This is a what if story. It is a story about the story that was supposed to happen, but mercifully went off track. And it is about what you do when you are spared. What you do when your life is barreling down one path to what seems an inevitable end, but something simple and mundane happens that stops fate. The thing that is supposed to stop is the heart. But it doesn’t.
And so what do you do with that almost thing, with finality that is thwarted?
On the eve of our thirtieth anniversary, my husband, Jon, is thinking about how fleeting life is, how fast and mercilessly it carries you along. At age fifty-one, he is thinking that he still feels like the young kid he was thirty years ago, and thus how shocking it is that he is so far down his life road, with five children, demanding businesses, and so much left to do. And as a result of these thoughts and the need of a business loan, Jon pursues more life insurance. In order to up his insurance ante, he must have a physical exam. It is this insurance-mandated physical exam that saves the life he is contemplating.
People who feel fine should not have abnormal EKGs. Their cardio stress tests should not show substantial blockage in their hearts. People who have no symptoms should not have to go into the hospital for a couple of vascular stents and end up in quintuple bypass surgery. People with only one unobstructed artery ought to know that they are a walking time bomb. But Jon had no idea.
And so the heart attack that should have happened when we raced from one terminal to the next to catch our connecting flight to London, didn’t. And when Jon jogged jovially up that long stairway, keeping pace with me as I rode the escalator from London’s Underground, nothing but a little breathlessness occurred. The heart attack that surely could have happened on the transatlantic flight to Europe, or on the flight coming back, those didn’t happen either. That catastrophic heart failure that would surely have ended his life, since there was only one blood vessel still left clear, did not occur.
The point here, really, isn’t about the heart attack, or the heart that just kept working despite itself. It’s about second chances.
When your spouse is spared in this way (when so many people are not) you can’t help but wonder why. Why him? Why us?
The brilliant surgeon, who waltzed into our lives and performed the difficult surgery as if he were simply replacing the plumbing under our kitchen sink, assured us that he would fix Jon’s heart and that Jon would be a new man. While he took the hours to do that, I sat in the waiting room in deep conversation with God. It’s the longest conversation God and I have had yet. Longer than the talk we had the night before the California bar exam; longer than our chat before my follow-up ultrasound after a questionable mammogram; even longer than our conversation between the amniocentesis and the obstetrician visit about the results when my last-born child was at risk. This particular God-me conversation in the heart center waiting room was not a series of negotiations, like all of the others had been. This was a conversation of gratitude. I knew that Jon had already dodged the bullet. We had the luxury of discovering his struggling heart before it cried out. We had the luxury of shopping for the right surgeon and preparing ourselves for the necessary life changes.
And so I thanked God for giving me another chance to care for Jon the way I should have all of these years. I should have been tending to his heart. It is my job as his wife to take care of the one organ that never rests. I knew that he had a family history of heart disease, and I knew his cholesterol was high. I knew that the ice cream we shared as a bedtime ritual was not good for us, and especially not him. But I didn’t take heed. Most importantly, I did not make him go to the doctor every year, as a wife is supposed to do. I let him squirm his way out of basic self-maintenance, with excuses and complaints about work conflicts.
Jon’s heart is what has guided him through this life. He is an acutely intelligent soul. But mostly, he navigates the world by feeling. When the doctor showed us a diagram of Jon’s heart and all of the arteries through which blood could no longer travel, I couldn’t help thinking of downtown Los Angeles at rush hour. We know that our diets and lifestyles must change. But in a larger sense, one must contemplate what it means when all of the routes to your city center are too blocked to get through. What is the real cause of that perpetual traffic jam?
The sudden reality, when you think you are a healthy person and you find out that you are not, is like a religious conversion. In that moment when your life changes on a dime, you get the sense that you were, just one second before, asleep—sleep-walking through your life, one foot in front of the other, tending to important things. You get the call, the report or the diagnosis, and you are instantly awake. You become crystal clear about what you need to change. You spring into action, because you must. But also because you’ve been jolted from your dream state of complacency and all of those previously “important” things fall away. The shift is so abrupt and so clear that it is both invigorating and terrifying at the same time.
Because heart disease is still the number-one killer of both men and women in our own circles, when you find out you have it, you instantly recall the people you know who have died. And you’re happy to be a part of the living club, the people with a story that is still in midchapter and not at book’s end. You are happy and grateful and scared and inspired.
And you hope beyond hope that yours and your lucky spouse’s inspiration and gratitude stick.