Matters of the Heart

For three weeks now I have not posted a column. Indeed, I have scarcely written a word, except for the bare minimum for my most important editing client and a handful of hurried emails to family members.

There’s a good reason for this lapse—heart surgery. Not my own, my father’s. A routine annual checkup with the cardiologist evolved into an angiogram and then open-heart bypass surgery.

He’s out of the hospital now, recovering slowly but steadily despite a few setbacks. He and my mother are staying with my partner and me. All of us are learning more than we ever considered wanting to know about what it means to take care of someone after such serious surgery. As nurses, we’re amateurs. We’re sometimes clumsy, and we’re painfully aware of our own ignorance. All four of us—nurses and patient—are learning as we go, sometimes by doing it wrong the first and the second time.

We’re all finding out that our most important asset in this situation is the willingness to do what needs to be done, whether that is giving our awkward but well-intentioned care or receiving it. We’re showing up, we’re doing our best, and we’re getting the job done in our own somewhat haphazard fashion. We’re all operating under the principle of, “when something needs to be done, and you’re the one there to do it, you can do whatever you have to.”

So far, doing what needs to be done hasn’t left much room for writing about this experience. In part this is a matter of privacy—too many details are no one else’s business. And none of us is quite ready to employ the humor that is this family’s default method of coping with adversity. Except for a couple of half-hearted remarks about my father having had enough staples in his legs and chest to fix half a mile of barbed wire fence, or that he must have been run over by a train because it left its tracks behind, we haven’t joked much. The incisions that were closed by all those staples are still too fresh. So are our fears and our awareness of his mortality—not to mention our own. Thankfully, there will be plenty of time later for the stories and the laughter.

For now, I just have one simple but important thing to say. Sometimes health problems are beyond our control. In this case, diabetes is a primary factor in my father’s heart disease. But there is also a lot we can control. We all know the routine: Eat your fruits and vegetables. Exercise. Keep your weight down. And if you smoke, for goodness sakes quit—now.

That routine for maintaining your health matters a whole lot. If you aren’t willing to do it for yourself, consider doing it for the people who care about you. Because, as my family has been reminded in the past few weeks, heart disease affects many more hearts than just your own.

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