Heart Talk

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What to Do With Borrowed Time

By James Utt
By James Utt

Alta Laguna Park is a great place to start my early morning walk. Around the outfield fence of the baseball diamond, looking down at the valley below, winding my way up to Top of the World School, head back to the tennis courts as the sun begins to rise, paying my respects to the dogs and their human companions. But not so long ago, my brisk pace was brought to a near halt as breaths became harder to take. Must be the result of my overly zealous new diet to lower blood sugar levels, in which I had lost 10 pounds in three weeks. Yeah, just a little temporary weakness and it will pass. Or so I thought.

The next night was tennis doubles, and, though I was still experiencing shortness of breath, the game must go on. Barely able to move, much less run, my most frequent contribution to the match was wheezing, “Yours” to my patient partner as he tried to run down shots I should have been able to get to myself.

In two days, hardly able to walk from one end of the house to the other without stopping, I saw the cardiologist. He suspected a blocked artery, so the following day came the angiogram. No blockage. Next came some type of scan. Waiting for the results near the nurse’s station, I heard the head nurse say into the phone, “I don’t want to tell him. You tell him.” Handed the phone, the doctor informed me that I had bilateral pulmonary embolisms, or “P.Es.” for short. Blood clots in both lungs had come from my leg, gone through my heart, roughed that organ up a bit, and stopped for now in my lungs. Wheeled up to another floor where a large bag of blood thinners was attached to my arm, the nurses warned me that if I moved alarms would sound. After an hour, I found out they weren’t kidding.

The next day the doctor told me that “P.Es.” are often fatal, especially when you go out and play tennis. Because of this I will most likely be on blood thinners for the rest of my life. Word of advice: don’t cut yourself while on blood thinners. I did this once while shaving and I resembled Janet Leigh in the shower scene from “Psycho.” But I am alive, thin blood and all.

How do you deal with life after a brush with death? It did not help matters that in the six months following this episode, my wife, sister, mother, and best friend all died. Well, you can drink more than you should, but this is not a long-term solution, as my liver pointed out. You can talk with, scream at the God you are not sure exists, but this is usually a one-way conversation. You can sit for long periods at Heisler Park and see the beauty of Laguna and the warmth of the families, but this only caused me to feel more alone.

There is a scene in “Moonstruck” where Cher grabs Nicolas Cage and yells, “Snap out of it.”

So I did, kind of. Mustering all my courage, I signed up for a writing class at the Susi Q. Center. Having just had a small piece published in a national magazine, there was hope I could develop this talent, and I have to some degree. No expectations to be in line for the Penn/Faulkner Award anytime soon, but several other small pieces have been published here and there, and this has brought a warmth and sense of fulfillment. Trying to write something each day is a labor and a joy. I am also proud to be one of the foundering members of The Third Street Writers.

In the long run, the best thing I did was act foolish on the tennis court. Trying to serve like I was 28 instead of 68, I tore most of my rotator cuff. Off to rehab where I met a woman I finally, finally found the courage to ask out. After being married 37 years, dating is daunting, but I am now doing things I have never done and making the most out of whatever time I have left. Opening my heart filled a hole in my soul.

Final word of advice, live every day like it could be your last, because one day it will be.

Author James Utt is a retired high school history teacher who lives in Laguna Beach.

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