When an old man prepares for open-heart surgery, he maintains a confident demeanor and so does his good wife. He has an excellent surgeon and the procedure has been around since he was a teenager, pioneered by Dr. Walt Lillehei of Minneapolis. All is well. Stay calm and pull your socks up.
The old man is me and Dr. Lillehei attended the University of Minnesota, as I did, but he did not major in English as I did nor did he write surreal poetry and doomsday fiction that took a stab at cynicism. I come from fundamentalist Scots who would’ve looked on heart surgery as a waste of money. The heart is sinful and heart disease is caused by rich living and can be remedied by physical labor, thinner dinners, and prayer. Dr. Lillehei came from progressive Norwegians and he had more curiosity.
I’ve been down this road before, July 2001, under Dr. Orszulak at Mayo, and I rolled into the OR feeling quite chipper, prepared to joke around, and then the anesthesiologist did something and I disappeared. I awoke with an angelic being in blue scrubs whispering to me. I went home for a pleasant couple of weeks lounging in the backyard and resumed life.
Of course I am twenty years older now and things could be different. So the patient tries to gain a clear look at his own life.
It was wildly lucky. I switched from surreal and cynical to light comedy as easily as you’d junk a rusty VW and accept the gift of a Jaguar. I found comedy quite amiable. I worked hard because it offered an escape from a hopeless marriage. I survived some rocky times to earn a pile of money, which I flung in many directions. I bought a mansion that looked like a train station and felt like one too. There was a high wall around the backyard that gave it a penal quality. I bought 80 acres in Wisconsin and put a log cabin on it and discovered that peace and quiet make me uneasy. I took expensive vacations I didn’t enjoy.
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What I enjoyed was work. Then I met and married Jenny, who has a forgiving soul and is very funny on top of it. I tell her how much I adore her and she makes a sound like “Hnnh” that always cracks me up. She is a violinist, well-traveled, a New Yorker at heart though she grew up in my hometown so she knows what she’s dealing with. She is a keeper. I feel well-kept.
I am not a forgiving person. I have not yet forgiven two former employees who got me in a shakedown scheme and I made the mistake of settling with them before I had cleared my name. I know I should forgive them before I go under the knife but I don’t know how. The man who cooked up the scheme I sincerely wish would rot in hell but I need to cleanse my heart and have only a short time in which to accomplish this.
Carrying anger in your heart is misery in a bottle and my rector Kate suggested I read Fred Luskin, a psychologist who leads a forgiveness training program at Stanford, if you can imagine such a thing. He put out a book giving nine steps toward forgiveness and No. 3 says that forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation, which is an enormous relief. I envisioned having to put my arms around the traitor and feeling his white beard against my cheek and whispering words of endearment. This would not be within my powers. Mr. Luskin says that forgiveness is for one’s own sake, to restore peace in one’s heart, and is not play-acting. He says, “Forgiveness is for you.” He says, “Make a commitment to yourself to feel better.” I like that. And he is a psychologist so I believe him.
I make myself feel better by thinking about the times I’ve stood in front of a paying audience and hummed a note and sang, “My country, ’tis” and they all joined in and it was so beautiful, people got teary-eyed. It was intermission but instead of heading for the lobby they stood and sang. And maybe Dinah in the kitchen and “She was just seventeen if you know what I mean” and “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder” and it was awesome. It wasn’t what they paid to see, they gave it to themselves. We all sang and found forgiveness in it. When I think of those times, it is well with my soul.