Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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When Chris found out he needed to have major heart surgery, he said, “You shouldn’t marry me.”
We had been together three years and had shared a home for two of them, cooking in tandem in the kitchen and eating dinners at the scuffed wooden table with his adolescent daughter. The summer before, he had proposed to me on a bench on an Italian hillside so picturesque it might have been a film set.
“You should get out now,” he said.
I wasn’t going anywhere.
Except, it turned out, to appointments with specialists and to heart hospitals for tours and to discussions with people who had already had valve-repair surgery and offered to share their stories. On paper Chris and I laid out timelines and arranged in columns the pros and cons of robotic procedures versus the kind where they saw open your sternum and sew it up.
On a mild October afternoon we exchanged vows under a post oak in our yard and danced to a Texas swing band on a parquet floor laid over the grass. The next summer we drove three hours north from Austin to Plano, Texas, to check Chris into the Baylor Heart Hospital. This would be the moment when everything changed, I believed. There would be a before and an after. We were meant to learn something profound and life altering from this experience, and we would forever benefit from that wisdom.
I think about this now, a dozen years later, as Chris and I weather the global pandemic: the blitheness, the arrogance that I carried into that moment.
It’s a hubris I recognize in the articles that appeared almost immediately after the shelter-in-place orders were announced. There was a quick grab for toilet paper, and then on to bettering ourselves in the midst of tragedy: “31 Important Things to Do to Make the Best Use of Your Time During Quarantine”; “15 Ways to Turn Self-Isolation into Self-Improvement.” (Create homemade gifts! Become craftier!) And I, too, imagined the great things I could do in this moment of uncertainty: Finish writing the book I’d been picking up and setting down for years. Take up the piano.
Instead, during those first weeks of quarantine, I found myself curled on our cat-shredded couch with an array of remotes by my hand, watching the cooking-competition show Chopped. (How could they give the win to the guy who overchurned the ice cream?) I counted packages of beans in our pantry and barked at Chris for using the last of the milk. On my desk sat a long list of tasks for my job, all left undone.
When Chris was released from the hospital, he was so weak that just stepping into the heat of a Texas summer made him dizzy. I drove us home to Austin, though I was too tired, really, to be behind the wheel, worn out from worry and shoulder rubbing, from the halting walks around the unit floor, Chris pushing his IV stand ahead of him. Our car was stuffed with all the things I’d packed, not knowing how long we’d be away: favorite saucepans, the memory-foam wedge pillow he had to sleep on at night, a bag of prescription bottles with careful instructions. I’d carried all of it through the hotel lobby and out to the car while Chris watched, feeling helpless.
Halfway home Chris asked me to pull over at a rest stop. I parked and walked around to help him from the car. He was wearing a huge button-down shirt I’d bought after we’d realized he couldn’t pull T-shirts on over his head. It swallowed him. He leaned on me all the way to the bathroom door. When he came out, he was so woozy he had to sit down. Back in the car, this man who had spun me on the parquet dance floor rested his head on the dashboard and wept into his hands.
It would be like this for a while.
I marched onward out of love, yes, but also because I still didn’t imagine the weeks to come as the long, drudgery-filled recovery they would be. I saw them as a gateway, something that would make our good life even better. Exactly how, I couldn’t have said. It would be truer, perhaps, lived closer to the bone. We would buy a smaller house, find less-demanding jobs. Maybe we’d raise chickens, or Chris would take up art again; he’d gone to art school before focusing on design and starting a business. Whatever the ordeal brought, to me his surgery wasn’t simply an attempt to ward off congestive heart failure. It was an invitation to step into the life we were always meant to live.
You see, I had one story about how transformation happens, and that was through cataclysm. This story grew out of my own personal experience: In my mid-twenties I’d left a husband and a well-paying job and spent a year wandering with a backpack. I felt as if my life had begun there.
It also grew out of the type of narratives I coveted: A man walks out the front door, disowns his past, and becomes the Buddha. A writer sees a broken-down cottage among some fruit trees and knows it must be hers, and there she writes the novel that will never go out of print. Or, in a Netflix series so popular during this pandemic, an Orthodox Jew removes her wig and flesh-toned stockings and wades into a German lake to become her new and better self.
But here’s the thing: Chris didn’t see his heart surgery as a pathway to transformation. He saw it as shitty luck. In fact, it was such shitty luck that he thought maybe I shouldn’t marry him, because he would weigh me down and become a burden. No one could say why his mitral valve was leaking, whether he’d been born that way or had developed the leak during a case of scarlet fever as a child. No one could say whether it would lead to congestive heart failure next month or next year or never. He was forty-nine years old and took good care of himself. And then this happened.
Chris was vaguely resigned and vaguely angry, and he wasn’t about to have any profound revelations. He lay on the couch and watched one episode after another of Foyle’s War. Or he walked laps around the house: living room to kitchen to den, living room to kitchen to den.
I brooded and accused him in my head of not using this time wisely — or, worse, of not being daring enough to dream. I waited for signs of inspiration to appear. And I wondered if maybe Chris was not the man I’d thought he was.
Through the fall he slowly recovered and went back to work part-time. I ferried him to the hospital for rehab appointments, and he grew fond of a crew of old-timers there who commiserated and swapped jokes. Nothing else changed. We lived where we lived. We worked where we worked. We saw the same friends. We continued to be bad at making plans, arriving at Saturday night each week and wishing we’d invited someone over. Life went on.
That December I found myself lying on the floor of the bathroom with a searing pain in the center of my pelvis. I couldn’t get up. I just lay there, cold and clammy and gripping my middle. My voice was weak when I called Chris at the office. We went to the emergency room, where a doctor told me an ovarian cyst had burst. They sent me home with painkillers.
A dull ache settled into the space between my hips, like something alive and waiting. At random times it would rise to a screech, and I would buckle or drop to the ground. Minutes or hours later it would dissipate, only to come back again and again. The doctors rolled me into CT scanners, poked and probed, consulted each other. They didn’t have any answers.
On Christmas Eve morning I woke to the phone ringing. A nurse on the other end said, “I need you to listen very carefully.” My latest blood test had come back, and my hemoglobin was very low. I needed to go to the lab right away and get another test. She had me scheduled at their office for 9:30 AM.
I walked to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. “Chris,” I called to him in the kitchen, where his spoon clinked against the side of a mug. He came to the door. “Look at me.” I was as pale as someone on the edge of death. I could hear my heartbeat pounding between my ears. He drove.
I spent Christmas Eve in the hospital receiving two units of blood. In the evening a ragtag gang of carolers came by my room and sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with conviction if not perfect harmony. They stood at the end of my bed, but none of them met my eye. Chris slept on a cot. The following afternoon I was stable enough to go home. I got into bed and stayed there until mid-January. Then I had a difficult surgery to remove a compromised uterine fibroid that was bleeding into my pelvic cavity.
Only four months had passed since Chris’s surgery, and we were once again confronted with a lengthy rehabilitation. We still had the shower seat. We still had the stool softeners. We knew how to lift bandages carefully to check on an incision’s healing. We had a post-op list of everything I couldn’t do: drive, lift more than five pounds, have sex.
There I was. If you had asked me prior to this what I would do during a major health crisis and recovery, I would have told you I would use it as a time of reflection. I would take stock. I would allow it to divide my life into a before and an after. I would rid myself of anything that wasn’t working for me. I would be brave and bold.
That’s not what happened. Of course it isn’t. Transformation doesn’t happen on demand, and my insistence on it may have been more of a coping mechanism than a call to a new life. What I did, instead of discovering deep truths, was attempt to keep working my demanding job from a laptop in bed. I savored the stack of trashy women’s magazines a friend dropped off, pondering face creams and triceps-toning exercises. I asked Chris to get me every Jane Austen adaptation he could lay his hands on at the video store, and I watched them for their British accents and lush costumes.
“You could have died,” said one friend after another, visiting with chocolate cake or a favorite novel. I would nod, but I couldn’t make my brush with death mean something profound. I was not brave and bold. I was vaguely resigned and vaguely angry.
A dozen years passed, and we found ourselves in the early weeks of the pandemic. The news was terrible. Chris fretted over the meatpacking-plant workers. I worried about my students who had no choice but to go to their jobs at supermarkets and doctors’ offices while we huddled at home. We refused to watch the president on TV. We delivered cumin to a friend who was out of it, accepted brownies when another friend offered them. We did all of this ten feet apart, placing food items on the ground like outlaws laying down their guns. We missed hugs. We knew we were lucky, impossibly lucky.
Articles I read continued to suggest that staying at home wasn’t just about flattening the curve. It was an invitation to deepen a yoga practice. To pick up the ukulele. To bake sourdough bread. To meditate. To slough off unnecessary habits.
At my house we knew that deep revelations in the midst of crisis are rarer than we think. We do not always better ourselves in dire moments. We do not always use our time wisely and with great spirit. To assume so is to deny the deep immobility of grief — and also the glaring imbalances highlighted in this moment. When I drove to the grocery store for curbside pickup, a woman in a face mask rolled a cart of groceries to my car and loaded them into my trunk. Around the corner people lined up, standing in squares taped to the ground, to buy rice or bananas or beer. I gripped the steering wheel and cried, overwhelmed by how quickly the world had changed, but also by how sheltered I was — and am — from the hardest changes. Some of us have faced devastating losses of jobs or homes or family members, and some of us have more time to take up hobbies and house projects. Some of us pop our trunks open, and some of us fill them.
This, too, is true: that after our surgeries and the lengthy recoveries, Chris and I did change — just not immediately and not in the ways I’d imagined. Though our life looked exactly the same, we knew things we hadn’t known before. We understood that we could take care of each other in the hardest of times, and since then fate has offered us repeated chances to prove it: the deaths of our fathers, Chris’s daughter moving away, another major surgery for me. We are unfazed by the humbling mundanity of a colonoscopy prep. A lifelong hypochondriac, Chris no longer panics at every funny feeling in his side. Doctors stopped his heart and sliced into it; he knows he can survive more than he once imagined.
And I no longer believe my diet of brown rice and kale will exempt me from the challenges of inhabiting a human body — not those of twisted fibroids nor those of COVID-19. I am more likely to bring food and flowers to a friend in the hospital. I greet a struggling student with a bit more compassion than before. And I know that the life Chris and I are living is the one we chose, not something that happened when we weren’t paying attention. None of that wisdom came with an otherworldly glow, and none of it came quickly.
When a novel virus shuts down the world and takes lives and threatens those who already bear the heaviest of loads, we are not required to immediately become our ideal selves. The media figured that out, too. Headlines about self-improvement have been replaced with “Stop Trying to Be Productive” and “Quarantine ‘Magnifies’ Depression.”
I’m still hopeful that this moment has much to teach us: about the blatant inequality in our health-care system; about the massive gaps in our safety net; about how race and class shape our chances for survival. I hope we will see our impact on the planet and realize how little we need that new pair of shoes. That we will recognize that those who don’t have access to technology are shut out of opportunities for learning and inclusion. And that we will be reluctant to go back to the unsustainable pace of life to which we’d become accustomed.
But I don’t expect anything to change in short order. The pandemic might be a gateway, and it might also just be shitty luck. We might all be vaguely resigned and vaguely angry for months or even years to come. Before we can emerge grateful and chastened, we simply have to make it through. We have to survive. And then, like Chris and I did after our surgeries, we can tiptoe back into the world, leaning on each other.