Island Life by David Slack

The possibility of death

A month or two after my heart attack, I became a dedicated swimmer. A friend rang one afternoon to suggest I come down to the pool with him. He would be doing his daily forty lengths. I thanked him, but politely declined. He persisted. "But I'd be lucky to do a length" I said. "Better than nothing", he said. So down we went to the brand new Whangarei indoor swimming pool. Heated, and everything. Flash as. This is how old my heart attack is: just the other day, I read they had a ceremony for the refurbishment of the 'old swimming complex'.

Anyway, I did a length, he did forty. "How was that?" he asked, when he finished a few minutes after me. Actually, I said, it wasn't bad. "Right, come back tomorrow and do two", he said. And the next day he was on the phone to make sure it happened. Each day I did an extra length or two, and by the end of the month, I was doing forty lengths a time. I turned my attention to getting well. I read some books my sister suggested, I changed my diet, I learned to meditate and each day I went down to the pool.

One morning as I was resting between laps, one of the nurses from coronary care came swimming down the lane, pulled in alongside me, and we chatted. I described what I was doing, my pending appointment with a cardiologist, and the trip to Greenlane that might follow. I was feeling quite positive about the prospects for living well by exercising and eating better, and I told her so. She had always been more somber than the other nurses, and now, in the pool, pregnant and soon to bring new life into the world, she fixed a solemn gaze on me and said, "You know you should maybe reconcile yourself to the possibility of death".

Sweet, suffering Jesus, no. I was down for the rest of the day. But I am an irrepressible optimist. By the end of the week I had gone through however many stages there are of dealing with a death and I had let it go. As far as I was concerned, it was someone else's death we had been discussing that day, and not mine.

I had to look past the evidence for some years. It wasn't until 1993 that I could get life insurance, and even then it carried quite a loading. But I also knew from looking around that I was doing more than some of my fellow numbers in the at-risk table.

By 2006, I was quite insouciant about the whole thing. It was just a really interesting and slightly terrifying tale to regale at a table over a bottle of wine.

Fortunately I had an attack of vanity last month, which alerted various people who take these things seriously that my blood pressure was too high.

This, in a nutshell is what the cardiologist told me when I saw him last week. Take the pills, diminish the small statistical possibility of death. The heart's just fine: when I get on the treadmill, the ECG all the way to full tilt shows nothing bad. It's just the hypertension. And the cholesterol. I have stripped vast elements of fat and dairy out of my diet, but the cholesterol is still just above the acceptable level.

So I'm on medication for the rest of my natural. Cartia, Inhibace and Lipex, if you're interested.[Light-hearted reference to search engine advertising deleted here, following stern admonition from large-non-evil corporation. I mention this only in order to maintain continuity. DS.]

Those ads, small though their contribution may be, may buy another can of beans for Mr Brown and his boys which is, in family bonding terms, a fine thing. Having only a daughter, I will never, perhaps, have quite the same experience. Now that she's seven, we talk mostly of Proust. Hah! Made you look. The topics are changing, though. Yesterday, my wife had to explain the meaning of an affair to her. Karren presumed the question had been prompted by conversations with school friends, but I pointed to the Simpsons as the more likely source. Mary-Margaret has been deeply and generously immersed in them lately. We also had an interesting conversation this morning on the way back from swimming about Lil Kim and why she had to go to jail.

But back to the health; I have saved the best until last. When I last posted I was dolefully contemplating a world with little drink. "Oh no, that won't be necessary", said the cardiologist. Moderation is the trick, and moderation it shall be. Russell will be able to attest that in controlled conditions (ie the same table at Prego, yesterday, and two weeks prior, a glass or two of wine made an appreciable difference. "You were still good company", he said diplomatically yesterday, "but you did seem a bit forlorn."

I count most everyone I know as good company, and I look forward to many years of sharing a moderate glass with them. But the end comes to us all, and occasionally, we get a sharp nudge of reminder. Mine was entirely benign, and if you don't believe me, then go out and get this week's Listener and read what Matt Nippert has had to cope with lately.

I understand by intermediary email that he may be in touch to swap notes on near-death experiences of twenty-somethings. Matt, we're away on holiday for a couple of weeks, but as soon as we're back, I'll be glad to offer suggestions. How's your swimming?