It didn’t even come close to being the most challenging hike we’ve taken. The woods in southwestern hills, five-minutes from city center, are so familiar they seem like an expansive back yard. On perfect Saturday we were enjoying a fairly small portion of Forest Park, the name almost an oxymoron. It is, after all, over 5000 acres of northwest forest and home to all manner of bird and beast. The trails are earthen, trees tower. It is the largest urban forest in the country. To me, it’s more evidence of the genius of nature’s design.
We’ve traversed that particular area a hundred times, though it was the first time since early winter had begun. A glorious mix of scents sailed along on gentling air. Streams of light shone golden among the trees and bushes, bounced across creek and stones. It was so warm I shed a light jacket. Adrenalin pumped through me as we started down the first trail.
If not the most daring of hikers I do have decent stamina and strength, even with a beta blocker that slows my heart and keeps the beats more measured. So I tend to take off, camera readied, eyes absorbing the sights. My spouse, M., is usually nearby though he might stop to closely inspect an astonishing range of fungi. Myself, not so much–that is his special interest. But I kept looking over my shoulder, as this time he was not kneeling to inspect his finds. Was not nearby. He was standing still. Catching his breath.
He lagged as we continued; he was more tired than I had realized. I felt guilty that I had pressed for a forest afternoon. He had just returned from a long business trip the night before. But he was looking forward to being outdoors, as well–until he had some shortness of breath. Well, we both knew he was prone to some huffing and puffing when ascending inclines–he was not as fit as he wished (but hadn’t made time to address). I kept slowing down, doubling back and finally suggested we sit a few. He plopped down.
“I’m exhausted. My legs feel heavy. Flying must be getting to me as I get older. I’ve logged so many miles this year already!”
I scanned his face and watched his chest heave up and down. Even talking seemed an effort. M.’s usually ruddy face had emptied of color; his grey-blue eyes were not clear.
“Are you having chest pain or pressure? Jaw or arm hurt?”
“No.” He shot me a look that said I was fussing too much when I had just begun.
“Nauseous? Light headed?”
“No, just tired, Cynthia–maybe I should have stayed home and been a couch potato.”
“This isn’t like you–you’re far more winded than usual. Something doesn’t feel right.”
“I’ll be fine. I just need a few nights of real sleep.”
I’m not a medical professional but I do have good reason to know signs of the heart’s warning signals, since I personally have experienced them. But I wanted to believe him…halfway did. We continued hiking up, down, around easier trails. Noted frogs, a garter snake, woodpeckers, a scattering of trillium, paused at the spot we had once been entranced by deer a few yards away. But I knew we should be going home sooner than later.
M. was still pale, paused to catch his breath with difficulty. He lacked a sense of ease and that concentrated attention like a microscope when spotting something good. He wasn’t even noting the various bird songs, which we liked to try to mimic.
As if it was being telegraphed to me, I knew he was very unwell.
But we had to finish the hike, there was no way around that, so we continued and as if by silent agreement did not linger, did not even stop at creekside to look for rocks or listen to the water’s litany of delights. At the top of the last hill there was a conveniently placed bench. He sat on it. I waited and observed, saw him check his pulse. And it was then that we looked at each other.
I said, “This is a bit too much like the hike that put my heart into attack mode fifteen years ago. We were just deeper into wilderness then. But you had to nearly carry me back. So I’m asking you, do you think you need to go to emergency now? Maybe I should get help; I am very worried.”
After a survey of his internal operations (he is an engineer, he loves data, numbers) he said, “No. Let’s just get home so I can rest.”
And so, against my instincts, we went home. M. lay on the couch and fitfully slept. I had that bad, angry sexist thought: why do men find it so incredibly hard to let themselves admit to being ill?
For that matter, why do we all have such a strong impulse to deny health issues, emotional problems or life circumstances that are demanding, complex and painful? Because these are life altering and it is tough to accept a strong possibility of bad news. And denial helps us cope by putting it off, keeping it at the far edge of consciousness. If it stays at a distant horizon, we can assure ourselves there is more time to prepare for whatever takes clear form and then becomes unavoidable. Undeniable.
M. would not consider anything more than perhaps a phone call to the doctor. So on Monday after I insisted, he went to his doctor. Then he went on to work. After tests and lab work results came in that afternoon and they made calls to him which he never answered, the nurse called me frantically.
“We can’t reach him–he needs to go to the hospital now!”
On the way to the hospital he couldn’t breath well; he admitted it had gotten harder at work, had been about to call me. He looked pasty. I’d wanted to call the ambulance but since he had refused I drove too fast. And arrived so he could get the CT scan and chest x-rays. End up in an emergency cubicle so they could blast several pulmonary embolisms–blood clots in both lungs–with blood thinning injections in his belly. He was found severely anemic as well; a blood transfusion was discussed as a possibility. He was put on a ferrous sulfate (iron) IV for three days.
Yes, admitted to inpatient hospital. M. was stunned, a reasonable reaction to a sudden health crisis. He is almost never ill, has not ever had a significant health crisis. I was disquieted, mouth dry and mind curiously blank at times. The only thing for it was to trust strangers with his well being. His life, it turned out: multiple blood clots in lungs are not tolerated; the body’s efficient homeostasis is disrupted, oxygen delivery is severely impaired. It means lung tissue dies if they are not dissolved in time.
I’ll spare you the details, small and larger discoveries resulting from investigation of causative factors. There was other surprising information to absorb. So extra tests, more waiting. You know how that is in those stuffy little, too-warm corridors and rooms where germs float about looking for hosts. There were uncertain nights and days, free floating worry shelved in order to be present, alert. The rounds of calls (more often texts, blast it, fingertips worn down) to and from five children and others with frequent updates.
You know how it all goes if you have lived even a decade or two because these things…Just. Happen. We don’t get to forecast them. We only hope they don’t happen to us.
I recall one daughter asking if I was controlling hysteria for her sake or if I was actually feeling calm. I was taken aback. I was not feeling intense emotions. Stillness had unfolded within–a faint sense of shock at first, then a gradual transformation into simply…a deeper stillness. Quietude. Feeling frayed at moments, of course. The rawness was felt nightly as weariness vied with a need to process things.
But prayer came and went unbidden as if woven into my own breathing. Saying aloud, Oh Lord, may Your Presence bring to him healing and right balance, may his body repair itself, may the Light of Love dominate all systems, bring him to wholeness. Saying things without thought, reaching for solace and guidance.
All our children know how to call upon God’s healing. Their words and voices were a soothing balm. I felt them in the room although most do not live nearby. One daughter could be there to sit with us awhile, silent and attentive.
Who cannot find a prayer when shadows fall, when not one inch forward can be discerned?
I didn’t feel fear much. It was like being held up, a sort of tall tree or a pillar, or like a lighting rod so my husband would not lose sight of the comfort of my love, nor his weakened grasp loosen, nor the storms inside his body strike him dead. I wanted to be unwavering for him. This is a man who overcame difficult beginnings, gave up an interrupted college education to make a living and yet became expert in his field; who has traveled our country and other parts of the world; who dedicated himself to helping raise a large, blended family. And he did it. So he might well be forgiven if he thought he could avoid health crises via perseverance and faith alone.
There was the exquisite potency of small touches, the ones that sometimes are forgotten but that can salvage almost anything. My hand to his, my cheek to his, the smoothing of a sheet atop his aching chest, the wiping of his brow. The adjustment of the miserable hospital gown that disregards dignity. A glass of water given. A talk with that nurse who never came. His half-smiles in return. And through each exchange flowed peace, care and loving kindness like a current that hummed so softly no one else might guess its power but the two of us. Or perhaps it showed.
I have reverence for the sanctity and power of life that fights for us even if we are unable to intervene, ourselves. Maybe especially when we are weak. We felt the greater medicine in those rooms and it was God; regardless of the outcome, there would remain so. I believe if we are stumbling and shaken we can and will be lifted, held steady. Carried, even, through whatever comes. And over many decades, we have been.
A long time habit of mine is preparing myself for life’s twists and turns the best I can, for even devastating events that may or may not come. But not by anticipating the worst–being shored up by gratitude and the hope that it plants. With spiritual sustenance. The awareness of grace amidst troubles. We are all vulnerable, subject to hardships, and sometimes it may seem pain is the one constant in various forms. So why not gather up soul and heart strength long before the day arrives when we must call upon our best reserves?
M. came home after three days and nights, then rested for about four more, then returned to work. He has some flexibility so he can work from home at times as needed. But he loves his work, likes being in the mix, wants to move on.
There are a few more tests ordered, new medications. But his energy is returning. We can take a leisurely twenty minute walk. It’s amazing, he keeps saying, I can breathe, nothing feels alarming and set to undo me. He also made an offhand comment tonight about oranges–as he held one close to his nose–being “utterly cheerful, both in fragrance and flavor”. How could I not be happy when he said that? M. seems once more the man I know so well, though his challenges are not completely over. But he was civil and patient and gracefully surrendered to care when knocked down and that confirmed my view of him, too. I have reminded him often he is my oldest and dearest friend, squabbles and mishaps and all.
We perhaps need reminders. That is the gift difficulty can offer: insights, the chance to stand back and survey the whole picture, regroup. Give lots more authentic, mighty hugs.
Today I felt a little teary as I walked in a neighborhood park. Bone-tired all of a sudden. Sad even as gladness jumped up. I told another daughter all I wanted for my upcoming birthday is health, peace, love to receive, to give. And then I realized this is the day my oldest sister passed last year. I have been missing her and other family members I have lost to the other realm. We are much closer than we think to no longer experiencing all the magic and mystery and madness of walking about in our fleshly attire. It’s just one last breath away. So inhale the vibrant air, acknowledge its irrefutable power. Claim your life with honor, treat it as rare, valuable, one of a kind. It is. Yes, my husband, breathe deeply, for you know it truly is.
(NOTE: Pulmonary embolisms can be caused by sitting still for long periods, such as in a car or plane–particularly from flying, as it is believed to be in M’s. case. One out of five victims is killed by PEs. Find out how to reduce your risk if you may be a candidate.)