Fight for your life

because you still want to give so much

The next five days were spent in the cardiac surgery ICU (CSICU). I would arrive at 9am, go home for lunch and to let the dog out, come back and spend the afternoon with him, at about 5:30pm go home to eat dinner and to let the dog out, and then spend the evening with Jeff until I got kicked out at 9pm. Rinse and repeat. Jeff slept most of the time because he was still under the heavy influence of the anesthesia, but when he woke up, I wanted him to know that I was with him. We also had work to do. He had to blow slowly into a spirometer to open up his lungs and to strengthen them. He was supposed to do 10 iterations every hour – I was happy to be the spirometer police! Otherwise, I wanted to keep him company, keep his lips moist, and just watch him sleep in wonderment at how he was still here with me.

On the second night, his oxygen level fell, and he had to be put on a breathing machine (not a ventilator). They kept his oxygen level at 14 for a while. Jeff complained about falling into a deep sleep, only to wake up feeling like he had stopped breathing and had to catch up. That’s a scary feeling – almost like you might drown. He asked me to keep an eye on it, and to make sure that the staff took this seriously. So I watched him closely while he slept, making sure that he didn’t stop breathing, and when the pause between breaths seemed a bit too long, I was ready to leap out of my chair.

Slowly, he got better, slowly, he was in less pain. The staff in the CSICU at Hillcrest Hospital were amazing, and we are so grateful to them for the care they provided. Sometimes I would arrive in the morning, and I would see a huge improvement. One morning, he was sitting in a chair! After lunch one day, he had the NG tube removed! (that is another saga because it had to be put back in… ugh). Another time, he no longer needed oxygen! These were not little victories – they were big ones. We were able to graduate from CSICU without post-surgery complications. He was still being infused with a lot of medication, but boy was it great to be put into a regular hospital room. I would still keep the 9am to 9pm schedule, but now there was desk where I could set up my work. And there was a couch where I could take a cat nap. And there was a door so Jeff could sleep with less interruption.

As I sat there and watched his body expand and contract with each breath, I was moved by his will to survive, to advocate for himself. As is usual with me, I extended this observation as a metaphor in my own life. Jeff’s joy, his zest for life, the way he greets each day and conquers it, all these things I watched for nearly 12 years of our marriage made sense to me. He fought for himself. I wondered, why don’t I fight for myself? The outside world sees an accomplished woman, perhaps a person with numerous talents, successful on life’s stage. I have the right schooling, many letters after my name, etc. etc. But despite my confidence in the things I know, my will to succeed, and to achieve tasks at the highest level possible… sometimes, I just let things happen to me. And I’m not talking about the right way, as in the Biblical sense of “Thy will be done.” Or the wisdom of “this is out of my control.” I mean the psychological resignation to everything being so hard. Instead of seeking control where I can, saying no when I need to, and actively finding joy in the tasks ahead, I was living a life where everything felt difficult. And in general, even when things were so good, I couldn’t enjoy it to the fullest because wondered when the next shoe was going to fall.

Deep underneath this weird coexistence of high achievement on the outside and internal resignation was a lot of turbulence during my childhood and adolescence. Knowing this, I got frustrated often because I am now in my forties, and I felt that I should be over it. But it was really in watching Jeff fight for his life and stand up for himself that I understood how I was to live the rest of my life. I needed to fight for my life, for the gift of joy and peace. It’s one thing to fight and to lose. It’s another not to fight at all.

During the first day of Jeff waking up from anesthesia, we caught up on what happened after we parted ways in the ER. What astounded me and still moves me every time I think about it is what Jeff prayed just before going under for surgery. He prayed that if it is God’s will that he would survive this surgery so that he could see my face again and to spend many years more with me. I was speechless when he told me – I don’t know if I would have had my wits about me to utter such a beautiful prayer. I also realized that underneath this goofy and joyful layer of this person who never lost touch with the child inside, was also this person who loved me so much, in ways that I could not even comprehend before this incident. He wanted to live not only for himself, but also for us. He fought not only for his own life, but for our life together. As I learned about his last prayer, I grew up even more – we must fight, not only for a meaningful life, but also because we still have so much to give back.

NYC fall 2019, TCO tour.
Things quickly turn silly. Hard to take a normal photo…

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