Maris! I mean… Lucas!

a transition period for the humans

Maybe we should have chosen a name that had three syllables. Or choose a name that didn’t end with an “s.” Or select one that had different accent patterns. Or maybe all of the above! We now associate the little furry munchkin with the name “Lucas,” so it’s too late, but we are constantly correcting ourselves because we either want to say “Maris,” or we catch ourselves after the fact. Even eight weeks after Lucas came home with us.

I guess it’s difficult to erase 11 years of habit. My lips come together to form the “M” of “Maris” before I realize what it is that I am saying. In my moments of affection (“Oh, little Maris”), in times of frustration (“Maris!”), or in search of the dog (“Ma—-ris!” usually in major third, for you musicians out there), the hum of the letter “M” buzzes even before I realize what is happening. Once in a while, I will catch myself wanting to say her name, but I can’t quite think of “Lucas” in time, so I’ll just say “Puppy” or “Hey Hey!” Or sometimes, just stay silent and the dog gets away with whatever he is doing.

Maybe it’s not just my habit. Maybe it’s Maris herself… she is forever etched into our lives. As are traces of her in the house. I know that I did my best to clean out Maris’s things and put them into a bin a few months ago, but I had forgotten about a large wicker basket full of her toys under the piano. Of course, it took another dog to find dog toys. One day, I found Lucas running around the house with a giant centipede toy stuffed with squeakers. I panicked because I knew they were Maris’s… I guess I’m still not ready to be surprised by Maris’s memory. My initial reaction was to take it from him and put all of her toys away in the basement. But then he was so cute, this little puppy dragging a toy that was twice as long as he is, that I actually had to laugh. “Okay, Lucas. You can play with it. Grow into it.” The next day, he found Maris’s Nylabones, and her raccoon, and her Kong Wubbas. They are all too big for him, but he is enjoying his hand-me-downs.

I did not expect to find healing from this incident. I didn’t think I could see another one of Maris’s toys. But now they are strewn about the living room, and I find Lucas playing with them from time to time. He is probably enjoying her scent, and getting to know his older sister. It’s so strange to me now that just a few months ago, I thought I had to put away all of Maris’s stuff, enshrine it in the basement, and start new with Lucas. Life is not, and should not be that clean cut. Although I have pangs of sadness upon seeing Maris’s things, Lucas is breathing new life into them, and their lives are intersecting in ways that I had not anticipated. And it feels like my lips will form an “M” instead of an “L” for some time to come. My grand plan for starting fresh with a new puppy while shoving my sorrow of losing Maris into my past was utterly destroyed. And a good thing that is!

Lucas is tired from playing with Maris’s toys, and I’m pooped trying to remember his name…

Doggy lullaby

O Sleep, thou dost NOT leave me…

Jeff and I are classical musicians. We met because Jeff was looking for a soprano to sing a piece he wrote for his former teacher and colleague, John Mack who had passed away in 2006. So in April of 2007, as he was planning this tribute to John Mack, he cold-called me after having received my number from another musician friend. The rest is history, and maybe I will tell it in more detail since our 13th wedding anniversary is coming up in 2023.

Being musicians means there is a good amount of practicing going on at the house. And so anyone living with us, mainly dogs, will get the full experience of the musical process. This means hearing a lot of mistakes, sometimes swear words or laughter to accompany them, repeated phrases that start out as rough but finish with a shine, experimenting with different expressions, etc. etc. The amount of thought and work that goes into a world-class performance of the final product is something that perhaps only musicians know and can commiserate with. And the dogs that live with us and have to hear it all.

When Maris was just a few months old, I was still a full-time musician and a professor. She grew up listening to me practice at home with all the strange exercises that classical singers do to train our muscles. I remember practicing one particular piece called “Alice in Wonderland: Child Alice part 1, In Memory of a Summer Day” which was an extremely difficult piece for a soprano and orchestra. I must have killed a number of brain cells practicing notes that hovered just beyond the stratosphere. Poor Maris was at the house with me as I practiced, trying to get this monster 60-minute piece under my belt. Poor Maris, I thought. She happily and peacefully slept through all my practice sessions, repeated high-C’s be damned.

And it was so for all her life. Every time I started my warm ups, basically easy lip trills and step-wise 5 to 1 scale, she would know to get into her day bed. And then she would promptly fall asleep. Now that she has left this world and has crossed the Rainbow Bridge, I like to think that she can still hear my voice and the musical phrases I spin out as she had in her dreams when she was with me.

Today, we have Little Lucas. I have not yet practiced in front of him in the month that we have had him. But Jeff has! No, not singing, but on the oboe. Whenever he practices downstairs in his studio, Lucas falls asleep. It’s as if on cue. There must be something to this… beautiful sound is indeed nourishment for the soul. And I think these dogs must somehow be enriched and soothed, enough to be lulled into sleep. OR, we are just a big snore! For two musicians living in the same house, this is a really interesting experiment!


Lucas to Maris, the peanut butter debate

confessions of a picky palate

Dear Maris,

Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. That was a really nice nap, and I really enjoyed your visit in my dreams. When I was at the farm, you used to visit me more often… I understand that you want me to create my own experience with the Rathbuns, but it would be really nice to see you in every dream.

I think it is so interesting that you don’t need to protect the sheep in heaven. Wolves and lions are friendly? I am so happy for you that you are playing in such an amazing place. What else can you tell me about heaven? Whenever you get a chance, I’d love to know more. If anything, maybe I can tell everyone here how happy and pain-free you are.

Mommy and daddy miss you so much. I can hear them talking about it, and it shows in their eyes. You know, your ashes are inside this beautiful box on their bookshelf, and your collar and paw print are on top of it. Sometimes they say that I am so opposite of you, and sometimes they say that we are so alike. And I think they are on to us, by the way. Remember the sock hoarding you taught me? Well, maybe I was following your directions too well because I heard mommy say “maybe Maris taught him about the socks!” I think I need to vary my methods a bit in order not to make it so obvious.

Okay, so I have to set the record straight on peanut butter. That stuff is gross! Mommy keeps trying to lure me to like it because apparently, you couldn’t get enough of it. Honestly, Maris, I just don’t see the appeal. It’s sticky, greasy, and did you know that it’s not even a nut? It’s a legume! You won’t find me eating a bean for fun in this lifetime. I am sticking to cheddar cheese. Because mommy is training me every day, I get to have so much cheese. It’s delicious, and I would never swap it for anything else.

Speaking of training, mommy has taught me about sit, down, touch, heel, spin, through, and leave it. The last one is the hardest… because I frankly never want to leave anything I grab… especially when I am trying to herd her. You said that I am supposed to herd her, so I am trying to do my best. But every time I grab her heel or her pant leg, she tells me to leave it. Or she makes me heel. I am soooo confused. Why did you tell me that I’m supposed to herd her? How am I supposed to herd her if she doesn’t want to be herded? You can lead the horse to water, but you cannot make it drink, I guess.

And thank you for correcting me on “smow” versus “snow.” Frankly, I like my version better, but I guess we will go with yours. I am starting to understand the appeal of playing in it, but I still like eating it better. And I love that mommy lets me out just so that I can eat the snow. I make myself comfortable by sitting or lying down and just eat the white stuff. There was so much of it last weekend, but a huge chunk of it has disappeared, and now the grass is back at the front of the house. Even though there is no more snow to eat, for some reason, mommy keeps taking me outside. What’s the point?

Lastly, you asked about daddy’s health. He seems to be very healthy and energetic! He is so fun and funny, and he loves cuddling with me. I don’t think you need to worry about him, but I am sure that he appreciates you thinking of him. And one question: do our parents make funny noises? I am still learning human English, so sometimes I can’t tell if they are teaching me a word or just being weirdos.

Well, I think it’s time for these humans to get ready for bed. They are making something called “popcorn” tonight. They keep saying that you used to be a part of their popcorn making routine, and that you used to love eating it with them. Since I have realized that our taste in food and treats is very different, I will have to judge “popcorn” myself. Maybe it will be gross, like peanut butter.

Come visit soon. I miss you.

Love, Lucas

I’m totally owning this house
I’m not going to “leave it” mommy!

A reply from Maris

dear baby brother Lucas

I am so glad that you started your nap right after sending me your update because I can respond to you in your dreams while my thoughts are fresh. Things are great with me here beyond the Rainbow Bridge. I was so afraid to cross it, but there were several dogs that already knew who I was… Joy, Bokdori, and Sonia have been here for a few years already, and they all knew your mommy from different parts of her life. They were so kind and welcoming. Joy and I run around together every day while Bokdori and Sonia hang out in the shade under a tree. I guess since they were lap dogs on earth, they don’t have a taste for running around. And yes, you are correct that the sheep in heaven are just as clueless as the sheep on earth. But they have also kept their sweetness and innocence. What is different is that I don’t have to protect them here because the wolves and lions are actually very nice. All the animals get along so well!

I miss my human parents so much, but I am glad that you are there with them and can tell me how they are doing. Just a few months before I left them, daddy had a huge surgery, and mommy was really worried about him. I know that she was so busy taking care of him, and I felt really bad that she had to take care of me, too. How are they? I saw daddy making a full recovery before I left for heaven, and I just want to make sure that he is doing well.

Okay, so I have to address a few things from your letter. It’s called, snow, not smow. And the main purpose of it is not for eating. It’s for playing. I suppose it could taste refreshing – while I played, some would make it into my mouth. It was nice and cold, but there was no flavor. So make sure that you play in it next time. And when they say “do your business,” it doesn’t mean your business of playing… even though that is totally our business, humans don’t get that. They think doing your business means relieving yourself. And by the way, that’s why they put you in your “room.” It’s a part of training to go outside. I know it’s not ideal to be inside your room, and being away from mommy can feel like an eternity, but as you have observed, she always comes back for you. Because she is your mommy now, and you are hers.

I didn’t realize that you were such a treat snob. I don’t care what you say, those treats were amazing. Mommy has good taste, so she never bought anything that wasn’t gourmet or healthy. You just have not yet developed a sophisticated palate that I was fortunate enough to be born with. But don’t worry – your taste can expand beyond cheddar cheese and ham in due time. And just wait until she introduces you to peanut butter. It will change your life. I loved that stuff, that is, until I couldn’t taste it anymore due to my illness. I knew something was wrong when I didn’t want peanut butter anymore.

When you are ready, fully vaccinated and old enough, they will send you to day school a few times a week. At school, you will meet a lot of other dogs, and you’ll be able to play with them. It’s interesting to see the various cliques that develop among the dogs. The doggy school I went to for most of my life separated the students into two groups: small vs. large dogs. I was medium sized so I could belong in either. So I was able to have friends in different cliques… and it was inevitable, but I also had a boyfriend in each group. They didn’t know about each other so no one got hurt, but you might also be able to game the system since you’ll be about my size when you’re fully grown.

You’ve only been there for three weeks, so you still have a lot to learn about these humans. They are very special to me, and I miss them every day. Even though life here is pretty great in heaven, I miss the Metropark System, which mommy and I explored together for 11 years. Whenever the weather allowed it, mommy took me on a trail for an adventure. Sometimes, I just knew that it was time for a trail when I could feel that she was anxious or sad. She liked to get lost in the woods because then her sadness would not feel so overwhelming. So I had to be her compass and bring her home each time. Soon, you will become her compass, too. And that’s the main reason I chose you, Lucas. Because you are a herding dog, and she needs a herder.

I think you are just about to wake up from your nap, so I will end my letter here. You are doing great. Just don’t be so picky about treats, and stop trying to eat all the snow. It’s impossible – in northeast Ohio, that stuff comes down from heaven incessantly. Write to me again when you feel like it or if you have questions. I have to go now – the sheep are bleating so loud that I can’t concentrate anymore.

Love, Maris

The First Encounter

Hmmm. So YOU’RE the puppy. Hmmm (try to hear in a snooty voice)

July 18th of 2011 was a Monday, and Jeff and I were driving down to the Double Gap Farm in North Carolina to pick up our 9 week old Entlebucher Mountain Dog puppy. Her litter name was “Pink Camo,” and I only had one little photo of her face to get me through the weeks leading up to our meeting date. That Monday, we planned to drive most of the way there from northeast Ohio, spend the night at a hotel, and then pick up the puppy on Tuesday. I remember that Monday vividly. I had just been diagnosed with shingles that very morning, and at my appointment, the doctor asked me, “are you particularly stressed at this time?” Oh boy, was I. I felt broken, defeated, and now I had a limp from the shingles pain down my left leg to show for it.

Jeff and I spent the night at Fairfield Inn that night, and I remember our conversation as we fell asleep. “Can you believe we’re getting a dog?” “This is the last night as just the two of us. Tomorrow, we will be three.” One of the things in my memory is Jeff practicing what he would say when he met Pink Camo for the first time: “Hmmm. So YOU’RE the puppy!” He said this in a dismissive way with such a snooty voice and his nose up in the air. Then he cracked up laughing at his own ridiculous scenario. I think I might even have a video of him saying that phrase in front of Maris on our drive back home from North Carolina.

When we got to the farm, the double gate opened, and we drove in. As I got out of the car, I saw Pink Camo playing with an older Labrador. In the back of my mind, I knew that the small puppy was our dog – she was the only one left in the litter because the others had been picked up. But I diverted my attention to the Labrador (?!) and started petting the older dog. Jeff said,”that’s our puppy. That’s her right there!” I sheepishly went over and acquainted myself with her… and picked her up from the ground into my arms. She never set foot on North Carolinian soil again because that was it – once she was in my arms, she was in it forever.

As we drove down to Danville, Ohio to pick up Lucas, I wondered about that moment eleven years ago. Why was I hesitant to pick up Maris instantly? Wasn’t I looking forward to the dog? Why did I go first to the Labrador? Thinking deeply about that moment and the anticipation, I think I was afraid to be too excited about Maris at the time. I was afraid of how much I would love her. So it was really my defensive mechanism that kept me from running to her upon first sight and sweeping her off of her paws. That bit of hesitation was my fear of rejection. Yes, friends… eleven years ago, I was afraid of being rejected by a puppy. It was a low point in my life, shingles and all.

When we arrived at the farm last Saturday, the farm dog “Angel” greeted us again. While I played with Angel, the breeder came out of the house holding Lucas in her arms. This time around, I didn’t hesitate. I marched over to Pam and reached out for Lucas. He was scared, but he looked at me, and I at him. It was love at first sight. He licked my face even though he had only known me for a few minutes. I held him tight while we spoke with the breeder, until I got into the back seat of my car (Jeff was driving back), and put Lucas in his car seat for the long drive home. I don’t think Lucas will be back in Danville… unless he wants to go herd Pam’s sheep.

I guess one thing that is different about me from 11 years ago is that I don’t feel the need to protect myself from loving something too much. Maris never rejected me (well, except for when she thought my kisses were too much), and I never had anything to fear. I think Lucas is the same. This time, I didn’t hold anything back. And perhaps that is something Maris taught me over the years. I learned to love her with all my heart while she was with us, even if she didn’t want that last kiss that I so wished to plant on her forehead.

Love at first sight

Happy Graduation

from the hospital!

The day that Jeff graduated to a regular hospital room was a very happy day. It was like a pat on the back from the hospital, “good job!” We packed everything up, Jeff no longer needed oxygen nor an NG tube. His face was clear of plastic for the first time since the surgery. His multiple “central lines” were reduced to just two, and the scary one that was plugged into this carotid artery was patched up. He sat in his wheel chair ready to be transferred and gave me a huge smile.

The staff took us to the third floor of Seidman building at Hillcrest. Room number 22. It was a single room (thank goodness) and the whole wing seemed to be newly built. There was a desk, where I set up my computer to do some work while Jeff slept. There was a couch, which was a really nice for me because I was really tired. I took naps there from time to time, and the super considerate nurses worked silently on Jeff to keep from waking me up. We were so grateful for such state of the art facilities… except for the weird bed that had an alarm. Jeff’s hospital bed had an alarm that would go off like a fire alarm whenever he got out of bed. The first time it happened, we were both panicking – what did we do wrong?!! Ahhh, how do you turn this thing off? Later, I learned how to shut it off when it went off, but boy was it funny. They really want you to stay in bed, apparently!

Jeff had a few things on the checklist to accomplish. He needed to be able to tolerate oral medication, his digestive system needed to wake up (so he needed to move things along), and he needed to be able to eat a full meal before he could be discharged from the hospital. Slowly, they weaned him off of the IV meds, and eventually, he was taking his pain meds orally. But it was the second on the list that took a long time, and also prevented him from being able to eat. In fact, they had taken the NG tube out too early – they realized that they needed to put it back in. NG tube prevents the gastric juices from flooding your stomach by sucking it out – any buildup would make Jeff nauseated and would make him throw up – that would be a threat to his freshly stapled incision site. Let me tell you, putting a plastic tube up your nose and down your esophagus is not a pleasant thing. And he had to redo it twice because the second one that was put in fell out (it wasn’t taped well enough). The third and last time they tried it, I was there, and it was painful for me to watch. They were not successful and had to try later. I went home early that night because I couldn’t bare to watch it again. I figured that I would let the medical professionals get done whatever they needed to get done. When I arrived the next morning, it was in. I used a lot of medical tape to stabilize that sucker so it would never fall out by itself again! When I was done, Jeff looked like an ant-eater.

Progress on the digestive tract was slow… until it wasn’t. Suddenly, things started to move, and Jeff was able to eat a full meal. It felt like the hospital was happy to kick him out! Suddenly, on the morning of April 5th, Jeff was cleared for discharge. At this point, I was comfortable visiting him in the afternoon and being able to get some work done at home in the morning. After my early afternoon meeting, I packed a bag full of clothes, shoes, and other things, and rushed to the hospital. He looked so good for a man who had been disemboweled not two weeks earlier to get his aorta replaced!

What is really remarkable is just how quickly he was expected to get back to normal life. As the nurse read the discharge instructions, I asked if he needed to be on a special diet. Nope, can resume normal diet. Later, we had home care nurses and physical therapists come to check on Jeff at home. The nurses thought he was doing great, and the physical therapists didn’t think he needed physical therapy! And later I asked Dr. Rizzo if Jeff needed to see a cardiologist – nope! His heart is very healthy, and the ultimate stress test was the pain that he endured as his aorta was breaking apart, and the massive surgery itself. So it was this structural defect that once fixed would allow Jeff to resume normal life like before.

I am typing this in early June 2022. It has been a little over 2 months since the surgery. Jeff has been resting at home, gaining strength. It took a little over a month for him to feel like anesthesia had fully worn off so he could drive again. And since the weather has become nice in the spring months, he has been slowly playing golf, his favorite sport, starting with putting and now swinging fully. He is getting his strength back. He still gets tired, and it will probably be another month until he gets his full stamina back. And I still watch him with sheer wonder at the walking miracle that he is to me.

My little workstation in the ICU
Will never forget this room!
A slightly better working environment
Jeff, so happy to be discharged, wearing the outfit that I scrambled together for him.

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…

The world’s most valuable clot

to plug a giant hole

Dr. Rizzo is a man of few words. After the surgery, he just said, “the surgery was successful.” I’m like… how? what happened? I need details! I asked him, “what held the rupture together?” He said that the hole was the size of a baseball, but the torn fringes were inflamed and swollen, which helped to reduce the size of the hole. But it was really the giant blood clot that formed and stuck between the front side of his spine and the aneurysm that kept the plumbing intact. Jeff had been on borrowed time because it would not have held for much longer. “Actually, here, I’ll show you the photos.”

Later I would tell Jeff that seeing his empty abdominal cavity and the front side of his spine brings new meaning to our marital intimacy. The photos were incredible. His aorta was completely shredded, tattered. Then Dr. Rizzo showed us the new synthetic aorta that would be a part of Jeff’s vascular system for the rest of his life. It was a gigantic, Y-shaped single piece that graced the back of Jeff’s abdominal cavity from top to bottom, and into his hips. Incredible. “Oh,” Dr. Rizzo casually added, “he didn’t need any blood.” Jeff went through one of the most invasive vascular surgeries around and didn’t need a single drop of blood. Miracles continued to pile up.

As we caught up, I saw a bed rolling by. It was Jeff. After they set him up in his room, Dr. Rizzo got up and said that I could follow him into the CS ICU. There was staff transferring all his bags of fluids and tubes to the ICU equipment. Jeff was still under anesthesia, intubated, hooked up to so many things. I was afraid to touch him because I didn’t want to mess anything up. I sheepishly touched his left hand and found it to be so swollen. I looked at his face and realized that his entire body was swollen. Dr. Rizzo read my expression and told me that they had to pump him full of fluids for the surgery and that the swelling would go down in time. The night attending at the ICU was a very nice female doctor who said that he would sleep all night, and they would watch him. She encouraged me to go home… the ICU closes to visitors at 9pm anyway. I knew he was in good hands, so my friend drove me home.

I slept soundly but woke up early, around 5 am. I thought immediately, “what if he doesn’t wake up?” The nurse had given me the ICU’s phone number, and I called. They told me that he did well during the night and that I should come around 9am when they hope to have completed the extubation. It felt like forever from 5am to 8:30am – I just couldn’t wait anymore and drove to the hospital. When I arrived, they were still extubating him. I kept a little distance because I didn’t want to get in the way of the staff. There was a lot going on!

The same attending from the night before walked over by my side and told me that he was already breathing on his own, and that he looks really good. As I conversed with the doctor, Jeff must have heard my voice. Jeff’s nurse turned around and said, “he wants you to come over.” He can hear me! As I walked closer to the ICU bed, I saw his right arm, gesturing me to come to him. He is awake and alert!! When I got to his bed, I saw that the tube was still down his throat, and he was in a lot of discomfort. He held my hand and tried to spell something. I was so nervous that I would not quickly understand him and that might frustrate him more. “G”… “A”… “G,” he wrote the letters in the palm of my hand. “Gag?” He nodded affirmatively. “You have a tube down your throat. it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. But they are taking it out.” It didn’t matter what I said. He still looked so miserable.

It is so hard to watch your loved one suffer. I had never watched an extubation process – it looked completely miserable. It seemed like forever, but the tube was finally out, and he was trying to talk to me. He can talk! he can form sentences! All the things that we take for granted in our daily lives, I was so relieved and grateful for them.

Those first few hours of him being awake, me being by his side watching him breathe with wonder are some of the most precious memories I will carry with me for the rest of my life. We had passed the most harrowing part of the journey, but we were not clear of all dangers. I knew that we needed to continue to pray to avoid post-surgery complications. The hard part may be just beginning. I was so grateful that I was ready for anything.

On the other side of the OR

The waiting game…

Once Jeff was taken to the OR, our stories diverged. Here is my side of the story.

I have never lost anyone very close. I have been very fortunate that way. Sure, all four of my grandparents have passed away, but I was not very close to them, with me being here in the United States since 9 years of age, and them being half way around the world. We did not make the trip to Korea very often, so we lived isolated in the U.S. as Korean immigrants, and also isolated from family that was already so small to begin with. So no, I have never been really close to anyone who have passed.

So when Jeff went into emergency surgery, it was the first time I had come so close to such danger. I did not know what to do with myself. “Just wait from home. You live so close. They will let you know when the surgery is done,” the ER nurse told me. And it’s true – there wasn’t much of a waiting area at the hospital. And remember, I was bawling loudly, which was not a pretty sight. So I managed to get myself home, wailing into the phone intermittently while talking to my best friend and to Jeff’s sister. Sitting on the couch at home, I continued to cry, and I felt strange. Is this really me? Is this really happening right now? If I keep crying, does that mean that Jeff isn’t going to survive? Get it together!

What scared me was that the aneurysm had already ruptured and we didn’t know what was containing it. Whatever was holding the plumbing together could give out at any moment and then he would bleed out in a matter of seconds. Could everything be held together until the Cleveland Clinic surgeons could get to the aorta? My mind was reeling, but I knew that there was nothing I could do. I had never felt so helpless while desperately wanting a specific outcome. The situation felt like a coin toss, but that was not what how I viewed life. I knew that God was in our midst, and that He wanted me to turn to Him.

I started to pray but could not find the words. I repeated, “dear God, help us, help us” about a thousand times. I knew that I needed the help of people who could pray for us. I needed warriors. So I started to go down the list of contacts on my phone and texting everyone whom I knew would kneel and pray for Jeff. Copy and paste. Copy and paste. over and over again. Positive responses started to flood my phone. I kept myself busy expanding the prayer circle, and I knew that my fellow Christians would lift a prayer so loud that all the angels would hear them. This is an emergency! Please pray for us now!

Jeff and I parted ways in the ER just before 3pm. At around 5pm, I saw Hillcrest Hospital calling me. I panicked. “This surgery is supposed to take 4-6 hours. Why are they calling me 2 hours in?” I stared at the phone and plopped down on the floor because my legs were shaking. Jeff had not survived it, I thought. He bled out… whatever was holding it failed in the end. Shaking all over, I answered the phone. “hello?”

“Is this Anna?” yes… “This is nurse___ from Hillcrest Hospital, and I am calling to give you an update on the surgery. They started the surgery about an hour ago, and it is going really well. Jeff is doing beautifully. You should plan on coming to the cardiac surgery ICU waiting room at around 8pm.”

What a relief. Thank you, God!! I was so happy and… there are no words! In a span of 20 seconds, I went from complete despair at the thought of losing Jeff to an exhilarating high. I knew that we were only 1 hour into the surgery and not completely out of the woods, but I was overflowing with optimism. And then I was super annoyed. Why would you scare me like that by calling me and leaving me in suspense? Haven’t you heard of texting?

After the call, I was bursting with energy I didn’t know what to do with. What am I going to do for three hours? I started to clean the house to keep myself busy. Wiping everything down, scrubbing the bathrooms, vacuuming, putting things away… It was probably my way of regaining some control in my life. Just after 7pm, the nurse texted me this time to let me know that the surgery was progressing very well!

I had asked my friend to take me back to the hospital because I needed company. She arrived around 7:40pm and we left the house to see Jeff. I was still so giddy and high from the rollercoaster ride that I think I scared my friend. It was so good to have her by my side, just talking about random things while waiting for the surgery to end. At about 8:30pm, Dr. Rizzo came to the CSICU (Cardiac Surgery ICU) waiting room to give us the update.


How big is a baseball?

It depends on the situation

I will never forget the moment when the ER doctor rushed back into our room. He just started talking. There was no easing into the topic. He said “there is a baseball sized aneurysm in your aorta.” He reached over Jeff’s abdomen and made a baseball sized air-ball with his hands. He then pressed Jeff’s abdomen with his fingers and said that he could not feel a pulse where he normally should. “I’ve already called the vascular surgeon, and he is on his way.”

Wait, what? I know an aneurysm is bad, but he’s sitting up and talking to us. Couldn’t you repair the aorta? I guess there is going to be… a surgery? Okay, calm down – Jeff is still sitting up and talking to us, and there is no better place to have an emergency than in a hospital. Okay, the surgeon is on his way, and we will get this fixed. My job until then? Keep his blood pressure down.

At this point, we knew that all the weekend obligations had to be canceled. “Jeff, you just relax and stay calm and think of happy things. I’ll make the calls.” I stepped out of the room to call the orchestra to tell the personnel manager that Jeff would not be able to play the rest of the weekend. I made calls to his students to let them know that weekend lessons would be canceled. Jeff was supposed to teach a masterclass about 3 hours away on Saturday, and I had to cancel that for him, too. Taking care of business… that’s my job.

When I came back into the room, the lead surgeon had arrived, along with two other surgeons. Dr. Rizzo said that he wanted another CT scan with contrast. This time, there was no waiting – he was wheeled out right away for the scan. In the ER room, Dr. Rizzo, another surgeon (I will call him “Will” because I cannot remember his real name), and I stared at the first CT scan. As he scrolled through the scans, I could see Jeff’s aorta expanding from one film to another. How big is a baseball? At that point, too big. It seemed the size of an ocean. Just too vast, too large, too vulnerable. Dr. Rizzo said that the aneurysm had been there for a while. I asked, “what is ‘a while?'” He said, “years.” I stared at it and said, “Jeff is a wind player,” thinking that they would know what I meant. Both of them turned to me and asked, “what’s that?” “Jeff plays oboe for The Cleveland Orchestra. He’s played the oboe since he was nine years old… he blows into a very small reed to make sound and there is a lot of pressure.” I’m not sure if that was significant to them – Dr. Rizzo proceeded to tell me that he saw something that looked like inflammation or an infection in the artery. He would find out once he was inside.

Jeff came back from the second CT and he was in great pain. They gave him more painkillers to calm him down. A few minutes later, the original ER doctor rushed into the room and said that the aneurysm has already ruptured! But is somehow contained… what?? This was when I really started to panic and reality hit me over the head. I knew what that meant – how is he still alive? How did Jeff not bleed out already? Suddenly there was a whirlwind of activity, people coming in and out, voices being raised at the nurse to get Jeff’s blood pressure down. The surgeons were in the room looking at Jeff who was clearly sitting up and talking with us. How could this be if a baseball sized aneurysm has ruptured? What is holding this man together? “Will” explained the procedure to me and Jeff, and while I listened attentively, I had tears streaming down my face. In the middle of his explanation, he stopped, looked at me, and said, “don’t worry, it’s okay. We are going to fix it.” I will never forget those words of assurance and the comfort they provided during those moments of chaos.

As the staff was preparing to take Jeff away, we waited together in that room. I was listening to everything that was going on, and I tried to comfort Jeff who was very serene (was it the painkillers or just his nature?). I had my mask on, so he could only see the top half of my face, and I tried to put a brave face on – I didn’t want Jeff to know that I was crying. I am not sure why… I didn’t want him to worry about me? I should be comforting him, not he me? Or maybe I wanted him to believe that everything was going to be alright, and my crying would not support that cause. I still haven’t figured it out.

Whatever the case, I waited until he was taken out of the room and on his way to the OR before I burst into tears and wept out loud. It was surreal. Because I never cry. I heard myself wail, and it was like an out-of-body experience, like watching someone else cry. The ER nurse who was left behind came over and gave me a hug and I wept into her shoulder. Then I cried as I walked out of the ER and to my car. I backed out of my parking spot and started driving, only to park again a few yards out because of the tears. Somehow I drove home, sat on the couch and cried. Who knew that I had an abundance of tears? I had assumed that they had dried up during all those years of being on “survival mode.” To survive my childhood/adolescence, even my adulthood. From somewhere unknown, tears just poured out as the reality of the situation burst open the dam I had built brick by brick, layer by layer for decades.