Nature in us is a “riddling distemper,” writes John Donne. “We study health, and we deliberate upon our meats, and drink, and air, and exercises, and we hew and we polish every stone that goes to that building; and so our health is a long and a regular work: but in a minute a cannon batters all.” I read these words, from Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, while sitting in my younger brother’s book-lined home office near Atlanta, earlier this month. I had flown out from San Francisco on the emergent occasion of his heart attack at age thirty-eight.
All his life my brother excelled at everything he set himself to. It was no great surprise, perhaps, that he would take up the family curse with zeal. Grandpa had waited till fifty for his first heart attack. Dad had waited till forty-nine. My brother’s first was no small affair but, being young, and with the aid of a well-positioned stent, he was soon home again with his wife and two girls. Now we sat together in his office, my brother working at the computer, myself leafing through his books, for all the world as if nothing untoward had happened.
The surreality of my few days in Georgia was not softened by the shock of summer greenery or the alien chirr of the cicadas at night or the unfamiliar birds diving between the boughs. Five hours of flight over lofty sierras, desert moonscapes, and among the towering thunderheads that march above the humid South had proven, if there were any doubt, that it was all one continent. But in its outward details it could hardly feel more different from July in coastal California.
The world that we carry within us may also become suddenly strange. “Is this the honor which man hath by being a little world,” asks Donne, “that he hath these earthquakes in himself, sudden shakings; these lightnings, sudden flashings; these thunders, sudden noises; these eclipses, sudden offuscations [sic] and darkening of his senses; these blazing stars, sudden fiery exhalations; these rivers of blood, sudden red waters?”
I find it hard to believe in a heart attack at age thirty-eight. And yet it happened. My turn will probably come. The cardiologists say that given our genetic history a vegan diet is the best bet. But, cosmically speaking, all prevention is temporary. Everything happens eventually. I can’t help feeling that our true predicament is one of metaphor rather than medicine, that all sickness is somehow spiritual. I understand how plaque ruptures occur. I know what myocardial infarction means. I brush these things aside and persist in asking, “but what is wrong with our heart?”