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Nashville Scene Gotta Have Heart

Going under the knife

By Walter Jowers

SEPTEMBER 7, 1999:  Friday, Aug. 27, cardiologist Joe Fredi looked at a screen in the St. Thomas cardiac catheterization lab, and he said the words I've been dreading for about 30 years: "Mr. Jowers, you've had a heart attack. You're going to need bypass surgery." I won't even pretend that I was brave about it. Within two seconds, I was squalling like a paid funeral wailer. Believe me when I tell you, that outburst had quite a head of steam behind it.

In April 1966, my mother, Susie, woke up in the middle of the night moaning and wailing, complaining of crushing pains in her chest. This had happened once before, a few weeks earlier. Her doctor assured her it was indigestion.

My father, Jabo, called my Aunt Coot, who lived two doors over, and he called an ambulance. Coot tried to calm my mother, but mother kept wailing. After a few minutes, the ambulance attendants loaded mother onto a stretcher. I stood in the hall and watched as they brought her toward me. She made them stop.

"Is it the same thing as before, mother?" I asked.

"Yes, son, but this time it's worse." She took my hand, looked me hard in the eye, and said, "You be a good boy." She squeezed a little harder on the "good." My mother was giving me a command. Susie had had enough of bad boys. Her first husband, Harry Farmer, had treated her miserably. Geames, the son she had with Harry, beat people up for fun. He died in a gunfight, and it just might have been his fault. My father, Jabo, though he had a powerful love for me, wasn't exactly Mr. Reliability. He drank to excess. He wrecked every car we had. He made bootleg liquor. I believe my mother married him for his ice-blue eyes, smart-aleck attitude, and full-out jitterbugging.

I watched the Cadillac ambulance pull away from our side porch. About an hour later, Jabo, Aunt Coot, and Uncle Guy came back. As they walked under the side porch light, I saw looks on their faces I'd never seen before. I knew what the faces meant. My mother was dead. I was 12 years old.

I'd never been a religious kid. I learned my disciples and won some bubble stuff at Methodist Sunday school, but that was about it. I did take up one religious habit, though. From the day my mother died, I spent an hour a night begging God to keep my daddy alive until I was 21 and could look out for myself.

Well, one July night in 1971, Jabo and his new wife, the evil and snake-faced Montine, climbed into Jabo's freshly washed Cadillac (I washed it) and headed for the Augusta Amvet's Club. That night, on the dance floor, Jabo fell dead. An Army medic was on him in seconds. "He drew two breaths," the medic told me later. "There was nothing I could do for him." I was on my own at 17.

My lawyer outsmarted Montine's lawyer, and I got the house. I went to college on loans, grants, and Social Security money. I kept the house lights, water, and gas turned on mostly with money I earned playing in a jazz band. When I had a financial shortfall, I just opened up the electric, water, and gas meters and made a few modifications that would shave the total on the next bill. Sorry, mother. A redneck boy can only have so much personal growth in five years' time.

I met wife Brenda two years later, and although I knew I loved her instantly, it took me 10 years to work up the courage to marry her. I figured I'd just drop dead and doom her to a long widowhood. It took seven more years for me to work up the courage to conceive daughter Jess. And every day since Jess was born, I have lived in raging, undiluted fear of the words I heard last week in the catheterization lab. Jess and I are very close, and there's nothing I wouldn't do to give her a chance to grow to adulthood with her daddy in the house.

I know what some of y'all are thinking. "Have you taken care of yourself? Eaten the right foods? Gotten the right exercise? Had regular checkups?" Well, here it is: I had spells when I took excellent care of myself, interspersed with spells when I could not make myself walk into a doctor's office for fear of what I'd hear.

Last year, we discovered that I had an endocrine problem that simultaneously caused me to lose my exercise tolerance and boosted my cholesterol. I gained weight when I should've been losing it. Maybe I could've done better, maybe I had an appointment with heart disease no matter what. Either way, the chest pains came at a softball workout a couple of weeks ago. Today, I find myself with a two-item menu: surgery or death.

The docs say I should do very well after the surgery. The existing damage to my heart is minuscule, and it might have been a great bit of luck. It was probably because of the baby heart attack that we discovered the blockages in my other coronary arteries. They weren't enough, by themselves, to cause symptoms. Still, given their locations, any little problem could have killed me in seconds.

My beloved internist, John Gibson, has told me, "You will raise grandbabies." He has also promised to put his personal foot up my ass if I stray from the cardiac rehab program. I promised him that I would stay with the regimen.

My promise to y'all: If I can rub two brain cells together and move my fingers, I will continue to deliver the Helter Shelter columns. I've only missed one week out of the last 208, and that was for space limitations. If you can't find the column, either I'm dead, or it's editor Bruce Dobie's doing.

In the meantime, biz partner and faithful friend Rick is running the home inspection business.

Bet on me coming through fine. As I sit here now, it's 11 hours to chest-crackin' time, I'm fulla Valium, and I feel fine.

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