It’s been a while since my last post. In some ways there wasn’t much to write about: The slow progression of recovery isn’t all that interesting. But more than that, I wanted my final post to talk about things in the past tense. But now that I’m here, that feels a bit weird. Is it really all behind me? Sometimes I forget about it all and slip back into normality, but mostly I’m still absolutely defined by it.
But I’m getting used to that ambiguity. When I think about the whole mess that was the last 3 months, I’m just confused. I don’t know where to shelve it: Does it go on the top shelf to be filed under “Life Changing” or closer to the middle, in the more mundane “Challenges Met” section? The whole thing just remains this shapeless event whose contours I’m groping for, but can’t find.
People ask me how I am, and I blurt out something like “I’m grand”- which I am- but I’m also not. I don’t know what to make of it all. It’s too big and I haven’t managed to string together a neat narrative that I can just fall back on. So I’m left floundering: “How am I? I don’t know”
None of this is new to me. I was 14 when I had heart surgery before and looking back I see that I hadn’t a clue. My 14 year old self was ill-equipped to deal with the debris of open heart surgery. Not knowing how to think, I didn’t; and instead just parked it all in a safe place for time to take care of. I went back to worrying about getting girls to like me and stopping the opposition scoring goals on me. But it changed me, I realise that now.
I remembered recovery being a slow process. But this time round, its pace has surprised me. Other than a small bald patch on the back of my head- caused by the pressure of lying on the table for so long- a person meeting me on the street wouldn’t know anything had happened. Recovery is not a binary procedure, instead it’s a drawn out spectrum of mile stones: Get out of bed; start walking; get home etc. But it can be hard to see it that way. Once you start getting out and about it’s easy to think it’s all over, and so after one or two general questions, the concern for a bizarrely large number of people is “so like, can you drink?” (I can.)
It’s amazing how far I’ve come. During the first days and weeks you’re a radically different person. The person who walked into hospital with such arrogant ease shuffles out, eight days later, humbled by the four steps at the door. But as the days meld into one another you walk a little farther, stretch your arms a little higher and speak a little louder. Slowly the spectrum of recovery turns from dark, to grey, to the full colour of life. But even then you are still dogged by a hundred reminders. The shuddering vibration of your heartbeat will take years to get used to, and wearying pain will occasionally wrap itself around your chest, draining you of energy: Minor idiosyncrasies of the surgery’s legacy that will become part of the background noise of your life.
But I’m looking ahead, not behind. Excited for better times. I was lucky. Anyone who has stayed in the Republic of Critical Condition for longer than “visiting hours” permits belongs to an unfortunate club. But unlike my fellow citizens I wasn’t a permanent resident. I didn’t have to battle cancer year after year, or wait endlessly for a heart transplant that might not come. I didn’t fall from a collapsing balcony, facing god knows what for the rest of my life. Many who cross the border into that grim nation don’t get the chance to come back. Compared to them I was a short stay resident. Knowing that health and normality was a matter of “when”, rather than “if” was a huge mental crutch.
So when I think how little I’ve suffered compared to others I wonder why the hell I’m still writing this blog. I mean, isn’t it a bit embarrassing to be still going on about this 10 weeks later? My former compatriots, still stuck in the bleak land of illness don’t write blogs or articles. They just get on with it.
Is this just a ploy to exploit a relatively rare and dramatic sounding experience for attention? Have I hijacked this as a vehicle to air my personal grievances?
And yet, it is personal; deeply personal. A few weeks ago I stumbled across an interview with Robin Williams. I hadn’t known he went through a similar procedure and it was amazing to hear him talk about it: Stripped away from his protective layer of whizzing genius he described how “they cracked the armour”. Hearing someone like him, who lived such an enlarged life talk like that, helped me. It allows me to give myself permission to acknowledge that yeah, this was a big fucking deal.
Because they do crack your armour. Your rib cage- literally your heart’s armour- is cleaved open, leaving you feeling horribly vulnerable for months after. But it goes beyond that. The heart isn’t just a mechanism, it’s a symbol. There’s a reason, I think, why “Heart” is synonymous with “Core”. Our deepest truths are “known in our heart of hearts”; we have “sweethearts” and “broken hearts”. There’s “Braveheart”; and a “kind heart”; even the title of this blog! Doctors look at the heart as an impressive engine, but it can never be just that for me. I mean it’s my heart they stopped! They cut open my heart! There are stitches and scars on my heart and there are people in this world who have literally looked into my heart.
So, I suppose when I think about that, it’s probably ok for me to store it up there, on the top shelf: “Life Changing”. But even writing that I’m still squirming a bit. (“Is he still going on about that?”)
But even aside from all that, I’m reluctant to let this go. I’m scared that if I do I’ll lose what I learned: To be more sanguine about life and its capricious arbitrariness. Twice I agonised about decisions: Move to Ecuador? Study in Amsterdam or Toulouse? It was driving me mad. Between getting in and out of the shower, I’d change my mind three times, and then, after all that stress and worry, a few tiny bacteria made my worries stupidly irrelevant.
After being diagnosed with terminal cancer Christopher Hitchens wrote: “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ The cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”. I like that, because it reminds you how little is actually under your control. You can work to load the dice in your favour, but they’re still dice.
Unfortunately that’s easier to remember when you’re sick. Normal life has a way of crushing that kind of perspective. That’s scary, because that new outlook is a knot of solidity in an otherwise hollow event. It reassures that although the last three months were awful, I am the better for it.
So, it hasn’t been all negative. The opportunity to catch up with old friends has genuinely been lovely. I also got the opportunity to find and flex a writing voice I had long suspected existed, but never had any reason to use. I often wanted to write, but about what? Here was a ready-made experience that almost wrote itself. Writing was cathartic, but it was also liberating: It gave me a sense of self-worth when I had nothing else.
You’ll probably have noticed this is already longer than the other posts. If you’ve stuck with me this far, I hope you’ll indulge me just a bit more, and let me stretch your patience a little longer. I owe a debt of gratitude to a lot of people.
Nurses are the infantry of healthcare, they’re in the trenches everyday and it’s a hard job. In every ward I got incredible attention, but the two nurses on my cardiac team were particularly caring- they were almost instinctive in their work.
I could never be a nurse, but I have a lot of respect for people who are- we should probably pay them more.
I got a new job back in May. I was there only six weeks before getting shipped off back to hospital. But despite my short stay, they’ve been amazingly supportive. I ran out of ways to say thanks.
My thanks must also go to everyone who read, commented, liked or texted. I tracked the various statistics on WordPress and Facebook obsessively. I read every comment, savoured every message and counted each “Like”. To those who visited: Mostly you were an unwelcome effort that I never felt like making. But every single time- without exception- after someone visited me I felt less alone, more normal and happier.
Finally, my Family. With the stress and fatigue of the last 9 months our house can sometimes be a bit of a powder keg, but through all our dysfunction and tension I think we did pretty well. They were a source of immense support. My mom, a nurse herself, was a force of nature on the wards. She knows “hospital-speak” and was able to keep up with doctors when their jargon left the rest of us behind. Often we’d turn to her for a translation after another confusing consultation.
I’ve absolutely no patience for her often unrestrained maternal worry. But I know it must be incredibly difficult to see your child go through something like this. She’s suffered a lot.
My Dad too, is a man for a crisis. Straight away, he’s on the phone sorting things out. When the present is so overwhelming that the future becomes irrelevant, my dad is there, planning ahead.
My brother talks a lot; my whole life he’s driven me mental with how much he talks. But when I needed it, he shut up, and he listened. Having someone to just say “yeah, that sounds shit” is a million times better than them trying to understand. Speaking bluntly like that, and helping me laugh at myself kept me more sane on those wards than any psychologist ever could.
Finally, my editor. Other than these last few paragraphs my little sister has read absolutely everything before it’s been published. I’ve come to rely heavily on her opinion: Does that sound a bit dramatic? (“Yes”) Which word is better? (“They’re both the same”) Is this funny? (“Not really”). But she was also a dependable source of help: Fixing my pillows, bringing in things from home, keeping my jug filled with ice. She knew what I’d need and helped ease the incredible frustration of not being able to look after yourself.
It’s about three months now since I started this blog. I thought because I’d had heart surgery before I’d know what to expect; turns out I hadn’t a clue. I don’t know why this was so much harder than last time, but it was. Even now I’m smiling at how naive I was. I didn’t know how bruising it would be. I didn’t know that this would be, by far, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I didn’t know that there would be many times when I’d just slump, struck by the clarity of the apparently obvious idea: “Give up!” and for a split second I’d relish the relief. But I kept going: Not because I was resilient, or strong, or determined; I kept going because there was literally no choice in the matter, if there had been, I’d have thrown in the towel long ago.
But I’m here now: Ten weeks on with my “top shelf experience”, my new clean heart, my blog all done. It’s tempting to finish with some fancy flourish, a snappy line that hints at a new inspiring insight into “Life” – but that’d be nonsense. I didn’t know anything about “Life” before all this and I don’t know anything now.
But that somehow doesn’t matter as much anymore. Maybe its because I’m proud of how I’ve gotten through this challenge. And maybe if I can do a decent job of getting through heart surgery, then surely I can manage to blunder through whatever else “Life” will throw at me.
That’s good to know.