Recovery from open heart surgery is more of a parking lot than a road. It’s jam packed with a WHOLE LOTTA DOING NOTHING. It’s difficult to write about our weeks at home recovering from surgery. Not because it brings up painful emotions, but because every memory seems to live in a mixing bowl with all the other memories. Like every event in an eight week period happened all at the same time. Not chronologically.
Have you ever seen the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray? The weeks and months following John’s heart surgery felt exactly like that. The alarm goes off. There’s no reason to get up. There’s nothing that is required of us. There are no deadlines. We have one job: walk.
Everyone at work knows I’m taking care of John, so they’re not calling me or emailing me. I hardly get any texts regarding work. I could stay in bed all day with John if I wanted to. So I just roll over and hit snooze and wonder why I even set the alarm in the first place (Did I? Memory is a crazy thing.)
The entire first few weeks are so fuzzy. I think that’s the result of combining fear + dread + no schedule, with a side of “keeping John alive”, which of course, I have no ability to do. I don’t have any control over how long he’s on this planet.
It hit me how much my identity was tied to what I “do”. Our jobs, our tasks, our roles. What happens when our tasks are cleared off our plate? How much I get crossed off my list is not who I am. We have been conditioned to believe that we are what we accomplish. So when abruptly I have no tasks and none of my normal “things” are particularly “required” of me, who am I? I am a wife, I am a mother. Am I just my roles? Most importantly: Caregiver. (A hopeless caregiver with no medical knowledge or skills.) Temporarily, that was my most important role. Sure, I can drive him to the park and help him take his daily walk. I can make sure he keeps his pillow on his chest, eats, and takes his pills. But that doesn’t guarantee he’ll live another day. Live another year. Live another 30 years with me. There are no guarantees. Just a false burden I put on myself. “Keep him alive.” Like I have any control over that. But who am I? Who do I want to be? What difference am I making in the world? I can figure that out later. For now, I am a caregiver. And the caregiver needs to give care to herself as well.
I can’t tell you how many times I checked to make sure he was still breathing. It’s much like having a newborn baby, actually. Constant worrying, constant checking to make sure they’re still alive, constant feeding and administering medicine. And if I was ever away from him, I was full of dread and fear and guilt, and I’d race to get back home and make sure he’s still alive. See if he needed anything.
I have so many memories of waking up and looking at phone, hoping the time had passed more quickly. Hoping it was later in the day. Hoping today would be the day where he would wake up and say he felt better. He didn’t. So, at the same time it felt like morning after morning I rolled over and went back to sleep, I know that’s not true. I know I drove my teenaged daughter to school every day and picked her back up in the afternoon. Isn’t that strange how the mind filters out memories? I wonder what it uses for criteria. Is it because my dominating thoughts were on John and keeping him alive that anything that wasn’t related to that was tucked away in a hidden compartment? Most of my memories are just John and me. Doing not a whole lot.
I had this idea pre-surgery that we were going to able to do so many things during this gift of down time. Read dozens of books, watch our video courses we’ve already bought, learn and grow during this incredible quality time we’d been gifted.
Not one book.
Not one minute of our video courses.
The first week home was the easiest because he slept the most, and one of his favorite golf tournaments was on, so he could watch that in between naps. And with a thousand different drugs, including oxycodone, in his veins, he was fairly pain-free. A more accurate assessment would be pain-dull. But he couldn’t walk to the bathroom unassisted for several days, which is SO OPPOSITE from my real husband. My “real” husband is a maniac. An energizer bunny who jumps out of bed every day at 4:45 am and throws on his gym clothes to work out, works 10-11 hour days, and wakes up every morning to do it all over again. 6 days a week. Has been for 40 years. He only takes Sundays off. So to see the same man hardly coherent and not able to manage a few steps unassisted is scary. Same coin, different sides. I guess if you saw open the chest of any “coin”, he has no other choice but to turn over and show his other side. John has had many other surgeries, but nothing compares to a triple bypass and an aorta replacement. And nothing can prepare you for it either. I don’t care how much you research.
Two weeks post-surgery was my son Brandon’s 19th birthday. I made him his favorite chocolate chip cookies and we ordered sushi. Everyone’s favorite food in this house. Also the most expensive food! Wasn’t the most amazing birthday celebration on the planet, but hey, I made cookies. Cooking has always been a kind of therapy for me, and Brandon loves my cookies, so it was a win-win!
Three week mark we had a follow-up with the surgeon. He said everything looks great. Dr. Amabile said to John, “This is where you and I get a divorce.”
OK then. I guess. John doesn’t feel great. He doesn’t look great. But he’s great? Everything went great? Good to know. We are left to the hands of our cardiologist, who we also adore. Cardiologist said he looks fine, everything’s fine. Everything looks good. How? I wondered to myself. How is this fine? How long is this going to last? He said usually 8 weeks and you’re good. Also not even close to the truth.
I was going crazy. All of these thoughts swirling about in my noggin. Not helping me. I took long deep breaths and repeated over and over again:
Everything is temporary.
I did head into work a couple times, to meet with the team. I asked our boss, who has had dozens of surgeries himself, “How do you keep from going completely insane?” He had great advice. Any time anyone asks if there’s something they can do for us, schedule a time for them to come visit. Then you have something on the schedule and something to do. And try and have some kind of outing when you can.
I did just that. Several of our dear friends came by with food, gifts, books and flowers. It was like Christmas! Just to see friends, have great conversations, hallelujah. Anyone who came with kids couldn’t resist the pool, so twice, we would visit while their little ones swam.
Doctor said he could go back to work part time after six weeks, so at the 4-week mark, we thought about what we’d want to do before he went back to work, and we made a list. We went to the lighting store and got some lighting for the house that we needed. He had to sit most of the time but we found some beautiful lighting. He doesn’t remember going, and it was his idea! When the lights were installed it was a complete surprise for John. (If I would have known he wouldn’t remember it, I would have bought more! ha!)
Three Sundays in a row, we took a drive to one of the lakes in the area. We have so many! I’ve lived in Arizona 25 years, and I’ve been to Canyon Lake a million times. I had seen the big ferry boat that does tours, but I hadn’t been on it. We bought our tickets, drove a gorgeous one-hour scenic drive to Canyon Lake, and boarded the ferry. The tour was awesome! The weather was perfect. We saw parts of the lake we’d never seen. We saw bald eagles in their nest and a big horn ram. Amazing. And during the drive we were able to listen to a book, which made us feel better, too.
Another lake in the area I had never been to is Bartlett Lake. It’s a little further away, but we had nothing but time, so we headed to Bartlett the following Sunday and had lunch on the patio overlooking the lake. The third Sunday we drove to Saguaro Lake and did the same. Getting outside saved us. John still didn’t feel good. But we felt better sitting outside looking the water and all the families, boats, ducks, laughter. Joy.
Every day (when we weren’t driving to a lake) we drove to the park by our house that has a man-made lake with a path around it. The first day home from the hospital, John could barely walk from one bench to the next. Literally 100 feet at a time. We’d walk to a bench, and sit for 20 minutes. Then walk another 100 feet to the next bench and sit.
Having zero schedule and zero time limits helped me realize that I’ve spent the majority of my life as a human “doing” instead of a human being. I’ve heard that said many times, but this chapter in our lives forced me to sit and do nothing. To be. You know what happened? I noticed miracles everywhere.
These huge birds by the lake would let you get within about 20 feet in front of them before they’d fly away to the other side. Ducks were having babies and we got to watch the ducklings follow their mamas around. We watched them get bigger and bigger until we couldn’t tell which ones were the babies and which ones were the mamas. I got to watch little kids overwhelmed with joy as they reeled in a fish on their lines. Dogs of every shape and size walked alongside their owners, spreading joy everywhere they went. The sun on my face, warming my body, calming me down.
Sometimes we’d be out there for 2 hours, mostly sitting, watching, smiling, thinking about everything else besides “recovering.” I greatly underestimated the power of the sunshine and being outside with no agenda. It’s been ages since we’ve hiked. I miss it dearly. But this was a different kind of beautiful. It was a community. Families, dogs, people of all ages walking and fishing. Just for enjoyment. No other purpose. No goal. Just pleasure. That is beautiful. I needed this lesson. I need to incorporate more of this into my “normal” life (if there is such a thing as back to normal).
After a couple weeks he could skip most of the benches and we did more walking. After three more weeks, he walked an entire half a mile without stopping. So even when it seemed like no progress was being made, there was! Just focusing on the “end goal” (getting my husband “back”) was making me feel miserable. It felt like it was going to take forever. This would last forever. But focusing on the progress he was making helped us feel gratitude. Today, John is alive. Today, John walked a half a mile. Then a couple weeks later he walked a full mile. Then a couple weeks after that, he walked two miles. Staying focused on the progress is the key to happiness. Tony Robbins has been saying that for decades. I finally get it.
One of my favorite authors is Melody Beattie. If you haven’t read her books, I urge you too. Her explanation abut gratitude is perfect:
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. It turns problems into gifts, failures into successes, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. It can turn an existence into a real life, and disconnected situations into important and beneficial lessons. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.
Five months post surgery, I am a different person. I am practicing taking one day at a time. John is still not “back to normal”, but I stopped wishing and hoping for the day where he’d jump out of bed at 4:45 and be “normal” again. Maybe our normal wasn’t what is best for our bodies and minds after all. Instead of jumping out of bed and going to the gym, we walk. Outside. We listen to our books. We watch the birds and the sun rise. We soak up the sun and do nothing. Just be. He’s back at work full-time, and he’s made so much progress. He’s still exhausted every day, but every night we get in the pool. We sit and talk. Listen to music. Enjoy the home we just built. And just be.
The road to recovery is much longer than I want it to be. But what we think we want isn’t always what’s best for us. There’s a reason why it takes this long. There’s a reason why we went through this. Probably a million reasons.
We needed to learn to sit. Stop. Relax. We needed to learn to listen to our bodies and proceed with great care. We needed to learn to focus on the progress and realize that everything is temporary. Life is temporary. Every day is truly a gift, in every way. Every breath is a gift. Being a caregiver is a gift. That means he lived.
My sisters came to visit. I got to spend time with the people I love. I got to spend time with little kids. Children get it. We are all born with the innate desire to explore, to dance, to find treasures like sticks and rocks and create joy. To swim for hours. To love every day. And found a new deep respect for my sister raising five little humans. For my mama who had eleven children. All of my sisters who have more kids than I. They are the rock stars of the world. I have even more respect and admiration for them now. And a profound gratitude for being in the same family.
One of my other favorite humans is Marissa Peer. She said,
Your problems are someone else’s dreams.
That carried me through every day. How many people have lost a loved one in the last 2 years? Thousands. They would KILL to have their husband still alive. They would switch places with me in a heartbeat and be the caregiver for as long as they could. I have the freedom and flexibility to work from wherever I am. My kids are all healthy and safe. My husband is with me for another day.
I thought about the end of life constantly. I asked myself,
When I get to the end of my life, what am I going to wish I had done more of?
I made a list. (always with the to-do lists, Karen!)
Go see my parents
Call my sisters
Spend more one on one time with my daughter.
Be present when someone is talking to me, especially with her
Go on more day trips
Find something new you haven’t done and GO DO IT
Sit longer at the dinner table and just listen.
Finally go on a honeymoon.
(We booked our trip to Maui for this February for our 7th anniversary!)
Just be. Give that gift to my body and my brain.
If we truly choose to see everything in our lives as a gift then we start grasping the concept of how incredibly blessed we are.
Our bodies are our most precious gifts. Waking up every day is an incredible gift. So now that I have been given this gift of being the caregiver and realizing how precious life is, I can be more intentional about how I will spend my human “doing”. I will no longer race through every day. I will spend more time with my loved ones and family. When I get overwhelmed, I’ll call someone. I’ll stand up and go outside. 5 minutes of sunshine changes everything. I’ll take more deep breaths. I’ll take more breaks. I’ll identify what it is I need and give that gift to myself so I can be a better mom, a better wife, a better sister, a better daughter, a better aunt.
Experiences like this help me get clarity on what is actually important. I still have big goals and big dreams, but most of them have changed. I don’t want to “do” life. I want to experience life. I want to strengthen my relationships. People are the only thing that matter. All people. We can’t live on a island, and if we did, we would go crazy. We need each other. I made a promise to myself that when someone crosses my mind I will call them. And listen. And feel the blessings of another day, a friend, a relationship, another breath.
I’m grateful for you being here. Reading my musings. Truly. Thank you and God bless you. And I’m now posing this question to everyone: When you get to the end of your life, what would you wish you had done more of? And then get it in the schedule. Do it now. Tomorrow is not guaranteed.
Wishing you lots of love,