These chest pains feel familiar. At the end of 1996 when I turned thirty-six years old, a single flight of stairs at the office would leave me bent over and pounding my breastbone, struggling to catch my breath. I would feel an ache travel up to my jaw; then, thankfully, it would subside. It would happen every day, but aside from those moments on the stairs, it never really bothered me. It was only to keep a new year’s resolution that I decided to get a medical check-up on January 2. The doctors kept me in the hospital for a month.
It was the smoking, said my cardiologist. My parents never smoked and the vile habit was prohibited in our house, but you know how it was. High school. I learned to puff nonchalantly on menthols in second year, ostensibly for a school play. Later, in the college dorms and fraternity gatherings, everybody smoked, and we smoked everything: More, Hope (The Luxury Cigarette), Philip Morris, Seven Stars, Camel, Winston, Marlboro, Rothmans, Dunhill—the last two mooched from whoever was rich or lucky enough to have them. Cigarettes were the main source of sustenance in law school and before the Bar exam. By the time I started working I was up to three packs a day, not counting the sticks bummed off co-workers. At 2:00 a.m., if I found myself out of cigarettes, I’d risk leaving my apartment at the dark edge of the city to hunt for any takatak vendor who might still be out on the streets.
A thick, nine-inch surgical scar down the center of my chest, five more scars from my groin to below the knee, and a puncture mark that looks like a second belly button attest to the payments in pain I made for my nicotine addiction. The surgeon jokingly said his work on my heart bypass operation carried a warranty of ten years. It has been twenty-three. Now the chest pains are back.
Both my enemies and my friends will say it’s my own fault. They’re right. I quit smoking but I blithely had potato chips and Coke for breakfast whenever I could over the past twenty-three years, especially during vacations abroad when our first stop upon arriving in a city was always the nearest convenience store. What the hell. It made me happy. Like fatty pork with crispy skin. Toasted edges of steaks. Juicy prime rib. White rice, garlic rice, fried rice with salted fish. These things made me happy. Besides, it’s not like I could escape getting heart disease—it’s the family curse. I’ve lost count of the stents and bypass grafts in my siblings. In fact, our family greeting should be two taps on the chest with a closed fist and the word “Puso!”.
One of the takeaways from an early-in-life brush with mortality is to be ruthless in the pursuit of happiness. Life is short. Do what f**king makes you happy. So that when you face the Reaper again, you have no regrets.
Would I be happier if I had exercised more, eaten less, tried harder, chosen different paths? Sometimes I wish I lived in New York City, in a pied-à-terre facing Central Park or maybe an apartment in Gramercy, spending my evenings at the Lincoln Center and at tiny restaurants with friends and a twice-starred chef. (Then I remember I don’t have friends.) Other times, I wish I had seriously pursued the presidency of the Republic. Imagine a government dedicated to Truth, Justice, and Prosperity for All. Sayang, ‘di ba? Could I have worked to make those dreams come true? What if I had stuck it out in the law firm and made partner? Or before that, what if I had finished my MBA instead of choosing to go to Law? Or way before that, what if I had decided to go to Grade 7 instead of skipping it? Would I have ended up being more successful, more powerful or—and this is key—more happy? I might have had different classmates and gotten interested in different things, involved in vastly different activities. I coulda been a contender. Who knows what else? BUT, then I also wouldn’t have met my wife and had our two kids. So, no, none of those hypotheticals are worth thinking about.
These chest pains start whenever my heart rate goes up above 90 beats per minute either from activity or anxiety, something as simple as rushing up the stairs to the bedroom or a looming deadline. It’s not muscle pain or something that can be kneaded out; it’s internal and inaccessible. It begins like a weird need to burp, but when no burp comes out, the discomfort spreads to my upper arms, to a spot in between my shoulder blades, and to the back of my neck. I need to draw in more breaths and I begin to perspire large cold drops at my hairline. Gritting my teeth helps. I get a little lightheaded and need to concentrate on keeping my eyes open and focused.
I have to admit I’m a little scared. Much of life is spent eliminating uncertainty. We devote ourselves to our books in school in order to make sure that we know the answers to the teachers’ questions. We study hard to ensure that we will get the job we want. We work diligently at that job to make certain that we will have the money to support ourselves and our families. We plan, organize, and control so that we know where we’re going and actually get there. We see the doctors, undergo the tests, take the meds. Once in a while, we pray. Sometimes, however, especially when the pains come in the middle of the night, we just don’t know what’s next.