So I almost died and in doing so discovered that dying has the strange effect of stealing my creativity and passion for art and writing, but not because they no longer move me, instead it was because I nearly died and that in itself is its own slayer of creativity. I've had to face my own very tangible mortality, the stark reality that everything was unfinished and may never be completed, that there were whole worlds and universes of stories I've only dreamed of that were going to be lost. That all these words left unsaid across the vellum of the page would remain hiddenly untold like they never were, and that loss of what was written and had yet to be was suffocating. Reality, that was even harsher to deal with, and in a lot of ways I still haven't come to terms with that, and I'm not sure that I can. I had barely begun to get to know my daughter and there I was leaving her already, leaving my wife behind as well and I certainly didn't mean to do either.
It used to be just me, in the sense that I wasn't part of a family of my own, I was single and childless. Mostly because I wanted it that way, and partly because I hadn't found that special someone to share my life with and create a family with. Then one day it happened and I blinked and we were married and I blinked again and we were expecting our first child, and then I breathed and there she was. I laughed and cried and smiled in happiness, with joy. Then I nearly died. My heart, the very same heart I had been to doctors and specialists to test and poke and prod searching for anything wrong over the past two years because five years ago my older brother had a heart attack and died, and then two years after my younger brother also had a heart attack and he died. I was looking for trouble, looking for answers, and trying to stay alive, because I wasn't alone anymore. Still, still I nearly died.
One Thursday morning while cooking breakfast, massive pains in my chest like my lungs were on fire as if I had just run a 100m dash or swam 200m freestyle, which is largely a sprinting event, and I couldn't breathe, or rather get enough air. Pains in your chest are what the doctors tell you to look for, not pain in your lungs which is what it feels like, like your lungs are on fire, not your heart. I said something inane like “Can you take over breakfast?” and then I went and lay down, only the pain didn't go away, it seemed to get worse. So I Googled signs of covid, because the pain was in my lungs and this is the day and age of covid. Yup, trouble with your lungs was a sign of having covid. I calmly called my local clinic where my family doctor worked, then I sent my wife a Facebook messenger and wrote “I think I might be in trouble. My lungs really hurt.” She tells me that I looked calm, in pain, scared for myself, and like every step I took was heavy.
We talked about calling 911 and getting an ambulance, but I didn't want to expose them to covid, so we debated calling a taxi or an Uber, and I went with the cheapest offer; Uber to the ER.
Eleven hours later and after 3 rounds of tests and lots of waiting in the waiting room, one doctor figure it all out and said “You're having a heart attack, we are sending you to the Heart Institute, you'll be on the operating table in twenty minutes.” I called my wife and told her I love her and told my daughter I loved her and was proud of her. The doctor told me that if I had waited a day, I'd have died. I sent an email to a publisher who was waiting on a graphic novel “I'm going in for surgery on my heart as I'm having a heart attack. Not to worry though, I'll finish the story, I'll just be a bit late.” They replied with shock and said don't worry, just get healthy. Ten minutes later, the specialist team had me on their table, strapped in, looking at sci-fi monitors and they were fixing me up, good as new, 6 stints in my heart and 3 hours on the table, but I was going to live.
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Turns out I have diabetes as well as heart disease, thank you genetics. How does this all relate to creativity, to writing, to illustrating, and why is this suffocating all of that? It's because the stories I want to write, that I need to draw are all for my daughter, for my wife, to tell them everything I have no words for. I want to teach my daughter about life, how to live it, how to follow her dreams, to love her people and our culture, I want to be there for my wife, and now writing, and drawing takes me away from them. Every moment that I'm writing is time I'm not playing and spending with my daughter, that I'm not present with my wife. But writing and drawing are how my soul, my spirit, breathes, sings and lives. It's the magic where I deal with life and heal from a lifetime of trauma.
My wife sits at the dining room table writing, actually, she's probably working, and our daughter sits beside me eating a pear and watching her favorite show. She holds my hand or my arm, and in her way connects with her father who she knows is creating something. They tell me that my being here is enough, that it's okay to draw, to write, to sometimes lose myself in my creativity. No one speaks, we don't have to, we're all here. I'm alive. I'm writing.
And this is what we mean when we tell you to write what you know, you know life through your eyes. Today this is life through my eyes, still coming to terms with having nearly died, still feeling like his creativity is suffocating. Coming to terms with how that creativity has evolved into this, and how life, family, and writing aren't mutually exclusive despite my lack of immortality.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
NShannacappo is a Nakawe graphic novelist and poet from Rolling River First Nation in Manitoba. He's Eagle clan and currently living, working and playing in Ottawa. You can find his stories in the Indigenous anthologies called Sovereign Traces - Not (Just) (An)other, Vol 1 and Sovereign Traces – Relational Constellation, Vol 2. The graphic novel Mashkawide'e (Has a strong heart) was published by Senator Kim Pate and copies can be found by contacting her office. Neal published his own creation, The Krillian Key in November 2020, and is working on If I Go Missing which is being published by James Lorimer & Company Ltd., and Niikaniganaw (All My Relations) commissioned by a group of healthcare researchers.