A Memoir of Heart Disease
Hudson Whitman/Excelsior College Press ($15)
by Renée E. D’Aoust
Illness as a sanctuary—a necessary retreat from unconscious living—is something the eminent Canadian physician Gabor Maté focuses on. When the body has had enough, it says “no.” Dr. Maté tracks reasons for illness, long before dramatic episodes present. Indeed, the signs were there for Thomas Larson, author of the graceful and engaging memoir The Sanctuary of Illness.
The signs are strongest, of course, when Larson’s first heart attack strikes. But the word “strike” is suspect; coronary disease creeps up and reveals its message. “Every year 1.1 million Americans have a heart attack. Four in five infarcts come out of nowhere; they’re asymptomatic . . . in all, one in three Americans die of cardiovascular illness, one of two adults.” Larson continues, “I’ve had no omniscient caller brand me with a condition as this disfigurement has. Such certainty of self has always eluded me—and now, bidden and not, it’s here.”
In language befitting the heart, Larson takes us into the “here,” including both the lead up and the aftermath of three heart attacks in five years. Those attacks don’t happen in a vacuum. Life continues, family members are ill, he teaches, and his buddies look at him as if they dodged the heart hardware, for now. Larson reports from the frontlines of newfound insight; he sees his friends differently, and they regard him suspiciously: “There’s something new: their collective mask—the saggy eyes, the cloister-y smiles. This has entangled you and spared us—for now.”
Coronary disease is not infectious, but in metaphoric terms it is one way to explain the high numbers of people with the disease. Like William O’Rourke’s equally compelling On Having a Heart Attack: A Medical Memoir (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), Larson’s prose makes us pay attention. Accounts of disease (especially of heart disease) are one urgent way that memoir educates about personal experience while helping readers identify changes needed in their own lives. Larson writes:
It’s then that I finally hear the all-caps phrase at the report’s end shouting at me, an emergency siren pushing through this diagnostic snowstorm: CHRONIC ISCHEMIC HEART DISEASE.
My disease is chronic. It’s here to stay—and it’s going to kill me. It’s here to kill me. Perhaps not tomorrow. But sooner not later. That’s what the no-comment techie and the nothing-to-worry-about doc were saying. By not saying it.
By “saying it,” Larson reveals the inner places he terms the “dodgy now”—a place that necessarily involves dramatic action. Larson doesn’t scream about the need for change; he’s methodical, not righteous, showing us the way while he makes his way. His partner Suzanne is there, making her way, too. They grow together, especially after she suffers her own medical emergency.
That the conscious acknowledgment of love, in addition to diet and exercise, heals the heart should come as no surprise, but Larson writes of his emotional growth without sentimentality. Larson makes clear that emotional awareness helps a damaged heart to keep beating.
I used to think our separateness defined us. The road bricking up before us is the path of partnership, as wary as I am to admit the fact: one loads and carries the other’s worry. My feelings embody hers. And she already has my worry pouring through her.