Michael Tangier is fluent in 5 languages. But the other day the usually tough-talking, street-wise merchant with a soft underbelly, could hardly articulate a word. Not in his native Spanish. Nor French. Nor English. Nor Hebrew. Nor the Arabic he still remembers more than he has forgotten.
He was choked up. Struggling with his composure. One moment he was in despair. The other in merciful gratefulness to be alive. Neither is a way a man wishes to be seen — so vulnerable. A raw weakness has been exposed.
It was this confluence of relief and grief that beamed a spotlight on one glaring, indisputable fact: Someone had to die for Michael Tangier to live.
As my dear ol’ bourbon sippin’ Pappy used to exhale daily between omnipotent puffs on that omniscient corn cob pipe: “No matter what price you pay…life don’t come cheap.”
Mike was seated on a stool behind the counter in his phone and electronics store in the heart of Philadelphia’s Ninth Street. He dabbed at his wet, dark Spanish eyes that were born an hour north of the Moroccan and Tunisian borders 59 years ago – eyes that have witnessed some of the darkest and brightest moments of the world’s stage.
The point in our desultory banter where Mike foundered was when he meandered over his emergency heart transplant a few weeks back. He said he didn’t know who is donor was ….. at least not yet. And he couldn’t fathom whether he would make the effort to find out. He isn’t quite sure whether he wants to or not.
“He was a man. A person. He had family and friends. I know I shouldn’t feel this way. But you can’t help it. Someone had to die for me to live. You don’t want to think about those things. In that way. But you do.”
“Just be glad he had a heart,” I said to Mike with my usual irony. And in a lighter mood, added: “The bad news is you might have been stuck with an artificial one. And, in case you haven’t heard: my ex-wife has volunteered to be the first artificial heart donor.”
Hmmm….You mean she had any heart at all?
Obviously, for a period of time, Michael thought he had bought the farm. For anyone who has gone through such similar trauma we know that it’s a naked, unguarded psycho-wreck speeding down the autobahn.
There is no where to park them — the feelings colliding like bumper cars. Nowhere to hide them. There is no possibility to bluff. Beyond your cognitive capabilities, you have surrendered – although desperately, at first — to what seems inevitable.
Oh, the docs may be able to do something. Then again, they may not. Only hope keeps dragging your carcass, for hope is always the last son-of-a-gun to die.
But there are no guarantees. If you get a quadruple bypass, like me, how much can you expect? If you get a transplant like Mike, how long, before the donor’s heart may be pre-designated to expire, or your body finally wins over the rejection process.
And will you go thru it all again? Will you be able to repeat the agony? Will there be a matching donor?
Right now, Mike, whose father and uncles suffered similar heart diseases, is happily in the process of sitting on the stool behind his store counter waiting on customers. But it is far from over. In one way life is beginning again. But beginning to do what?
Perhaps beginning to be understood better – whatever there is to understand about life – particularly his life.
As Mike is well aware emotionally and psychologically, he is damn lucky. But the fact is, everything and everybody can’t be like Mike. That is, they can’t be fixed – even in a country like America. Yet most of us refuse to accept that some people are simply going to die, and others are going to die not so simply.
I had a younger brother who died from similar congenital heart and lung defects that have pursued my younger son on a torturous march of fatal afflictions. They have killed pieces of me, as much as he.
We seem to refuse to accept that we are dying from the day we are born – and that some of us do it more quickly than others. I guess what really bothers a lot of folks, in hindsight reflections, is not so much that their life will end, it’s that it never really began. They thought it was a spectator sport.
When death is rapping on your door, most folks suddenly get to thinking about their life. Better late than never. Or, is it better never late. In truth, nothing focuses the mind like a good hanging. But our memories are short. And our attention spans are that of a fruit fly.
Mike convulsed at the thought that someone had to die so that he could live. No doubt from an accident. Or a disease that left his heart intact. A man who undoubtedly may have left behind family, siblings and friends.
We understand what has happened. Just as a majority of us recognize how many hundreds of millions of cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens have to be killed each year so that we can live. But we don’t really want to think about that.
The point of our many wars is to kill more of the bad guys than they kill of us, so we good guys can live our faltering American dream. But we really don’t want to think about that, either.
And even capital punishment, as heinous and flawed as many think it is, it does enable – by killing a few – the vast majority of us to live the way we want.
But we don’t want to think about that and those things either. So we lose ourselves in distractions. Like silly TV sit-coms and meaningless sports championships that are repeated ad nausea annually.
It’s when matters get personal, just like politics. Then we get to pondering intensely.
Like when Mike’s heart was functioning at barely 3 percent… and diving like a Navy sub to escape depth charges.
He has seen life that was far from any version of what Walt Disney presents. He had revered life. But now he was riveted. “My heart was functioning by a thread,” he said from under those big moist eyes. “How was I living?”
He wasn’t. Like the rest of us, he was on borrowed time. But he found out that his Zen clock had skipped a few years. Most of us don’t get the memo.
And, like all humans, we don’t appreciate what we’ve got until it is jeopardized. Actually not until it is gone. Because we still think a messiah will come and miraculously rescue us.
So, for the most part, so many do so little to save ourselves. We enter the realm of denial. It will never happen to us, we think, no matter what our personal history. Or genetics. Or that a furniture truck is barreling through a red light.
What Mike and I put together after our afternoon chat was our hands. We applauded one another and those who gave us back our lives. We’re alive because committed doctors and scientists and engineers practically kill themselves working and examining the possibilities so that we could live.
Sometimes in this process a few folks die.
Unfortunately, we take it all for granted. Like it’s part and parcel of some entitlement package.
Life is a series of symbiotic relationships. And in some form or fashion we must all do our part. Like I’ve said in previous essays, it’s like salsa dancing: someone’s gotta lead; someone’s gotta do it backwards, and someone’s gotta give it up for g-d and country. It’s just that most of us don’t know what part we are to play.
Except, perhaps Mike. As a group of Latinos and Hispanics paraded thru his store he answered their many questions in near perfect Spanish. He speaks French to some customers. Arabic to a few.
If he didn’t know who he was, before, he knows it now. And he appreciates the opportunity to share his dance of exaltation even more.
“Things even taste better now,” he said, wiping a tear. “Things feel more intense. I can smell things I couldn’t smell before. What I hear every day, what I see every day is for the first time. I was dead, technically dead, for a while during that operation. Maybe even for years before. But now I am alive. Really alive.”
Even if being alive ain’t always easy…..we can always be like Mike.
And dats yDrewIS on DIS penal colony.