An Anniversary

Yesterday (January 13) was an anniversary for my family. Not a wedding anniversary. Or a birthday. Or anything fun or celebratory like that. Yesterday was the 1-year anniversary of the night my husband almost died. One year ago yesterday, my husband went to the Emergency Room thinking he had bronchitis. Instead, we discovered he had had a heart attack. And that he had lost function in part of his heart. From the ER, he was admitted to the cardiac unit. And a run-away journey began for all of us.

The scary thing about traveling down a path you’ve never traveled before is just that: You’ve never been there before. You don’t know what to expect. You don’t know what’s around the corner. It’s scary as hell. It really is. And I feel like January 13, 2017 started me and my family down a twisting, uncertain, and, of course, unexpected path. There were a lot of tears. There was a lot of fear. There was a lot of me trying to be calm and strong and hold it together for my daughter and my husband. There was a lot of me failing at that, and failing HARD.

So far, January 2018 has felt weird. I’ve been anxious and unsettled. Whenever I visit FaceBook and see a memory pop up from last year at this time, I look at it and automatically think, “That was five days before the heart attack.” Or “That was two weeks before the heart attack.” And so on. It feels … weird. I don’t know how else to explain it. It feels weird to look at those pictures of my family, smiling and laughing, and to think about how innocent and naive we were then. It’s weird to look back at those pictures and think about how we had no idea what was about to come or how life was about to change.

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As we were going through everything last year, I remember thinking to myself that we just had to hang on until we got through the first few days. And then, just hang on until we got through the surgery. And then, just hang on until we got through the milestones after the surgery. I thought that, if we could get through one hurdle and then the next and the next … if we could continue moving forward … we would eventually get out of the forest, so to speak. If my husband recovered and came home and got stronger and continued to improve, then we would overcome this ordeal. We would have traveled the path set out before us and come out at the end of it, and our normal life would be waiting for us there.

Looking back, I realize I was terribly naive about it all, even in the midst of my fear and panic. Because “normal”, as it existed before the heart attack and surgery, is gone. It’s just gone. There’s no other way of saying it. I wish I could have it back, but I can’t. I’m not the same person I was before my husband’s heart attack. The truth is, no matter how much I told my daughter everything was going to be okay, I thought my husband was going to die. I thought I was going to have to figure out how to live without him. I thought I was going to have to raise our child on my own. It was me, standing at the edge and staring into the abyss. And the abyss stared back at me. This experience shook me to the very core of my being, and it still hasn’t let go.

Now, in the aftermath, I feel everything has changed. Friendships are irrevocably altered. My online presence is irrevocably altered. My relationship with my husband is irrevocably altered. My relationship with my daughter is irrevocably altered. It’s just … not the same. Nothing is the same. My “normal” is gone, and I don’t know how to get it back, and I don’t know what my new “normal” is supposed to be.

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My husband recovered. I will forever be thankful for this. He is strong, and he is doing well. He’s been back at work for several months now. He is more or less back to his old self, other than a few diet changes and a few medication changes we’ve had to make. We weathered the storm, and I should take a deep breath and relax a little bit. Except, I can’t seem to do that. I worry about my husband all the time. Every cough, every instance of him not feeling well, every everything scares the crap out of me. I feel panicked and afraid. I’m probably driving the poor guy crazy.

Today, as we were sitting down at lunch, my husband said something silly. It made me laugh, and he looked at our daughter and said, “See? I make Mom laugh. That’s why she needs me around.” And I lost it. I started crying right there at the table, and I couldn’t stop. I know my husband and daughter probably thought I was crazy. But I couldn’t help it. In that moment, the reality of it all slapped me right across the face. And I knew there was a part of me, still standing on the edge and staring out into the abyss. And the abyss is still staring back.

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The Good Day

I feel like my life has been filled with mostly-bad days over the past several weeks. Certainly, it feels as if all of January passed by me in a fog of … Well, “not good”. I’m tired and grouchy and feeling a bit overextended. It’s not just that I’m physically tired. I’m mentally and emotionally tired, too. There are a lot of days when I wake up and have a few moments of blissful ignorance before the reality of it all — heart disease and quadruple by-pass and sodium levels and blood pressure numbers and fluid restrictions and pain and anxiety and fear — comes crashing back down on me. In a way, I love those few moments of quiet in the very early morning right after I open my eyes. I love them because, just for those few ticks of the clock, my life feels “normal” again. It feels like the type of normal I’m used to. The type of normal I understand. The type of normal I know how to do.

But, of course, it can’t last. Because my life isn’t normal any more. I mean, all of this will become normal in time. And, when it does, I will know how to live this new “normal”. For now, though, I have been set afloat in a sea of life-stuff that I don’t understand and find terribly frightening. My footing is unsure, and I keep expecting the next tumble to come along at any moment. My husband had a heart attack. My husband has heart disease. My husband had a by-pass. “This is my life now. This is our life now,” I whisper to myself as I lie awake in the dark, waiting for the alarm clock to go off. I know it’s true. And yet, it seems surreal to me. It almost feels like all of this happened to two other people, not to my husband and me.

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Our sudden and unexpected plunge into the realities of heart disease brought along a lot of baggage. The fear of the unknown … the waiting for his surgery to happen … the horrible wait WHILE the surgery happened … the new merry-go-round of medications and vital signs and learning how to change the way we eat even more … the exhaustion … the stress. At first, I thought the surgery would be the bulk of the “bad” stuff. I thought that, once the surgery was done, we could relax a little bit and get on with the job of helping my husband to recover. Maybe it works this way for some people, but it didn’t happen like this for us. We had blood pressure that was too low, which impeded his ability to walk in the hospital. We had a sick child at home. We had almost constant nausea and vomiting for the first two weeks he was at home. We had a re-admission to the hospital because of this.

I’ve basically been on edge since January 13. I have been wandering through my life, holding my breath and waiting for the next bad thing to happen. Waiting for that next crisis or drama. I can feel it out there, lurking just around the corner and waiting for the perfect chance to pounce. I can’t let myself sit down and think about any of this for too long, because I will start to cry. And, if I start to cry, I have the feeling I won’t be able to stop. It’s not possible to live like this. I can’t continue being on edge and stressed and worried about what might happen. It’s too mentally and emotionally exhausting. No one can live like this. And yet, I find I am afraid of letting myself relax. I’m afraid to say to myself, “Okay, Self. This is our new normal. We’ve got this. We can do this.” Because, if I say that to myself … if I believe that … I’m going to jinx all of us. It’s not rational. But this is the thought in the back of my mind.

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Yesterday, though … Yesterday was a good day. My husband felt nausea-free for the first time in two weeks. He managed to get through the whole previous day without nausea medication, and he got a good enough night’s sleep that he managed to shake the grogginess that is a side-effect of those meds. He felt strong enough to get out of the house. We took our daughter to her basketball game. We went to Crate and Barrel so that he could walk around a little bit in a place that had chairs handy in case he wanted to rest. We got tea at Peet’s Coffee. He felt good enough to go with me to pick our daughter up after her game was over. He enjoyed the sun on his face. He even told me it felt good to be outside, in the fresh air. He managed to spend several hours outside of the house.

Today hasn’t been a great day. Today is more of a “meh” on the daily fulfillment measurement scale: not bad, but not so good, either. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I don’t know if it will be a good day or not. I don’t know if I will be able to handle whatever tomorrow throws my way. I don’t know if I will even want to handle any of it.

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But I do know this: In the midst of all the yuck and ick, yesterday was a good day. It shines in my memory with a brilliance made all the more poignant by our recent experiences. Yesterday made me feel happy. And hopeful. And — dare I say it? — normal. And I’m going to take those feelings, wrap them up tight, and store them away in my memory. Because the good days are too precious to let them go so easily. The good days are worth keeping.

The January Blues

You know, I never much liked January. It’s always been my least favorite month, even as a kid. There’s nothing particularly fun or special that happens in January. A few of my cousins have birthdays. And there’s New Year’s Day. And MLK Day. And Chinese New Year. But, really, all of these things just feel like they fall flat for me after the magic and over-decoration and fun that is Christmas.

For me, January is a month filled with gray and rainy days. It’s when the Christmas decorations come down and get put away. School break ends, and we all have to go back to the drudgery that often makes up our normal lives. If there was snow, it’s all melted into mush or gray, icky slush by now. Or, more likely for a lot of people, everyone is sick of snow by the time January rolls around. It has long since stopped being beautiful and started being a nuisance. January is a long month, too. When I get to the middle of January, I find myself thinking this month is never going to end. Ever. I mean, it just goes on and on and on and on and on. Yeah. I get it, January. You’re here. You’re a long month. You want everyone to know this. Bleh.

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This year, I find I hate January even more than ever before. This month has been an emotional roller coaster for me and my family. I feel like I’ve been slogging through each day on the calendar. Or, maybe, like our actual lives stopped on the 13th — pulled up short by my husband’s heart attack and subsequent surgery. My days this month have been an endless litany of worry, stress, fear, and heartache. I can’t seem to get my brain to settle on any one thing. There are days when I simply go back and forth from room to room, as if I’m searching for something but can’t quite remember what that “something” is. Here’s a hint: It’s probably my sanity. Trips up and down the stairs to fetch things for my husband … trips out in the car to pick up my daughter or take her to her activities … hauling stuff into the house … hauling stuff out of the house … feeding the dogs … letting the dogs in and out and in and out and (well, you get the idea). And laundry. Oh my gosh, the laundry! My hampers runneth over.

So far, recovery is a bit rough, both for my husband and for me. He was home from the hospital for about three days, but he was having stomach issues the whole time. On the third day, we ended up back in the hospital. We spent the whole night in the ER, and he ended up admitted back onto the cardiac surgical unit. We landed in the exact same room we had left just three days before. What are the odds? It was an eerie feeling. He improved quickly, though. The doctors concluded it was “probably” a stomach virus, and he only had to stay over one night. We came home, and he was doing so great. He even got out of the house yesterday for a short shopping expedition to one of his favorite stores. But today, he woke up feeling sick to his stomach. Again. And I thought … “No. We’ve already done this part. It’s supposed to get easier from here on out. It’s supposed to be that way, Universe. We already paid for it.”

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Apparently, the universe hasn’t gotten that memo just yet. One step forward, two steps back: that’s what life feels like to me right now. I feel like I’m in that movie, Groundhog Day, and I’m reliving the same shitty, shitty day over and over and over again. Mostly, I’m just tired. I can’t remember the last time I was this tired. I feel frazzled and worn thin, both emotionally and physically. I keep telling myself it will get better. Things will get better. But there are some days when I have a hard time believing this to be true.

And so, I will not be sad to see January go. I am not sure I can expect much better from the month of February, but I’m willing to give it a chance. So come on, February, don’t disappoint me!

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.