In this her twentieth book, Schwartz remains, as was said by Frederick Busch, “precise and unflinching.” She is a writer of captivating honesty, about herself, those around her, and the world at large. These recollections are certain to move and disturb as well as enlighten and entertain. This book affirms that Lynne Sharon Schwartz is one of the finest writers of her generation.
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You Gotta Have Heart
A pack of Vantage containing two cigarettes was in my coat pocket when I arrived at the hospital. It was a bitter morning in late December. The angiogram was scheduled for eleven o’clock, at least I had been told to be there at eleven o’clock, but it didn’t take place until three in the afternoon. I made a scene over this at hourly intervals, first arguing with the receptionist in the waiting room, then insisting on being admitted past the swinging double doors behind which others before me had disappeared, to confront whoever was in charge back there. Just because they were the authorities, the medical bureaucracy, I wasn’t going to be a meek cipher in their hands. I would begin this journey in the right spirit.
But no matter how vehemently I railed against the injustice and lack of consideration, the angiogram didn’t take place until three o’clock.
The surgeon had advised that I stay at the hospital after the angiogram, since the heart surgery would begin around six the next morning: why go home merely to get up in the middle of the night and return? This seemed sensible and I agreed. My plan was that once the angiogram was overI understood you had to lie still for an hour or so afterwardsassuming I survived, I would go out with my husband for a cup of coffee and smoke what would be my last cigarettes for quite a while. Maybe forever. Again, assuming I survived. Whenever doctors or nurses lean over my body preparing to insert something in a place not designed to be penetrated, I feel endangered. During the angiogram they would be mak-ing a hole in my groin and threading a tube straight up to my heart; it sounded like an unwieldy as well as unnatural procedure, but many before me had sur-vived it and most likely I would too.
While it was in progress, though, I had my doubts. I wasn’t completely unconscious; I had enough awareness to hear the older doctor telling the young-er onea very young doctor, his bare face sticking out of the plastic shower cap was cherubicwhat to do, how to guide the tube inside me and so on. I said, “Why so much instruction? Are you actually teaching him how to do this on me?” The older doctor laughed, ha ha. “No, of course he knows how to do it.”
I didn’t want to distract them from the lesson, and so I desisted. Also, I really wasn’t up for a dialogue; I was too entranced by the drug. I’m not sure what they gave meif I were I’d try to get a prescriptionbut it was something that leaves you half awake and aware, and yet everything happening to your body, as well as the people working on it, seems at a great remove. So close and yet so far. Something unnatural is happening to you, but it’s painless and anyway, “you” are not the same singular entity as before: there’s the body that belongs to you (who else?) and then there’s your dimmed consciousness, look-ing on from afar. A great drug, but it wears off quickly.
Instead of carrying out my plan of the cup of coffee and cigarette after-wards, I found myself being led into an elevator by an orderly, deposited on a floor and assigned a room, a rather nice private room: a luxury floor. The room had the usual hospital paraphernalia and TV protruding from the wall like a hunter’s stuffed moose head, but it also had the mildly pleasant, expectant, scentless air of a hotel room, and that was how I intended to treat it. I began get-ting out of the grotesque hospital gownwhite with little blue circles, not dots but donut-like circles, little O’s. Later I found that this garment, whose only accom-modations to the shape of the human body were enormous sleeves and a string to be tied at the neck, also came in sky-blue with no circles.
I can’t help wondering if there is some reasoneconomy, perhaps, or mere thoughtlessness?why these hospital gowns have to be quite so humiliat-ingly ugly. I know they have to be open so that the body within is fully accessible to the professionals who will handle it, but must it be ugly besides? Adding insult to injury, so to speak? Would it cost so much more to use the services of a de-signer, maybe not someone first-rate like Donna Karan or Ralph Lauren, that would be an extravagance, but some young person just starting out who’d be grateful for the work? It would be only a one-time thing.
I was reaching for my street clothes when a nurse came into the room. “What are you doing?” she asked, gazing at me and my husband, who sat in one of the pink plastic chairs.
“Getting dressed,” I said.
“You’re supposed to leave the gown on,” she said.
“My surgery isn’t until tomorrow morning and it’s not even six yet. We’re going out to get a cup of coffee.” Despite my pose of bravado, I knew enough not to mention the cigarettes.
She was no Sue Barton but a stern-looking nurse of the old school: stocky, short hair in a mannish cut, sharp voice, no nonsense. “You’re not going anywhere. This is your room. You’ll stay here until they call for you.”
“I beg your pardon,” I said. “The surgery isn’t until tomorrow, as I said. The angiogram is over. There’s nothing you need me for. I’m going out. I prom-ise I’ll return for dinner,” I said with a little chuckle, to lighten the situation. I didn’t want to make this a fight over my civil rights, or rather I didbut without being pompous, as such fights are liable to be. I tied my sneakers as I spoke.
“You don’t understand,” she said, a bit more gently, as if indeed the rules hadn’t been explained to me properly. “You are a patient.”