Pen Ultimate / A Heart-stopping Moment

So that's why they call it 'up in the gods.'

Last week I quoted Cole Porter's words "It's too darn hot" as saying all there is to say about August in Israel. The song got a new lease of life recently when it was featured in two movies, "De-Lovely" and "Kinsey." But the song is emblazoned on my memory as it was being played while I had my one and only NDE. NDE is the acronym for "near death experience," a personal occurrence described in detail by many, researched and documented by many more and doubted and ridiculed by a great many more.

A NDE is supposed to happen when someone has a traumatic experience, usually in dramatic medical conditions: clinical death, life-threatening surgery and the like. Those who have experienced NDE recount an "out of body experience" - passing through a long tunnel, hearing heavenly music, meeting people long dead, reliving their life as in a swift film sequence passing before their eyes, or feeling at peace with the world.

I did not experience anything remotely dramatic like that. It was July 2002, and I had just landed in London to see, and write about, the trilogy "Coast of Utopia" by Tom Stoppard, then premiering at the National Theatre (this year the trilogy scooped most of the Tony Awards in New York).

To put things in proper perspective, so you will not think I was carried away by spiritual notions, I should reveal I was then under another sort of undue influence: I was shortly after an intravenous treatment of steroids for an onset of MS, with a healthy (if that is the word) dose of antidepressants (drugs which in my mind should be administered to all the population, possibly through the national water system) in my blood stream, and some percentage of alcohol (one should be allowed some hobbies). I cannot claim I was entirely sober.

I know that the above mentioned cocktail is not strictly what the doctors order, but as far as I know I was within the legal limits. What is more important, I felt focused, alert and as fit as I could have wished to be.

My tickets for the Stoppard feast were for the following day, but to my mind an evening in London not spent in a theater is an evening wasted, so while still at the airport I picked up a copy of Time Out and from the taxi I booked by mobile phone a seat for myself at the Victoria Palace Theater, for that evening's performance of "Kiss Me Kate," in Michael Blakemore's production. Could there be any better offering that this oeuvre by Shakespeare, Bela and Sam Spiwack and the one and only Cole Porter? The best seat I could get was middle of row three, upper circle.

At that time I was still walking with a cane, looking very distinguished, but not yet aware of any real walking difficulties. At 7:15 P.M. I presented myself at the box office, picked up my ticket and went to find my seat. After climbing 28 stairs spread over four flights, I was at dress-circle level. Thirty-five (I think; I can't climb and count simultaneously) further steps up, I was standing at the level of the top row of the upper circle. Twenty extremely steep steps down, I was in my seat, happily waiting for the curtain to go up. All that did not feel at all like a long tunnel at the time.

At 7:30 P.M. sharp the music started, and I was as happy as can be. I made friends with the people seating next to me (they were, of all people, "Tom, Dick and Harry"), hummed the tunes with the cast as they "Opened in Venice," being "So in Love" and remembering "Wunderbar." Great production, great singing and dancing, and had there been a Kate next to me I would have certainly have hoped to be kissing her.

During the interval I went up 20 steep steps again, 35 steps down to the bar to toast myself and Cole Porter's memory with a glass of sparking wine, then the 35 or so steps up again, 20 down again, and settled in my chair for Act II. About half an hour later, they were just warming up to "It's Too Darn Hot," a song that has nothing to do with the plot, taking place at the stage door (it is a musical about the theater, in case you don't know).

It was mid July, and it was not particularly hot in the theater, but suddenly I felt my heart starting to race madly, and cold sweat started to pour profusely down my brow. I could have sworn that a numbing pain was seizing my left upper arm, reaching up to my lower jaw. In other words, all the symptoms of an impending cardiac arrest that one reads about in first aid text books.

Pulsating streams

Instead of panicking, as could have been expected of me, my stream of consciousness parted into two distinctive pulsating streams. One of them was of a psycho-philosophical nature. My life did not present itself in a fast-forward version in front of my mind's eye, but the brain did unfold a sort of a summing up chart. I heard myself saying that I have had a most satisfying life, having achieved a challenging, honest, friendly and loving partnership with my spouse, fathering two sons and a daughter, all of whom are fulfilled beings, ever arousing my admiration and love, making their first, confident steps in their own lives, nurturing their own families (and that was before the grandchildren came into existence). I felt fairly confident I had not caused them any harm (at least not intentionally), nor any other human being. As for my professional achievements, I heard myself saying that I could have not done much more that I did, and I did not have any deep regrets. No commitments, no loose ends, peace and harmony.

To be entirely clear about that, I did say to myself that I did not want my life to end at all, and would have regretted any sorrow caused by that occurence to anyone, especially my family. But, hey, I was in a theater seat, the place I most enjoy being, the music was Cole Porter's, and if one has to go, that is the way.

The other train of thought was entirely practical: I know the musical's score and the book very well. There remained about 20 minutes to the end of the show. One thing I didn't want to happen was somebody shouting "Is there a doctor in the house?" with the house lights coming up on somebody (me) collapsing in row three, upper circle, and paramedics rushing through the hall with their resuscitating gear. Please, I said to my heart, hold on for some minutes more, until the final applause, and then let the curtain come down, on them and me.

So, what happened in the end? Nothing much. The show went on to the rousing finale, Kate did kiss him, my heart de-accelerated to normal pace, the cold sweat dried up, I applauded with the rest of the audience, went downstairs humming the tunes under my breath, met my cousin and his wife and we went together for a late dinner at an excellent Italian restaurant nearby.

And from that moment on, every so often, I try to remember what I felt once, when it was too darn hot.