The man with five stents thought my skirmish with death was nothing to brag about
Michael Harding: He had five stents to my one but you wouldn’t catch him making a gobshite of himself by talking about it on the radio
I told the man about my stent. “Sure that’s not news,” he said. Photograph: iStock
It’s hard to keep up the exercise, now that I’m finished with the rehabilitation course. The coronary rehab classes were a great help. I went regularly to the gym, where I stretched on rowing machines, and rode bicycles stuck to the ground, and walked on treadmills and contraptions that manipulated my arms and feet, as if I was walking through snow on huge skis.
But since the course ended I’ve been wondering what comes next. And I’m terrified that I might fall back onto the sofa and sit through another 10 thousand hours of television and then I’d end up having another heart attack. And I don’t want that.
So I headed for Donegal in the campervan. My plan was to do a lot of walking along the beaches. But it rained all weekend and I was stuck driving around in circles in the van and the steering wheel was so heavy that I strained myself going round the sharp corners near Gweebarra Bay and pulled a muscle in my back.
That’s when I decided to join another leisure centre. A good leisure centre is a mighty way of keeping fit, and besides the exercise, I always meet fascinating people in the sauna.
After the weekend in Donegal I was in a local radio station to do an interview. I sat in a little waiting room inside the door, beside a man my own age who was reading a newspaper. He was wearing white runners, blue jeans and a black plastic jacket. But he didn’t seem quite present, not even to himself.
“What are you here to talk about?” he wondered.
“Stents,” I said. “I have a stent in my left artery.”
“Sure that’s not news,” he said. “I have five of them,” as if my little skirmish with death was nothing to be bragging about.
“And what are you going to talk about?” I wondered.
“Nothing,” he said. “You wouldn’t catch me on the radio making a gobshite of myself. I’m only waiting for the daughter. She’s a singer.”
As he spoke, I became aware of a young woman’s voice on the speakers, and realised she was live on air.
“She sounds great,” I said.
But he just winced, as if he wasn’t entirely sure about her talent.
“Once the heart goes dodgy,” he declared, “you’re finished. And it’s a terrible shock when it happens. Pain spreading across your chest, like hardening cement.”
I was beginning to think he should be going on air rather than me.
“You were lucky that they got to you in time,” he said; as if he himself felt unlucky, or as if he was in pain but didn’t quite understand what the problem was.
So much remorse
In fact there was so much remorse in him that I was glad when his daughter finished singing and emerged from the studio and took him away.
“That was grand,” he said, half-heartedly, as they went out the door. I heard him ask her did she want breakfast on the way home and I imagined her sucking a latte, and him lashing into a big plate of rashers and sausages in some all-day breakfast joint as he declared to the waitress that he had five stents.
That afternoon, I was in The Dock in Carrick-on-Shannon to hear the painter Patrick Hall in conversation with another artist, Isabel Nolan.
It was a public event, held in the theatre space, and the audience was absorbed by Patrick’s reflections on life.
“I paint,” he said, “because it is my way of being human. The physicality of painting connects me to other people.”
And he spoke too about the need to laugh.
“Laughter is the most important thing in life,” he said with the understated authority of someone who has been through fire.
When he was leaving, he walked slowly, with the aid of a walking stick, as humble as a monk who has delivered a profound teaching.
I went upstairs to the gallery and looked at his paintings; landscapes, imbued with a haunting presence of otherness.
And later I saw him sitting with friends in the foyer. There was a stillness in his face; a complete attention to others, that I suspect is the key to his greatness as a painter. And I was thinking of the singer in the radio station and I couldn’t help wondering what kind of a painting her wounded father might become, if Patrick Hall laid his eyes on him for a few days, or if someone just put their arms around him for a few minutes.