Unbearable Courage of Living

By Jerry Waxler

To become more knowledgeable about living, I try to find out as much as I can about dying. This is easy information to find, because writers have so much to say on the subject. Death is such an important topic, Hemingway suggested to a young writer that he hang himself and have a friend cut him down just before he died so he would have something to write about.

Perry Foster, author of the memoir “Hands Upon My Heart: My Journey Through Heart Disease and Into Life” didn’t have to go to that extreme. Death came looking for him. Foster was an apparently healthy business man, until a cardiology exam. Then he found himself staring into the jaws of death and the only way to survive was to let masked people rip open his chest and stop his heart.

His memoir brought me face to face with the unbearable courage of living. He takes me to the waiting room, the gurney, and the operating room, and makes it easy to empathize with his predicament. While he’s a nervous wreck, so am I. He lets me feel his sweaty hands and his edgy outbursts so well it makes my skin crawl. He portrays a real flesh and blood character, not a cartoon caricature.

One of the things I learn is that when a real person is confronted by death, he doesn’t necessarily put on a happy face. Foster is afraid almost to paranoia that his care is inadequate. He accuses people of misleading him. And he is shocked that just when he thinks his situation is under control, he is back for another emergency visit to the cardiologist. His edgy reactions heighten my anxiety and while I would have intuitively thought such human frailty would have made me feel more distant, the end result is greater intimacy.

This treatment of death is so different from the way it is usually handled in fiction. In a murder mystery, for example, the victim might scream for a moment, then either expire or escape. In a war movie, bodies fly through the air, and die in droves, while the tough guy shrugs off pain. In Hands upon my heart, I linger in that state between life and death, grappling with the feelings, and trying to sort out what to do next. This is real human emotion, and I feel connected with his fear, anger, and confusion. As Natalie Goldberg would say, “this writing cuts close to the bone.”

In my desire to become a more alive human being, I can read Perry Foster’s book and learn about the project of bumping up against mortality, and coming back. And even though he didn’t claim to be tough or courageous, his experience inspires me to carry on as a person, and face the unknown.

Of course Perry Foster didn’t choose to be in this situation, and so it’s possible to dismiss his tale as simply reporting from the position of a victim. But one element of his experience did require a conscious choice. After he struggled through this painful and humiliating experience, being pushed along from doctor to doctor and feeling his life ticking away with every beat of his heart, he chose to write the story.

He didn’t have to do this. He could have kept his feelings private, and when someone said to him, “That must have been a heck of an experience” he could have just nodded, and said “Yes it was.” Instead, he undertook another arduous journey, this one of his own free will. He chose to write his story. He gained the skills, wrote the pages, and exposed his inner world to other people’s opinions.

Since I want to write about my life, I gain courage not only from his experience in the book but also his experience of the book. Within his lessons about his heart are embedded the other lessons about how one man faces the daunting task of translating his very personal life experience into a written story. And by assigning himself that task, Perry Foster has invested his own time and experience to help me learn to live a better life.

Read more about how life and death keep coming up in stories: “Life and Death in Memoir

The quote about Hemingway was taken from David Morrell’s book “Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing.” See more about Morrell’s work at http://www.davidmorrell.net

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