After almost a decade together, our shared language is both oral and visual. A wink means, did you see what our kid did? A sigh, what’s wrong now? A gentle nudge with a big toe on a calf in the middle of the night, please stop snoring already. Our words have meanings that only we understand, our promises to love each other through sickness and in health made with knowing smiles at the altar after having lived through a premarital spring, summer and fall of ailments that would precede another four seasons of tests and uncertainty.
Starting as a pre-med in college, though I wouldn’t see it through, I learned a language of medicine and science, names for various bodily systems and afflictions, words to describe how one is feeling. The language of love, our words that we speak to one another, has the staccato rhythm of a heartbeat, an electrical impulse sent to the tiny metal disk that rests underneath the surface of his skin, shocking his essential pump into a steady beat when it threatens to stop completely. The disk that was implanted two years ago when just after his 32st birthday, and right before my 31st, the fear of widowhood rose with bile in the back of my throat as I listened to the voice on the other end of the phone.
“Pick me up now.”
“My heart stopped.”
“I have to see the doctor immediately.”
“I love you.”
The first time he collapsed, in our fourth year together, he 29 and I 28, we were at a diner with my mother and my brother two days after Thanksgiving. I did not yet have a ring on my finger symbolizing our marriage yet to come (that would come two weeks later on the National Mall in the freezing cold moonlight), and when he laid his head on my brother’s shoulder as we sat at the breakfast table, we laughed it off for a moment.
Before we realized he wasn’t joking. Before we realized his entire body was seizing and he couldn’t breathe. Before I shouted, “Call 9-1-1”. Before I stood outside of the ambulance sobbing for a life together that before then had no problems more serious than, “Will he ever propose to me?”
Weeks of tests dragged into months of tests and just as quickly as his symptoms had come on, they slowed. His episodes would happen on a weekly, then monthly basis. Then it was my turn to get sick, this time with pancreatic issues that would force me to be hospitalized for days at a time, my only nourishment through tubes and occasionally in the form of lukewarm beef broth in a Styrofoam cup. We could only laugh the day that I had to get out of my hospital bed in order to let him pass out for a moment, grabbing my IV pole so that he wouldn’t knock it over as his body writhed in the rhythm that preceded his collapse. I lost 50 pounds that summer and was able to fit into a sample size wedding dress that needed to be taken in another two sizes before our November wedding.
He started taking a medication that was supposed to curb his passing out (we never called it “fainting” as it was too Victorian, too feminine, too quiet to describe the violence of the shaking of his body during an attack). The doctor could only treat the symptoms at that point, since both brain and heart scans couldn’t definitively name his condition. I had a biliary duct procedure and left the hospital two days later. The medication prescribed for my condition (a spastic colon) made my tongue heavy and my head light; for about an hour after popping that first pill every morning, it was as if I were back in college, lying on the floor in yet another dorm room, staring up at a Grateful Dead tapestry and listening to Phish.
We had about two months of respite before he had an episode on the flight back from our honeymoon. I held him close until it was over, steadying his body against mine until the shaking stopped. I popped another pill and felt every muscle in my body relax.
I got pregnant the first month we started trying and miraculously, both of us were healthy throughout the entire nine months. This changed once our son started attending daycare; we would be wiping our noses from January to December of that year, but at least we were not making weekly visits to the hospital. Our new nighttime ritual became cleaning bottles while discussing our days, coordinating our daily carpool over a bottle of Two Buck Chuck, trying to stay present in our marriage while fighting off the exhaustion of new parenthood and full work schedules. I stopped having to take my medication. Somehow, I was now healed.
The day he picked me up at the train station and told me that he had to pull over to the side of the road right before he passed out in the car was the same day that we knew that we weren’t out of the woods and that the medication was not working the way we were told it should. The tests started again; a monitor worn one week over the chest, EKGs, another monitor worn another week. We didn’t want him to have an episode, but at the same time we did. We needed an answer.
It was early in the morning and I was alone in my office checking emails when my phone rang. He was excited to tell me that he was having the sensation of almost passing out and was going to call the doctor to let him know. When he called me back five minutes later, it was to say that the company that monitored the rhythms on the device he was wearing told him to see his doctor right away.
His heart had stopped.
For almost 30 seconds, no heartbeat had registered on the device at all.
He needed medical attention.
We rushed over to the medical center and met with a cardiologist that couldn’t have been more than ten years older than us. Fragments of the conversation filled my head along with the silence of abject terror. “Tomorrow”, he said, “no arguments. We’re putting this in your chest.” “Pacemaker.” “You look just like my best friend from college, so I’ll make sure to take great care of you.” “We don’t know why this happened, but this is your best shot at staying alive for a good long time.” “Wait, you were taking what medication? That could have killed you with your condition.” “You’re so young.” “See you in the morning.”
He looked at me over the doctor’s head and smiled. His smile meant, It’s okay, we’ll get through this. I smiled back, even though my smile meant, How the hell do you know it’s going to be okay? What am I going to tell our son if you don’t make it for some reason? Both of our smiles contained all of the words that we were not quite ready to say aloud.
My mother got on a train that afternoon so that she could sit with me in the waiting room during the procedure, so that I wouldn’t be alone. I was easily the youngest in the room by 25 years. A flock of middle aged women waiting for their sister spoke in not so hushed tones about how terrible it was that she was having a pacemaker put in. “I expect she won’t live much longer.” “You know, when it’s your heart, it’s really bad.”
When the doctor came out and told me everything went fine, I cried a little. Part of me had expected him to come out and tell me “You’re a widow now.” Now I’d have to learn to breathe normally again and to not worry every time he left my sight that it might be the last time I saw him.
Pacemaker. A device to pace the rhythms of your heart.
Electrical impulses to keep it beating.
A tiny metal guardian angel with wings of wires perched in his chest.
He was half-sitting up on a pile of pillows as the nurses were wheeling him to recovery.
We looked at the incision together. “I could get a tattoo,” he said. “A broken heart, and they’d just have to open me up on the scar line when it’s time to replace the battery.
Every seven years, they told him. Seven’s a lucky number, I thought.
The scar has faded from an angry red to translucent silver over two years; the biggest issue he has with it is when our children throw their heads back on his chest in fits of laughter. It took me about a year to touch his chest the way that I did when we were new lovers, to feel comfortable enough to lay my head down and feel the gentle lub dub of his heart beating in the steady calm of our shared existence.
They’ll open him up again in a few years, to replace the battery that keeps everything running. I’ll sit in a waiting room with another pile of gossip magazines, probably by myself. Our kids will be in school. We may have purchased our “forever” home by that time. We might even have a third child. The possibilities of a long life together will stretch out before us. A wink might mean, are the kids at a sleepover tonight? A sigh, did you walk the dog? A gentle nudge, I’m glad you’re snoring next to me. And when they wheel him out again, we’ll get another seven years.
Megan Birch-McMichael is a freelance writer living in Massachusetts with her husband and two children. Recently, she has been published at Modern Loss and on Zelle (www.rwzelle.com). Her blog is www.tumblr.com/anatomyofamother. You can find her on Twitter at @anatomyofmother.
Your story has such depth. I loved reading it and it touched my heart. So much love.