Heartfelt issues: Straining under load

Last summer I wrote a column about First-World problems and a bumblebee. Well, really it was about an engine that would struggle under load, making a sound not unlike a person choking to death. I dared not throttle up when that happened; hence, I ran most of the summer under low rpm, afraid of something deathly happening if I didn’t pull back on the throttle at the first sign of choking. Oh, and as for the bumblebee; it’s a long story. Suffice to say, I saved the bumblebee’s life. I also finally solved the engine problem. The old Yanmar now enjoys full rpm, working fine under load. As I look back on the problem, I can trace it to lack of proper maintenance on my part. It had been 15 years since I’d gotten around to changing the mixing elbow on the exhaust.

Fast-forward to a few months ago. I found myself losing ability to work under full load. Hills were a challenge when walking. Arms and throat ached. Had to “throttle back.” Poor maintenance was again the cause. Too much chocolate and ice cream over too many years. I needed a quintuple by-pass, something analogous to, but a tad more complex than, an exhaust elbow replacement.

So it was off to the hospital. The night before the operation my wife and I stayed at a hotel next door, since my surgery was to begin at 5:30 a.m. I think my dear wife may have slept a bit. Not me. I lay there and stared at the ceiling. Was I scared? No. I’d had a good run already, I figured. I’d written down millions of words over the years of that run. Words about life around me and life in my head. This was another adventure to write about. And so that night, in my head, I wrote this story:

Arthur J. Moriarty was a man heavily on the “flight” side of the spectrum of the “fight or flight” response. Ever since his first polio shot as a seven year old, he’d held a hidden terror of anything to do with a needle or knife. The night of his open-heart surgery he lay there in his hotel, absolutely terrified, staring at the ceiling. Earlier that day, his wife had had him listen on his headphones to a cd on preparing for surgery, which was designed to take his mind to a specific place of peace and tranquility in his life and stay there, away from the reality of surgery and fear. So he’d thought of his favorite cove on the Maine coast. But that night before surgery, while his wife slept, his terror returned. That’s when flight beat fight. Slowly, quietly, he arose, dressed, grabbed his wallet, car keys and cell phone, tiptoed past his wife, and left the hotel.

It was 2:30 a.m. He drove north on I-95, his phone off and his mind fixed on his Maine cove, as if somehow that would be his escape. First light came as he wound through smaller and smaller secondary roads, past tidal inlets, and the familiar smell of pines and the sea. When he got to the cove he stopped, got out, and sat on the shore. There was a pretty wooden sloop at anchor. One not unlike his own. He wondered if the owners were aboard, still sleeping or beginning to arise from a blissful night. A light breeze came with dawn, and the smell of coffee and bacon overcame the cove’s natural scent. He knew it came from the small coffee shop by the wharf around the bend. For he’d been there before. And he wanted to be there again. He drove over, placing his sedan’s Massachusetts plates amidst the Maine-plated pickups, and went inside.

There was a dwindling crowd of lobstermen at the booths and counter, many finishing up, starting to head out to haul traps. He sat in a booth by the window that partly overlooked the wharf and the stools at the counter. Behind the counter were small pictures of individuals in a hodgepodge of frames on the wall. The waitress, an energetic woman in her 50’s, came over and poured him coffee without asking. Then she gave him a second glance. It was clear he didn’t fit in with the clientele, but that never occurred to him. Just coffee is fine, he said, as she handed him the menu. She looked at him. He was pale, blank, wooden, and she was concerned. For she was a good person, a caring person. The place thinned out to almost no one, as he continued to stare out the window.

“You from away?” she asked finally, as she topped up his coffee.

“Yes,” was all he said.

“You need anything? Anything at all?”

He shook his head.

A little later, when the place was nearly empty, she came and sat down at his booth.

“Look, none of my damned business, but glad to talk if you want.”

He knew he had to deflect his reason for being there, so he looked up and asked, “Who are those folks on the wall?”

She smiled. “Beloved past customers,” she said, looking over her shoulder at the pictures.

He looked back at her. Saw two moist eyes. “Actually, one is my dad, “ she said.


She shook her head and wiped her nose. “Stubborn, stubborn, stubborn man. Heart attack. All the signs were there. My kids worshipped him. I worshipped him. Just didn’t have to happen.”

Time stood still. He stared at her, and like the new dawn coming into the easterly window, fight began to eclipse flight.

“I’m supposed to be in Boston in heart surgery right now,” he blurted.

She glared at him, then turned and pointed at her father on the wall. “He ran, too, you know. Out on his damned boat when he knew better. And now look.” She shook her head. “No, Mister, if you don’t do this, everybody loses.”

As he turned on his phone while heading to his car, going back to face what he now knew he had to face, an alarm went off.

It was mine in the hotel room. Time to go to my surgery.

And that I did.

And here I am.

Dave Roper’s novel, “Rounding the Bend: The Life and Times of Big Red,” was released last June and is available from Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.