When my grandfather died, my brother didn’t cry. It really stressed him out. The funeral was small, at the veterans’ cemetery, in the rain. My grandma, my parents. My aunts and my cousin and my brother and I. It was outdoors, under a pavilion. Afterward we went to the spot where he would be buried and looked at it, me with some sense of bewilderment at how a man that had lived so large could end up in a rectangle so small. It was the end of December. He died on the 23rd.
Ben was probably 13 at the time. He knew he was supposed to be sad, but his grief didn’t look like crying. He confided this to me, his guilt at his lack of tears. It was one of the first, closest moments my brother and I had as we grew towards being adults, and one of the most serious moments in which I felt the gravity of being his only older sister.
I distinctly remember telling him quietly, while straightening his little blue tie, that he didn’t need to cry to honor our grandfather. That however he was feeling, that was okay. His feelings were valid. There is no right or wrong way to feel – it’s all truth somewhere in there. I remember it being a very important moment and the words flowing easily as I tried to comfort him in my clumsy 16 year old way.
I have been thinking about that moment a lot in the last year, and what it means to me as I go through two consecutive heart surgeries and deal with my ongoing heart condition. The visceral experiences and how they should and do make me feel. The submittal of my body to a straight-backed bed on wheels, into a brightly lit metal room. Submittal to the team of twenty, who burned the tissue of my heart as I lay there, somewhere between awake and asleep, naked and prostrate in the hands of strangers.
The woman who snapped the hospital bracelet onto my right wrist and smiled wanly as she pointed down the hall. The seven holes they bored into my flesh to take my blood and refill me with saline, anesthetic, morphine, and myriad other things. The paper-thin gown; the refrigerator filled with warm blankets to soothe the chill of the cardiac ward. The way many pairs of hands touched me, the many pairs of eyes that saw my breasts, as they stuck and snapped electrodes and monitors into place, the lines on the computer screen coming on one by one by one. The way the other patients regarded me as I was wheeled to surgery, and the way I regarded them, blinking and adjusting my hospital cap in the last few minutes of consciousness before — black.
The first time; the anesthesiologist asking me if it hurt. The flashes of the equipment moving. The doctors chatting about their weekend plans as they prepped me; the rustling of paper as I was lifted onto the operating table. The nylon straps, not unlike a seatbelt, tied around my arms and legs so I wouldn’t move an inch during the surgery. The futility of my attempts at covering myself as two aides unceremoniously and professionally lifted the gown from my body and began to sterilize my most private pieces with an antiseptic that left me stained green for days.
The surgeon who had shaken my hands several times and now stood in command of the room. The jokes I tried to make to mask my fear while looking up at the ceiling, thoughts racing. The doctor who kindly put his hand on my head as he asked if I had “any music requests, dear?” The glass windows behind which students sat, twirling their pens, to observe the procedure. The six by six foot x-ray machine positioned over my entire body; the rainbow of cords running from my chest, pumping my secret soul statistics to a large screen for all to see. The timeout moment, where all movement stops and they take a moment to call out why we’re all here. “Patient: Jennifer Smith. Procedure: Catheter ablation, second attempt, for supraventricular tachychardia. Date of birth…” The blur as the world spins, and then I’m gone.
Waking up and being wheeled back to my little pen. The moments alone as I awoke from my stupor, as the nurses raced to get morphine into my little body. The tears running uncontrollably down my cheeks, through the mascara I had so carefully applied that morning on an empty stomach. The pain I clenched my teeth through, trying to smile as I thanked the surgeon for the procedure as he told me with a solemn face that it hadn’t been successful, I’d probably have to try again. The eyes cast downward as my parents, with new worry lines, tentatively approached me. The ham sandwich that I scarfed down, and the Coca Cola that they let me have.
I don’t know how to feel about having had two heart surgeries. I don’t know how to feel about the handful of pills I swallow each morning to keep my bum ticker going at the correct pace and strength. I don’t know how to feel about the lonely quiet at 4 in the morning when I woke up, alone in my apartment, the night after going home from the hospital, and reaching for the vicodin bottle and the light switch. I don’t know how to feel about the friends who worried about me and took care of me; I don’t know how to feel about my concern for myself. I don’t know how to feel about the optimism that springs from me like a Benson Bubbler, uncontrollable and sometimes inconvenient. I’m not sure how to feel about my calm in the face of such things, or how I managed to just gaze around as my femoral artery burst in recovery and bled all over my leg and onto the floor as nurses pushed panic buttons and applied compresses with lots of shouting and worried looks.
I guess we are able to do what we need to do, and step up when it’s our turn to bat. I’ve got a good heart but a bum ticker.
It’s been a bit like a movie, but it’s as real as they get.