On March 11, 2015, one year ago today, I wrote this note to friends and family.
This morning I suggested that the Mount Sinai Heart Failure Team change their name to the Mount Sinai Heart Failure Prevention Team as a way to soften their brand for the more self-indulgent consumers of today’s market. They said they’d consider it, but patiently explained that when my heart was only kicking out an ejection-fraction of ten percent, I could rightfully be considered “in heart failure.”
So, for those of you who haven’t yet been read into the situation, that’s what’s going on in my part of the world: Basic cable on the television and Heart Failure (Prevention) at the bedside in Mount Sinai Hospital in New Jack City.
The hows and whys are complex and interrelated. There is, of course, lifestyle, though less than you might expect. There are far more arresting characters in this affair — from a Neanderthal’s genetic adaptation to meat scarcity, to a Medieval treatment protocol, and a lack of genetic screening in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, although this thing I’ve got is the most common nucleotide anomaly for goofy white boys (and gals) in the world today.
To wit: I am the proud owner to two recessive genes for hemochromatosis. Hemochromatosis is a genetic condition that arose forty thousand years ago in Northern Europe, when it was a hedge against anemia as we wandered among the glaciers during the many ice ages of the era. The condition makes it impossible for the hemachromatite to void iron, leading to the storage of the metal in the heart, liver, pancreas and other squishy bits. At the time, it was quite effective for maintaining the evolutionary relevance of female Neanderthals, for whom a paucity of hemoglobin would be life-threatening during pregnancy and birth.
Female Neanderthals (and later, female Homo sapiens once we all intermingled in a party-room of hybrid vigor) were not only at an advantage to survive pregnancy with hemochromatosis, but in times of dietary iron deprivation, as well. They were also protected from developing an overabundance of iron through menstruation. Male Neanderthals were not so lucky, but most of them were ready to cash in their chips around thirty anyway, so no great loss. That average lifespan persisted all the way up to the Middle Ages, when the balancing of humors became critically important to the central medical theses of the times and, despite the unsanitary conditions down at Ye Olde Barbershoppe, bloodletting ACTUALLY WORKED as a treatment for one condition: Hemochromatosis!
Hilariously, leeches or vein ventings may well be part of my treatment as we move forward. There are other processes available, but none with the panache of bloodletting. Personally, I’m looking forward to writing about it in my new series: “My Life as a Monty Python Skit.” Stay tuned.
Joking aside, my health problems are more involved than this. There is multi-organ involvement. My liver is in a very bad way. I have diabetes and gallstones. But, for now, the battle lines are drawn around getting my heart back up and ticking with strength and rhythm. With my cardiac team, we’re on our way to doing so.
I’ve already received dozens of emails and messages from friends very long and dear to me and I can’t tell you how much they mean. These are, in fact, frightening times. I very much intend to leave them behind soon enough, but for now, they are fierce and can bare their teeth. Knowing that my brothers and sisters are out there, pulling for me, is humbling in the best of ways.
Largely because of the love that is flooding this way, these days are also strikingly beautiful. I’m absorbing it all and trying to reflect it back at you all and into the world. I look forward to knocking around with you on this pretty blue planet for a good long time yet. Just gotta get some ducks in a row internally. Recovery is going to take a bit, but I’m confident we’ve caught all this in time and I’ll be around to argue my plan for renaming it the Mount Sinai Heart Failure Prevention Team once I’m removed from the subjectively-dependent-upon-that-team stigma in a few months.
And now, the doctors are on their way back in. Gotta (metaphorically) run. Love you all to bits and thank you for allowing me to be a part of your ride for all these years and into the future. I feel truly blessed to be here, and alive, with you all. It’s enough to make a big-ole Neanderthal cry, I tell ya.
A year later, I look back on that message and I do cry. In the intervening months I’ve learned that I was not privy to the full extent of the crisis at the time. No one lied to me, but the information flow was managed. I knew my condition was serious, I understood that I could die, but no one had the serious-toned, Mike-you-should-prepare-yourself-to-never-get-better conversation. My ignorance may very well have been crucial to my recovery. Hope is a powerful thing, so I’m glad that I didn’t know we were looking at two-year survival rate at about twenty-five percent. Yet, it’s now one year later and my heart is beating strong, my liver is recovering and I’m guardedly looking forward to many more years of goofing around before the alpha-predator of time once again starts snapping at my butt. All of which leads me to the first point I’d like to make today: THANK YOU.
Not many people get pulled back from the edge of death by the forces of communal love, and fewer still have their own magazine, so I’m gonna take this opportunity to write this over and over again: THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!
Thank you to the hundreds of people who wrote encouragement, shared a thought or said a prayer. As a way of honoring that love and compassion, I’d like to tell you both a secret and a story. First the secret: As regular readers know, I don’t believe in a sin-registering, good-deeds-tabulating god. As such, when I was sick, I never implored the heavens for a miracle. Part of that is because I don’t believe. Part of that is because if there is a god, I feel like I’m just so damn lucky for having had nearly fifty years on the planet to begin with that pleading for another miracle, above and beyond being born, seems, for lack of a better term, kinda whiny.
I did, however, solicit help. When I was going to sleep at night, in the quiet hours once my family and Mercedes had gone home, I’d say a prayer to you. I know it might sound silly, but I’d close my eyes and I’d think of people I love and I’d tell them that they were the joy in my days. I’d think about some time we spent together, maybe driving down a highway at night, chatting online, watching a ball game at the bar or listing to some tunes at the Café. Sometimes it would be a wedding, a ceremony of some kind, but mostly the memories were just of random days. I’d let the shared past well up, the laughter and the losses, and then, when it was time to go, I’d slip in a request, surreptitiously, as if I were sticking a post-it note somewhere in the room to be discovered later that said, “I’m in a bad way, man. Maybe, if you’ve got one, send over a spare heart-muscle cell. I hate to ask, but I could really use it. I swear I’ll get you back someday. Thanks. Love you, dude. Hope to see you soon. If not, well, you know. Just remember that I love you.”
I really did that. Consciously. Repeatedly. Nightly.
Silly metaphor or not, you all came through and with your positivity and compassion, my body and spirit were able to stitch my broken parts back together again. For that, I owe you my life. I did a ten-thousand foot trust-fall into your arms and y’all caught me. Thank. You.
Feck. I’m crying again. I do that more now than ever before, so if you ever want to embarrass me in public, just get me talking about this stuff. Though if you do I’ll probably try to change the subject. Maybe tell a story. Kinda like I’m going to do right now.
What color are your eyes?
Mine are blue, but even if you’re not that fortunate, I presume you remember your Punnett squares from biology class, so you’ll recall that we blue-eyed babies are a distinct minority in the population. As Mr. Polcyn taught me at West Junior High School in Binghamton, New York, eye color in human beings is determined by two genes, one from the mother and one from the father, but the allele for brown eyes (B) is dominant and the allele for blue eyes (b) is recessive. What that means (and there will be a quiz later) is that if even one parent is a homozygous brown (BB), their kid won’t ever be as good looking as Sinatra. However, if both parents are heterozygous browns (Bb or bB) then the kid stands a one in four chance of someday becoming a true heartbreaker, like me and St. Francis of Hoboken. What you might not know, however, is that all of the three-hundred million people in the world today who carry an allele for blue eyes are the offspring of one individual who lived between six and ten thousand years ago somewhere near the Black Sea, according to a paper published in Human Genetics by Hans Eiberg in 2008.
Interestingly, that blue-eyed “founder” would have had brown eyes just like everyone else, because the gene is recessive, but sometime later, maybe a few generations after the founder’s death, two heterozygous browns got it on and made a beautiful blue-eyed baby. Thus, for the first time on planet Earth a child saw the sunrise through eyes the color of the sky. No wonder he (or she) ended up with so many kids!
When I first learned that hemochromatosis entered the Neanderthal genome through a random mutation and then passed to Homo sapiens through interbreeding, it took some time for the profundity of that observation to sink in. The doctors told me the operating theory. It contained all the relevant nomenclature of recessive and dominant genes, nucleotides and peptide chains. I got it as much as any layman could. Hemochromatosis started in the Neanderthal population. Interesting, but . . . meh. It’s not like knowing that made my recovery any more likely.
Then, late one night as I was lying in the hospital bed thinking about my life, the universe and everything, it slapped me across the face. The first person with my genetic condition wasn’t human. I sat up straight — not really that hard to do, as I kept the bed angled so the fluid in my chest wouldn’t pool around my heart, making it harder to maintain a steady beat — and thought, “Wait a minute. I’m part Neanderthal.”
Not metaphorically, but actually, biologically.
Just like with blue eyes, this thing tied me to the past, but unlike blue eyes it originated via random mutation before my ancestors were human beings. Somehow, in an environment that would one day make living for an extended period of time without a constant source of dietary iron possible, a small filament of life reached out from a string of DNA like the tendril of a vine. As it did, it made an otherwise unnoticeable alteration in the fabric of existence that has been replicated, unzipped, deconstructed, packaged and reassembled in new cells without cessation for forty thousand years from the founder to me.
As I lay in bed, I imagined her, lost and alone in a forest so covered with snow and ice that no game had stirred for months. She had identity, dreams, fears, loves. I imagined her confusion as her cousins, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews all succumbed to a weakness buried so deeply in their bodies that its causes would not be discovered until ten-thousand years after woolly mammoths became elephants and saber-toothed tigers’ fangs retreated into their mouths.
I imagined her, my lineal ancestor, my grandmother, forty thousand years ago, with protruding orbital ridges and a jaw that could crush a deer’s femur, but so vulnerable as she staggers through the wasteland of northern Europe searching for shelter and wondering why she doesn’t die like all the rest of them. If that woman I am dreaming of falls, if she, in her sadness at having lost everyone and everything, throws herself off a cliff or breaks a leg and becomes a protein source herself before she passes along her genetic coding, then I don’t exist. No Homo sapiens Tallons would ever exist. None of us.
To sense that visceral, familial connection to the past changed the way that I sensed everything in life, and it may have been crucial in building the bridge between us that allowed those prayers and heart muscles to get from you to where they were crucially needed to sustain my life.
Like most people we know, I have grown up to think of myself as an individual. The cultural and religious truisms of our civilization largely define life as a series of moral choices made by individual actors. René Descartes’ axiom is how I was taught to trust in my own existence: Je pense, donc je suis. Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am — and all that is true. Yet, lying in a hospital bed, very much aware that this could be the end of the road, thinking about my Neanderthal-self gave me a sense of being part of something larger, more universally connected, than religion ever has. Maybe prayers only work when you believe, and in this unity of us, I found faith.
I understand, of course, that we human beans are individuals. We have separate intellects. We perceive and make choices independently. Yet on another level, our subjective experiences can be conceived as a part of something vastly more complex and not at all metaphorical. DNA creates us. It is not our DNA. We are its expression. There’s a quote often attributed to C. S. Lewis that reads, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” That may in some way be true, but no one has ever measured a soul and as a rationalist, I need measurements. Fortunately, we have measured the shit out of DNA and if we’re looking for something that pervades all life, binds it together and is seemingly eternal, well, as the British members of our tribe say, “then Bob’s your uncle.”
If you prefer your bio-spirituality to come from something other than vernacular Londonese, then maybe Obiwan’s your uncle. The Force in Star Wars is pretty much the same thing that Hindus refer to as Prāna. Either one is an energy field created by all living things that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the universe together. What if, however, that hacky-sack-and-patchouli-oil concept of an energy field is, in reality, a measurable, biological thing that we’re not perceiving because we are so focused on our own subjective part of the whole? To employ the vernacular once again: What if we are just too far up our own asses to see what is glaringly obvious? All living things grew from — and retain a part of — the same rootstock of DNA as all other things. We think of DNA as being so very small, so parceled. Yet, when viewed through a different lens, it is everywhere, it is an enormity — and it is all connected. You feel it when you walk in the forest. You are absorbed by it when you wade into the surf at night on a beach lit as much by bioluminescent plankton as it is by the moon.
Why don’t we consider that to be alive? Why don’t we consider that to have agency? It is discernibly real, but recognizing it as an entity shifts the a priori source of our collective meaning — and, arguably, our collective purpose — from the realm of metaphysics to science. Yet, if this is true, then the undiscovered secrets of existence lie inside of us, physically as well as spiritually, and it is entirely conceivable that we will come to see those two manifestations of human existence to be one in the same. In this sense of connectedness to all life, we are to the genetic whole what a breath is to a body. We pass through it. We are a part of it. Its experiential horizon, however, takes in a far longer view. For all of our strife and glory, each one of us is no more nor less than a flower that bloomed in a forgotten valley one summer, half a million years ago. That’s life. Both individually and collectively.
At the elemental root, what defines being alive? That’s a slippery semantic slope, but for our argument I’ll put forward these imperatives: Life must grow. It must respond to stimulus. It must, in some way, metabolize, have the ability to reproduce and be able to achieve some kind of meaningful homeostasis. It must be adaptable and capable of self-transcendence, to become something more than it was while retaining the seed of its own beginning. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck wrote “Man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments.” That line, like so many by the master, is glorious to read, but my recent experiences lead me to doubt its validity. DNA does that stuff, too.
DNA started as one or two links in a chain that is now billions of base pairs long and has formed billions of different species of life on our Planet Eden. Billions! It responds so well to its environment that it created giant shells — the one named Michael Tallon is currently typing this essay — to move itself across the land, soar through every sky and plumb the depth of every sea in creation. It has been stable over vast expanses of time, yet is always changing, always emerging ahead of itself. It has become self-aware. Through us, it has given itself a name and now it just waits for the realization, the consciousness of it, to dawn on the sentient cells that have done the naming.
You want to laugh? Here’s one hell of a thought: DNA designed your mind, which means that you are a form of artificial intelligence. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Pulling the perceptual lens out a bit, I’m presuming that somewhere along the line you’ve seen the photo series Animal and Human Locomotion by Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge was a pioneering English photographer in the late nineteenth century who once famously helped settle a bet as to whether a horse lifts all four hooves from the ground at gallop. (It does.) For our purposes, I think Muybridge opens a window on more than just human locomotion, but on human existence. Metaphorically speaking, we tend to think of ourselves as individual cells of film. That, we say when we see ourselves in a photograph, is me. If we were to engage in one of those art projects wherein we snap a photograph of ourselves every day at noon for our entire lives, then we could watch the events of our decades play out as the fine lines of youth become the furrowed rows of age. Yet, if we were to take those selfies with an electron microscope, there would be no reason at all to stop filming when we die or start when we’re born. Rather, we could watch the whole mind-blowing, Cecil B. DeMille pageantry play out over hundreds, thousands, millions, even billions of years with our brief lives, graceful or graceless as they may be, representing only a casual gesture from one actor with a bit part in the scene of a story that has been running, well . . . forever.
It took quite a blow to the conceptual noggin for me to clock into the linearity of my connection to great-great-great-great-great grandma Neanderthal. Yet, more fundamentally shaking was the realization that once we’ve traversed forty thousand years of deoxyribonucleic history, there is no reason at all to stop with her. She and I, and likely you, share DNA — not a type or a category of DNA, but the actual living stuff — with a Homo erectus named Thag who married Ug and cuddled little Blarg to his chest. Break one link and our families dissolve back into atoms.
DNA never sleeps. It never drops a beat — until it does, and then a light goes out forever. Or rather, one branch on the great blooming cottonwood of life terminates in a flower, a flower that, if it be my lot to die without children, I hope to be worthy of the effort and good fortune that brought me here. Still, even when I pass, the tree will thrive, always reaching outward towards new life. If I have no children, my DNA won’t linger, but then again, it was never mine to begin with.
It’s not just those of us with the capacity for language and opposable thumbs that share this magic. If my one-eyed dog Mosca and I both trace our ancestry back far enough, we’ll find an adorable ferret-looking thing tucked in the deepest recesses of our mutual journey. Beyond that ferret we can find kinship with every creature in the world in some ancient lunged fish, a mollusk, a trilobite. I get that this is all just basic biology, but somehow that Neanderthal lady with her adaptation against anemia zapped it into my head in a way that I still find both overwhelming and energizing.
Head back one more step with me and we’re standing by a shallow depression on a ferrous promontory that overlooks a copper sea three-and-a-half-billion years ago. There is no life in the ocean, air or land — only wind, magma and burning rain. Into that depression sloshes a gallon or two of what a biological entity named Alexander Oparin will someday call a primordial soup of methane, ammonia and hydrogen. Due to the nature of material things — due to the electromagnetic field created by the rotating iron core of the planet and the changing kinetic energy patterns of high- and low-pressure cloud systems, a storm is brewing over that rank pond. From that storm there comes a flash. That flash arcs the gap between the heavens and the earth and in a split second of biogenesis, lifeless chemicals are transformed into a clutch of the Earth’s first amino acids which, if the theory stands tall, turn to one another, shrug their tiny shoulders and begin organizing the first rungs on the source code of all life — the very first sequence of our mutual, glorious, unifying DNA.
That code, that superorganism, has given rise to every living thing in the known universe. In that pool swam our actual Adam and Eve and from them, with neither sin nor shame, neither allowance nor admonition from an imaginary man in the sky, grew each leaf on every tree in the garden and every beast that would lay in its shade.
What came to me laying in the hospital bed, thinking about hemochromatosis, is that we are all the emergent identity of the universe itself and I believe, I have faith, that sensing such a connection was what allowed those tiny heart cells to make their way across time and space to where I needed them most. I don’t know if that does anything for you, but from here, from my tiny aperture, it fills the whole of the sky. Who knows? Maybe it’s all balderdash, but I’m going to stick with it and you’re welcome to hop on the bandwagon of this new way of thinking. All you have to do is see yourself in another’s eyes and I know you are absolute stars when it comes to that. Also, if you ever need a miracle, drop a line. We’re family and family sticks together.