I spent the first days of this week on the windblown roof of a sky scraper. It was so tall that the air felt thin, and my stomach was in free fall. The sky scraper was my heart. Most of the time my brain rules my heart. It translates emotion into logic, even in moments when emotion is appropriate. Seven days ago, I heard these words pertaining to my father:
‘Massive heart attack, nearly died in ambulance, going in for emergency triple bypass surgery now.’
My brain’s immediate response was still to take on the grunt work. It jumped into the same mode it does when I am dealing with an emergency at work. The practicalities surged forward:
‘He’ll need to go on a bypass machine while they stop his heart to graft harvested leg vessels to it. They’ll need to shock his heart to restart it, wire together his sawn apart sternum. He will have chest drains, a urinary catheter, an endotracheal tube, multiple i/v lines, a central line, ECG monitors, SPO2 monitors. He will be on a ventilator, opiod analgesics, positive inotropes…And that’s just immediately. This sort of condition and surgery has an open-door policy for D.I.C, M.O.D and many more sinister initialisms that increase the risk of dying in the post-operative period.’
However, I wasn’t doing the surgery. So, my brain was at a loss, and I found myself in the unusual situation of my heart taking over. I was rushed up to the roof of that sky scraper. There were no rails to cling to. My breath was not enough to fill my chest, but my memories were. They slid in over the harsh medical facts and comforted me as I tried not to be blown off the building by the immense grief lurking in the clouds.
The first images to surface were of movement and nature. My father has never been sedentary. Snorkelling and free diving on the Red Sea reef in Saudi Arabia. Climbing palm trees. Cycling and ice-skating to work in the south of Germany. Taking my sister and I sledding, teaching us to ski, running, playing soccer, doing triathlons, paddling, rowing.
My father is a keeper of living things. Not just a keeper, a nurturer. Pick him up and set him down anywhere with soil and access to water and he will create a garden. Give him an injured bird and he will nurse it until it is better or has died.
He is a rational man. He gifted me his clean brand of logic, and I love him for that. It has allowed me to move through some of my difficult experiences with grace.
Our relationship is far removed from the stereotypical father/daughter relationship pedaled as ideal in our culture. I was never his little girl who had to be protected from the world. Instead he showed me the world in all its flawed glory. He allowed me to step out into it, make my own mistakes and grow because of them. He didn’t walk me up the aisle on my wedding day because he didn’t raise me to be someone who could be given away. He raised me to be independent at all costs, like him…
He makes it through the surgery. He spends several days in an induced coma, his independence snatched away. Machines breathe for him, hydrate him, collect his urine, measure his statistics. When I visit, the machines and tubes don’t scare me. I know they are there to make the hard work of healing as easy as possible. I hold his hand and look at his face and think:
‘He has my hands and my son’s nose.’
When it’s the other way around. Our features came from him.
The next visit should be easier. He is awake and talking. It’s not. I have never seen a human being look so sick. He looks sicker to me that day than when he was comatose. He keeps no food down. I can’t even imagine the pain of vomiting with a wired-up breast bone. He needs a walker and two nurses to get to the toilet.
I leave thinking the unthinkable:
‘What if he never regains the independence that is so central to who he is?’
Exactly one week after he had that massive heart attack and one of the most invasive surgeries you can, I visit again. His face still shows exhaustion. But his voice and his eyes are animated. He can get himself to the bathroom on his own. He passed his stair climbing test this morning. His lifetime habit of staying fit is paying off. He is going home from the hospital tomorrow.
My father has taught me many things, but there may still be something I can gently remind him of in the coming weeks, something my Bipolar Disorder has taught me:
When we have been badly ravaged by life, we must loosen our grip on the need for independence just a little, and gratefully accept the help of others in order to survive.
The Support Crew on the importance of people to support you when you’re doing it tough