a series of rooms for many tests. I had had a heart attack. I was taken by ambulance to Hahnemann Hospital. My wife was called at another hospital where she was employed. She met me outside the angiogram waiting room.
I was sublimely calm. My blood supply to the heart was about to be tested, which would tell the extent of the blockages. My wife had the grim look of controlled terror, an ashen face and gave much unwanted and unneeded encouragement to me, a sure sign of panic in her usual reticent habit of being. The results were catastrophic, four possibly five blockages. "What can you do for me, Doctor?"
"When?" "Tomorrow morning."
"Could I be the first one?"
"Sure, around six A.M. But I want to warn you..."
I interrupted the physician. "Doctor, I don't want to hear the gory details. This is a time for trust, not analysis. Please don't tell me what I am getting into when I really have no choice."
I signed papers to the effect that I relinquished my rights to certain information. Rights at a time like that were like one's right to choose a certain color coffin, or the placement of a gravesite. Actually in life I had come to the conviction that when you committed yourself to love something you had very few rights left over.
The first thing I had to do was dump my wife. I couldn't stand her negative energy and lack of faith and desperation and had nothing to give her in the way of consolation. I knew I had to be alone. I had to walk that lonesome valley and I had to do it by myself. She kissed me sweetly and tenderly, with the warmth I admired when she loved our children. I tried not to cry and I didn't. She did and I sent her packing. She would show up the next morning with my sister for the deathwatch. I only found peace when I was alone in my room and I was able to cadge orange juice and a turkey sandwich out of an eighteen-year-old Black Muslim attendant. We talked about Allah and he prayed over me. We liked one another very much and I was his first patient. Since I felt a teacher student relationship with him I didn't complain when he shaved all the hair off of my body with an electric Shick razor. I had never heard of such a thing before or since but he did it and my sheet became a bloody, hairy mess. It looked like the bloodstained white bandages you saw on soldiers marching back from war, hobbling on crutches, all red and white. I refused to let him shave my pubis. I couldn't bear another nick. Then he saw the sheets and insisted on changing them. I was so tired I didn't want to move but he insisted and I got clean sheets, which I restained.
Finally, all alone, it was time for evening prayer, which I was afraid to face. I knew there was a chance I might die. Evening prayer never took on such importance as it did that night. "Jesus, I know I am a sinner." The sad thing is that I had not yet committed my worst sin, which wasn't executed until after the operation, a year later. "I know I could have done better with my life. I am in a desperate situation and have to ask you for something I have no right to. Would you forgive me my sins? I can't do any penance, or even make promises to change. I am at your mercy. My motivation is impure. I can't even make a pure act of love because you know I am afraid to face you. So much of the cruelty I have done in my life deserves punishment." Then I began to cry. "So I shall love you for your mercy and compassion. I ask you to watch over my wife and children should I die. And give me the courage to face you in the full knowledge that you love me more than I love myself and that you forgive even though we don't deserve it. I love you with all my impurity. That is all I have to offer. Please make up for the rest." I put my head on the pillow and, in peace, I fell asleep immediately.
They came for me shortly after five and gave me a needle. I immediately became avuncular. Down the winding corridors I spoke to the attendants as if they were friends. Once in the operation room I said, "Oh, is this the operating theater?"
I heard a foreign voice say, "Why is he still awake? Shut him up!"
I disappeared in one of the folds of my brain, without dream, consciousness, bright light, with nothing and woke up the next instant, blind and unable to speak. I pulled the ventilator out of my mouth because they couldn't hear me calling for my rosary, which I had wrapped around my wrist when I went into the operation.
"Where's my fucking rosary?"
"I think he wants his rosary," my wife said to the nurse.
I remained in the hospital recuperating for seven sleep-deprived nights. Finally, I was released and taken home by my wife. We were broke. She made me my favorite meal, also the cheapest one, spaghetti with tuna sauce. I spent the remainder of the day asleep and woke up to find my wife on top of me under the covers, straddling my flanks. She had attached herself to my penis like some electromagnet lifts metal from a pile. Just like the deer, we both climaxed in seventeen seconds.
"What was that all about, sweetheart?"
"I thought that I had lost you. I had to know it wasn't true."
Her tears fell on my cheeks, and with the grace of a man, she politely shifted her elbows on which she was propped and lay down next to me. I wiped the tears from her eyes, confused and happy. "I didn't think I would have sex for at least a month." I never figured it would pull me up and out of the pit. I was alive and likely to remain so and in the face of death, loved.
Bucks County Writers Workshop