My dad, John Litchfield, contemplating a large red delicious, autumn 1962. He passed away in 1975 from heart disease.
My son JD called this morning to see how I was and I meant to say I was okay, but my tongue slipped and I said, “I am old … kay.” Then I laughed because “oldkay” seemed like a pretty good word to describe my current condition. Old, and okay.
In our last episode, I had been told I had a blockage in an artery, and was scheduled to go in for an angiogram. I was thinking it was my turn to get a stent, or if things were bad enough, have surgery. Whatever needed to be done, I was up for it, because I find I have a lot of dedication to sticking around to see what happens next.
Heart disease runs in the family. My father was not quite 63 when he had his final heart attack. That was in 1975. Bypass surgery was being done, but not widely, and not for my dad in our little town.
My brother had a heart attack at age 55. He was given a stent, and now at 70 he is going strong.
My mom died at 86 of heart disease. She was taking nostrums for upset stomach when what she really had was upset heart. By the time we figured out what the real problem was, it was too late for her.
I figured between my notoriously bad diet and my genetics, my number was up. I was having terrible angina. So off I went to the hospital for an angiogram. Here’s how it went:
First, my sister-from-another-mother, Becky, drove me in for the procedure. She presented me with a new teddy bear, Chauncey, to keep me company in the hospital. You may laugh, but I love to have a teddy bear to cling to when I’m in the hospital.
For those of you with delicate stomachs, you might want to skip ahead to the results paragraph, because I’m now going to describe an angiogram.
You wait around for a few hours in the day surgery pod. You gripe about the wait to Becky, who gets annoyed with you for your griping.
You get one wrist shaved, because the wire (!) for the angiogram goes in through your wrist artery. You also get your nether regions (if you catch my drift) shaved because if you need a stent, it goes in through your femoral artery. The lady who did that was heavy handed, so I felt like I was on fire, and not in the fun way, for a couple of hours. The itching was terrific. I looked like I was starring in a Michael Jackson video.
You are wheeled into the cath lab. It’s cold in there, so they wrap you in those warm hospital blankets, ah. That is the last pleasant sensation you’ll have for a while.
Your wrist is swabbed down with blue anti-bacterial soap, placed into operating position, and then the doc and his team go to work. If you think having dye injected into your arm and a wire being inserted into the artery and up your arm hurts a little, you are correct. The pain quickly subsides and your heart is on television and everyone is looking at your arteries, except you. Your view is of the underside of the camera that is taking the pictures.
RESULTS PARAGRAPH: What the medical team saw in my case was: pretty clear arteries. The doc decided to stress out the particular artery which was the most clogged, and it worked okay. The stress test, which is done with a drug, was not pleasant, but it was only for a minute or two. The angiogram was finished, all the gear pulled out of my arm. As they began to wheel me away I looked over at the image of my heart on the screen – the artery was a nice thick line with a little curl, kind of like the one Superman has on his forehead, and the artery did not look blocked.
So that was that. No stent. No surgery. I was stunned. Really? My second thought was, “Prayer works.”
The cardiologist came by to see me before I left the hospital and told me I did not have “more than 30% blockage,” which is acceptable and does not qualify for interference or repair. Then he said, “You are in no danger of having a heart attack.” After walking around with severe chest pain for weeks, that’s pretty sweet news. Becky drove me home. I went to bed and slept for fourteen hours.
I have microvascular angina. It is caused by the smallest coronary blood vessels going into spasm and cutting off blood to the heart muscle. It is brought on by activity, or by mental stress.
Do I have stress? When medical people have asked me that this year, I have answered, “Well, my husband died … “ and then I don’t really have to go down the list, because that is considered stress enough.
So that’s the story, folks. Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. I am in pretty good shape for my age and condition.
I am, in short, oldkay.
Me and Marley, keeping going
It has been nine months since my husband died, and every day I adjust a little more to the new normal. It is not lost on me that nine months is the length of a human pregnancy. Maybe it is a length of time in which we are able to fundamentally change. Sometimes now I’ll have three or four hours in a row when I’m cheerful and life feels good.
Grief is a predictably unpredictable ride, though – as is life, but more so. I was watching “The Vicar of Dibley” the other night, and Geraldine (played by Dawn French, one of my favorite British actresses) was walking down a peaceful country lane minding her own business, when she stepped into a hidden hole and disappeared straight down into a pool of water that was over her head. Sploosh. Disappeared, just like that. She came up sputtering, of course.
Grief can be like that. You think you’re doing fine, and then, sploosh, you step into one of those holes. It isn’t always that dramatic, but my point is that you don’t see it before you’re in it.
And what do you do? You climb out as well as you can, and you keep on walking. You do what you need to do – get the kid to school, wash the dishes, do the laundry, go to the grocery store. You talk to kind people who care enough to listen. You see your therapist, if that’s how you roll. You pray. You think about your departed loved one. Sometimes you sob until your ribs are sore. You write in your notebook if that’s your thing. You sing or draw or pursue whatever your art or craft is, because there is heart’s ease in creation and using your hands. You watch the feelings and days go by, and sometimes you ask, how long, Lord?
Life does not stop for you. It goes on and it takes you with it, and sometimes you realize something inside has changed. Then you feel like you are betraying your departed loved one by feeling better. Here I am, laughing again, enjoying other people and myself.
A couple of years before Rick passed, he said he wished that we could both die at the same time – go out together after living together for so long. At that time I thought, speak for yourself, pal. I think he thought it was romantic, or maybe he thought I could not survive his death, or not survive it well.
After he died there were times when I felt the wisdom of his wish. It was, it is, awful not having him here anymore. I miss him so much. Sometimes I find myself thinking, well, I didn’t go with him, but I wouldn’t mind joining him. It’s so hard going on without him. I would not kill myself – that has never been a choice for me – but as I age there are encroachments, physical things that go wrong with me. For example, a blocked artery in my heart, I found out this week. Yikes, huh?
A few months before Rick died, his social worker called me in for a little chat. She asked if I had noticed that his health seemed to be in a decline, as the staff at the kidney center had noticed. I said yes, I had noticed. I was relieved to hear her say it because I was frightened. Knowing that his medical team was aware somehow made me feel less scared, or at least less alone.
We talked a little about what the future might hold. I told her that I knew I could survive Rick’s dying. I figured I would be a little ape crap haywire (cleaned that up for publication) for a couple of years, but I thought I could live through it. That was my intellectual take on the subject. Having an intellectual belief about an experience is not the same as living through it.
Our culture puts a lot of energy into finding true love, doesn’t it? The idea is to find that person, get together, get married, maybe raise a family, and live happily ever after. What our culture does not do is prepare people for the fact that even in the best relationships where both of you stay committed, “ever after” has an expiration date. I asked myself in the first few months after Rick’s passing, well, now what do I do, now that I’ve outlived happily ever after?
I don’t expect to get over losing Rick, or to have “closure,” which I think is a myth. I have been given the gift of a little more time to be myself. And who is that, without my dear companion next to me to reflect me? I’m going to find out, but first I have to have this clogged artery in my heart opened up.
See, when I’m actually confronted with the possibility of my own demise, I say, whoa, Nelly! I want to live! I want to be an annoying old lady for as long as I can! Nuts to that following Rick to the other side. It’ll happen soon enough. Stay tuned, folks. There will be more to come, I swear it.