Two months ago today I was lying in Sentara Hospital awaiting my surgery, unsure what it was going to mean: Would I make it through the surgery? What would my life be like afterwards? They had terrified me back at Strong Memorial, discussing possible outcomes and their various reductions to my life expectancy. For that and a few other reasons I found it much scarier than cancer surgery three years earlier. Having my chest cracked open and being hooked up to a ventilator and shutting off my heart while they worked on it all seemed so overwhelming and risky – especially for a giant wimp, such as myself, who tends to pass out when having blood drawn.
I’d had so little time to get used to the idea that there was a major defect in my heart and that I was about to undergo one of the most invasive surgeries a person can have. It was an overwhelming night, capping off an overwhelming ten days.
But now, two months later, I’m back in New York, teaching school, starting cardiac rehab, feeling much better and stronger, and trying to reclaim the life I had before November 10th. There was something about staring down surgery and possible side effects of “stroke, pacemaker, and death” that has a way of reorienting one’s worldview, and I’m still trying to come to terms with what that means for me and for my future. On that fateful day when my valve defect was discovered, hardly anything that seemed of great importance to me when I awoke and went to work that morning, still seemed significant while lying in a hospital bed that night. If I’d died on the operating table, were my affairs in order? Had my life made any difference? Had I said everything I needed to to my family and loved ones? And on that night it wasn’t lesson plans, or decorating for Christmas, or posting to facebook, or how to pay for medical bills, or had I saved enough for retirement that mattered. It was thinking about my kids and did they really know how much I love them? In what ways had I succeeded as a dad and in what ways had I failed? How would I be remembered by those that mattered the most to me?
I felt as if my life had gotten a reboot in January of 2015 after cancer and then it happened again in November of 2017. As I lay in that Virginia hospital two months ago I found myself asking: Is God trying to tell me something? And if so what is it? I’d prefer not to have to have a third lesson. Whether I had a few more hours or a few more decades, what did I want to do with the rest of the days of my life?
This past week I met with my cardiac rehab guy down at the hospital in Wellsville (sounds like a fairly good place to recuperate) He had a lot of positive comments about my health, heart, and rapid recovery, but towards the end he said something that had me in tears. He observed, “Upwards of 90% of what we do in medicine is treatment; it isn’t very often that we actually get to cure someone, but you, my friend, are a CURE.”
So I left the hospital feeling lighter in spirit than I have for eight weeks. And I found myself thinking about the next act in my life, whatever number I’m up to by now. Not surprisingly I want to do more of the things I want to do and less of the things I have to do, I read two great books as I recuperated (one from my sister and one from my daughter) and I want to set aside a lot more time to read, there’s so much out there I haven’t read yet. (For that matter there are so many on my own shelves I haven’t read yet.) I want to spend less time worrying about/evaluating what my students learn and more time trying to be sure they loved to learn. For that matter I want to be sure they realize that I love them; I don’t merely love history and lessons. I want to travel more, not so much to see things but to see people (although I do want to hit those last two states!) including getting back to Switzerland to see our Sabrina. I want to worry less and live more. I want to rededicate my life to my precious children and to being the best dad I can be. When I do come to the end of my journey, it will be they who are standing at my bedside and I want to have no regrets as I bid them farewell.
For one solid month I was constantly hooked up to some kind of apparatus: an IV line, EKGs, a heart monitoring system, an electronic incision management system and an external pacemaker–sometimes several at the same time–tubes and lines that were keeping me alive and monitoring my progress. When I was finally rid of the last one, I felt so free! When I take Tillie for our daily walks, I tend to keep her on a leash up until our street turns into a dirt road and we rarely encounter any cars up there, so I take her off her leash and she bounds around in exuberant circles, running as fast as she can, sable fur blowing in the wind, and living her collie life to the fullest. I want to live the rest of my life like that: off the leash.
At the GRAVE and likely risk of forgetting someone, I want to offer thanks to the many many people who helped me get through this ordeal. To dear Janyce–and her faithful companion Norm–for their everlasting friendship and assistance and standing alongside me through this whole ordeal; to my sweet nephew Darton, my old Shenawana resident, Ken Tryon, and my former student Hannie who made pilgrimages to visit, sit with me, and keep me cheered up during my long hospitalization; to the wonderful Sauer kids who colored pictures, which I cherish, for my hospital room walls; to dear Stephanie–practically a stranger to me at the beginning of this–who took Tillie in for those long weeks in Virginia and loved her like her own; to Olga’s wonderful neighbors who looked in on me, worried about me, lent us a wonderful electronic La-Z-Boy chair for when I lacked the strength to stand up on my own, and better still…brought us cookies; to my brilliant surgeon, Dr. Dimeling, who saved my life, and the incredible, lovely and loving staff at Sentara hospital who took such great care of me; to the Academy teachers who jumped in to help carry my load during my long absence; to my buddy Bob Azzarito who called me late at night on the eve of my surgery to talk and laugh until the fears went away; to all of you friends who–through cards, messages, posts, surprises in the mail and prayers–sustained me throughout the whole ordeal; to my siblings who checked in on me so regularly, including my Costa Rican sister-in-law Vanessa who kept regularly messaging me in the hospital to see how I was doing; to my precious cousin, Suzanne, who helped out at home and who came over and cleaned my whole house so it would look nice when we all got home for Christmas; and to my precious kids who did so much to keep me encouraged and who demonstrated their thoughtfulness and love by coming home early to surprise me with Christmas decorating and festivities on a year that I didn’t think it was going to happen; to dear, dear Aunt Kathie who has walked through every step of this journey with me, drove in a snowstorm to Rochester to pick me up at Strong and checked on me daily and who, when I asked her to stop over and check on the cats a couple of times a week, did it a couple of times a DAY instead, even as she was hobbling about on a terribly painful ankle, and who continues to feed me, worry about me, and help me out at every turn. And lastly to Olga who jumped in the car (with Samantha in the midst of her busy academic schedule) to come up and rescue me, engineered the whole transition to Sentara that worked out so beautifully, and then who so selflessly cared for me, sat by my bedside night after night, put up with me, fed me, and kept me encouraged during my long convalescence. There are wives who can help take care of you, and then there are wives who can dead-lift 170 lbs from a chair or bed. Thanks for being strong enough for both of us, both physically and emotionally. I never would have made it through this without you.
So here’s to a new lease on life, a life off the leash, a repaired heart, and a renewed gratitude for all of you.