They call it “Ski Week” up here in the great white north. And by great white north, I am of course referring to Northern California. I know that my Uncle Mike who lived in Alaska for years is chuckling at this point, but I digress. So, instead of having just one day off on Monday for the celebration of several esteemed and historic dead presidents, evidently the kids are given an entire week to ponder the importance of the aforementioned presidents while they wait in lift lines and clutch hot cocoa. Chris did in fact take yesterday off even though he rarely takes holidays, especially the ludicrous ones like “ski-week”. But, he was home yesterday because it was the end of his week long “time out” prescribed by his doctor.
Last Tuesday he failed a stress test, and was given a stent to open up a major artery in his heart that was 99% blocked. Someone asked me if it has changed his personality. I have to say that while I think it has given him a new and powerful sense of purpose and a goal (we have all become a slightly unkempt, but focused cheering squad promoting low-fat, whole-grain, high-fiber, and low-sodium), I believe his personality remains strong and intact. He seems to be the same sweet, saber-toothed, surly, quiet, man with a wickedly wry sense of humor that I have known, loved, and tolerated lo these many years. He does continue to have an intolerance for stupidity, which I think is completely justifiable, but going forward we may need to find less stressful ways for him to express his disdain when faced with those situations and people. Still, I pity those poor souls who wander into his path.
By the time I got the call from him about the failed stress test, I had already dropped the kids at school. In a quiet hushed tone (because he was using the emergency room phone) he told me that he had failed the stress test. Chris never fails tests. He aces tests. He is brilliant. But this isn’t about that. The reason he had gone in to see his doc at all was some chest pain that he had had while walking and on the treadmill over the last several weeks. Now he is telling me that those pains happened again while on the stress test treadmill, and the cardiologist has deemed it a “significant cardiac event”. It sounded like something that would require an R.S.V.P., or perhaps could be found in the Calendar section of the Gilroy Dispatch. It did not seem like the kind of phrase I would be using to describe the adventures of my forty-three year old husband.
He asked me to pack an overnight bag with clothes, a book, ditty bag, and a phone charger. They would be taking him by ambulance from the San Jose Hospital to the Santa Clara Hospital for an angiogram. It would take several hours, so I shouldn’t say anything to the kids yet. Just go on with our regular routine until he was admitted into an actual room, and then he would call again. I must tell you here that I am a mutt, ethnically speaking, but have quite a good bit of Irish in the mix. My skin is very fair and tends to be a reflection of my emotions. What I am saying is, I am a really lousy poker player, and a horrible liar (this usually includes lies of omission). Luckily, this was the last week of school before a weeklong break, so the kids were incredibly busy and very distracted. I had Chris’ bag packed and tucked up in the floorboard of the passenger seat of the van (named POD for Pile-o’-Debt). As I picked up the first bunch (Alex and Sam) from the elementary school, and then Zach from middle school, the car began to fill with the usual and beautiful cacophony of the afternoon. Recess and class adventures were shared and compared. The exploits of friends and enemies were described in great detail to each other. Occasionally, I would interject and comment or ask a question, but usually I simple drove and eavesdropped enjoying the fact that they let me come to the party at all. We went by the library to return books, and then home to the business of homework. Sam and Alex had valentines that they were cranking out for their classes, and Sam was in the middle stages of constructing a Tardis as his Valentine’s box. Long gone are the days of a simple shoebox with hearts and glitter. All of these things were welcome distractions for me, because I had not heard from Chris since the pre-angiogram phone call. I helped Alex with his spelling packet, and reviewed ancient Mayan and Toltec history with Zach for a Social Studies quiz. At 5pm I told Sam to grab his piano books and we headed off to lessons, which start at 5:15 taught by Miss Mary at the Music Academy of Gilroy (located in the back building of the First Methodist Church.) Piano goes until 5:45 and after that we headed home and I made very quick peanut butter sandwiches for them to eat. Still no word from Chris, and since that night would normally be Zach’s junior high group (JAM) at Gilroy Presbyterian, that was to be our next stop. I was still just humming along on our little track of routines, but all the while, my stomach was twisted into these insane knots and my breath kept shortening into little puffs like I was at a high altitude. When I would notice it, I would stop and just take one long deep breath and then wonder how many minutes I had been puffing away like some little smokeless dragon. So weird what our bodies do to compensate or react to stress and anxiety, especially when you aren’t really venting it out anywhere. Finally, with “camping” dinner in their bellies, and just as we headed out to take Zach to JAM, I got the call. It was Chris, very low-voiced and speaking carefully as though trying to walk a straight line with his words. I believe this was the Valium talking here, but I could be wrong. Even with Valium, this man keeps it together. It was then that he told me that they had done the angiogram and it had shown a 99% blockage of a pretty major artery, so they put in a stent. We should come now, he said. He was in room 7. That’s it. I told the kids that dad had had a doctors visit and some tests earlier in the day and that the doctors had not liked the way his heart was acting so they wanted to fix it. So he is getting a procedure done and going to spend the night at the hospital. It took 45 minutes and a lot of crazy commuter traffic for this country mouse and her three kids to make it to the Santa Clara Hospital in the dark, but we did it.
I think it was hard at first for the boys to see their dad laying flat in the hospital bed. The tube from the angiogram and stent placement was still in place in his femoral artery, so they had to keep him flat and monitor him carefully for blood clots and adverse reactions. Sam pointed at the flimsy hospital sheet and whispered to me, “Is he naked under that?” and I told him that he had one of those stylish hospital gowns like they make you where, but that yes, his legs are uncovered so the nurses can check the tube and the incision and make sure everything looks good. I let Chris decide how much or how little detail to give them, and he told them exactly what happened and what the doctors did. I am happy about that. I always think it is far scarier to leave kids out of conversations and let their imaginations swirl with the “what-ifs”. I know that when I was a child, my “what ifs” were always so much worse than the reality. If you are truthful, and let them be a part of the dialogue, even if that dialogue includes the words, “I don’t have the answers right now.”, I believe it allows them to voice their worries rather than bottle them up. We hung out for several hours until they removed the tube. The waiting room was hot and stuffy, and I kept walking out and down the hallway to make calls to Chris’ folks or mine. The boys were patient, playing on their phones and then “I spy” when batteries ran low. But poor Alex has very predictable needs. His body knew when it was 8:45 that he should have been home in pj’s and brushing his teeth. He also seems to have become my most impressionable of the three. By that I mean, Sam and Zach seem to have created these defense mechanism that have enabled them to cope with certain traumas and dramas that are happening around them. It’s as though they are shooting through space in a meteor storm, but things just deflect off of them a lot of the time. But so often, we will be in some circumstance where there is harm to someone else or there is a traumatic or difficult event, and I look at Alex and it is as though not only has the meteor actually connected, it has left its indelible imprint on him. Finally, the boys and I were allowed back in the room, and they let Chris rise up a whole four inches from the completely prone position he had been in previously. I helped him get his contacts out and eat a fantastic dinner of dry turkey sandwich and low-sodium chicken soup. It had been 17 hours since Chris had eaten anything, which I think is the longest that he has gone without food, well….ever. The boys and I joke about the fact that dad needs to get enough sleep and needs to eat regularly lest he turn into the Red Hulk. So, he was incredibly grateful to have that awful little boxed meal despite the lateness of the hour, the dryness of the turkey, or the frustration at having his wife be the one who held the straw on his juice box. We finally said goodnight to Chris about ten, and I think he saw something of the wild panic in Alex’ eyes, and said in a calm voice, “Alex, it’s going to be alright.” As we walked out, Zach and Sam were ahead several paces and Alex looked up at me (just barely because he is almost as tall as I am now) and tears were just brimming in his eyes). He said, “Mom, I think I am afraid that Dad just said that the way some adults say, ‘It’s gonna be alright’, when it really isn’t going to be alright at all.”
I put my arm around him, and quietly called the other two back. “No Alex, this is not like that. This is not one of those times, where the adults say it’s going to be ok, when it isn’t. You know what this moment is? This is a Hallelujah moment. For me, this is a God is Good moment. We could call it a half-full glass moment, or a Bluebird moment; dad might call it simply fortuitous. You can call it whatever you want to, but dad felt a pain in his chest and instead of ignoring it, he called his doctor and made an appointment. Maybe that was just him being one smart cookie, or maybe some gut instinct motivated him, but I am just so very grateful right now that he made that call.”
Earlier in the evening while watching bad t.v. on the tiny set in the waiting room, Alex had asked what would have happened if dad hadn’t gone in to the doctor for the test, and Sam had thrown wide his hands and said, “Heart attack waitin’ to happen.”
Don’t sugarcoat it Sam. Give it to us straight.
Happy Ski Week!
Love to you all,