My ex-wife used to say my heart kept her awake at night. The pounding, she said, sent reverberations through the mattress. Like the partner who snores, I was unaware of this nocturnal Buddy Rich drum solo. Even if I did notice, and it shames me to say, even if I believed her, I wasn’t sure what I could have done to prevent it. My options seemed limited. Either it beat or it didn’t.
A few months ago, that theory was tested. After reporting a pain in my neck to my physician, I walked into an outpatient diagnostic exam in Portland, Maine, expecting to be home for dinner. In the catheterization lab, I was awake, lying in a dark room and somewhat pleasantly buzzed from calming medication as a large humming angiographic X-ray machine orbited my body. The medical team was friendly and chatty, and as they played sophisticated music trendier than anything I might have suggested, we joked that the procedure seemed more like a spa treatment.
I don’t remember if the chatter or music stopped first, like one of those comedies where the needle is snatched from the turntable as it scratches the record. They sat me up and pointed to a black and white grainy video of my beating heart, saying, “Watch.”
A puff of what looked like smoke billowed. I learned the smoke was actually an injectable dye, which should have entered my heart instead of curling backward. A voice in the dark, suddenly laced with accusation, asked, “How long did you say you’ve been feeling discomfort?”
As a closeted gay man who grew up in the southern United States, I have maintained hypervigilance toward potential threats my entire life. First, that someone would find out that I was gay, and after I came out at 43, that someone would wish to do me harm. This wasn’t the discomfort they were questioning, but as the cardiologist explained the procedure that would stop my heart (it was quite literally put on ice), I couldn’t help but wonder if they were somehow related.
During my 10 days in the hospital, I shared a room with four different roommates. All of them, like me, older white men, but there was one thing we didn’t have in common: Unlike me, they were all heterosexual. Even in their ill health, perhaps because of it, three out of four made sexually harassing and often misogynistic comments toward the female nurses. This small sample mirrors my experience in the world — a large percentage of men displaying their toxic masculinity, prompting me to retreat deep into the closet. The difference here was that I could not escape.
Even if I had wanted to remain private and denied the existence of who I love, which no one should ever have to do to maintain a sense of safety, it was impossible. With each shift change and on every round with multiple health care workers, one question always surfaced: Who do you have to care for you when you return home?
I came out multiple times a day in the hospital. Because I live in liberal New England, where diversity usually is celebrated, this was not a difficult task. However, more often than not, even after clearly articulating that Paul was my husband, he was referred to as my “partner.” What would my experience have been like if we were in Florida?
In conservative regions of the country, where there is an insidious assault on the LGBTQ+ community — especially trans people — in a particularly focused and horrific manner, how would a scared young queer person navigate the double trauma of surgery and then bigotry?
When I asked the cardiologist if I faced any specific risks with open-heart surgery, he replied that my most significant risk was my young age. Blushing, I laughed. He did not.
“The amount of blockage for someone your age, 59, is extensive and something we typically see in someone much older and will likely reappear. We’re only treating the symptoms, not the underlying cause, and you may have to face this again at some point.”
My husband, Paul, has never complained about my heart, but he snores. (Hello, karma). The maximum nudge count is three before I’ll get up and stumble through the dark into the spare bedroom. While staring at the ceiling — I used to be a side sleeper before the surgery — my mind goes back to those nights with my ex-wife and the beating drum. Was my heart issuing a warning?
The New York Times notes that LGBTQ adults “face unique stressors — stigma, discrimination, the fear of violence — which can both indirectly and directly lead to disease” by causing chronic inflammation and raising blood pressure and heart rate, among other effects.
While I cannot make a direct correlation between my heart disease and this particular environmental stressor, consider my three straight siblings whose blood pressure is normal and cholesterol levels are ideal.
My cohort and older LGBTQ+ individuals have survived legalized discrimination, attacks from performative Christianity, assaults from right-wing politicians, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, gay bashing and worse. What did not kill us then was only a matter of time.
For all the progress we have made, we are currently experiencing a devastating backlash. We, as a society, must come to understand that banning books with LGBTQ+ themes, legislating hatred in the form of “Don’t Say Gay” laws, halting gender-affirming care and enacting anti-trans laws, like those in Florida and other conservative states, are not protecting our children but instead are erasing them. Forcing our children into silence now is quite literally breaking their hearts. The Silence=Death project was born of the AIDS crisis but is still significantly resonant.
The worst part of quintuple bypass surgery was not waking up with a tube down my throat, choosing between breathing or speaking, or looking at the reflection in the mirror of what looked like an autopsy cadaver riddled with scars and bruising. It was not the bizarre end-of-the-world nightmares, the uncontrollable sobbing or even learning to sleep on my back. It was the pained expression on my husband’s face when he realized death was no longer a theory but a fact. I will die. I will cease to exist, and someday, perhaps sooner than he previously thought, he will forever sleep alone.
If there was a worst thing about open-heart surgery, it is logical that there would be a best or, perhaps, least worst thing. It forever altered my outlook on life, to cherish all I am so fortunate to possess and speak up when I am feeling pain instead of remaining silent. I want our children to know that living joyfully in an imperfect world is possible, to find great beauty, even in pain, and to love with abandon.
Was my heart tapping out an SOS those many years ago? I will never know, but this I do: In the face of death — no, because I faced death — I never felt so grateful to be alive. My heart no longer pounds to break free.
May our children be so fortunate.
William Dameron is an award-winning blogger, memoirist, essayist and author of the novel “The Way Life Should Be” and his memoir, “The Lie,” a New York Times Editors’ Choice. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Times (UK), The Telegraph, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, Oprah Daily and in the book “Fashionably Late: Gay, Bi & Trans Men Who Came Out Later In Life.”