Where the Heart Leads

My husband’s heart was broken. Not like the kind of broken where someone has wounded you, and you feel as if you want to crawl into a deep, dark hole and hide forever. His heart was literally broken. As in … not functioning.

On January 13, he told me he wasn’t feeling well. He had a cough that sounded big and wet. And he was anxious to the point of having a panic attack. We thought he had bronchitis. This all started at around midnight. Well, I suppose he had been having these symptoms for longer than that. Certainly, he had had them all day. And the cough had been a fixture for a couple of days, although he thought, at first, it was just a cold. Initially, he decided he would sleep in our recliner and go to an urgent care in the morning. He was tired and felt yucky and didn’t want to be poked and prodded. He just wanted to go to sleep and be done with the day. But his anxiety wouldn’t let him rest. It pawed at him and spurred him into snapping anger. Finally, I brought him his pants, keys, and wallet, and I told him to go to the ER. I wanted to drive him, but our daughter was already asleep. He didn’t want to wake her up and scare her like that. Once he got to the ER, he texted me that there was fluid in his lungs. But that it wasn’t because of bronchitis. It was because he had had a heart attack.

“I had a heart attack.”

That’s how he wrote it. Right there, in text form, blinking at me from the screen of my phone. It didn’t feel real. It still doesn’t feel real. And yet, it’s real. As real as a heart attack, as the ridiculous saying goes. In that moment, staring at my phone and feeling my breath catch in my throat, I knew our lives were never going to be the same. I didn’t know in that instant how they would change. Or if the change would be good or not. Or even if I would still have a husband by the end of that night. Or the next day. Or the day after that. I never thought I would be sitting in my own home, reading those words and feeling as if my entire world was crashing down on top of me.

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Of course, they admitted my husband to the hospital’s cardiac wing that night. The doctors ran tests and scans and poked and prodded and did all the things that doctors do. They determined that every artery going into his heart was blocked. Some with multiple blockages. And part of his heart was not functioning.

My husband’s heart. His beautiful heart that beats in time with mine and calms my fears. His loving heart that beat out with joy and made him smile as he held our little daughter in his arms for the first time. His generous heart that draws friends to him in the unlikeliest of places. The heart that I have laid next to for over twenty years, listening to it beating in the still silence of the night. The heart that I love more than anything else on this Earth.

How could this be? How could my husband’s heart be broken? How could I have to face the possibility of being in this world alone? It didn’t seem possible. Maybe they made some mistake. Maybe they were looking at pictures of another person’s heart. Because they don’t know my husband’s heart. They don’t know it like I do. And yet, it wasn’t a mistake. It was real, and they had the pictures to prove it.

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On January 18, my husband had open-heart surgery. We were lucky, in a way, that the doctors felt it was safe to wait for a few days before doing the surgery. At least, that’s what they all told us. We were lucky he had come into the ER that night. We were lucky that he was young. We were lucky that he was in relatively good health and in good physical shape. We were lucky that they felt able to give his heart time to calm down after the attack, instead of rushing him into surgery right away.

In the days before the operation, we didn’t feel lucky. I mean, in some ways … Yes, we did. My husband was alive. He had survived a heart attack — one that had come suddenly, without warning or symptoms. We were together. We could still laugh at things. We could still hold each other. But, in other ways … No. We did not feel lucky. We had to talk about death and wills and durable powers of attorney and health care directives and when I should pull the plug, if it came to that. We had to talk about finances and which bills I should pay off and how much life insurance he has and what my daughter and I would do if the worst happened. And the whole time, my own heart screamed out in protest. I did not want to talk about these things. I did not want to think about these things. I wanted to crawl into bed with him and feel safe and secure in his arms. But his arms were full of IVs, and I’m an adult. So, we talked about all the “important stuff”.

His surgery lasted for four and a half hours. I know, in terms of open-heart surgery, that is not a long time at all. It’s actually a fairly quick procedure. But for me, those were the longest four and a half hours I have ever spent. I can’t remember what I did during that time, other than wandering the waiting rooms and halls of the hospital, feeling lost. And hugging my daughter close to try and calm her fears. I was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. I was numb.

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On January 23, my husband came home from the hospital. It was a good day. A happy day. But also a nerve-wracking day. Would I be able to care for him? Would he be able to continue his recovery? Would we know what to look for if another attack happened?

His heart isn’t broken any more. It is all fixed, good as new. Maybe even better than new. But now, our spirits are a little bit broken in its place. I think we had reached a place where we thought we had most things figured out. Things weren’t perfect, but it was a life we knew how to handle. Or, maybe we were just fooling ourselves. I’m not sure now, when I look back on the weeks and months leading up to all of this. But I do know this: The new life we have … We don’t know how to do this one, yet. I think we are both afraid and unsure. We don’t trust things. It’s almost like we are balancing on the edge, holding our breath, and waiting for the next bad thing to happen. There have been a lot of bad things lately. This is true. But it doesn’t mean there HAVE to be more bad things. This is also true. But, somehow, it’s harder to believe.

For now, my husband is home. He is getting better every day. And, at night, I can move in close to him and listen to the beat of his heart in the still silence. And I know: I am home, too. It’s enough.