ON THE MORNING OF AUGUST 20, 2016, I felt a subtle pinch in my upper torso, right side. My wife and I were at our remote cabin in Washington County, Maine, where, among other things, despite my seventy-three years, I’d been training for a local twelve-mile paddle race. I felt fitter than I had in recent years, when, nonetheless, and despite the fact that the contest was not divided into age classes, I’d consistently finished at or near the head of the flotilla.
The 2016 race, however, was canceled—mercifully, perhaps—for fear of lightning. I felt disappointment, but went about my business. I kept paddling hard, training a young bird dog, chopping wood, and putting things up for the winter in anticipation of our imminent departure for home. I never experienced shortness of breath, no acute pain or crushing sensation, and, but for one very brief and (then) inexplicable moment, no light-headedness. I did feel unusually tired for the ensuing day and a half, and that mosquito-like pinch in my chest persisted.
At length, given that persistence and more importantly my family history—father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all dead of coronaries in their fifties—my wife and I decided I should go to the tiny clinic on the New Brunswick border. When, after a blood test, the emergency room doctor informed me I was having a heart attack, I was incredulous. Those were words spoken about other people, not me.
After the three-hour ambulance ride to Bangor and some hours in which the nitroglycerin did not eliminate that little mosquito pinch, I remember being wheeled at what seemed an alarmingly fast clip to some location within the Eastern Maine Medical Center, where a stent would soon be inserted into my one-hundred-percent occluded right coronary artery.
Sixteen days later, I was in cardio rehab, keeping my heart rate between 125 and 135 for forty minutes at a clip, feeling fitter than before, when I hadn’t known a thing was wrong with me. Luckily, damage to the heart proved minimal, and I have felt very well ever since. No need for nitro; textbook blood pressure; in short, little to alarm me. Touch wood.
But it’s that whirlwind trip to the operating room that I recall most vividly. I can’t say I felt terror, because I didn’t. It was something else that I can’t adequately describe: I can say only that the speed of my world in its spinning unsettled me, to use an imprecise verb. I tried to study things on the corridor ceilings—a water stain, a light fixture, a sheet rock seam, what have you—but no sooner did I fix my eye on whatever it was than it vanished.
I am one who from his middle years onward has chosen to believe in grace, by which of course I mean unmerited favor. That the opening of the most famous hymn composed by Thomas Dorsey, the father of gospel music, came to mind strikes me in retrospect as oddly unsurprising, though in my all-white, Vermont Congregational church this is not a hymn much heard:
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light….
Yet of course I can’t logically account for why “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” should have sung itself to me, as it were, in crisis. (If grace were logical, it wouldn’t be grace.) Of course, it is a famous hymn, and in its rawness and directness, a perfect product of its tragic occasion. Mr. Dorsey, who beforehand was a fairly prominent purveyor of “devil’s music,” had confronted the death of his wife Nettie in childbirth, and, within forty-eight hours, the death of their baby as well. If I too felt tired, weak, and worn, as a blessed husband and father, I can’t imagine how Georgia Tom (Dorsey’s moniker in his bluesman days) must have felt in his far more taxing circumstance. He later spoke of how spontaneously the hymn had come to him: he simply started to sing its words.
Somehow, on hearing those very words within my soul (likely in the voice of Mahalia Jackson, who rendered them so movingly at Dr. King’s funeral), I did sense that I’d somehow passed through a storm, that light shone ahead. I sensed this chiefly because that full-tilt world had abruptly slowed down. Indeed, things now seemed to transpire as if in cinematic slow motion.
This was not, perhaps, the greatest instance of grace in my life. That surely occurred when, many years back, I found myself in abiding recovery from alcoholism. I had tried and tried to get away from alcohol and in some measure drugs and never succeeded for any length of time. Then some power greater than my puny little will mercifully intervened.
Those of us who have found sobriety by way of twelve-step programs frequently recite the so-called Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. That this simple and cogent entreaty should have seamlessly introduced itself into the still, small space created by Thomas Dorsey’s poignant hymn did not strike me as strange on that gurney ride.
It still doesn’t. In many ways, these two prayers—one sung, the other recited—voice the same plea for comfort and resolve. To be sure, as with so many similar moments of clarity, I will forget them for stretches of the time left to me, suppressing that sense of calm and deliberation in favor of whatever idle ends I cling to even in professional retirement. But the contingency of Thomas Dorsey’s hymn and Niebuhr’s prayer in that hour on that day in that hospital is something that I will always own and can always refer to. I have faith that one or the other or both will be available when I most need them against the helter-skelter of so much human experience.
Sydney Lea’s thirteenth collection of poems, Here (Four Way), is forthcoming in 2019, as are The Music of What Happens, his collected newspaper columns from his years as Vermont poet laureate, and Growing Old in Poetry, a reissue of his collaborative book of essays with former Delaware laureate Fleda Brown (both from Green Writers).
This essay and the eight that accompany it in our issue will appear as part of Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns and Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey Johnson and forthcoming this fall from Orison Books.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.