photo by Bill Larson
taken at Austin Peay University
Clarksville, Tennessee 2010
To the Heart of Things
When I listen to people with terminal illnesses talk about the time they have left, it often takes me awhile to remember that I have had to deal with that, too. Maybe it's because I am fifteen years away from the diagnosis. I was forty-three years old, too young to expire according to many, not the least of whom was myself. However, people have died soon after they were born. People die at all ages, but I was busy doing stuff, as they say, when the diagnosis came and along with it the only solution, according to the doctors. They wanted to give me a new heart. I refused to be put on the waiting list. I wanted to try exercise, change of lifestyle, the geographic cure, and most of all, a return to my Taiji and all the related aspects of what we call Chinese medicine.
But all that seems like chit chat. I think now of the place where I lived, an apartment on Philly's West Side, near University of Pennsylvania. It was a short walk from my house to the offices of African American studies. There are the trees that lined Locust Street, my street, where the Victorian house I lived in was kept in meticulous order by the landlord and landlady, a precious black couple who had known each other since elementary school down South. I want to say South Carolina, and that's what I will say. Their last name was Butler, and they were a holdover from the time of strong enduring marriages. We were out in the yard together one day when the subject of religion came up.
Mr. Butler said, "My wife is religious. I am spiritual."
She looked at him and gave him that "look" that black women give which lets the world know it's time to hush.
When I came down with congestive heart failure, any little sensation that came into my chest was cause for concern if it was a "new" sensation. My doctors had told me to be aware and to come into the hospital if need be. One night I had a "new" sensation, and Mr. Butler came up and sat with me. There I was, a grown ass man, as they say, needed the comfort of a father figure. The state of my heart put me in the position of having to think about death. I had been given five years of being barely able to walk with all the medications I was taking. So when I felt that feeling in my chest I heeded Mr. Butler's words. A few days earlier he had spoken to me like a father.
"Now Mr. Weaver, don't you sit up there and suffer. You call downstairs and let us know when you're not feeling right. You hear?"
I heard, and so there he was. The sensation in my chest did not go away, so he drove me to the hospital, which was the Hospital University of Pennsylvania or HUP, as Philadelphians call it. It turned out to be nothing, and so later in the morning Mr. Butler came to retrieve me from the hospital, and we rode back to that three story house with one glad passenger sitting up there alongside Mr. Butler.
My buddy Roger Allen Jones was my helpmate and nurse. He was a poet who had spent a few years selling used books on the sidewalks of the university. Students knew him, and the first time I remember having a conversation with him was when he was walking down the street to where I sat on the steps in front of the house. I had elected to live alone after several years of marriage, alone again, and my heart had not yet failed. But it was lumbering in my chest. I had put too much pressure on the pump, high blood pressure, medications for depression that were not good for the heart, a huge transition from working class life to academia, and always the search for love, that deadly addiction. Roger always wore too big shoes, and that day he had on a seasonal outfit, his jeans and an old blazer.
"Michael S. Weaver, " he called out in his lion voice. He was a tiny man who talked in a megaphone voice. He got closer and said, "I read your first book, Water Song. I like your poetry. Have you written your deathbed poems?"
Roger was nothing if not the purest devotee to poetry that I have ever known. He loved the word more than I did and could supply me with research info for class prep at times. Roger taught me about friendship, and he taught me about living. He even critiqued my love poems.
"Those ain't love poems, Boss. You just writing about love. I have yet to see you write a poem about the desire and the craving." Then he went back into his meditative space, gnawing his lips and looking at the sky.
What is it to be alive? Well, you breathe and you think and you feel, but the feeling is something I have come to place on a much higher plane than thinking. Thinking has always come easier to me, but feeling has taken me a lifetime. What has taken longer is to honor those feelings, to be brave enough to act on the basis of my feelings. You don't have to always say what you feel because that is often not appropriate. But you have to have an honest connection to your emotional reality when you speak and act, when you move in life. Most of my life I have not been able to do that, and I hope the people who have noticed this and been annoyed have forgiven me. I can blame it on my childhood, as all of us can, but what good is that at this point? It's good in the therapist's office for your own head straightening, but I believe compassion has to come from understanding we all have some hardness in life.
In the past couple of years I have been going to a barber by the name of Benny. His shop is close to my Cave. I was telling Benny the other day that I am writing a memoir about my hard life, and he said he had one, too. For a moment I felt annoyed, but I made myself listen. He went on to tell me about having to live on salt water as a child in Haiti, and it made me a little ashamed of myself but glad that I took the time to listen. It reminds me that if I finish this memoir I want it to be of help to people.
Walt was my barber here from the time I landed in the Boston area until 2007, a long time. Life got busy, or so I thought, and the subway ride to Magic Shears, the shop where he worked, seemed so long. I went down to Dorchester, where Magic Shears sits, to get my hair put in proper order. I had not been in awhile so I called the other day to see if I could catch him before he left for the day. Clyde owns the shop, and he answered as he always does. I asked for Walt.
"Mike, are you sitting down." That's all he had to say. I was glad I was sitting in my truck, looking out at the morning sky. Walt was gone. Clyde and I talked our way to being able to laugh about something Walt said. Clyde owned the shop, but Walt always said he kept the customers coming. Walt and Clyde were my working class touchstone. They were the men I grew up with and worked with for many years. They were the norm for a huge chunk of this six foot three working class piece of walking flesh I call me. We always had a ritual at holiday time, Walt with his glass of Christmas cheer.
So we breathe, and we stop breathing. Roger is gone, too. He passed away in his apartment just two years after I came home from the cardiac unit. When I came home the doctors had advised me against walking and driving. I broke both rules.
Roger and I went to Cape May, just over the bridge from Philly in Jersey. I drove a rental car, and when we got there Roger sat on the beach watching the gulls and what we thought were dolphins in the distance. It is a beach full of little stones. Roger was born and raised in Philly but had never been to Cape May. He sat there rocking back and forth. I asked him how he liked it.
"It sure beats television. That's all I can say."
I should be writing a letter in Chinese to my teacher in Taiwan, and I should be grading my students' papers. I guess I can get to those things now that I have let whoever reads this know how I feel about having time to live.