Elements of joy

There was nothing special about Tuesday morning but Tom was seeing the world like he’d never seen it before. Everything looked and felt different, ever since he’d survived the incident just over a week before.

That day was unusual. His sister was back from Australia so he’d invited mum and dad for an early Christmas feast. He’d helped Kelly prepare all the vegetables the night before and then he’d taken Chloe to the park so that Kelly could finish cooking in peace.

He checked his watch every five minutes. Time seemed to go so slowly. He’d promised he’s stay out for at least an hour. Chloe was happy enough in the swing but he’d already grown tired of tickling her feet and pulling funny faces whenever the swing brought her up to his nose.

He could take her to the café but she’d soon get bored there. Another five minutes crept by with her climbing up the slide from both directions. He’d had to pay more attention to make sure she didn’t fall.

He looked around the playground. Two mum’s chatting while their boys played pirates on the climbing frame, one granddad loving playing with his granddaughter, two dogs attached to the fence and looking as fed up as he was.

Chloe found a leaf and excitedly brought it him. He used it like a fan and gave her enough praise that she brought another ten leaves for him to examine.

He managed fifty minutes before bundling Chloe into the pushchair. He’d take the long way home.

*

Mum and dad loved the meal. His sister had been back in England only a few days but already they seemed to know everything that she had done in the last eight months. As soon as she’d finished one story they’d be encouraging her to tell another.

She smiled at him. “So Tom, what about you? What have you been up to?”

Mum and dad turned to look at him but they were no help. There were no stories to tell. Work. Looking after Chloe. Watching telly. Bed and then back to work again.

There was an awkward silence that fortunately Chloe barged into.

“I’ve got a balloon.”

“Oh yes”, said his sister.

“It’s blue. I like blue.”

Chloe tossed the balloon into the air. His sister caught it and batted it across the room. Chloe laughed and ran after it. She caught it and had to jump up and down three times because it was so exciting.

“Do you remember that?” said his sister.

“What?”

“That excitement, that awe. I was like that on Bondi beach. The sun, the sand, the waves. I was like a child standing there in awe at how wonderful everything was.”

“So why’d you come back?”

“Tom!” said his mum.

“No mum, it’s a fair question.”

His sister sent the balloon back across the room before replying.

“Life isn’t a beach. You can’t surf every day. And anyway, I missed my little Chloe didn’t I.”

She picked Chloe up and snuggled into her tummy causing squeals of delight.

Too true, thought Tom. Life isn’t a beach. It’s more like a car park.

And then it happened.

Tom felt a small twinge just above his abdomen. It rose and magnified, blossoming into a sharp, intense heart crushing pain. He clutched his chest, gasped for breath and was thankful that he was surrounded by competent people.

*

The doctor was understanding. He even told Tom about his own experience of a similar pain after a pie eating competition. He said that if he hadn’t been a cardiac specialist he too would have thought he was having a heart attack. It happened more often than Tom would expect, but in every case the paramedics were absolutely right to take the patient in for checking.

Tom was embarrassed. A 999 call and an ambulance to hospital all because of heartburn. His wife was telling everyone, his sister posted it on Facebook, his friends were sending jokes.

Only Chloe was still concerned. She held his hand more often than before and told him he needed a therapy dog to look after him. She’d been asking for a puppy for Christmas. There was no way she was getting one, but he had to admire her ingenuity. He was surprised she even knew the word therapy.

*

The ‘heart attack’ changed everything. Tom felt like he’d had a near death experience even though he had never been in any danger. Work colleagues ragged him from the moment he arrived in the office and kept offering to make him drinks and telling him that he needed to take it easy.

Tom was glad that he only had to work the one day before breaking up for Christmas. He wished he’d chosen to take the Monday off like half of the office seemed to have done.

On Tuesday morning he woke early. It was still dark and even Chloe was asleep. Tom kept replaying the meal time conversation and wondering when he lost his childhood awe. It was so long ago that he wasn’t sure he ever had any. He must have. All kids do.

After half an hour he got up and went into the shower. He noticed the feel of the water landing on his head and slipping down over his face. He turned the heat up to the temperature his wife liked. The hot water delightfully hovered on the edge of scolding him.

He noticed the texture of the towel fresh from the wash. He held it to his nose, smelt the new fabric conditioner his wife had switched to, and had to agree it did have a pleasing aroma.

As he dried himself the sun edged up over the park opposite their house. Tom stood with his eyes closed surprised that he could feel warmth radiating even this late in December.

He moved closer to the window and looked out. The trees had lost their leaves. A light frost had coloured the cars making all their roofs white. He saw a woman letting her dog off its lead right next to the sign telling her not to.

He decided to go for a walk and then changed his mind. He’d go for a run. He hadn’t run in years. Not since Chloe was born. Suddenly, practicalities intruded. How could he possibly go for a run after having a shower? When he got back he’d need another one.

Tom decided to be child-like. He would go for a run. He would take a second shower. He would do it because he wanted to.

*

It was harder than he expected. He had to settle for a few minutes running followed by a few minutes walking. The sun had fully emerged above the tree tops and was dominating the clear blue sky. He felt the cold air against the inside of his nostrils and all the way down into his chest.

He paused under an oak tree that still had a few leaves clinging to its lower branches. The sun behind them was emphasising their splendid colours. He bent down and searched the undergrowth for the perfect leaf to take back to Chloe. He held it up and saw its skeleton, stark against the translucent flesh.

A few drops fell in front of him landing with a splash in the dry oak leaves. He looked up and saw a squirrel weeing on a branch almost overhead. He laughed and the squirrel ran off. He’d have to tell Chloe about that.

Tom walked along the side of the stream, hearing it for the first time. Its soothing babble as it plunged over a hundred tiny waterfalls created by the many pebbles.

The path rose up and Tom decided to push himself. He had just about reached the top and was thankful to see the bench when it hit him.

A sudden explosion of pain. A clamping, crushing, squeezing around his chest, and his arms.

Tom stumbled and sagged onto the bench. The sun streamed into his face. He closed his eyes and tried to breath. Last time the pain lasted almost half an hour. He was sweating. He was going to get cold.

The pain was moving. It shot down his arm and bounced back into his chest. It dug into his jaw. He didn’t remember that.

He felt dizzy and slipped to his left. He couldn’t right himself.

It was different.

It was real.

*

He felt tingling in his fingers and saw that the dog was licking him. The sun blasted into his eyes and his whole world became nothing but light.

He heard the woman. He felt her take his hand. He heard her say that everything will be alright, but he couldn’t bring himself to believe her.

He tried to smile but wasn’t sure he managed it.

He forced a word out. He had to communicate his decision.

“Puppy.”

The woman leaned close and tried to understand.

“Help you. Yes dear. I will. I can see the ambulance already. We’re lucky that we live so close to the hospital.”

The paramedics jogged up the hill with ease. They unloaded their packs. Tom took comfort in their efficiency and accepted the sincerity of their encouragement. Within minutes he was stretchered and whisked to safety.

By the time his family arrived he could speak clearly enough. Tom was so pleased. Chloe was held outside by his sister, which would give him time to tell his wife about the Christmas present. Chloe burst in and Tom couldn’t contain his excitement so immediately told her about the puppy.

“I told you you needed a dog,” said Chloe.

“You were right,” said Tom. He closed his eyes and enjoyed everything around him. He opened them and his smile reached his eyes.

“Hey sis. I think I’ve found it again.”

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