Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Heart Attack: Five Months Later

It’s been five months since my heart attack. My doctor has told me that my heart is completely healed; medically speaking, I am cleared to do whatever I want (including Crossfit again if I so choose). A lot that could have gone wrong didn’t. For that, I am profoundly grateful.

But in addition to the medical perspective on the status of my heart, there are other dynamics at work. I am learning that this kind of injury is a much more existential one. I’ve had two knee surgeries, foot surgery, and a major shoulder repair; I thought I knew what the path to recovery looked like: I take time off; I get out of shape; I ease back into life. All these are true once again, but now there is an internal complexity that is remarkably different from my other experiences.

Some of it’s good. Some of it’s not. I have some trepidation about sharing this, but I figure - it's life. I wasn't the first and I won't be the last to experience the aftermath of a heart attack. Consider this my frank contribution to life together in hopes that we all can better walk through this beautiful and broken world. Anything helpful you wish to contribute in the comments section will add that much more.

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I find that ordinary moments bring me to tears as I see a beauty and meaningfulness that I missed before. After my dad died, I had moments when grief suddenly rose up and overwhelmed me with such intensity I would have to stop what I was doing and honor the sorrow. This is the opposite. This jolts me out of my tendency to see life as ordinary and mundane and reminds me that life is beautiful.

It’s suddenly, while playing a game or eating supper, thinking, “I could have missed this moment with my son.”

It's all the times have I think of going with Sheila for late night aps at Applebees again, or sharing another date night soaking up the comfort of her presence, or watching Stranger Things together and wishing the new X-Files had been that good.

It’s a lunch of octopus at Stellas with AJ and Sheila.

It’s listening to the sounds of Braden’s beautiful piano playing drifting upstairs.

It's hearing Vincent’s belly laugh over the silliest of things.

It’s sitting on a deck badly in need of upgrades, looking at a lawn badly in need of mowing, wishing it weren’t so hot and the garden wasn’t so badly in need of watering – and feeling overwhelmed with how I am blessed.

It’s breakfast with Torie.

It’s being with friends at a Jonny Lang concert, or a fire pit, or a movie.

It’s preaching again and loving how the truth of the Bible opens up, layer upon layer, line upon line, reminding me of the beauty of Christ and His Kingdom now and forever. That’s more…immediate than it used to be.

It’s being moved in ways I was not before when the music recedes and the voices of our diverse but united church rise together in musical praise.

It’s not as if my life is now characterized by a profound weightiness all the time. If anything, I’ve found that it’s surprisingly easy to fall back into mundane patterns of pettiness (“Who didn’t clean up the toothpaste from the sink again!? This remote is stupid! How can Season Two of Stranger Things not be out already??”).

I’m talking about moments. Snapshots. Reminders that this world, while broken, is beautiful. I long for the world to come, but my heart attack reminded me that I like this one quite a bit. That in itself is a reminder of how blessed I am. I’m not in a rush to move on. Plus, A Monster Calls hits theaters this Christmas, and I really need to see that on the big screen.

* * * * * * * * * *

If nothing changes in my health from here on out, I am still blessed. I want to make that clear. I also want to acknowledge that not all is well. I shouldn’t be surprised – everyone I talked to and everything I read warned me of this. I will do my best to explain something that’s frustratingly difficult to articulate. Emotionally and mentally, I’ve seen some fallout. I’m not sure if it’s part of the PTSD symptoms my doctor warned be about, or if it’s the side effect of my meds (which is a very real possibility).

I feel…lessened, depleted, incessantly in need of rest. How did Bilbo describe it? Like butter spread too thinly over bread. And it’s not always easy to know if that’s a real physical/emotional need vs. fear (“Why am I this tired? Is there more blockage? Where’s my nitro?”)

I ride a fast and significant emotional roller coaster. My heart attack seems to have robbed me of my emotional filters.  I am more impatient and sharp, which may or may not be better than the simultaneous inclination to simply disengage. My wife has a different husband than the one who walked into the ER. She knows it and I know it. “It’s like we had finally figured out the dance, and now we have to start over,” she told a friend. We are praying it’s only a season while starting to consider how to dance well again if this is the new normal.

My memory suffers. It was always bad, but it’s worse. I forget very ordinary words in the midst of a conversation. While I was preaching recently, I forgot what I was talking about four times, once in the middle of a sentence. However flawed my memory was before the heart attack, it was not that. This would not be an unexpected side effect from my meds. I have an upcoming appointment with my doctor to see if I can change them or drop some more.  I hope it’s that simple. If this is the new normal, that’s a daunting prospect.

Almost every day seems to be too much for my body to handle. There are good days, but they are the exception. I know I will be tired; I know that after about 2:00 there will generally not be much accomplished if I sit down. If I don’t rest during the day, I’m depleted in the evening. If I do rest, nothing gets done. There’s an odd disconnect: I am getting my strength back in the gym (which is very rewarding and gives me hope), but it’s not translating consistently into the rest of my life.

I have too many moments when I think of what could have been. Two weeks before my heart attack I was on a boat two hours from shore in the Keys, swimming in a cold and choppy surf. I was on plane for hours. I scarfed fried food like there was no tomorrow. Mere days before the heart attack, I was doing the final Crossfit Games workout with AJ (and thinking my post-surgery shoulder was feeling good enough that I could train hard for 2017). I was with Vincent at a movie the week before. Dear God, what would have happened if I had not been so fortunate as to be at home, close to the hospital? 100% blockage in a Widowmaker. Every person I talk to who works in the medical field says, “You are lucky to be here.” Everything went right. So much could have gone so wrong.

I can’t think about it.

If I do, my chest hurts again (“It’s not your heart,” my doc said with a gentle smile). Grief and anxiety descend. Perhaps because I have buried my father I think too easily about what my boys would do, what they would feel. I found out this is called "anticipatory loss." I know that life goes on -  relentlessly at first, then begrudgingly, then eventually hopefully - but sometimes that hope is a long ways off.

I can’t think about it. There is no good way for that thought to end.

I have found myself planning my funeral. I would like Jonny Lang’s “That Great Day” to be played because it is full of melancholy and hope. I want Karl to be the Speaker For The Dead. I have people whom my boys admire picked out to help Sheila in looking after them, and I have their directions:

  “You must promise me that you will look out for them. Pursue them. Engage them. Don’t let them fall of the radar. Don’t let them forget the face of their father  – and help them be at peace with all the ways in which he could have been a better man.”

I don’t know what to say ahead of time to my mom and sisters. I don’t know what to begin to tell Sheila. There is no adequate preparation.

I must think about it, because now death is on the radar.

I have an appointment with my counselor next week.

Maybe then.

I don’t want to, but… maybe then.

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