More than Nine Lives


Butterscotch. Photo by Callen Harty

In my life, I feel like I have lived more than the nine lives of a cat.

When I was two years old, I almost died when I contracted scarlet fever, meningitis, and mumps in a two week span. My first memory is of the doctor, who lived next door and still made house calls, carrying me to the bathroom in my house.

At about eight years old I was in the hospital with a very high temperature, sweating profusely, and very sick. I don’t know what I had at that time, but my class all created hand-made cards for me and one of the students included several pictures–your flowers, your nurse, your grave. Yes, my grave. It didn’t necessarily make me feel better at the time, though I could laugh about it later. But it also tells me that she must have heard something serious about the illness.

In high school, I was playing in a barn loft with a number of friends. I lost my footing and fell into an opening to the first floor, but somehow my leg caught on the side of it and stopped me before I fell to the cement floor below.

When I was in my early twenties I was out partying and somehow was smart enough to know I was too drunk to drive. However, I was also too drunk to realize that the friend I gave my keys to was also too drunk to drive. We crossed the center line at about 90 miles per hour, went off the road, into a ditch, into a telephone pole, and spun around coming to a stop facing the other direction. Miraculously, he had a bit of a bump on his head and I was not injured at all. We went to a friend’s place to sleep it off and down to the police station in the morning, where we were told that the police had alerted every hospital in the area to be on the lookout for us as they didn’t believe we could have survived without injury.

Since then, I totaled my pickup truck after hitting black ice, had another car totaled when a teenager slammed into me from behind, and have had a couple other minor accidents.

I survived years of childhood sex abuse, only to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol and somehow came through a little more than a decade of incredibly heavy drinking and drug use still alive. Drinking was a daily thing and it was never just a drink or two. It was a dozen, two dozen, until I was plastered and often passed out or blacked out. Fortunately, I had an epiphany and stopped before it was too late.

Being gay, my life has been threatened. Simply for being gay. One time in Madison, I had to call the police and they held the guy with questioning so that I could leave safely. Somehow I also came through the AIDS crisis unscathed except for survivor guilt.

Because of the child sex abuse and the alcoholism, I managed not to kill myself despite a lot of suicidal ideation and some miserably failed attempts.

After all of that I hit my early fifties and was amazed at being alive still. At that time I suffered a heart attack on stage in the middle of an opening night performance of a play. It made all the local papers because I finished the play while having a heart attack that proved to be a one hundred percent blockage of my left coronary. A decade later, I was diagnosed with ischemic cardiomyopathy and three months ago suffered an attack of ventricular tachycardia when my heart was beating at 240 beats a minute. I am now walking around with seven stents and a computer in my chest.

So now our world is threatened with a coronavirus strain that is changing everything and turning our world upside down with social distancing, self-isolation, and a lot of fear. At 62 years old, I am possibly more afraid of mortality than at any point during a life of harrowing survival. I have to wonder how many times I can narrowly escape the final day. I’d like to think I can come out of this and have yet another story to tell about tricking death another time.

The difference this time is the fear. Even during the heart attack, I somehow knew in my soul that everything would be okay. I just knew. This time, I fear. It is palpable and real and may even be making me more vulnerable than I would be. After all, I am in a high-risk category due to my age and heart history. If it hits me, will my body be able to fight it? I don’t know. I know I will fight it as hard as I can, but will that be enough? Can I keep from getting it? My workplace has put me in a separate space in our office and are working at how to get me to work from home, but will that be soon enough? I don’t know and the unknown is the basis of fear.

The thing is there are countless people out there, both high-risk and not, who have the same fears. I am not unique and could end up just a number like all the victims of the 1918 Spanish flu. Any one of us could get it. Any one of us could survive or succumb. Any one of us could get through this unscathed. But there will be few who do not fear and who do not ponder what comes after this life and whether we or our loved ones will find out sooner than any of us want. My heart has survived several crises, but now it hurts for all of us.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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