On Friday I returned to work. I had been off for five weeks, on extended sick leave. I had noticed that I was getting short of breath going up stairs, or uphill on my mail route. I got to the doctor, who ordered a stress test. After that the cardiologist ordered a heart catheterization, where two blocked arteries were found. Stents were recommended, but I had to undergo further tests to make sure, in light of some earlier health problems, that I could handle the blood thinners I would have to take with stents, and the doctor ordered me not to work until the condition was addressed.
The whole thing dragged on, which was not a bad thing at all; I was not feeling poorly, and I had been ordered to take it easy. I quickly adjusted to the routine of sleeping in (7:30 am, in my case) painting icons – I completed four- and extensive blogging as I attempted to revive and renew this site.
On February 17, after my MRI came back clean, I finally had the stent procedure. I think I had unrealistic hopes about it, as afterward I didn’t feel much different. In light of what others had told me, I expected to wake up the following morning and feel like I was 23. But I didn’t notice any big change, though I didn’t lose my breath going up the stairs.
As all good things must end, I had to return to work. I was not looking forward to this, not least because I knew that I was out of shape after so many idle weeks. Previous experience has taught me that after a two week vacation it takes about a week to get back in shape. After five weeks I expected it to be rough.
The morning of my return came all too soon. And what a morning. First, my alarm did not go off. It was set for 5:30, but by some miracle I awoke at 5:45. I came downstairs, had coffee and a bowl of cereal. Then I walked outside, where for the first time I realized that we were in the grips of a snowstorm, one of the worst of a bad season. My heart sunk; walking on snow is about twice as strenuous as walking on bare ground, and walking in shin-deep snow is at least ten times as difficult. Knowing that I was out of shape and unsure about the efficacy of the stents I began to dread the day.
I got into my car and turned the key. Nothing. The battery was dead. I did not have time to jump start it, so I took the family van.
I have a 25 mile drive to work, and about 5 miles into it the windshield wipers stopped working. So the rest of the trip I was clutching the steering wheel, peering through the glass trying to see where the road was, and praying that a semi did not pass and bury my windshield in slush, which would probably drive me off the highway to my death.
By the time I got to work my knuckles were white and my stress level was through the roof, though I noted that I did not have the chest pain I had been experiencing under lesser stresses. I told my boss about the morning and told him I was totally exhausted and asked if I could just go home. He wouldn’t let me, and in fact assigned me to carry, in addition to my route, part of another route for someone who had called in sick.
After I had finished the office part of the route it was time to hit the street, the moment I had been dreading.
I began by delivering the extra I had been given, about a 20 minute walk. About 5 minutes into this I realized that I was doing well, considering the hard work and my weakened condition. As the day progressed I realized that the stents had actually dramatically affected my energy level. I was tired at the end of the day, to be sure, but less so than I had been a month and a half earlier, carrying mail on dry ground and in relative good shape.
That was the first hopeful good thing that had occurred in the day, and it more than made up for the way it had started.
The second good and hopeful thing was that I began hearing cardinals singing. (I have written before of my love of cardinals; see http://caelumetterra.wordpress.com/2009/04/21/the-cardinals-virtue/ ).
The cardinal is the state bird of Ohio, and they are plentiful around here. They don’t migrate, but they do stop singing in mid-August, when the days are growing shorter. It is not uncommon to see them all winter, but the only sound they make is a repetitive “pip pip”.
When the cardinal sings again it is a sign that spring is not far off.
I said a couple of years ago that if Christ had become incarnate in the American Midwest that the Holy Spirit would have appeared as a cardinal instead of a dove. My reasons for saying this are many: the bright red color, so rare in nature in these northern climes, is the color of the Holy Spirit in western Christian symbology. And while green is the color of the life-giving Spirit in the East, red is the color of divinity, and in Russian the word for “red” and “beautiful” are the same. The icon corner in a home is “the red corner”. I would also note that as the cardinal mates for life he is a good exemplar of fidelity (cardinals are rarely seen except in pairs, singing to one another). Then there is the song; this is no one-note bird. Instead the cardinal sings a tuneful creative riff composed of an assortment of sounds. And finally, there is the fact that the red bird prefers high places. One of the reasons that I love late winter and early spring, before the leaves are full, is that when I hear a cardinal sing I can scan the treetops until I find him, singing his heart out in the heights, like a living tongue of fire.
At this time of the year, and throughout Great Lent, the cardinal is a harbinger of hope. Though I was shin-deep in winter, the cardinal’s song told me that the world is turning, despite what my senses said.
In this, the red bird, the beautiful bird, is again a proper sign of the Holy Spirit. We may be shin-deep with worldly cares and the burden of our sins; our senses may tell us that it is a losing battle, that there is no hope, but if we listen there is another song, coming from on high and promising deliverance and wholeness and rest to our weary souls. Our final theosis, when our spirits are one with Christ, may seem like a dream most of the time, but it is not. If we listen, and if we don’t despair, God is always singing us hope.