Today, it seems, was the day I was meant to die.
I was getting ready for work, taking a shower, when I felt a dull, metallic pain in my chest and throat, and the taste of cement on my tongue. I stepped out of the shower with a feeling of indescribable fatigue and wrapped my wet body in a bathrobe. Sanja was just about to leave the apartment to go to work, but then she caught sight of me through the open bathroom door. I told her I wasn’t feeling well, I was going back to bed for a bit, this weariness would soon pass, and she shouldn’t hesitate to go.
She stayed. Wet, my hair dripping, wrapped in the bathrobe, I stretched out on the bed. And I felt increasingly worse. She brought me cold tea, which didn’t help, and then, having no choice, she called 911. After that, she stared out at the street impatiently, looking for the ambulance. I didn’t have the energy to turn onto my other side to watch her by the window. I looked at the sofa where she had been sitting. I felt suddenly uneasy because she wasn’t where she had just been. Then I looked at the photograph on the wall above the sofa . . .
Llasa. Early morning. A young Buddhist priest in a red robe had come out through a high wooden door in the wall of a stone building, and was now walking down a narrow cobbled lane, with a wisp of morning mist in front of him – a small white cloud, like a ghost that the priest was following. I let my gaze follow the white cloud above the cobblestones in Tibet.
Behind me, Sanja said: ‘Here they are.’ Then she came back into my field of vision. She opened the door and looked down the corridor, then anxiously glanced back towards me. And then our room was filled with strangers from the emergency services, settling themselves briskly around me on the sofa. I had never experienced such an aggressive assault on my privacy. Quite uninhibited and sure of themselves, they looked around the room, glanced at me, admired the floral pattern of the coverlet I was lying on; strangers in my room. A girl in a blue uniform had just opened my bathrobe, so that I lay before them naked, and asked: ‘How old are you, sir?’
After the initial shock, there was peace.
I looked at everything around me without emotion, and so – without fear. And now that it is over, I remember the event as though I had seen it from a distance, just as though my mind had become separate from my body and had observed what was going on almost with indifference.
The shock did not come when the girl in the blue uniform said: ‘Sir, you’re having a heart attack!’
That’s when I felt calm. In films, when they are describing a critical state such as this, the picture is often left without sound, and sometimes they even make it slow motion. That is a technical evocation of the mind at work.
The mind behaves like a cold camera lens.
In my case, the shock had come at the moment when the ambulance arrived, especially when a bunch of strangers filled my room. This was something that happened to other people, not to me, and it was something I recoiled from. And here my fear of illness was expressed as fear of doctors and hospitals. I never went to hospitals, even as a visitor. And now, the girl in the blue uniform leaned over me on my sofa, and said: ‘You’re having a heart attack!’
My first thought: She’s wrong, this isn’t my heart. Then I thought: I know this girl from somewhere. I tried to remember where from, but now there were a lot of human hands above me, attaching me to wires, turning me to the left, then to the right, disturbing my train of thought. I could not remember where I had seen that girl before. Through her blue blouse, I saw the outline of her breasts, but did not recognize it in any way sexual. She was looking at me anxiously, as though accusing me of something.
And one other optical impression: the bodies of all those people around me were unnaturally big, while my body had shrunk. What was it I was feeling? Weariness. Weariness from the pressure in my chest, which was making me breathless, which had become the same as weariness with life. And I thought: So, is this it? Is this death? At that moment, in fact, I began to see everything not just as a participant, but also as an outside observer. And I thought: It’s good, just let it all pass, I’m tired, I want to close my eyes and not remember. I want it all to stop.
The years I had lived through up to now were already too much.
On the way to the hospital, lying in the ambulance, my knee crushed by the weight of an oxygen canister, I watched the passing clouds, the green traffic signals that I had noticed up to then only as a driver. Through the back door of the ambulance, after we slowed down for something, I saw a sign on the facade of a brick building with the inscription liberation books.
‘What’s the name of this street?’ I asked the girl in the blue uniform leaning over me to fix my headrest.
Was my mind turning anywhere, just to forget the pain in my chest? The young man sitting by my feet kept shifting the heavy metal canister that was lying on my legs. He shifted it so that the cold metal lay uncomfortably against the bone of my knee, and for a while that became the dominant pain in my body. That made me silently furious with the young man, who was, perhaps, scraping the oxygen canister against my knees on purpose, intending to deflect my mind away from my heart to a different problem.
Then I turned my attention to the tops of the trees lining the street. In the autumn, the leaves here take on such dazzling, sunny colours that even on a cloudy day one has the impression of a surplus of light. Was it a sunny morning? Or did the colours in the treetops give me an illusion of sun? I had always been disturbed by the thought of dying in a landscape where deciduous trees grew. There was something unconvincing, something obvious about that.
It was somehow indecent to die in the autumn.
It was kitsch to die in the autumn, along with everything else.
The ambulance stopped in front of the hospital. In the parking lot, the first image I saw from my horizontal position was this: walking between the cars towards the hospital building was a girl in the red hockey shirt of the Washington Capitals. She was looking up, towards a window, or at a cloud.
I had only ever been in this parking lot once before, when the wife of the poet F. was giving birth to their daughter. I remember that he had bought a new Toyota Camry that day, and asked me: ‘Would you like to drive it?’ ‘Sure.’ And I drove once round the parking lot. That was ten years ago. I can still remember the smell of the new car.
My oxygen mask began to mist up in the icy November air.
At the hospital entrance, I was met by a choir of smiling medical personnel. On my right, a nurse struggled to find a vein in my arm to take blood. On my left, two girls in green coats gazed and marvelled at the design of the coverlet I was wrapped in. At the same time, I caught sight of Sanja at the end of the corridor; a man (a doctor?) had just come up to her with some papers in his hand. She listened carefully to what he said and then began to cry.
The man was now leaning over me. He felt my pulse with cold fingers and asked: ‘How old are you?’
I want to go back to my apartment for a moment.
What is the answer to the question Who am I? while strangers are examining my naked body in my own room? And among them is that girl I know from somewhere. What fills me with unease and muffled shame is not the proximity of death, but the realization that my body, at this moment, is an object without emanations. My corporality is asexual.
What is more, the ease with which these strangers shift my body through space creates an impression of my own weightlessness. I am what is left over of me, my mortal remains, as I lie in my bathrobe, under which I am naked.
All I know about the body I know as a poet, and that is pretty selective, limited to those characteristics in which the body displays its abilities and strength, and not its weaknesses and shortcomings.
About the diseases of the body, I actually know nothing.
The mind draws logical conclusions on the basis of data accessible to it, and when the attack happened, while I was standing under the shower in the bathroom, I immediately connected the pain in my throat and metal taste in my mouth with an article I had read in Vanity Fair. It was an account of an attack experienced by the author (Christopher Hitchens, who was later diagnosed with cancer). In that description he says that he felt pain in his chest and neck, and felt something like ‘the slow drying of cement’ in his chest (I’m quoting this from memory, but I think those were the words he used to describe his state, which was what I was now experiencing). And when I came out of the shower, and the pain in my chest increased, I was convinced that I had cancer.
Later, the emergency services arrived, and the girl (a doctor in a blue uniform) leaned over me and said: ‘Sir, you are having a heart attack!’ And my first thought had been: No, dear. This can’t be my heart.
My mind was so firmly convinced that my symptoms were like those in the description of Hitchens’s attack that I favoured the account from his article over the official diagnosis. In any case, at one moment I thought: This is comical! I’m dying thinking about Christopher Hitchens!
It was comical: my reality, at such a crucial moment, was being explained by a columnist in Vanity Fair, who did not know I existed, and so could not know, either, that I was, perhaps, right now ceasing to exist.
‘How old are you?’
This was a dialogue that kept being repeated today.
The number of years I had lived represented important information for the doctors. I had the feeling that, in this way, for the first time – in this long life – my time was being accurately measured. This meant that today all my illusions of youth vanished. We rationalize our experience of time, but beyond the givens of the calendar, we are not conscious of it. Because ‘in spirit’ we stay the same. ‘In spirit’ I was the same person I had been in my twenties. That’s how it is, probably, with everyone; it is a characteristic of our species. That is how we protect ourselves from death. Western cultures see man in his asymmetry and disharmony, so they separate him into a body that ages, and a soul that does not age. Apart, presumably, from Dostoevsky.
Reduced to a body lying on the operating table, I communicated the whole time with my eyes and through a meagre exchange of words with various people who were working on my revival. This was a surprising number of people – those who prepared for the operation, and those who participated in it. They all struck up conversations with the dying person, and my impression was that the body (i.e. me) did not offer much information, even on the operating table. Apart from my unpronounceable name, the only piece of information about me was this coverlet with the floral pattern à la Paul Gauguin, in which I was wrapped when I came here; everyone commented on it, interested in the cultural origin of the drawing on canvas, presumably convinced that the coverlet had the same geographical origin as me.
At one point the surgeon who was operating on me, not knowing how to negotiate my complicated name, brought his face close to mine and explained, slightly alarmed, that he would have to communicate with me in the course of the operation and for that communication he would need a name to call me by. He said: ‘I’ll call you Me’med. Is that all right?’
As for the coverlet, I don’t know exactly where it came from, other than that it was some South American country. Perhaps from the same country as one of the hospital staff who took such an interest in it. In any case, these people treated my origin with great sensitivity, although they did not ask, nor, I presume, did they know where I came from. From my accent they knew only that I was foreign.
Does this mean that we all suffer from a kind of anxiety about dying in a distant, foreign country, a world where we are not at home?
This is the first time I see inside my body. On the left of the operating table there is a screen on which is projected an image of my cardiac arteries. What I see reminds me of a branching plant. One very thin, almost transparent twig had begun to grow and lengthen. Behind that growth was an unknown, delicate procedure that the doctor applied to my blocked artery, so as to break through the blockage and enable the normal flow of blood. Instantly, I felt indescribable relief. The same procedure was applied to the other artery: I watched as the branch grew before my eyes.
And that was all. The pain in my throat and pressure in my chest disappeared. The moment of liberated breathing was so refreshing that all trace of tiredness left my body. This made me want to straighten up, to get off the operating table and walk.
Full of oxygen.
The theatre unexpectedly emptied, and for a short time I was alone. I heard a buzzing but didn’t know what was making the sound. A machine?
Then the room filled up with human voices again. None of them took any notice of me. They were discussing the previous night’s episode of a television series.
And they were laughing.
One girl, an African American, leaned over me and asked: ‘Would you like me to bring some water?’ A Latino lad came after her and, as though it were part of an ongoing conversation with her, said: ‘You must!’
I said: ‘Yes, please.’
And she answered him: ‘I can’t. I won’t!’
Someone else in the room was describing how he had spent half an hour that morning stuck in a lift. Finally the person responsible for the lift had appeared, and when they had freed him, he felt, he said, ‘like a Chilean miner who had just been brought out of the earth into the sun’.
I drank water out of a plastic cup. And I couldn’t remember when I was last that aware of the taste of ordinary, sweet water.
From the operating theatre, lying on a narrow trolley, I went by lift to the ward. I was accompanied by two young people in hospital coats who didn’t seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere; they were talking, laughing, and easily forgot my presence. They could have been lovers. Beside them, I felt my primary characteristics returning to my body. When we entered the lift, it turned out that my height in a horizontal position was such that they had trouble fitting me into the moving box of the lift. And when the doors closed, I could feel them rubbing against my feet as we moved.
All the people I meet today disappear. They vanish without my having a chance to say goodbye. These two young lovers who had been chirruping and laughing in the lift, as they took me from the lower to the upper floors, they too went away without my noticing the moment of their departure.
In my ward, a new nurse settled me in the bed and said: ‘Lovely coverlet.’
I said I had brought it from home. She explained that I could by all means keep it here as well. Maybe she believed I had a childish emotional attachment to that rug.
Then I called Sanja, who had got lost somewhere in the depressing architecture of the hospital corridors.
If a line is drawn under Tuesday, the 2nd of November, 2010, this is what happened to me:
As I was getting ready to go to work, I had a heart attack.
I was in the shower when I felt a dull, metallic pressure in my chest and throat, and when, soon afterwards, the ambulance arrived, the girl who examined me said, bluntly and without beating about the bush: ‘You’re having a heart attack.’ Under an oxygen mask, I watched Sanja on the sofa opposite the bed where I was lying surrounded by strangers. Her face was contorted with fear. They hurried to take me away, wrapped in the cover on which I was lying; they took me to hospital, and then I had an operation. And after they had installed stents in my blocked arteries, I was settled into a hospital ward. It all took a little more than three hours, but during that time my world was fundamentally altered.
After the operation, the doctor looked for Sanja, but she was not in the waiting room. When they had put me into the ward, I called her on her mobile. She answered, she was on her way. She came into the room, pale as pale, her face swollen with crying. That face expressed uncontrolled joy and an absolute sadness that had overwhelmed her. Something in her was broken. She had an irresistible urge to hug me, but didn’t dare for fear that an embrace might hurt. I asked her to sit on the bed, beside me.
‘Where were you?’
‘Outside the hospital.’
‘It’s cold outside, and you’re dressed like that . . .’ I’d only just noticed that – in her haste – she had just put a little jumper on over her T-shirt.
‘I didn’t dare wait.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I was afraid the doctor was going to come and tell me . . .’
‘Tell you what?’
‘. . . that you’d died.’
‘It hadn’t quite come to that.’
‘When I was giving them permission to operate, they asked – did I want them to fetch a priest?’
‘What did you say?’
‘I said there was no need for that, and that you weren’t going to die.’
‘You didn’t tell them that a priest couldn’t reconcile me to God . . .’
‘You should have!’ I said, joking.
She pretended to be cross (people were dying here and he was having a laugh!), then she slapped me gently with her open hand on my chest, then at the same instant remembered my heart and shuddered, she could have hurt me oh oh oh, she waved her hands in the air over me ohohohooo. Then we laughed.
I remember the rest of the day quite clearly as well.
When I was left alone in the ward, this is what I thought about:
Of course I had been thinking and all these years I had been developing my attitude towards my death, but I did not expect that it could come as a consequence of my heart stopping. All my other organs could stop functioning, but the heart was out of the question. It was here, I thought, to beat for me, just as long as I needed it.
I called my son Harun. He was now in St Louis. At the airport.
‘How long is it till your flight?’
At midnight on 31 January 1996, on our way from Zagreb to Phoenix, Arizona, on our émigré journey to America, we had been at St Louis Airport.
We were changing planes.
I remember rows of grey leather seats in the waiting room, and midnight travellers with Stetsons. In those days there were ashtrays on high stands beside the seats, and the stale air reeked of Jack Daniel’s. There wouldn’t be any ashtrays there any more. And now, as I chatted to him, I remembered a photograph from that journey. It was of him asleep, his head resting on his arms on a table in the airport cafe. He was thirteen then. I was thirty-five. He’s twenty-eight now. Almost as old as I was that midnight, when we were wearily waiting for the plane to Phoenix. How long ago was that? Fifteen years.
‘I’m sorry, son.’
‘That you’ve got such a long wait.’
‘You’re comforting me, as though I was the one who’d had his heart stitched up!’
That textile image ‘stitched up’ surprised me. As I thought about it, language became the only reality. I felt that every physical touch was freed of pain, and that was a nice illusion.
I’m really well, I feel cheerful and it’s easy to forget I’ve had my heart ‘stitched up’.
Other than a dull ache in the vein they opened in my groin: in that soft area between my genitals and my thigh.
When I was lying on the operating table, at a certain moment I became conscious of that, that they were shaving my groin; a cold and quite disagreeable touch. At the time I didn’t know why they were doing that. If my problem is my heart, I thought, why are they shaving my private parts?
A cold razor blade scraping over my skin.
And the image of a man condemned to death, being prepared in the morning for the electric chair, came suddenly to my mind.
And then this. Today Sanja said that was it. No more cigarettes.
‘If you want to go on living,’ she said, ‘you have to stop.’
And it was high time.
‘There’s a Bosnian, a doctor in Kentucky. I heard this story today. He had a heart attack, just like you, and while he was still in hospital, he asked his wife to park the car behind the hospital building. Then he’d go out, hide in the car and smoke a cigarette. Imagine! A doctor. His unfortunate wife refused to bring cigarettes, and she told his doctor colleagues about it.’
In America everything is geared to stopping you smoking. Of all the nations on the planet, they are the most resistant to the tobacco habit.
Nevertheless, one of the finest sentences about the cigarette and dependence on it was written by an American, Laird Hunt:
When you smoke, other people come up to you and ask for a light.
The next day.
I thought about how the news of her son’s heart attack could affect my mother in Bosnia. In order to pre-empt any possible pain, I called her and explained that a rumour that I had had a heart attack was likely to spread through the Bosnian part of the world. I was calling, I said, so that my voice and cheerfulness would reassure her that this was not the case. She listened to me attentively, then there was a short pause before she asked: ‘So, how are you, otherwise?’
I clearly recognized her anxiety in that otherwise.
‘Of all possible diseases, they hit on a heart attack,’ she said. ‘The Mehmedinovićes don’t have them. No one in our family either on your father’s side or on mine has ever had a problem with their heart.’
So, that meant I was the first. Genetic degeneration had to start with someone; or else I – like all my relations – started out with the same heart, only I had carelessly filled mine with stuff that exceeded its capacity.
And when the call was over, I remembered a line of verse that I had last thought about perhaps in the late 1970s. It wasn’t remotely worthy, metaphysical poetry, but a rudimentary line by the forgotten Bosnian poet Vladimir Nastić that went:
I nearly swooned, Mother, like you, giving birth to me.
Sanja came this morning before eight o’clock. On her way to the ward, she had bought me a decaf in the hospital canteen. The decaf was sweetened with artificial sweetener.
It wasn’t coffee, it wasn’t sugar, nor was I myself.
And she said: ‘You’re looking well!’
I nodded affirmatively. Clearly I looked well, tied to the bed with all these cables so that I couldn’t move, or sit up, or get out of bed and walk around the room. But that didn’t bother me. I drank the coffee with great pleasure, just as though it was real coffee, with natural white sugar.
This morning a new nurse came. She said that it would be good for me to move, to walk around the room. I instantly dug myself out of bed, still plugged into hundreds of wires and with needles in my veins.
In the bathroom, Sanja carefully washed my whole body with a wet cloth.
Then I walked around the room. It was good to be walking again. This was what the experience of one’s first step was like. I was walking!
But afterwards, I was sitting in my chair and suddenly straightened up, and at that moment I felt something burst in my right groin (where they had shaved my private parts the day before with a razor). At the same moment I saw a swelling appear. I pressed the button on my bed to call the nurse, who came quickly, and looked at the swelling with interest. She measured my penis, which was lying over the swelling, against the outside edge of her hand. She was concerned. She measured the pulse in my feet and hurried out of the room to find the duty doctor.
Very soon, instead of her or the doctor, a young man appeared, a technician with a strange plastic object. In the centre of the square object there was a half ball, which he pressed onto the swelling. The ends of the surface into which the ball was set had holes with a paper string drawn through them. He tied the string round my waist. But he moved slowly, all the time reading the instructions for installing this plastic object whose purpose was, presumably, to read impulses, or messages sent by the swelling near my genitals.
And it wasn’t working.
He gave up.
He laid the plastic object down on the bedside cabinet, and left.
Was I now supposed to act like someone ill?
I didn’t want to.
In Chekhov’s diaries there is a short note, a sketch for a story, about a man who went to the doctor, who examined him and discovered a weakness in his heart.
After that the man changed the way he lived, took medicines and talked obsessively about his weakness; the whole town knew about his heart, and all the town’s doctors (whom he consulted regularly) talked about his illness. He did not marry, he stopped drinking, he always walked slowly and breathed with difficulty.
Eleven years later, he travelled to Moscow and went to see a cardiologist. That was how it emerged that his heart was, in fact, in excellent shape. To begin with, he was overjoyed at his health. But it quickly turned out that he was unable to return to a normal way of life, as he was completely adapted to his rhythm of going to bed early, walking slowly and breathing with difficulty.
What is more, the world became quite boring for him, now that he could no longer talk about his illness.