I’ve had choices since the day that I was born,
There were voices that told me right from wrong.
If I had listened, no, I wouldn’t be here today,
Living and dying with the choices I’ve made.
George Jones, lyrics
I hadn’t thought about the man in years. There was no reason to, really. He had moved with his family from Daviess, I don’t know, probably sixty years ago. To a level of the Amish world way lower than ours. And we never got to see that much of him. In the few rare times when our families stopped by each other’s place to visit, we looked at him with a good deal of fascination. He was my father’s older brother. And we called him Uncle Ezra.
Well, we called him by other descriptive names, too. Everybody gets a nickname, that’s written in the Wagler code of laws somewhere. The one I remember for Uncle Ezra is “Cave Man.” He was a good-sized man, like my father. But it was his hair that we stared at. It waved in long oily coils. Waved way down his back, down almost to his shoulder blades. And he had that big bushy beard. He always wore a flat wide brimmed hat. I don’t remember ever seeing him smile much. Not saying he didn’t. Just that he always looked pretty grim, whether I saw him in his world or my own.
And there would be little reason to remember much of who he was, because he was pretty much a stranger to me. But that changed, a few weeks back. In rather dramatic fashion. Right there, when I was stretched out on the table in the LGH emergency room. When the doctor and his team were pretty convinced I was having a heart attack. They were swarming around, prodding and stabbing me with all sorts of needles. The doctor shot the questions, rat-a-tat. “Does your family have a history of heart problems?” No, not that I can think of, I said. Then I thought of it. Uncle Ezra. Yes, there was an uncle who died from a heart attack. “When?” I don’t know, back in the eighties sometime. “How old was he?” I don’t know, probably in his sixties. And from that little exchange, the memories stirred in me later. And I got to thinking. And then I got to writing.
He was born in Daviess in 1916, five years before my father came along. He wasn’t the oldest child, or even the oldest son. He was filled with all that Wagler piss and vinegar, and grew into quite the wild young man. Got into all sorts of mischief. He was a wild son. I’ve always found it hard to connect the stories of his youth with the grim bear of a man I saw when he came around. And, oh, yes, those stories were told, mostly in hushed tones, of who he was when he was young.
He didn’t listen very well to his parents. And I’m not being critical, here. Lord knows I didn’t listen very well to mine, either, when I was young. I’m not talking down at anyone. It’s just a story. He was pretty wild. He insisted on cutting his hair way short and shingled. They could never figure out where the boy was getting his hair cut. He never got to town much, and didn’t have money for such trifles when he did get there. And then one day someone walked into his bedroom. Somehow, he had forgotten to lock the door. And there sat Ezra, surrounded by mirrors, carefully snipping away, giving himself that verboten haircut. And thus he was caught. I don’t think that fazed him a bit, or that he quit cutting his hair the way he wanted it, even after that.
I don’t know how he looked, what his features were like in his youth. There are no pictures. He had the high-boned Wagler face, I think. Later you could never tell, because of his burly beard. And he ran wild, then, in Rumspringa. Back then, the youth didn’t tend to leave home, as me and my buddies did decades later. Daviess was a raggedy and uncouth place in those days. And their youth partied hard. And this story has trickled down through the years. Dad’s older brother, Noah, married Fannie Raber. I don’t know if Ezra didn’t particularly care for her, or what. But on the day of the wedding, he loudly made fun of Fannie’s dress. I can’t imagine what he was thinking, or why anyone would ever do such a thing. Fannie remembered that slight for the rest of her life. She muttered about it, way into her later years, when we’d come around. I guess she chose to hold onto that, and shouldn’t have. Ezra could have made it right, too. I don’t know if he ever did or didn’t, just that Fannie held on to that slight for as long as she lived. She died, just a year ago, or so. But back to Ezra. It’s always been a mystery to me, why anyone would make fun of the bride’s dress on her wedding day. He must have been dealing with some pretty deep emotional issues of some sort. That’s all I can figure out.
I don’t know when Ezra found the love of his life. It was there, in Daviess. A girl named Rosie. I have almost no memories of what she looked like. A buxom woman, as I recall. But that was after she had borne sons and daughters. And after they were married, the man truly settled down. At some point, then, he took a real hard turn to a real hard plainness, maybe to atone for all those sins of his wild youth. I’m not saying that had anything to do with it. But from here, I wonder.
Sons and daughters were born to them. Four sons, two daughters. And from what I’m told, it never was Ezra’s intention, to ever leave Daviess. He was pretty settled there, as he was. It was my Dad who was restless, and wanting to get out of there. And it was my Dad who wanted to go check out a rather plain community in Missouri. Bowling Green. So he bought a bus ticket, to go. And Ezra decided to go along, just for anyhow, and to keep my father company.
And the two of them headed out, to check the place out over a Sunday. Bowling Green is a fairly old settlement, for the Midwest. Not sure when it was founded, but at that time, it was rolling along pretty good. And I’m not saying anything disparaging about what the place is today. From what I hear, they’ve modernized a little bit. But back in those days, it was a cesspool, a hard-core lower end Amish settlement. Very plain. From when we visited when I was a child, I don’t recall that they had running water in the houses, even. I might be wrong about that. But it was hard-core, a place of low repute among the larger blue-blood settlements. Kind of like Daviess, maybe. But even worse.
Thankfully, Dad recoiled from the place. He was not impressed. I can never be grateful enough for that. Growing up in Bowling Green would have been a whole lot different than growing up in Aylmer and Bloomfield. I give Dad a lot of credit, for seeing what the place was. And for not moving there.
And strangely, Uncle Ezra, who only went along to keep Dad company, found himself drawn to the place. They traveled back home to Daviess. And in time, Dad moved his family to Piketon, Ohio. And Uncle Ezra and Rosie moved with theirs to Bowling Green. It boggles my mind, that he did such a thing. And again, I can’t help but wonder if the man was somehow trying to atone for his wild and wicked youth. He would suffer before God. Make life harder for himself. I may be off on a totally wild tangent, here. But something, some psychological pull, had to draw the man to such a plain and brutally austere place.
So they moved there, with their family. Eventually their sons took wives to themselves, good Bowling Green stock. And in time, Uncle Ezra was ordained as a deacon there, like his father was before him. It’s rare, for a Wagler of my direct lineage to be a preacher. My brother Joseph is pretty much an exception. But a deacon? That little job goes way back, generations.
The preachers are all to be feared, in any Amish settlement. But especially the deacon. He is the enforcer. When he comes knocking at your door, you can bet it’s not a social call. That kind of conditioning follows you all your life, if you come from the Amish. I still always have a brief, but intense rush of panic when my pastor, Mark Potter, suggests on a given Sunday that we get together for breakfast that following week. What did I do wrong, now? That’s the first, fleeting thought. And I always catch myself. He wants to get together for breakfast, not to chew you out, but because he just wants to get together for breakfast. It’s a pretty brutal thing, to come out of such a mindset. And from what little I’ve ever heard, Uncle Ezra fulfilled his role as deacon and enforcer quite efficiently. If people needed to be straightened out, brought back into line, or otherwise disciplined, he went and did it. That’s what he was ordained for.
And it’s kind of strange, in the Amish world. Well, I guess it’s that way in any setting. From an established settlement like Daviess, my father and a couple of his brothers emigrated to various places. And because of where they moved to and how they lived, their families rarely hung around each other. Ezra moved his family to a hard-core, plain Amish world. And I can’t say that I even know my first cousins. I wouldn’t know them if I met them. Because there was almost no crossing of boundaries, between their world and ours. And now Waglers are sprinkled throughout all kinds of really plain settlements in the Midwest. Ezra’s offspring. It’s still rare, that anyone from their world crosses over to the one I came from, or vice versa. Maybe for funerals, once in a while. But increasingly, not even for that. Not bemoaning anything, here. It’s just how it is.
Tragedy struck Ezra in 1973, when we still lived in Aylmer. He and his wife Rosie had traveled this state, to Snyder County, PA. And real early one morning, they got up to catch the bus in town. Ezra wanted to travel over here to Lancaster, to visit a few people he knew. And somehow, in the little town where they were to catch their bus ride, they had to cross the street. It was early and dark. Ezra looked, and the road was clear. He strode across, thinking Rosie was right behind him. And somehow, no one knows quite how it happened, she held back, and tried to cross back. She was struck by a car right on that spot. And killed instantly.
I remember hearing the news, there in Aylmer. And how my parents and others got ready and headed to Bowling Green for the funeral. Ezra was almost beyond consolation. A man of the hills, he had never trusted modern towns, or modern transportation. And now one of those modern places had claimed his wife. He wept and wept and grieved her.
Ezra never did have much use for my father’s writings. I don’t know if he allowed Family Life in his home or not. He wasn’t impressed by Dad’s fame at all. But the man got involved in a few little publishing ventures of his own. The main one that I remember was Die Botschaft. The Message. Ezra didn’t like The Budget, because a lot of people who wrote in that weekly paper came from car churches. He longed for something more pure, something where the car church people wouldn’t be allowed to participate. And somehow, he got it together, got all the principals lined up. I don’t know when exactly that happened. Late 70s, maybe. And Die Botschaft has been a success. It gets published every week, and no one from any car church writes for it. It’s totally for horse and buggy people. Ezra’s vision was a little different, from my father’s. But still, he had one, and followed through on it. You gotta respect that.
My father had a wanderlust. He moved from Daviess, to Piketon, to Aylmer, to Bloomfield. All in the span of about twenty-five years. Ezra didn’t wander quite that much. But still, he did move out of Bowling Green, to pursue one last vision that would fail. I guess he finally saw it, that Bowling Green was not a good place for any man to plant his roots. And he dreamed of starting a new community. Just him and his sons and daughters and their families. And a few hangers-on. And again, I’m not exactly sure of the exact date, when it happened. Late 70s, early 80s, near as I can tell without doing a whole lot of specific research.
And Uncle Ezra was the founding patriarch of a new little community in Prairie Home, Missouri. He and his sons bought farms there, and settled in. My sister Rachel recalls that some in our family traveled over to help for a few days, to build Ezra’s house. I don’t know what all the rules were, in Prairie Home. But it was an extremely plain settlement. From out of one frying pan, right into another, that’s where Ezra tumbled. I look at who he was, and what his hopes and dreams were, and my heart feels for the man.
Prairie Home was an unmitigated disaster, right from the start. The strong Wagler blood stirred in Ezra’s sons, and they took to squabbling with each other. The plainer the community, the sillier the squabbles, usually. I don’t know a whole lot of details, or a whole lot of specific stories. And if I did, I probably wouldn’t write them. They’re not important. The specifics rarely are. It’s the condition of people’s hearts that really matters.
And here we get to where I was always going, in this story. The thing that was triggered in me, there in that brutal emergency room at LGH. At some point right along in here, Uncle Ezra developed a serious heart condition. It was the plumbing. His veins were clogged up. He went and took all sorts of tests, and the doctor told him. “It’s serious, Ezra. You really need to let us go in and clean out those veins. If you walk out of here like this, you could easily keel over at any moment.”
And for whatever reason, Uncle Ezra just flat out rejected the doctor’s advice. I figure the man was just weary and half worn out and tired of life, missing his Rosie. He didn’t want to spend a whole lot of money, trying to hang on. And he chose to reject the doctor’s recommended treatments. I don’t know what he was thinking. I don’t know if he felt fear in his heart. Something tells me the man just made up his mind, and that was the way it was. If he lived, he lived. If he died, he died.
He did take some kind of natural treatment, to clear his veins. And it happened right while he was in Kansas City, taking those treatments. The stories claim that Ezra asked for a double dose of whatever it was they were shooting through him. And that double dose loosened the plaque in his veins. Might be hearsay. Might be true. But on December 16, 1983, the man went into a full blown heart attack in the clinic where he was taking treatments. And he died right there on the spot, there in Kansas City. He was sixty-seven years old.
I remember the day of the funeral. I didn’t go. I stayed home to be with Titus, and to do the chores, the milking and such. Eli Yutzy came over to help me. It was bitterly, bitterly cold. Snowing down, full blast. They took Ezra back to Bowling Green, and buried him beside his beloved Rosie. And those who were there still talk about how brutally cold it all was. How, at the graveside, the Bishop’s teeth were chattering so hard he could barely speak.
The little settlement he had founded in Prairie Home was in the process of blowing up when Ezra died. His sons all moved out soon after. A few other families hung on for another ten years or so. But the dissension that was rooted at the birth of the place would not go away. Today Prairie Home is an extinct settlement. As far as I know, no vestiges remain of Uncle Ezra’s little band of settlors. The people all scattered to the winds, moved to other places.
And so passed away the man who was my uncle, a man I barely knew. And yeah, from here, it might seem like he was a fool, to make the choices he did. He could have lived for another good ten to twenty years, had he just taken care of himself a bit. Made different choices. I don’t think he was a fool, though. I respect the right of any person to choose the conditions in which he will pass through this earth. Sure, I would have made different choices, from where I am. But he wasn’t where I am. And I’m not where he was.
That’s the blood I come from, right there. Stubborn, absolutely stubborn blood. Mildly unhinged, probably, with just a touch of madness. Waglers have held the reputation of being slightly mad for generations, at least the ones on the fringes. And I concur. We probably are. We live intensely. We feel things deeply. And mostly, it doesn’t matter much what anyone else says or thinks, we will always insist on walking our own paths. And we will live and die by the choices we make.
That’s who Uncle Ezra was, a man like that.
OK. A brief update on my heart situation. I don’t like the word “condition,” as in heart condition. So situation it is. After something like that comes down, it takes about a week to work out of freak-out mode. You’re all jumpy and touchy. I measured my pulse rate many times, just to make sure the heart was beating right. It always was. I went to work the first Monday morning, the Saturday after getting home. Sure, I was a bit tense and tired. But I figured I could sit home, all tense and tired. Or just go to work, and get done what I could. I haven’t missed a day of work since that two-day break at the hospital.
And it was really strange, that first week, to realize something. I used to get dog-tired by late afternoon into evening. Every day. It was that flutter heart, beating way out there. And I realized, during the afternoons, that I’m not nearly as tired as I was used to being. Not saying I’m not tired, in the afternoon at work. I am. But it’s not the dog-tiredness I was used to. I’m pretty happy about that.
The Coumadin and I are not getting along so well. And that’s by far the most depressing thing that came out of this whole ordeal. By far the most depressing. They got me penned in, taking that pharmaceutical rat poison. Right now, I’m on a pretty heavy daily dose, to get my body leveled out. The stuff makes me lethargic. I’m always cold. It hurts my stomach now and then. And it tends to make me drool, right out both sides of my mouth. And you don’t want to nick or bump into anything, because the cuts and bruises won’t go away. It’s pretty maddening. And no, I’m not pulling an “Uncle Ezra” and going off and ignoring the doctors. So don’t start squawking at me, all you medical people. I will have my first full checkup sometime next month. At that point, I figure I’ll tell the doctor exactly what I think of it all. There has to be a better, more natural way, without all those disastrous side effects. There has to be.
And, of course, since I can’t take my Superfood like my body’s been used to, I came down with a full fledged deep chest and head cold this week, complete with a savage hacking cough. With Superfood, I’d get maybe one cold a year. Sometimes not even that. Well, here’s the first one without it. I’m on Maximum Strength Mucinex 24 hours a day, or I wouldn’t be breathing at all. Again, it makes me crazy, how you can’t take natural things to help your body, because the Coumadin people tell you not to. And again. It’s maddening.
Last week, early, I texted my friend, Dwylin the plumber. Hey, think you can get over and get my softner system set up? He called right back. Yeah, he’d try to make it by late week. I knew he had good intentions. But the man is so overwhelmed with work that I half expected him not to show up. And last Friday morning, he texted me. He was there, in my basement, working. He never had time to be there, the first time, when I was in the hospital. But he took the time, because he’s my friend. And he came back as he’d promised, because he’s my friend. And he installed two new water heaters, one for me and one for the tenant. And the new softner system. The water heaters will pay for themselves in about a year or so, he told me. So now I won’t be heating any more water with all that expensive oil through my furnace.
It’s going to take a little chunk of change, to pay for all that. Funny thing is, the day before Dwylin showed up, my biannual royalty check arrived from Tyndale. I had planned on traveling a bit this summer, with some of that. And I still will. But a few of those planned trips just kind of went away, lately. They ain’t gonna happen. They never were gonna happen, they were always meant to be a mirage. It just took me way too long to figure that out. And now here’s the check. I figure after taxes, there should be just about enough to pay for the whole water system, and maybe I’ll have enough left over for a trip to Bloomfield this summer sometime.
I know I like to grumble now and then. But deep down, I also know this. The Lord provides, just as He always promised He would. And I am thankful.
Cause and effect, chain of events,
All of the chaos makes perfect sense.
When you’re spinning round, things come undone,
Welcome to Earth, third rock from the Sun.
Joe Diffie, lyrics
I’m sure stranger stuff has happened to me. Had to have, somewhere way back there. But right now, I just can’t remember when.
I’ve been going through some real crap, lately. Turned out to be pretty intense stuff. Mostly self-inflicted, of course, as is usually the case with me. Still, that doesn’t make it any easier to work out of a cave I chose to walk into. Anyway, that’s how it was the last few weeks. I went to work, as usual, every day. And wrote at night. Brooded in deep and intense shame. And wrote and drank and wrote.
And then, on Wednesday night last week, I don’t know where it happened. Soon after I left the gym, I think. Somehow, I hurt my eye. The left one. Or maybe it just happened on its own. I remember rubbing it and thinking how it itches. Otherwise, I thought little of it. That little moment right there was the trigger for the huge chain of events that would come roaring down over the next few days.
The next morning, I got up, as usual. Went to take my shower. Grabbed my good old battery shaver, and leaned in toward the mirror over the sink. And just gaped. Except for the pupil, my left eye was completely blood red. I’m talking completely. And I’m talking blood red. I could see, though, with it. If I hadn’t seen myself in the mirror, I would never have known. I recoiled, horrified. What in the world was this? Ah, come on. One more bit of crap to deal with. Had I only known. I hadn’t seen nothing yet.
From work, right at eight, I called the Wellness Center I use on those rare occasions when I need a doctor. Better go get this checked out. I told the nice lady what was going on. My left eye was bloody. She poked around on her computer and told me someone would see me at two.
And right here, I’ll just say this, because it applies a whole lot down the road. My heart flutters. Just goes off, on wild beating binges. It’s done that for years. And yes, I’ve had checkups from doctors over the years, and they never mentioned anything. So I never thought it was that big a deal. I’ve never felt a thing from the flutter. Never even felt it beating in my chest. No tightness, nothing. It’s like my blood eye I saw in the mirror. I would have never known about the heart thing, except once, years back, I just happened to check my own pulse. It was running crazy wild. And since then, that’s the only way I ever knew I had a fluttering heart. When I’d check my own pulse. Which I did, now and then, especially after I discovered how my heart acts. Sometimes it was calm, when I checked it. And sometimes it was wild. It was never smooth beating, though. It was always erratic, soft or wild. But it was always strong.
I walked into the Wellness Center and checked in. Sat and waited a while. Then the nurse called my name and led me to a room. Checked my blood pressure. Took my heart count. Blood pressure was just OK. My heart beat was a little high. 140. What’s normal? I asked. “60 to 100,” she said. She left then, and said the doctor would be in soon. I sat and waited. And yeah, I was a little tense. I had a bloody eye, here. And I wasn’t feeling all that good about life in general otherwise.
He walked in before long. A nice young man. I’d seen him once before, about a year ago. He’d taken good care of me. We talked as he examined my eye. Shone a little light in. I lay down on the table, and he had me do the whole eye coordination thing. Everything worked fine. “It just burst vessels,” he said. It’ll heal on its own. We talked a bit then, about things. I told him I’d been feeling down lately. He was a good guy. We just sat there and talked.
Then he mentioned my heart rate. He wanted to do an EKG test, or some such thing. Sure, I said. So the nurse came back in, and I lay down on the table. She stuck all kinds of sticky things on me, and attached some wires. Then she did the test, and a printout popped out of the machine. “Let me just go show these to the doctor, before I unwire you” she said. “To see if this is clear enough. I always check, in case he wants me to do them again.” She walked out. It was the last quiet moment I would see for the next forty-six hours or so.
The door burst open a minute later, and nurse and doctor rushed in. The nurse quietly but hastily started removing wires and sticky things from me. I sat there at the edge of the table as she did this. The doctor stood there and faced me. Looked at me. Looked down at his paper. I’ll never forget the expression on his face. And then he spoke. Concisely. Carefully.
“Mr. Wagler, from what I’m reading on this chart, you are about to go into a massive heart attack,” he said. I stared at him. What the heck was he talking about? He showed me the paper, a bunch of gibberish. “Your heart rate is exceeding 150 and accelerating,” he continued. “I strongly recommend that you be admitted to an emergency room immediately.”
I can’t remember exactly how I reacted. It was nothing dramatic. Probably just gaped at him. I was pretty exhausted emotionally already, from other things. And now I was having a heart attack? It was all just surreal, looking back. I finally asked him. And how am I going to get there? “I would like to call an ambulance,” he said. Meanwhile, the nurse rushed about and poured four aspirins into a little cup. “Take those aspirins,” the doctor said, looking at me strangely. “Are you feeling any pain in your chest at all? Any tightness? Any sweating?” No, I said. I don’t feel anything other than usual. No pain, no tightness. He wouldn’t believe me, though. “I strongly recommend that you get to an emergency room, right now, the closest one,” he repeated. “Do I have your permission to call an ambulance?”
Well, what are you going to do in a moment like that? I couldn’t think straight. I sure didn’t feel like any heart attack was coming on. But those charts wouldn’t lie. And the stress of it all made my heart flutter straight up. All right, I said. Call the ambulance. Someone rushed off to do that. I sat there. “Don’t move at all,” the doctor said. “Just stay sitting right there.” You mean I can’t even walk out? I asked in disbelief. “No, they’ll bring the stretcher in for you,” he answered. The doctor left the room, then. The nurse stayed right there, looking at me intently. I’m sure she was expecting me to collapse, clutching my chest, at any second.
Within minutes, you could hear the sirens. Coming closer and closer, then turning in. You always hear those in the distance, and wonder what poor soul is going down now. This time, it was me. The door opened down the hall, and I could hear them clumping in. It was all very surreal, but I’m trying to tell it just as I remember. And then two men appeared, a lady behind them. The men dragged a gurney. They clanked it around and set it up and jacked it up and moved it over to where I sat. I couldn’t believe this. I could just as well have walked out. They finally nudged it close, and I shifted over. They took to strapping me in. Of course, my heart was going crazy like a trip hammer, by now. Fluttering way out there, into the ether.
And then we trundled out. I sat there, totally alert, and totally not having a heart attack, as we approached the ambulance. “There will be a little bump, here, now,” one of the men said. And they yanked me up. They were really good at what they do, I’ll give them that. My left arm was immediately stabbed by a large needle of some sort. The man on my left hung some sort of little bag up on a hook. And connected the hose to the needle. And that started the continuous, ominous flow of drugs that would assault my body for the next two full days. He also clipped a little metal wash pin to one of my fingers. That took my heart count, and showed it on a screen above and to the front. The man on the right talked to me. Name. Address. Age. Birth date. I spoke to him clearly. I live just down the road, here. And then I told them, told it for the first time to anyone involved in this drama. It was the first time I thought of it.
I’m not having a heart attack. My heart does this all the time. It flutters. It’s done this for years. They absolutely did not believe me. “What’s the rate now?” one of the men asked. “180 and going up,” the other said. “We need to get it settled down.” I’m telling you, it’s not a heart attack, I said again. It was no use.
It took a long time, to get ready to go. Probably at least ten minutes or more. They had to make sure I wouldn’t pass out on their watch. Stabilize me. It was just crazy. At long last they had everything secured, and the woman went up front to drive. The ambulance backed up with a lot of beeping, and shifted around. And then pulled out and headed west for Lancaster General Hospital. The two guys stayed in back with me. They stayed busy, checking things. I sure admire people like that, for all the training they have. And as we bumped along, they tried to keep me talking, to keep me there, alert. That wasn’t any problem at all.
This is my first ambulance ride, ever, I said conversationally. And then we came up to a light. Sadly, the ambulance stopped, just like a normal vehicle. What’s up with that? I asked. Can’t we have sirens, and running red lights, and all? By this time, the guys were lightening up. They’d figured out that I wouldn’t pass out on them, at least not likely. We chatted. I asked what station they were from. I’m going to write this, I told them. I really am. They were from New Holland, of course. And we stopped at another light. I complained again, about there being no sirens and running red lights. The slim guy to the right chuckled. “Look,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to be in the shape you’d have to be for us to do that.” OK, I said. I’ll buy that.
In the meantime, I was making calls. Calling the office. Calling my boss. Calling my brother, Steve. By the time I got hold of Steve, I was pretty convinced of what was going on. They’re taking me in an ambulance, I told him. My heart was fluttering, and the doctor thought it was a heart attack. It’s not. My heart has fluttered like this for years. Steve seemed pretty shocked. I mean, who wouldn’t be, to get a call like that? He said he’d come in and see me as soon as he could.
Somewhere along the way, the slim guy on my right asked what I write. Oh, I wrote a book, I told him. A New York Times bestseller. And I spoke the title. Y’all need to go buy that, I said. “I think my wife might actually have that,” he said. “I’ll check when I get home.” And then we were in Lancaster, and at the hospital that would be my world for the next two days. They pulled up. Opened the doors. Apologized for the bump of unloading. And I was trundled right in. And into a little side room. A team of people waited there.
I wasn’t allowed to get up, or anything. Oh, no. They had to shift me over to the table, like I was a helpless invalid. The doctor stepped up. Nurses swarmed around and stuck in another needle or two, and hooked them to bags hanging from hooks. What in the heck were these people shooting into me? I’m not having a heart attack, I told the doctor. My heart has fluttered like this, off and on, for years. He chuckled. “It couldn’t be beating this fast for very long without being an attack,” he said. It’s done it for years, I said. Meanwhile the nurses were prodding and poking about. “Oh, I like your shoes,” one of them said from the far end of the table. They’re Borns, I said. I walked all over Europe with them last year.
And they took my temperature, blood pressure, the whole works. After a while, an Xray guy popped in. The place was like a zoo. He took Xrays of my chest, from front and back, I think. And soon everyone drifted out. I was all alone, pretty much strapped to a table in the LGH emergency room. Probably the last place I ever could have dreamed of being when I got up that morning. It was just surreal. All of it was. But still, I wasn’t sure. Maybe I was having a real heart attack. I couldn’t see it, though, the more time that passed.
About an hour later, a very distinguished man in suit and tie stepped in, followed by two interns. A real heart doctor. I forget his name. He had reviewed the Xrays. He shook my hand. And he told me what I already knew. “You’re not having a heart attack,” he said. “You have a very strong heart.” And then he pointed out the little details to his interns. This and this and that. You’ll notice such and such. I lay there quietly, like a piece of meat.
Meanwhile, Steve called. I had my cell phone on me. He had my IPad and he was coming in. Where was I? Still in the emergency room, I told him. I’m still sitting here, waiting on a room. If they move me before you come, I’ll call you. About an hour or so later, he showed up. I was still there, on that table. He gave me a hug, and sat down and we just talked. What in the world do you say to your brother, when you’re lying in the emergency room of a hospital like that? Hooked to all kinds of hoses with drugs shooting into you. And right while we were chatting, the orderlies came. A room had finally opened up.
And right here, I’ll say this. The people at LGH are fine, fine people. Courteous. Professional. Friendly. And totally competent. If you ever need your heart worked on, go there. I’ll vouch for them, all the way. I was trundled down the halls and here and there. In and out of elevators. I just laid back and half closed my eyes. By now, the shame of it all was diminishing. I was here. Didn’t want to be here. But I was. This was happening. Might as well try to drink it all in.
And I was settled into a private room at the 1200 level. Steve tagged along, with a little bag holding my IPad and keys. And a few other things. And soon enough, Ben, the nurse, came in to check me in. They were a little befuddled. I had no medical records, anywhere. No family doctor. No nothing. I do have a doctor that has my records. Problem was, I hadn’t been to see him for, oh, at least six, maybe seven years. So my mind just blanked on that. I don’t go to doctors, unless I need to, I told Ben. I try to stay as far away from them as I can. “That’s fine,” he replied. “But we’ll have to go through a few questions, here, to get some information on you.” Ah, good grief. Will it stay private? I asked. “Of course,” Ben said. But those records could still be hacked, I said. But he was patient. And quite humorous and good-natured. And we went right down through the list. It took a few minutes.
Steve decided to leave, soon. We shook hands, and he walked out. The next day, he and Wilma were planning on flying out to Kansas for a wedding. My sister Rachel’s daughter Ida Rose was marrying Jacob Nisly. I had planned to go, but decided not to. Good thing I didn’t, I guess. That would have been a wasted ticket. I told Steve to pass on my greetings to everyone and to congratulate the bride and groom for me. He said he would.
And I settled in for my first night at any hospital. I’ve never ever been admitted before. It’s a brutal place, like a prison. Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s for your own good, at least if you really need to be there. But that doesn’t make it any less a prison. They brought me a tray of food. It was OK, but bland. Of course, I was hooked up to at least two bags of drugs with two different needles stuck into my right arm. That’s how you’re trapped, in a hospital. With those freakin’ intravenous feeding tubes of whatever it is they’re pumping into you. And don’t even pretend you know what all that is.
I settled in, with my IPad. A friend stopped by, for an hour or so. Attendants kept popping in and doing all kinds of things to me. Before anyone did anything, they’d always ask. “What’s your birthdate?” I always told them. And they took my blood pressure and temperature. Stuck the little metal wash pin on a finger, to take my heart rate. And a nice lady stopped by, strapped a long rubber band on my left arm, and stabbed me with a needle. They needed to test my blood. It just went on and on, stuff like this.
My friend left around nine, then. And I was alone. I leaned back on the bed (hospital beds are really cool, that’s one thing I can say. You can contort them to almost any configuration.) and tried to take stock of what the heck had happened and why I was where I was. I could hardly think straight, probably because of all the drugs they were shooting into me. That, and just flat out exhaustion.
Ben the nurse had told me. Tomorrow morning they’d come around. In a hospital, there are two kinds of healers for the heart. The plumbers and the electricians. Plumbers open up your veins. Electricians look to the wiring. Tomorrow they would both come, I was told. And they would consult with me, about what was going on inside me. And decide the best course of action to take. My problem was obviously electrical. I’m sure the plumbers figured I had plenty of problems for them, too.
I dozed off, now and then, as the night came and passed. It’s impossible to sleep in a hospital. Flat out impossible. If the monitor in my room wasn’t beeping wildly, there was another one beeping somewhere real close. And just when you’re finally dozing off, the door opens and someone comes in and does the whole blood pressure/heart rate/temperature thing again.
It wasn’t even fitful sleep. It was just intermittent dozing. The next morning, there was no food. And there had been no water, either, since midnight. Today they planned to probe up a vein in my groin to fix the problem in my heart. I couldn’t have anything in me. The whole morning is just a groggy memory. The electrical people showed up. A doctor and his assistant. Both totally professional and polite. The doctor chuckled a bit. “So you went to check out your red eye, and landed up in the emergency room. Heh, heh.” Yeah, I said ruefully. That’s exactly what happened. I kept trying to tell them. No one would believe me.
And he told me. I had what was called “atrial flutter.” Where the top part of the heart just ran wild, on its own. The bottom couldn’t keep up, which made a real good scenario for a blood clot stroke. And no, my blood-red left eye had nothing to do with any of that. They told me what they wanted to do. And they really felt there would be no problem, fixing my heart. It was a pretty simple procedure, I was assured. They would go up a vein in my groin, and do an ablation, whatever that is. Tweak what needed tweaking. And it would happen that afternoon. Maybe I’d be able to get out that evening. Strangely, no plumbers ever arrived. I guess they found very little to no plaque in my veins. So there was no need for them.
They needed some more inside data, so I was trundled off again, soon. An echo-gram, I think they call it. The guy bastes you with some sort of schmutz, and takes all kinds of detailed pics. All throughout, I hated to think of what all this was costing anyone. Sure, I have insurance. With a pretty high deductible, I forget how high. I’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. Anyway, this new scan was downstairs, close to the operating room. So after it was done, they rolled me over to the holding area. It was probably eleven o’clock. And the operation would come at two. So there were three hours to kill. And there I lay, on a stretcher table. Hooked to a monitor that kept beeping loud warnings, because my heart kept jumping way up beyond safe measures. I couldn’t eat anything. And I couldn’t even have a drop of water for my parched throat. There was no way to sleep. There was no way to do anything but just lay there.
I stirred, finally. Rang the bell. The nurse arrived promptly. I’m thinking I should make some phone calls before heading into surgery, I told her. Is there any way that someone could fetch my IPhone from my room? She never hesitated. “Of course,” she said. “I’ll go get it myself.” I hate to make you do that, I said. Can’t you just call up there and have someone bring it down? “No, it’s no problem,” she said. And off she went.
Meanwhile, the anaesthetist arrived, a nice friendly man. Everyone was nice and friendly. He needed information. Everyone needed information. He had a clipboard, and he told me of all the possible risks involved. It’s not near as dangerous as it used to be, to go under like that. But still. You never know. Once in a while, someone doesn’t come back. He was quite jocular and witty. And totally professional. All LGH people are, from what I can tell. He had me read through a form then, and sign off. I did so wearily.
The nurse returned soon, with my phone. Before I could call anyone, the phone rang. It was Titus. He’d heard. I told him what was going on, and we talked for a few minutes. We hung up. And Steve called, too, right then, to touch base. Then Marvin Yutzy called, from Kansas. And we talked. I told him what was coming, and he said his Dad had had the same thing done to him. The people were gathering at his place tonight, he said. The guests for the wedding tomorrow. He wished me well, said they’d be praying for me, and we hung up.
And it felt good, that they called. I hadn’t thought about it much. I don’t like to bother people, when I’m in a place like that. Never have. I never even bothered to call my pastor, Mark Potter. Not that I wouldn’t have. I just didn’t think of it. It’s always a serious thing, when your heart gets operated on, when any outside foreign object touches it. You never know what could go wrong. And I thought of it, of course, that I might not return. But the odds were pretty slim, and it didn’t bother me all that much. I’ve always been alone, all my life, in such situations. I don’t know any other way. And here I was, alone again, going into surgery. They had asked me. “Will anyone be coming to be with you?” And I told them. No.
Sure, there was a sliver of fear down there, way down deep. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t. I very much wanted to live. Still, if something happened, I was pretty calm, thinking about it. I knew who I was, and I knew I was my Father’s son. Nothing would ever take that bond away. Nothing. That comes out of my own experiences. And it comes right out of Pastor Mark Potter’s preaching. And it was a beautiful thing, in that moment, to hold on to. A strong and beautiful thing. Even so, I was just too exhausted to think about it much.
And just before two, just like she’d promised, the operating room nurse came to fetch me. She was all cheerful. As she pushed me out, she proclaimed, “I hear you’re a famous author.” Who told you that? I asked. I sure never told anyone in this place. It was another nurse, who happened to attend the same church as my brother, Steve. Somehow, that nurse had seen my name and told this nurse. Well, yeah, I wrote a bestseller, I said. But it was a miracle, the way it happened.
It wasn’t far, to the operating room. A big old cold place. A large team of people awaited me. They were all smiling and cheerful. They slid me over onto the table, and took to placing all kinds of pillows and cushions everywhere, to position my body the way they wanted it. “We hear you’re a famous author,” they said, smiling. “You wrote a bestseller.” Yeah, I grunted. I did. “He said it was a miracle,” the nurse told them. And then the anaesthetist’s assistant stepped up. Swabbed a spot on my right leg. Earlier, back in the holding area, the main man had told me I’d feel a slight sting. The assistant scrubbed around a bit, then she dropped something on the floor. They had to go over to their supplies and get the replacement of what she’d dropped. I lay there, just trying to be aware of everything. Then I saw her, holding the hose. And then I felt a slight sting on my leg. It happened just like I’d been told. My last memory was of her standing there, holding something to my leg. And feeling that little sting. There was no fading out. It just went dark. Instantly. There is no other way to describe that.
I woke up, I don’t know how long later, in the recovery room. I wasn’t startled, or anything, about where I was. All kinds of patches were taped to my chest, hooked by wires to a small pocket monitor beside me on the bed. They noticed soon enough that I was back, and came to return me to my room. As we trundled along, I reached over and felt my right pulse. For the first time in years, my heart was beating in steady, evenly-spaced thumps. They had done it. The electricians had done it.
Back in my room, they brought me food. And water. I drank and drank glass after glass. I was on strict bed rest for four hours, until 8:30. What if I need to use the bathroom? I asked the nurse. “We’ll bring you a bed pan,” she said. Then I’ll wait, I said. A friend stopped by for a while that evening. And right about then, I got a text from my tenant. He wondered if I was OK. He hadn’t seen me around, and the truck hadn’t moved in a few days. Drat, I thought. I forgot to let him know. So I called him right away.
I told him where I was and what had happened. He was all sympathetic. “Hate to tell you this, but you got problems with your water system again,” he said. “It’s all muddy, coming out from anywhere. I think your softener system is shot. I can’t tell for sure, because I can’t get into the basement. You better call your plumber buddy back.” I groaned. Then I said I would, thanked him, and hung up.
Come on, Lord, can’t you give me a break, here? I thought. What is this, my freakin’ “Job” moment? Haven’t I been through enough of those in my life already? Or is it just me, banging my head against the walls? But come on. I mean, I’m about shot here, in the hospital. I’ve had some real rough days, lately. I’m laid out here, flat on my back, all strung out and helpless on a hospital bed, with a heart that needed some tweaking, to get to working right. And now, right this moment, my water system goes bad? What’s next? Is my truck gonna collapse for no reason, too? Can’t you just see fit to not pour it on so strong? And no, I didn’t feel one bit guilty, either, talking to God like that. I mean, if you can’t be honest with Him, if you can’t tell Him when you’re all pissed off and hurting and scared, what kind of relationship is that?
And right there, from my hospital bed, I called my buddy, the plumber, Dwylin Flaud. Left a voicemail. He texted back that he was at his daughter’s softball game, and that he’d call me as soon as he could. An hour or so later, he did. And I told him where I was and what had happened with my heart. I know you’re totally busy tomorrow, but is there any way you could go out and at least patch things up so they work for now? I asked. He was all sympathetic that I was in the hospital like that. “Yeah, I’d promised someone else I’d stop by, but this is more important,” he said. “I’ll try to push that one back and stop by. I’ll get the tenant to help me.” I told him where the key was to get in, thanked him profusely and hung up. And the next day he did what he’d promised. Went out and bypassed the softener system. He called me when he was done. He’d had to go through the whole house and drain all the pipes from the dirty softener sediment. And he would stop by within a week or so, and replace the whole thing. I sagged with relief. Thank you so much, thank you, I said. Just send me the bill. And I thought to myself, as we hung up. He’s a good man. It pays to have good connections.
The second night was a little less stressful than the first. I was hooked up to only one bag of drugs, and I could move about the room pretty freely. Still, it was hard to get to sleep, because something was always beeping somewhere. Plus, I’d had a good two-plus hour nap that day, when they put me under. So I took my IPad and started writing this blog. And people popped in at all odd hours to poke and prod and take my blood pressure and draw more blood and such. Dawn finally arrived. Today I would get back home, one way or the other. If they wouldn’t release me, I would walk out. I was pretty determined about that.
My friend Gloria came by around 9:00. She would take me home. And I told her I wanted her to be there, when they explained the drugs they were giving me. Especially Coumadin. The blood thinner they claimed I needed. I understand little about such stuff, except I don’t like the sound of it. I was too groggy to grasp instructions. (All I know is I can’t take my Superfood. I’ve taken that stuff twice a day for ten years, and now I can’t, because it counteracts the Coumadin. And now my body’s screaming for it. It makes me crazy.) And soon enough, my buddy Ben the nurse popped in. The guy who had checked me in would check me out. I grumbled pretty savagely at him. This place is a freakin’ prison. He took it all good-naturedly enough. The doctor stopped by, and went over things with me.
At around ten, Ben released me from all intravenous tubes. I was free to get up and walk around. Can I go for a walk around the halls? I asked him. “Yes, I want you to,” he said. So I went, and just walked. And walked and walked. I never ever figured it could feel so free, to just walk around a hospital. Of course, I promptly got lost. After much meandering, I stopped at some station. I’m lost, I said. I don’t even remember my room number for sure, except it’s in the low 1200s. The ladies laughed and laughed, and made a few phone calls. One of them led me back to the general vicinity of my room, and pointed me the right way.
Around 11:30, Ben unhooked all the heart monitor valves from my chest, and tore off all the little tapes they connect to. I was free to change back to my real clothes. I wasted no time, doing that. And right at 12, Gloria and I walked from the hospital into a beautiful sunny day. I kept exclaiming as we drove along Rt. 23 toward home. It’s all so simple and all so beautiful. And then we pulled into my drive. I walked into my home. I have never been happier to walk through those doors. If they ever drag me back to any hospital again, I think I’ll have to be unconscious.
Maybe things happen for a reason. Maybe they don’t. From here, I think of a few things. My cousin, Elmo Stoll, a prolific Amish/Seeker writer and leader, passed away suddenly from a massive heart attack at age fifty-four. Just a couple of years older than me. Maybe I was living on borrowed time, with my flutter heart. Who knows? Maybe I needed all that drama to nudge me down the right path, to get my heart taken care of. At this point, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good, fretting about any of it. It all happened as it did. But still, I wonder.
What are the chances that it all was supposed to happen this way? That I would bust my eye, for whatever reason. And when I went to check it out, my flutter heart randomly shot up and way out of control. Thus the frantic call to the ambulance, the brutal two-day stay at LGH, and the people there who fixed my heart. There are a whole lot of other ways of looking at it all, sure. But that’s one way. Of course, my heart could give out tomorrow. There is no promise of any future on this earth. I have a better grasp of that than I’ve ever had before, believe me.
I’m in a new place, now. And not because I want to be. Seems like I always have to be dragged kicking and screaming through the next door. It’s a strange place I’ve never seen before, a world of little pink and blue and white pills. And yeah, it’s a little scary. More than a little. I’m just kind of moving around real slow, feeling my way through the fog, trying to get my bearings, trying to clear my head, to figure out where I am, who to believe, and what’s going on. Right now, I trust nothing that anyone tells me without first sifting it through some serious filters of my own.
But I’ll keep walking. I always have. All in all, I’m just grateful that my flutter heart held out for as long as it did on its own. And I am grateful for all of life. For the beauty and the madness and the pain of it. But especially for the beauty.
And today, I am grateful for my new heart.