The Darkest Fears
There are moments when I am overwhelmed by the mortal fear that someday, I’ll roll over and my husband won’t be there. Or I’ll slip my arm around his sleeping chest and won’t feel the rise and fall of his breath.
These moments, with him yet alone with my dark thoughts, fill me with sadness and dread. I snap myself into the moment but go to this place often regardless. Why are my thoughts so dark, my worries so dire? Oh, I know why. Two reasons: One, because the older I get, the more I see life's darkest, cruelest edges play out in other people's lives. Second, it's because I’m nearing 50, and I think all women age with the knowledge that odds are, there will be a day when it will be them reaching across a too-cool mattress sheet for someone who can no longer be there.
I’ve hesitated to write about this out of fear of tempting fate, but I do not believe I have that amount of power. I do believe that everyone has their time on this earth, and that the fortunate among us make the best of it, however long or short it is. I also know that there are people who were robbed of time, and those given too much of it, and that both can be their own curse.
As my kids grow up and are starting to move on, I feel my and their circles move from being one moving in unison to being concentric, with the overlap increasing as they experience more of the world on their own. And while I miss them, and I miss who I am when I am around them, it is the natural order of things. Children are your world, and then they move on to create a world of their own. And if you’re lucky, you have a spouse that you can turn to with a level of excitement: The kids don’t need us as much, and that opens a world of possibilities. We can watch movies that aren’t animated; go out after 7 pm; cultivate friendships; turn our focus on each other again.
This next stage of our lives fills me with excitement. Which is likely why my worries are so dark. Is it possible to be this happy and have it last? And if the answer is yes, then why do I get that joy when it’s been taken from so many others? I have two friends whose husbands both died at age 49: one of cancer, the other of a sudden, massive heart attack. Why? How do we make sense of a senseless act of cruelty, dispensed by a universe that seems to treat our destinies like a roulette wheel? And how do we move through each day not petrified by the fear that today is the day the ball falls on us?
Five years ago, on my 44th birthday, I challenged myself to run 4.4 miles. My husband joined me. He had not been out for a run in a long time. It was July, and we started out too late in the morning so it was hot. He struggled. When we got home, he was dizzy and needed a nap. I assumed he was out of shape and dehydrated.
He started swimming at the gym. He got winded really easily and blamed it on never having proper swim lessons.
Later that summer, he was chasing the kids across the beach and damaged his Achilles tendon. The remedy was rest, and he had to wear a boot for six weeks. That meant no running, no swimming. That fall, his father had another heart attack. He was in the hospital for weeks and while he did recover, it was a long road.
“You’re going to the doctor,” I told my husband. “You’re getting your heart checked. Everything. Every test.”
He went. He passed his stress test. But his cardiac calcium score was high, and because of his family history his cardiologist ordered a nuclear stress test, which uses a small amount of radioactive material to visualize how blood is moving through arteries during exercise. The nuclear stress test “showed something that could be something, but could also be nothing,” his cardiologist said. He ordered an angiogram just to be safe.
In the cath lab, my husband was the youngest person there by 30 years. He and I cracked jokes and made plans for dinner that night. He was rolled in for the procedure, which uses an artery in the wrist to advance a catheter to the heart, where a camera gets a birds-eye view of how blood is flowing through the coronary arteries. I was directed to the waiting room. “If they don’t find anything, he’ll be out in 20 minutes. If they do, it’ll be longer.”
Twenty minutes came and passed. At 24 minutes, the interventional cardiologist came looking for me. “Walk with me,” he said, and then talked as fast as he was walking. “He had an artery that was 80 percent blocked, but we placed a stent and he’s doing well.” He then started quoting the statistics on heart disease in people of Indian descent, which my husband is. And told me how lucky we were that he had been proactive. Yay?
My brain became disordered. I understood what the doctor was saying, but didn’t understand how the information could relate to my husband. My 44-year-old husband.
“Wait outside this door,” the doctor said. “They’re going to roll him out any minute.”
As I waited, a nurse approached. “Are you the wife?” She handed me a card. “This is the registration for the stent. It shows where it was placed. His is in the left anterior descending artery – LAD. They call that one the widowmaker. Make sure he carries it in his wallet.”
The wall behind me, cool to the touch, caught me as I swayed backwards. The nurse’s instructions felt at once as an indictment and a blessing. He had a blockage, the kind that kills people instantly and without any prior symptoms, hence the brutal moniker "widowmaker." Then I thought of him dizzy after my birthday run. Unable to catch his breath while swimming. And I thought of the injured Achilles, and that boot he hated, and even his father’s heart attack, and how all of those things might have saved his life.
Moments later, my husband was rolled out to the hallway. The painkillers were doing their job, and he had the giddy perspective of someone who had been given a second chance he didn’t even know he needed. “I have a stent!” he said. “These doctors are amazing! I saw the whole thing! I love you so much!”
I called his family. I called my family. I sat beside him as the meds wore off. When visiting hours ended, I reluctantly left him with the promise of picking him up first thing in the morning. When I left the hospital it was dark. I turned the wrong way out of the driveway. I put the wrong address in the nav system and mindlessly followed the directions anyway and wound up in a neighborhood I’d never seen before.
I picked up my kids. I slept alone and did not like it.
The next morning, as I watched him change out of a hospital gown into real clothes, I felt like I watching a hazy movie of my own life. I had been at a crossroads and fortunately, fate picked the road that kept us together. In the other storyline, the news in the hallway was not good, and I was alone, and would be alone and alone and alone.
I think the trauma of that day still sits with me, especially at night when I feel the joy that comes from being totally content with your life and confident in the love that surrounds you. My appreciation for life, for my husband, for fate or luck or divine intervention, is strong. But it makes me wonder why we were lucky when I know so many other people who haven’t been – people whose fate was dire, whose luck did not activate, whose intervention was far from divine.
This reality is difficult to grasp and goes to life’s hardest question: Why do bad things happen to good people, and why isn’t there a formula for making sure that doesn’t happen? Five years ago, my husband’s life was saved. And with it, my heart was able to continue to do the only job I know it does well: love him with every ounce of my being.
I consider perspective to be a gift that comes with getting older. But it also gives you a sense of what can be and what could be that can make you feel as if life is spent skating on thin ice with the expectation that it’s rock solid. We can fall through at any second, and sometimes we do. And there’s no way to prevent it.
And so I roll over at night and feel that chest rise and fall. Dark thoughts can swallow the soul, and I’m learning that I have power over them. When the fear and dread fill me, I switch them out. I think about how blessed I am in this moment. How many times has the sound of breath, the most essentially element of life, calmed me? A hand placed on a newborn’s chest; feeling a toddler’s warm breath against my neck. Even the dog’s wheezy snoring at night is a comfort.
His breath is my gift, and I am going to savor it. In this moment, the one thing that I know is true is that he is here and I am here and our love is the strongest force in our lives. And I fight to stay in that moment, to let myself feel its goodness. Because there is so much joy in looking forward to the things that we still dream of, and in looking behind at the things we have overcome. And so much power in acknowledging the joy that is present right now and-- here’s the key -- feeling worthy of experiencing it.