Monday, August 3, 2009

Closing the chapter, for now

A few weeks ago, while in New Englad, my dad hosted dinner at his house for my two aunts, his girlfriend and of course, me and my boys. During dinner, we caught up on the latest goings on with all of our family members, including the health of my uncle who recently had a heart attack. As my aunt Diana gave us all the details of his heart attack, the procedures that he had during his hospital stay, and his care and rehab after his release from the hospital, I realize that as a thirty-one-year-old woman, I know WAY too much about cardiac patients and cardiac care. Sometimes I wish I didn't know so much, sometimes I see this knowledge as a badge of honor, depending on the day.

The immediate weeks and months following Adam's open heart surgery were frightening. I worried every time he took a shower that he could pass out (and with good reason, since he actually DID pass out about one week after being home from the hospital and the only reason I think we avoided a serious scenario was because I happened to be in the bathroom at the moment he passed out in the shower. One call to 911, one ambulance ride, three days and nights and one blood transfusion later, we were able to return home again). I worried if he didn't answer his cell phone right away his first few days back at work when he was far along enough in his recovery to return to his office. I worried if he didn't wake up immediately when I said his name in the morning. I worried when he walked into another room. I worried constantly.

And then the daily worry began to yield. But what replaced it was the dread that I felt when I thought about how closely we had danced with disaster. I knew I should feel relief, but somehow it was feeling that very relief that scared me the most. It was as if, somehow, my relief was heavy with weight of fear, so instead of a reprieve from fear, I felt fright. The anticipation of the crash of coming down from the high of relief was so jarring that it made experiencing those moments of consolation almost disconcerting. Sort of the same way you feel when you just barely avoid a car accident. Initially, you are so thankful that you avoided an accident, but that "holy crap, I could've killed someone" feeling always follows, along with a sharp stab of that "what if" feeling.

And then I became obssessed with thinking about the months before and after Adam's surgery. I couldn't stop the thoughts from coming. I'd be driving along and then my fingers would grip the steering wheel and thinking about those "what could've been's" that would flood my mind literally took my breath away. And then I began to think that maybe I'd made it seem worse than it was, that maybe I was being overdramatic and maybe I was imagining things. I've had a constant struggle between this idea of overdramatizing our (his) experience and allowing myself to understand and admit the seriousness of our situation. Was it real?

I thought about the days I spent sleeping curled up on the couch in Adam's hospital room, my pregnant body rebelling against me, communicating through constant contractions that I needed a break (and a real bed), my heart breaking because I wanted to be the one to put Ethan to bed at night but knew that Adam needed me by his bedside so much more, my soul aching because the man that I loved was scared and in pain and there was not a damn thing I could do to make any of it better, while my innermost thoughts whispered, "How am I going to manage this? What if he doesn't get better?". And horribly and guiltily, a small part of me thought that being almost 8 months pregnant, I should be the one that was being taken care of. It is a thought that shamed me then, and shames me now, but a thought that I couldn't push away.

I remember seeing a dear friend of mine at shul just a few weeks after Adam's surgery. I had gone to services by myself and she came up to me and she told me how strong I was and what a pillar I was for my family and how much grace I was showing. Those were beautiful words, spoken with such sincerity but they were words that saddened me, because all I could think of as she spoke them was the tantrum I had thrown just days before. A full out, three-year-old style tantrum. Where I literally laid down on the floor in the middle of my hallway and kicked so hard my shoes flew off my feet and screamed with so much force, I literally wet my pants and while it is true that a simple sneeze could cause me to do that at that stage of pregnancy, the fact remains that I completely lost control of myself while poor Adam sat and watched, helplessly. I was not graceful. Or strong for that matter.

But then I remembered that there were days that all of this was almost normal. That walking with Adam up and down the cardiac floor with a walker and a tank of oxygen seemed ordinary, not outrageous. That talking about blocked arteries, chest tubes, heart catheterizations, HDL and LDL levels and statins became commonplace. There was even a night where Adam and I curled up in his hospital bed together (where I had to be careful not to yank on his iv or telemetry wires) and watched Seinfeld reruns while eating takeout from one of our favorite restaurants.

There some pretty dark days. Days I wish I could redo. Days where I was surprised that I could behave so badly. Days where I was ravaged with fear. Days where I was just simply exhausted from taking care of everyone else but myself. But there were bright days too. Many bright in fact. Days where Adam and I sat together in his hospital room, grateful that all we were dealing with was, in all honesty, a common condition that was easily treatable (relatively speaking anyway). I whispered a prayer of gratitude every time I walked past the Winship Cancer Institute knowing how much worse it would be if that's were I was headed instead of the cardiac step down floor of the hospital. I remember being at one of the surgeons' offices prior to Adam's surgery. My heart was heavy with sadness and I looked at the floor and at my feet peeking out from my round, pregnant tummy, while everyone else in the waiting room looked at my growing belly. I was feeling very sorry for myself and got up to use the ladies room. As I did, I had to pass an oncologist's office. I was slapped out of my self-piteous reverie and was filled with an abundance of gratitude that "all" Adam needed was some silly old heart surgery. I couldn't fathom how difficult it would be to force myself to walk into the office of an oncologist. Instantly, our situation seemed so small and inconsequential.

The crisis is behind us, even though there are days where I sometimes fear that this happy and medical drama-free life that we are living right now is like the eye an of a hurricane, the calm before the second part of the storm. But I can't worry about that. And I also can't let myself obsess over wondering if my sad memories and frightened feelings are over dramatic or not. Yet, it is something I still continue to grapple with.

Finally, one night, shortly before I left for our summer trip, I realized I needed some closure, I needed to close this chapter. And even if I have no idea what the future chapters hold, I know that this one has got to end. So I did something a little crazy. Even as I was doing it, it felt crazy. But it felt right.

I drove over to the hospital and walked around. I felt like I had committed a crime and was returning to the crime scene. I parked the car in the garage and saw the space where I had parked my car the day of Adam's surgery. I passed the Winship Cancer Center entrance that I passed every day, grateful I could continue past its doors. I walked through the same doors, down the same hallways. All my memories came flooding back, all at once, filling my mind with thoughts and my stomach with just a hint of dread. Finally, I made my way to the ICU waiting room, where I practically lived for two days beginning the morning of Adam's surgery and ending when he was abruptly moved out of the ICU onto the step down floor. And that's when it got to be too much. I saw families, very, very sad families settled into the ugly, familiar room, scattering their belongings and friends around them for comfort, just as I had done. I saw people crying. I saw people with desperate expressions on their faces. And I realized that all the sadness and fear I remember feeling was real, that I hadn't imagined it, hadn't made it a bigger deal than it really was. It was my reality.

But it is behind us. And though I felt a little off kilter for making the trip to the hospital, it was most definitely what I needed to allow myself to acknowledge my emotions and then allow myself to move on from them. Does that mean I won't worry about Adam's health ever again? Probably not. But I'm okay with that because I can handle the future as long as I'm not grappling with the past.


Nora said...

I did a very similar thing just recently. When Daniel was born, he spent 10 days in the Special Care Nursery for some fluid in his lungs. I stayed at the hospital all but two of those days so we RAN out of the hospital when he was discharged. I recently went to a doctor appointment there and strolled around the hospital "for old time's sake." It does bring closure. Thanks for sharing.

Dad said...

Very touching.

Jen said...

Thanks for making me feel a little less nutty! :0)