On Friday, 8 February 2019, I checked into the John C. Lincoln hospital in North Phoenix for an angiogram—a one-day medical procedure that would determine treatment for heart disease. Ten minutes into the procedure, the hospital staff attending my cardiologist began to shut down equipment and put away medical instruments.
From here on, I do not know if I write about events that actually happened or from my memory of those events; I only affirm that what I write is true to my memory of what happened—except for the scars.
When the attending nurses won’t talk to you, and the single answer to your queries is always that the doctor will be here soon, you get concerned. Even worse is when they tell you the doctor is talking to your wife, and that conversation takes an endless amount of time.
The cardiologist comes in and says you’re going to have to stay in the hospital. You have calcification in your arteries and you need open-heart surgery. I am especially concerned about this one, he says pointing to a blurry shape in a black and white, printed copy of a photo, which I cannot decipher (later on, in cardiac rehabilitation, I would learn that he was pointing to an artery that is familiarly called “the widow-maker”).
I have journeyed with the Satan down many paths, walked with him and changed directions as required. There is always astonishment when he strikes; above all, there is chaos and confusion. It took Saint Paul three days and a special messenger sent to him by God before he acknowledged his new destiny (Acts 9: 1-22); it took Saint Ignatius a holy convalescence from soldier’s wounds at Manresa before he accepted new passages revealed. If the road heralded by the Satan looks like a Calvary, one is overcome by a tenacious denial, which eventually will look ridiculous in the full bloom of the seeds of time. 
Why do I need to stay in the hospital? I didn’t have a heart attack or chest pains, no symptoms at all. I exercise, eat the right foods and quit smoking. Can we schedule this for the summer? (The doctor looks at me as if I’m nuts.) While you’re in the hospital, you have priority, he says; if you leave now, they’ll place you at the end of the queue.
Can we do it on spring break when I am free?
Pal, if you leave now, you may not make it to the end of the week.
I fall into a brooding silence. The doctor leaves and an African-American medical assistant speaks to me, as he coils an electrical cord: “We do these all the time here (he meant open-heart, “cabbage” surgeries). When it’s done you’ll have a new heart.” This was the beginning of a rhetorical discovery regarding medical personnel at John C. Lincoln: 1) the men spoke to me in words that I could recognize and which gave me strength; 2) the women aimed to comfort and sympathize with me.
For example, when the cardiologist leaves to schedule the surgery my wife Margarita enters the room to let me know that she has talked to our youngest daughter Jimena, who is on her way to the hospital, and who has alerted our oldest daughter Sara about the situation. I receive this news with grim displeasure. The more people who know about my situation, the more difficult will it be to find an exit strategy to leave the hospital. Why did you tell her? Then the nurse interjects delicately: “You know, she’s going to need (meaning Margarita) a support network of her own throughout this.” I am disarmed; at that moment, I begin to suspect what I confirmed only later—that I am surrounded by a brilliant, dedicated nursing staff.
Word arrives that my triple bypass surgery is scheduled for Monday, and they move me to a “holding” room in one of the hospital wings. Sara and Jimena arrive with news that they have alerted Manuel—our son who lives in New Jersey and works in Wall Street—and he’ll be flying in this weekend. I’m glad he will be here, but he doesn’t need to do this! To which my daughters reply in unison: yes he does, he wants to do it! I fear this as another weight in the balance of my destiny—it would be unseemly to have our son come all the way from New York if I leave the hospital before he gets here.
The phone rings in the room and Jimena, who is the family communicator, answers. That was Dr. Tahan, she said she will visit tomorrow. Dr. Peters (cardiologist) wants her to talk to you because he is afraid you will “make a run for it.” This is an ominous development. Dr. Yarden Tahan is my primary physician. She is not only a brilliant young doctor, but also a true healer—an old time curandera who could have thrived (probably did) among the classic Maya of the Yucatán peninsula; a medicine woman who would be revered among the Navajo. I find it very difficult not to follow her medical advice. Even so, I´m not convinced this has to do with the Satan, except for the jolt of the surprise.
Dr. Tahan visits with her son, a well-behaved young man who enters bearing sweets for me as a gift. She has the highest respect and confidence in Dr. Peters, she says; if I had had a heart attack I would be saying “do whatever to me!” and I’m lucky they caught this in time. Your surgeon has the highest recommendations; I also asked my mother, said Dr. Tahan, who was a physical therapist in this hospital, and she said Dr. Riley is an “exceptional” surgeon. I hear yet another nail go into lid of the coffin of my disposition, and make one more concession: I owe it to everyone to hear what the surgeon has to say when he visits tomorrow. I’ll listen, then I’ll make a decision.
Manuel arrives later in the day. I’m glad you came, but you didn’t have to. Without words, he speaks to me: “You know I had to come. I’m here now.”
Sunday night Dr. Robert Riley enters the room with a personable manner and wearing a leather jacket. I have only one question for him: how painful will the surgery be? It’s not as bad as you imagine, he answers. I don’t know doctor, I stop myself from saying, I can imagine a lot!
I did not notice that all three of my children stayed past visiting hours to be there for the surgeon’s visit. All three are leaning against the wall to the right, listening intently. They ask all the pertinent questions I should have asked: How long will it take? 3 hours. When will it happen? Between 2 and 3PM tomorrow. How long will he be in the hospital? 3-7 days. When can he return to work? 3-6 weeks. Will you also repair the calcified arteries? No, think of city streets with traffic jams; we avoid them with healthy veins that bypass the blood to the heart.
The conversation begins to fade away. Surrounding the figures of my son and daughters, I see a light like the “light from heaven” that shone around Saul on the way to Damascus. Perhaps it was simply an illumination from three fiery swords wielded by three Archangels standing next to my sick bed, speaking with a voice like the voice heard by Saul: “We stand guard. What are you thinking?” (KJV, Acts: 3-4)
By this time, I know I’m licked. There will neither be escape from the hospital nor avoidance of the oncoming surgery. Even if I were willing to confront my adult children, I am not strong enough to defeat them. Their transfiguration in my mind into Archangels is proof that the Satan is at work, for the Satan not only strikes a blow, but also guides and illuminates the way. All the time he has been walking by my side, and I did not want to see him.
Then the wait for the surgery. I wait in abstinence. Occasionally, waves of anxiety dash my spirit, and I find relief only when I hold the hand of my wife of 43 years. With Margarita by my side, I recall lines from a Leonard Cohen song:
Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in
I remember that in Navajo mythology, as he journeyed up Turquoise Mountain to find Changing Woman, First Man wrapped himself in song to protect himself from monsters.
My daughter Sara is an attorney. She is taking care of my business affairs and arranges for a will and other medical instructions that I sign hastily in the hospital.
The attending nurse comes in to announce that they canceled the surgery until the next day. I sigh, relieved. The nursing staff feels so bad about the cancellation that they allow me to have a cup of regular (not decaffeinated) coffee.
I needed the extra day to prepare. They transfer me to a gurney. As they wheel me out of the room, I try to catch Manuel’s eye. If something happens, remember what we talked about when your grandmother died: there’s only you and me now left to protect the family.
I remember. I got this, he says without words.
(to be continued)
 See Pedro de Ribadeneyra, Vida de San Ignacio de Loyola (Madrid: Colección Austral, 1967).