Holding on

“All that is worth cherishing begins in the heart.” ~Suzanne Chapin

     “Is she going to die?” I ask the firefighter. It’s been 20 minutes since I’ve dialed 911, my wife is lying collapsed on the living room floor of our rural ski cabin. Shortly after, the paramedics and firefighters showed up, lifted Dana’s shirt to attach her to a heart monitor, only to have it all disconnected in a flurry. The words “load and go” is all I had heard.
     It’s been 15 minutes since they carried her up the long steep driveway covered with three feet of freshly fallen snow and took off speeding with lights and sirens to meet a helicopter that would take her miles away.
     It’s been 10 minutes since the firemen shoveled my car out from a mountain of snow and followed me to the plowed freeway and yanked the snow chains off my tires. I find myself standing at a gas station. My little yellow Mini Cooper lodged between two gigantic fire trucks, me sandwiched between two solid firefighters. Shivering, my arms across my chest. Am I cold? Did I grab my jacket?
     Waiting. We are waiting. Waiting to find out what direction I need to start driving, which hospital? North or South? The walkie talkies that the firefighters are holding squawks suddenly with a flurry of activity. I hear the words helicopter, cardiac patient, stat. Then awkward silence. The rookie’s face gives it away. He really wants to talk about what he saw on the heart monitor and break down the atypical arrhythmia rhythms that he’s seen only on training videos. I can feel the unspoken conversation that will be held out loud later at the fire station, perhaps over dinner tonight. Chili or spaghetti? The senior paramedic will probably reveal that he’s never seen a heart attack this big, at least not in the 23 years he’s been doing this, reaching for another piece of garlic bread.
     All at once, garbled voices over the radio call for the engine company, “Go ahead,” the man to my left says into the radio. I can’t hear what the person on the other end is saying because my hearing has randomly left me. The two firemen step closer to me, to catch me perhaps. “They are taking her to Sutter Health Roseville,” the older of the two says to me. “Is she going to die?” I ask. “No,” he answers. I look into his eyes and pray to a god that I don’t talk to enough that this man is right. He took a deep breath and put his large, heavy hand on my shoulder. “They wouldn’t be putting her in a helicopter if she wasn’t going to survive,” he says. “She’s going to be alright.” If I was going to be able to drive for the next two and a half hours to the hospital, I had no choice but to believe this man. I hold onto his words.
     It’s been almost three hours. I’m at the hospital, but I can’t find parking. Screw it. I park in the space reserved for the emergency room only. Where is my wife? Is she here? The clerk at the cubicle tells me she’s out of surgery and in ICU Room 216. My brain ignores the word surgery and embraces the fact that Dana is alive. I walk through the maze of hallways. My socks are soggy inside my boots, and it takes me a moment to realize they are wet from the snow I trudged through earlier. Critical Care Unit. I lift the telephone to gain access to the locked ward, and I find her. I stand in the doorway. She is attached to monitors that are beeping incessantly. It’s so loud and endless, and I’m not sure if I’m allowed to enter the room. I go in anyway, and as soon as my wife sees me, she starts sobbing. I awkwardly bend down over her as she grabs my hands and nuzzles her face into my neck, her tears falling. “Shhh… you are okay, you are okay,” I repeat over and over to her until the sobs dissipate into whimpers and finally to sleep. I fight the lump in my throat. I can’t cry now. I’ll cry later.
     Six hours later, I work up the courage to ask the nurse what happened? I feel foolish that I don’t know why my wife collapsed with no warning at all. Everything was so normal. She explains that as soon as Dana landed at the hospital, she was immediately taken in for surgery, and a fully clogged artery was opened to feed the starving heart. Blood is now pumping through her heart, no problem. I watch my wife sleeping, her face pale.
     Five days later, we are back home. In our own bed, no beeping monitors, no blood pressure cuffs suddenly coming to life strangling Dana’s arm for information. No nurse to wake her up to feed her more pills or insert drugs into her iv’s. No one to check to see if she’s still breathing as I lean over her at midnight, and again at 2, 3:30, 5 o’clock. Is she breathing? I pretend to be asleep as she wakes up to go to the bathroom, then counts the minutes until she returns. As soon as she drifts back to sleep, I get up to turn the hallway light back on. I want to be able to grab my phone if I have to call 911.
     Six days later, a visit to the cardiologist, a man we have never met before. A man who knows more about what happened than we do. “A widow maker” is what they call your heart attack. “A what?” I ask, my hearing falling back into an underwater sensation. Dana answers for him, putting a hand on my knee. “A widow maker,” she says. My body starts to tremble at the sound of the appalling words. “I’ve rarely seen anyone survive a heart attack this big,” the doctor says, as he continues to read the hospital notes. I swallow that ever-present lump in my throat and ask, “how does the rest of the heart look?” He smiles, his eyes bright. “Today, her heart is strong, and despite the attack, it’s recovering nicely.” He looks at both of us. “See you in a couple of months. Welcome to your second life.” I go home and google “widow maker” and instantly regret doing so.
     Ten days later, we are both sleeping through the night with no night light. We’ve figured out a system for her to take medications without getting confused with doses or when to take what. Hours will go by, and I find I’m not lurking behind the kitchen door to see what she’s doing. Our sons have flown in from out of state to go through our kitchen cabinets to throw away all the crap food and replenish it with organic, salt-free items. I’ve bought more produce in the last week than I have in the past two years. I’ve joined the gym. We both have followed the hospital’s dietitians plan laid out for us, and we have each lost 5 lbs. Dana can walk halfway around the block. She has healthy rosy cheeks, and her sky-blue eyes are sparkling. She is working from home, spending the days behind a computer with no need for a nap. I put up the Christmas tree and decorate the house. We start to look forward to celebrating Christmas with our sons, who decide we will have Christmas here at our home. They will fly in with their wives and our precious two-year-old grandson.
     Two weeks later and I have my moments. Fighting flashbacks that occur when I’m in the checkout line at the grocery store, standing in the kitchen, making a salad, or pouring a cup of coffee. Six firefighters carrying my wife in their arms up through three feet of snow, one of them holding her feet up so that her toes don’t touch the ice. The dog’s face as he’s looking out the front window of the closed bedroom, barking, but no one is hearing him. Driving the long winding road while continuously glancing at my phone, wondering when I am going to get cell service. The admitting clerk who takes too long to tell me what room my wife is in. It’s in these moments that I take myself back to the gas station on the corner. I sandwich myself between the two firemen and look again into that firefighter’s eyes. And I pray to a god that I still don’t talk to enough that this man is right. She is going to be alright. That keeps me from crying. I can’t cry now.
     It’s ten o’clock at night on Christmas Day. A perfect day complete with family, love, and laughter. Our grandson filled with the magical joy that only a two-year-old can possess on Christmas Day. A joy that is contagious as we opened gifts. We indulged ourselves with a fancy beef tenderloin dinner accompanied with healthy vegetable side dishes. Dana and I watch as the kids eat chocolate parfaits for dessert, finish their wine and then head off to the local hotel for the night. A sleeping toddler boy slung over my son’s shoulder. Exhausted, Dana immediately goes to bed, and I join her. The mess in the kitchen can wait until tomorrow. She has overdone it. But it’s Christmas, and we knew that was going to happen. She holds my hand and kisses me goodnight. Silence. Is she asleep already? I let go of her hand, but she grips it tight. “I almost missed Christmas. I almost lost all of this,” she whispers. I lean over and put my head on her chest. “But you didn’t. You are here right now,” I say. Moments later, she is sound asleep.
     I creep back downstairs and sit on the couch next to the Christmas tree. I wrap myself in the plush throw my daughter-in-law gave me, and I cry. And I cry, and I cry. We almost did miss all of this. I came too close to planning a funeral rather than a plan for Christmas. She came too close to dying. More tears. I wrap the blanket tighter around me. My wet eyes are blurring the soft glow of the tree into a kaleidoscope of colored lights. I hear the cardiologist voice, feel the firefighter’s hand on my shoulder, “Welcome to your second life. It’s going to be alright.” I hold onto these words as the lump in my throat melts, I can exhale. I go back to my warm bed, listen to my wife’s gentle breathing, and fall asleep, holding onto the Christmas magic of a precious two-year-old little boy.

(photo purchased via http://www.shutterstock.com)


4 thoughts on “Holding on

  1. Sorry to hear about Dana’s heart attack and glad she is doing OK now. It was your quick action and the firefighters helped save Dana’s life. It was great that she was able to be home to celebrate Christmas with all of you.

    My wife and i have followed your blog for many years through Dana’s transition and it helped us both through my own transition. We are both grateful for that and where shocked to hear about Dana’s medical emergency. We wish you both the best.
    Sara and Kari


  2. From a random stranger on the Internet, the very best of luck to you both. I hope Dana’s recovery is going well and so is yours too. It seems one hell of a journey.


  3. I am so glad Dana is going to be OK. Your blog was and is an inspiration to me; Dana’s transition provided me a measure of courage to transition myself in 2018. Godspeed and love to you all!


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