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The day after he had performed quadruple bypass surgery on my heart, Dr. James Miller said it was his experience that “a lot more than plumbing happens when I do one of these.” Something deeper often goes on, what he termed “a life altering” experience.

I had the good fortune to have a surgeon who took elaborate amounts of time for conversations that wandered over a broad landscape, often far from the immediate matters at hand. We talked religion and history, families and philosophy, politics and even a little golf.

During one of those conversations we were talking about how such an event simultaneously shrinks one’s entire universe to, say, the 6-inch space between the edge of the bed and the chair that is that morning’s goal, yet expands that universe to thoughts well beyond the mundane, beyond what one perceives as the most pressing issues of the day. The world shrinks to the size of the chamber that holds that mysterious muscle that in turn holds the secret to the leap from now to an instant from now; yet the mind, and, dare I say, the heart, are opened to new ways of imagining our common humanity and to the ache of the barriers we put up between us. Intriguing paradoxes that I would have some time to ponder in the weeks ahead kept bumping to the surface of things.

I have been lucky. I’ve never had a heart attack, although six years ago I had angioplasty, and my heart has not been damaged. After the surgery last month, I was told, “This should take you far down the road.” Recovery was surprisingly quick. So I came to view my time away from work and the regular routines as a kind of forced retreat. I was glad for the time, because something deeper than plumbing had happened.

Something deeper, in fact, had begun before the surgery when friends began sending messages of concern and promises of prayers, and afterwards when so many of you sent notes and cards that certainly eased the healing.

A few nights before I went into the hospital, my wife, Sally, gathered some friends for a bit of prayer, and a priest friend came and anointed me. I was apprehensive, but a sense of being supported by prayer -- a sense that I might have spoken about before but understood now in a vital, new way -- brought a certain calm.

The mornings post-surgery were at first a bit awkward, as time seemed to spread out before me like a spill on linoleum. I defined that time at first mostly by what I did not have to do: immediately get the headlines, jump into The New York Times, check the op-ed pages of several papers; look at e-mail; write an Inside NCR column; write an editorial; check on the progress of the lead story and this week’s front page; attend meetings, return phone calls; grab a plane, read the latest batch of sex abuse stories. (I was excused from all that, thanks to wonderful colleagues, led by Managing Editor Patricia Morrison.)

But not doing things did not give the day any form or shape. I was nudged toward prayer and found great help in the work of Fr. Ed Hayes, a local treasure but known far beyond for his distinguished work in the area with such books as Prayers for the Domestic Church, and Pray All Ways.

One of his prayers, for Monday morning, contains lines that will remain special to me for a long, long time:

This day will hold much for me,
And so that I may not miss its hidden message,
Your living word to me,
I now enter the cave of my heart
And, there, pray to You in stillness.
Quiet of body and peaceful of spirit,
I rest in you.

The issue of time would press in on me in a way it never has before. One of the life-altering aspects of the surgery was smacking head-on into the realization of what’s important: the next heartbeat, the next breath, family, friends, essential beliefs, work that is meaningful and fulfilling. The rest is pretty much gravy.

How, then, to fill the time? Better yet, how not to waste it?

The night I came home I was under the lingering effects of anesthesia and the very active effects of pain medication. I was dozing in and out of a light sleep but woke up at one point to catch a segment of Bill Moyers’ “NOW,” which my wife and son James were watching. Moyers was interviewing poet Naomi Shihab Nye, and he took out of his wallet a small reproduction of one of her works, “The Art of Disappearing,” that he said was important to him in his recuperation from open-heart surgery some years ago. Ms. Nye read the poem on the show. The next day my wife went out and purchased a collection, Words Under the Words, containing the poem. I share it here with the permission of the publisher, Far Corner Books of Portland, Ore:

When they say Don’t I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.

Then decide what to do with your time.

It is very good to be back in the newsroom.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002