“I miss our kids. And our grandkids.” It had been weighing on me all day. I just had to say it out loud.
“You just saw them. We were in Milwaukee a few weeks ago, then we went to the Cities. You’ve had lots of time with family.” Rich tried to reason with me.
“That’s not the point. I miss them NOW.”
The isolation of COVID, the forced inactivity of post-surgery recovery and life had gotten me down. I went to bed thinking Rich didn’t get it. He didn’t understand my feelings. He was made of different stuff, didn’t need family like I did.
I tossed and turned, and in the early morning hours Rich snuggled up and said, “I think you should get up and go to Karen’s.”
“No. That would never work.” I already had my day mapped out. Writing assignments to finish. Clothes to wash. Church. A bike ride. Karen and family were probably busy.
“Call her,” he insisted. I dragged myself out of bed, brushed my teeth. Texted with no response. Washed my face, looked in my closet for something to wear. Took a deep breath and called.
“That would be great, Mom! We have no big plans for the day. When can you be here?” Karen’s voice was all I needed.
I’m not very good at being spontaneous. At changing course on a dime. But that morning I was out the door in record time, and rolled into Karen’s driveway by 10am.
Michael ran into my arms as soon as I came in the door. Isabel and Mya took me on tours of their Minecraft houses. Ben lurked somewhere, it was enough that he was close by. They had already made my day. That’s just what I came for.
As promised, the day was loose and unstructured. Having left all my to-do’s at home, I was happy to go with the flow. It was a day for just being. Being together. Being with family.
I was home by 10am the following morning. Refreshed, fulfilled, happy. My heart overflowing with the hugs and the time spent together. My to-do list still awaited, no worse off for delaying a day. Rich did get it. I’m so glad he pushed me to go. And that I just said yes.
That hospital is becoming too familiar. Since that fateful day last October when Rich took his ambulance ride from the woods to the emergency room at Essentia, we have gotten to know the landscape very well. The cardiac ward seems to be his second home, between multiple surgeries, procedures, doctor visits and rehab workouts. Throughout it all, I have come to learn what it means to be a model patient.
This is the man who rarely remembered names or faces. But from his bedside I could see the pains he took to check name badges and call each assistant, nurse and doctor by name. They responded in kind, treating him as a person not a patient. He cared about their lives as much as they did about his. I could see how it transformed personalities and care.
“Thank you” was constantly on his lips. Every poke, jab, test or adjustment elicited the same response. He was in good hands, these people were there to help him on the road to recovery and he let them know how much he appreciated it. It seemed to come as a surprise to many of his helpers, unused to being thanked for doing unpleasant things. I enjoyed watching the look of wonder come over their faces.
There were many dark days in that hospital. Days when Rich wondered what his future looked like, if he had one at all. But one thing could light up his face. Owls. His owls. All it took was a casual inquiry – “What do you do?” Where once that would have unlocked his identity as a techie and web guru, now it means photography and birds. Last year he traced down a great horned owl nest nearby, and photographed the owlet triplets from conception to independence. With the pandemic gripping the world, his blog attracted thousands of followers. Everyone, it seemed, was eager to watch the daily development of those furry friends – a joy amid hardship.
The best of those photos found their way into a children’s book, Do You Hoot!, which chronicles the owlets’ young lives. Copies sold like hot cakes, and Rich made it available free online to anyone who wants to download it. His passion lies in sharing his owlets, particularly with children, not making money off them.
So that innocent question spawned stories, as many as time allowed. Sometimes it led to photos on his tablet or a card with the link to his photography blog and book downloads. Rich became known as The Owl Guy. Soon his reputation preceded him. New staff coming on duty would come in and say “I hear you’re the one watching the baby owls.” And that smile would travel across Rich’s face again. It was a ray of light in the midst of uncertainty.
Today we re-entered those walls again. For yet another procedure. Rich had been doing great – even back skiing and starting to ride his bike again. And then he wasn’t. His heart reverted to irregular beats, A-fib as we learned to call it. He was in it 100% of the time, and his heart was having trouble keeping up. It robbed him of energy, put an end to his workouts, and planted grim thoughts where hope had been growing.
But modern medicine is wonderful, and there are still answers. Rich went in for an “Atrial Ablation” this morning so they could zap all the erroneous signals in his heart, to return it to a normal rhythm. As I waited with him, numerous staff members came and went. Inserting IVs. Checking his blood pressure. Asking questions. Requesting signatures. Turning off his implanted defibrillator. And one by one they’d look at him, recognition dawning in their eyes. “Say, aren’t you The Owl Guy?” And it would start all over again – the smile, the stories, and of course the thank yous.
The same owl parents have found a new nest this year, and Rich was out during the winter hunting it down. Perhaps they knew his energy was waning, because their new home is much closer to our house. Easily accessible to a birder with limited energy. Rich has already begun photographing this brood’s young lives. He’s pretty sure there are three of them again, barely visible underneath Mama Owl. And God willing, he will document their development as well. Because he’s The Owl Guy.
The trick with snowshoes is to find a place to walk where you actually need them. When Erik and I first arrived at the Sucker River, we wondered if we were wearing unnecessary encumbrances.
The new fallen snow lay sparkling on the river’s ice bed, billowing over underlying formations and giving way to openings where the water flowed rapidly downstream. Overhead, tall pines framed the deep blue sky and the wilderness beckoned. But although we had the river to ourselves that day, we were hardly the first ones there. A well-beaten path headed upstream, trampled by snowshoes, boots, fat tire bikes and skis.
The good news was that the trail showed us where it was safe to walk. I had no qualms about skirting the watery openings, stopping to peer at the ice bubbles that formed around the edges. Dozens had done this before.
Even on the ice, I could hear the water below, burbling. The sounds accompanied our walk and I stopped frequently to admire nature’s artwork.
We clambered up waterfalls, and as they got progressively steeper I was thankful for the ice teeth on my snowshoes. They were just as useful on the way back down.
Before long, we lost our fellow hikers and the trail narrowed to one set of ski tracks and fat tire treads. When those petered out, only animal tracks crisscrossed the river. Dare we follow them? We made our way to the river’s edge to continue, happy to have our snowshoes.
Sunlight warming our backs, pristine snow and deep silence rewarded us for venturing far upstream. When the river flattened out, the snow depth thinned. We hoped to reach 3 miles inland, but stopped a little short when the ice visibly changed and appeared to be slushy up ahead.
The return trip delivered new views on the banks, different snow and ice sculptures on the river, and deep breaths of crisp clean air. An escape through a corridor accessible by foot only in the winter. And worthy of snowshoes.
The words that flow across the screen reveal an endless source of imagination. Mya’s fingers fly around the keyboard as she composes, intent on her work. She stops only to ask questions: “How do you spell shriek?” “What should I call the planet? How about Nimo? Wait, I think Nimeo is better.” Her eight-year-old brain is on overdrive. Her enthusiasm infectious.
Soon her ten-year-old brother follows suit. Opening his own Google Doc, Ben begins typing.
Long ago there was a myth that there was a temple that was told to behold many treasures. And only one person can wield its power.
I am there to help them with their distance learning, and in their spare time I expect them to run off and play, or look for a snack. Instead, they are fixated on writing stories. Grandchildren after my own heart. I find Mya nestled on the couch before breakfast, cradling her chromebook, her face intent with concentration.
As their tales grow they are eager to share them with me. “Grammy, listen to this.” Ben reads his story out loud, always starting from the beginning, title and all. “Grammy, I’m on chapter two,” Mya chimes in. “Here’s what’s happening now.”
I am all ears. That’s what Grammys do. But it is more than that. I’ve been on this writing journey for almost nine years now. I’ve taken classes. Attended conferences. Read books. Done workshops. And worked with a writing coach. I’m still honing my craft, continually learning. And I just found a new source of tutelage.
As Mya reads aloud, and reaches the end of chapter one, she leaves me hanging. It ends with a twist. I am eager to know more, to turn the page. It is a technique that took me a long time to master.
“Oh, I learned that from reading Harry Potter,” Mya explains.
Isn’t that what we are told to do? If you want to be a good writer, then you must read, read, read. Find good authors, grow your vocabulary, notice and absorb their techniques.
Ben likes to fill his story with dialog. His characters trade quips back and forth. On the page I find rapid fire quotes with narry a “he said” then “she said” between them. Even so, I know just who said what.
Not only did I shy away from dialog in my early work, but once I began to dabble in it, I insisted on attributing each line to its owner. An editor broke me of that habit, but I’m still working on it. Somehow, Ben got it from the get-go.
Mya’s story abounds in mystical creatures with fantastic names. She talks out loud as she types, speaking her creativity, trying out the sounds on her tongue.
… a girl named Rayla Minnesota lives on the edge of the city. She has a pet called Moono. Moono is a Bisha. A Bisha looks like a lion, except Bishas are blue with white diamonds. Moono was so big that Rayla is able to ride him! … Monshias are wolves but they have wings and come in many different colors. People say they roam the sky at night. Monshias are rare.
I am in awe. My genre is memoir and creative non-fiction. I have yet to dabble in fiction. I shy away from the imagination it requires. But Mya dives in with abandon in “The Wings of Galaxy.”
Once upon a time, there was a world named Nimeo. Nimeo is a bit bigger than a faraway planet called Earth. Nimeo has two blue suns and two moons. Even though Nimeo has two suns, it usually is dark. The planet’s oceans are purple, and like Earth, the land is green. The suns are far from Nimeo, but since the blue suns give off so much heat, Nimeo has enough warmth that the people can live.
She decides that in the world she is creating that characters take state names for their surnames, and cities are named for our planets. Where does she come up with this stuff? I have a hard enough time finding substitute names for my real-life characters whose identity I want to protect.
Ben’s story features James and Louis, two miscreant school boys. How do I know that?
When James and Louis got back into the classroom they picked their chairs in the back as they always do.
After school, they boys meet at an abandoned outpost. James proposes returning home to get something, leaving Louis there on his own. Louis delivers his response: “Leaving me at a spooky outpost for an hour, uh he he sure.” Louis said, quivering. Ben doesn’t say Louis is scared. He doesn’t call the boys mischievous. He shows me. Did someone teach him that? I certainly had to be taught.
Louis sat looking at the beautiful sleek white furred creature. It had a long glimmering tail, and two turquoise eyes. “Wait a minute, I know what kind you are, you’re an ancient wolf!” “Oh, I forgot, you glow in the dark, just realized that because you’re glowing right now.”
I recently attended a webinar about developing characters. I was told that because I know my mother so well, I unwittingly assume my readers can picture her, understand her background and recognize her habits. It made me realize I need to bring her – and all my characters – to life for them. Ben didn’t need any encouragement to breathe life into his ancient wolf. I can see it vividly!
I can’t begin to approach the depth of their imagination, their thirst for fantasy. I have to admire their desire to invoke it in their writing. I’m thrilled to see their passion funneled into words and stories at such a young age. And with apparent effortlessness.
As the week progresses, the kids make rapid progress on their stories. My own writing languishes as I lavish attention on them instead. As a Grammy should. But my enthusiasm for the craft is renewed and I return home eager to follow Ben and Mya’s examples. I attack my book once more, intent on my story, working with youthful inspiration.
It didn’t take any coaxing. I responded to the job opening in a flash.
Needed: One School Marm, to oversee two grade schoolers in distance learning
I was hired on the spot.
The need was in my daughter Karen’s home, when a medical emergency interrupted their carefully planned arrangements. Their oldest two children in grades 3 and 4 were well accustomed to the drill of their remote school room, yet still needed supervision while she and her husband were at work. It wasn’t hard to commit to spending the week with my grandkids.
To date, I had only heard about distance learning from teachers, media and hearsay. This was the first time I engaged with it first-hand. To students Ben and Mya it was all old hat by now, their routine well-honed. They knew their schedules well, they were the ones leading me through their myriad Google-meets, videos, live instruction and breakout sessions. I watched as they unmuted and muted their computers to speak in class, raised their white boards to the screen to show answers to math problems and juggled with classmates on a screen full of faces.
I marveled at how easily they embraced the technology, whipping between tabs, logins, and online resources. Like the kids that they are, they sucked it up easily and took it in stride. On the other side of the screen, I had to marvel at the teachers. How they tailored their lessons to the electronic age, leveraged resources on the web and still managed to engage their students one-on-one by name in the grid of faces in their virtual classroom. My admiration grew for this resourceful set of adults, faced with the unthinkable and rising to occasion, teaching under conditions they never dreamed possible.
When gym time came I followed Ben to the basement, chromebook under his arm, where he set himself up with a jump rope, balls and shopping bags. Shopping bags? Not all students have access to gym equipment or space at home, but one ingenious instructor created workout videos based on doing moves while throwing plastic bags into the air. It required as much dexterity and coordination as any fancy athletic routine, but with less chance of knocking over any lamps.
All kids procrastinate, doodle and play around during the school day. They wouldn’t be kids if they didn’t. Under this new regime, I watched Mya carefully select the colors and font for her text as she composed answers to her reading assignment. I rolled my eyes as she insisted on drawing the question numbers instead of typing them, erasing and redrawing until she got them just right. All that took far longer than actually coming up with her answers. But I had to admire her computer skills.
While the technology is new, the subjects haven’t changed much. I sat with Ben as he worked through the steps of long division, over and over again until he had it down pat. I read poems with Mya and listened to her answers when she was asked to analyze the poems, look for metaphors and similes, and compare their messages. I learned about open vowels, reviewed the use of commas and how to construct a timeline. We read stories together and answered comprehension questions.
Since I was a live-in aid, we found time for extracurricular activities as well. Before school became cooking time, resulting in mounds of mini banana chocolate chip muffins that fueled us through the next two school days. After school, Karen, Ben and I took to the ski trails. Donning headlamps, we skied under the lights and then ventured beyond to ski the quieter, dark unlit trails. It was a welcome release after being in the house all day.
Despite being highly self-sufficient, the kids seemed to thrive on having someone close by as we traveled through each day together. Someone to answer their questions, to help with explanations and just reassure them that they were doing it right. I felt needed and relished the closeness of our days together, our joint mission. Since I live several hours away, it was a rare opportunity to get to know them better.
I never aspired to be a teacher – I knew I didn’t have the right genes for that. But I can be a good old-fashioned School Marm.
The annual tradition starts soon after Labor Day. I hunt down yards and yards of cheery Christmas fleece and commence sewing Grammy Jammies. What started with one set of jammies has blossomed to 12 pair and counting.
I have six grandchildren and they get one pair each. They know the drill by now. I try to finish them by Thanksgiving so that they can wear them for the season leading up to Christmas (and beyond, of course). Each is wrapped in a cloth bag, and as soon as I bring out the stack, I hear “I know what’s in there!”
But that is no longer enough. It started with Ben’s Bear, who he claimed was cold. That led to jammies for Mya’s Puppy, Isabel’s Bunny, and Michael’s Puppy. Each year now, they too get new Grammy Jammies.
Maren and Crosby didn’t have jammie-friendly friends, so that had to be rectified. They each have a room with a woodland theme – foxes for Maren, deer for Crosby. Favoring the soft and cuddly JellyCat animals, I hunted down one of each. And now they get Grammy Jammies too. (And a seamstress secret – JellyCats all have the same body shape. One size jammies fits all, with modifications for tails!)
Over time, I’ve gotten to know these little friends pretty well. Through multiple measurements, try-on sessions, alterations and fittings. We’ve had some good times together. But I didn’t realize how attached one in particular had become.
As Karen and family departed after Christmas I waved from the deck until they were out of sight. It was only half an hour later that I discovered that Bunny had defected. She had jumped out of Isabel’s arms on the way to the van and hidden on the walkway by the garage as they drove away. Bunny was ours for the weekend, until the post office would re-open Monday morning.
I texted a picture of Bunny to Isabel, to reassure her that Bunny would be in good hands.
But that was only the beginning of Bunny’s adventures. Bunny accompanied us every where we went for the next two days. She joined us for dinner and watched our favorite TV series before I tucked her into bed. Bunny went birding with Rich in the morning and attended virtual church with us. She even helped me with the laundry.
I’m going to miss the little gal when we send her home to Isabel. She’s getting a First Class passage through the mail. With tracking. After all, she’s still wearing her new Grammy Jammies.
Social distancing. Face masks. Isolating. Six feet apart. Quarantining. COVID. Words constantly on our lips. Concepts we have learned to live with.
Family. Gathering. Feasting. Sharing. Hugging. Christmas. Words we long to express. Emotions we ache to indulge.
It’s a strange mixture, this new reality. And we all forge our own paths through the unknowns of the pandemic. After months of having to be uber-careful following Rich’s surgery, we sought relief. We launched a plan well in advance to add our daughter, Karen, her husband Matt and their four children to our bubble to spend Christmas together. As the day approached and everyone remained isolated and healthy, we welcomed them into our house and our arms for four wonderful days of normalcy.
We had no problem sequestering ourselves as a blizzard raged outside. We easily distanced ourselves while sledding down through the swirling snow, kids disappearing from sight in the raging wind and swirling snowflakes. Laughter reigned among bumpy rides and grueling walks to the top of the hill. We were alone in the storm.
Inside we warmed up with hot chocolate, played games, read books and watched a Christmas movie. Squeezing into the tiny TV room, we attended our Christmas Eve church service on the big screen. There was no nursery for the little ones, but their antics didn’t seem to bother the other worshippers. And we didn’t have to wear masks.
Santa’s visit seemed a safe bet. As long as the kids stayed in bed, he was guaranteed a safe social distance. So preparations commenced per usual. A note, cookies for Santa and a carrot for each reindeer were prepared. And the kids skedaddled off to their room.
Christmas morning began at the stroke of 6:00am. I heard little voices, and poked my head out to find the kids, lying in wait for me! I’m not sure who was more surprised!
Through the child-induced pandemonium of tearing through wrappings, squeals of delight and the inevitable squabbles, the quintessential Christmas unfolded. Pandemic or not. It was the most normal I’ve felt in months. The best Christmas present ever.
When things quieted down, grandson Ben begged to try cross-country skiing despite the below zero temperatures. Bundling up, he and I shared my two sets of classic skis and boots, and we fudged on the poles to set out on the trails. We easily remained six feet away from the other skiers, trading Christmas greetings as Ben took off like a pro.
Circling the table laden with food, we said grace, asked God’s help for those struggling with COVID, and gave thanks for all that we have – particularly one another. Gathered together. Within hugging distance. The biggest blessing of all.
We connected with other family members through FaceTime, Zoom and the good old cell phone. Safely distanced, but close in our hearts. I sincerely hope that this is the last time that being together for Christmas – or any day – is unusual.
All the stars were aligned. It was our turn to have our kids for Thanksgiving. Our daughter-in-law got the Friday after Thanksgiving off work, never a given for a doctor. The weather cooperated, no slick roads. Everything pointed to a family holiday. And then it didn’t.
As the COVID numbers raged higher and higher, we set our sights lower and lower. A big family gathering was no longer advised. The governor clamped down on the state, and we downsized to communing with just one family. And in the end, in the interest of protecting Rich’s post-operative health, we scaled back to the recommended single household. Ours.
It’s not the first time we haven’t gathered with our kids and their families. We’ve had off years, when all of them were dining with the in-laws. It happens, it’s only fair. But we always filled the void by getting together with friends – other childless parents. We had a fine time sharing the task of preparing all the traditional dishes and feasting shamelessly. I admit, Thanksgiving to me involves a crowded table – both the overabundance of food choices and the number of occupants surrounding it. They don’t have to be related to me.
We couldn’t share a table with others this year, but it didn’t mean we had to tough it out on our own. We still had the outdoors at our disposal, and made the most of it. Living across from the Lester-Amity trails, we invited friends to join us for a hike in the woods. The snow-covered trails lent a wintry feel, and we meandered happily among the pines as our boots crunched over the path. Respecting distances but in friendly proximity, my spirits lifted with the camaraderie.
Minnesotans that we are, we capped the afternoon with a visit out on the deck. Adirondack chairs fully separated, blankets at the ready and a touch of wine to celebrate.
A hastily arranged family Zoom call brought us all together virtually. Just seeing all their smiling faces brightened my day, and the inevitable chaos of trying to talk to 14 people at once regenerated that spirit of a family gathering. All three of our offspring were cocooned at home with just their spouses and children. We were hardly in this alone.
Everyone was making the most of a strange year. Karen and Matt were making home-made pizzas with their four children. Carl and Chelsea were serving up roast beef with the usual turkey trimmings for their two kids. Erik and Katie, both nursing colds, were basking in the pleasure of a turkey dinner being delivered by Katie’s mom. Not one us of was doing what we thought we’d be doing just a week or so ago.
Our 3-year-old granddaughter urged everyone to get their “ouchies” (vaccinations) soon so we could all be together again. Amen to that.
Although Rich offered to barbecue steak and salmon – our individual favorites – to spare me the work of a Thanksgiving dinner, I declined. We were on our own, but I still wanted that turkey smell. I still craved the side dishes. I really wanted the leftovers for Thanksgiving dinner revisited and turkey sandwiches.
By feeding only ourselves, the stress and drama of the turkey dinner evaporated. A turkey breast roasted in the oven and I puttered over the remaining trimmings. There were no table leaves to add, no large serving dishes to unearth from the pantry. We still laid out our wedding china and put the gravy in my mom’s silver gravy boat. I didn’t miss the last minute panic of getting everything done at once – when it was ready, we sat down to eat.
Candles glowed, as they do every night on our table, and we gave thanks for our many blessings. This year most of all we were thankful for our health, and for the medical teams that discovered and treated Rich’s heart condition. For bringing him back home to recover.
It was a quiet dinner and we did our best to linger, to draw it out and savor the occasion. It tasted like Thanksgiving even if it didn’t feel like it. Turkey for two. I hope this is the last time we do this.
It was a Baptism unlike all others. Planned for Easter Sunday, our grandson was to be baptized with both Carl and Chelsea’s families in full attendance. But it was quickly derailed by the arrival of COVID-19. As the months went by, the likelihood of gathering continued to dwindle, and baby Crosby quickly outgrew the heirloom gown he was going to wear (handmade for my dad 106 years ago). With his first birthday rapidly advancing, new plans were laid. And then re-planned with the ever-changing landscape of COVID.
Careful precautionary measures were put in place. The ceremony would take place outdoors, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Chelsea’s family would arrive a few days beforehand and celebrate the birthday and baptism together. Our family would stay afterwards, for a second round of festivities. We would only meet at the baptism, separated by distance and masks.
It all sounded as safe as possible, combined with staying in an AirBnB where we could retreat to our own space. But soon even those arrangements increased in risk. Rich’s recent open heart surgery put him in a new class of vulnerability. In his weakened condition, was it wise to drive to Milwaukee, where the COVID rates were far higher than home? Should we be gathering with family, even at a distance?
I didn’t want to face the decision. Forging ahead, I poured my heart into creating a new baptismal gown for Crosby. I chose sturdier (and warmer) wedding gown satin in place of Dad’s delicate fabric. Replicating the inset lace took some googling for instructions, but I relished recreating the slanted lace decoration on the skirt, then added it to the sleeves for good measure. Sewing fed my soul and was a welcome diversion from coronary woes.
As the date approached, so did apprehension, but holding it at bay in favor of family unity we made the journey. As if to smile with favor on the plans, God delivered a beautiful morning for the baptism – brisk November air with deep blue skies mirrored in Lake Michigan’s waters, sunshine radiating limited warmth and infinite light.
Well bundled to ward off the chill and masked against COVID, the baptism proceeded. No church would have been more sacred. No ceremony more holy. No congregation more thankful to be present. We all bore witness to God’s love and acceptance.
The ceremony complete, we moved to Carl and Chelsea’s front yard where the sun lingered and so did we. It lasted long enough to savor the morning and its significance among those we love.
Soon afterward, the weather turned windy, wet and stormy as if to close the chapter on the baptism. Rich and I retreated to the seclusion of our AirBnB, where he rested and remained segregated from the rest of the clan. But as the afternoon waned, I returned briefly for one more occasion – Crosby’s first birthday. Documented with pictures and a full report for Rich.
We have all been inspired to inventiveness throughout this year of COVID. It’s not over yet, and we will continue to be challenged to find ways to celebrate yet remain safe. Surely this was one for the family history books.
I almost didn’t answer my phone. It was a Duluth number, one I didn’t recognize. My rule of thumb is to ignore unknown calls. My finger advanced toward the Decline button, then hesitated. I pressed Answer.
“This is the emergency room at Essentia. We have your husband here.”
What? Isn’t he here, at home?
“Don’t worry. He fell while trail running. He’s okay.”
Hastily I tossed his warm sweater and wind pants in a bag and flew out the door, assuming I was going to bring him home. But the nurse and I were both wrong. He wasn’t okay, and I didn’t bring him home for another 13 days. I soon became a passenger on a trip I didn’t want to take.
Rich looked at me sheepishly when I walked into the room in the ER. “I blacked out while running, and came to nauseous and groveling on the ground.” Immediately, my mind went back three weeks, when he returned home after crashing his bike on the North Shore.
“My helmet is toast,” he said slowly. “I think I have a concussion.”
Naturally I linked the two events. So did Rich, and the medical staff in that little room nodded. Tests were ordered and they kept him overnight to confirm the results.
“I’m not buying that concussion story.” This was the new hospitalist the next morning. “That wouldn’t cause you to black out.”
More tests, this time focused on the heart, confirming her suspicions. Rich had known for years that he had mitro valve prolapse, a non-threatening deformity that never impacted his health – until now. It had deteriorated to the extent that there was significant backflow between the ventricles and his heart was greatly enlarged as a result of compensating for the problem for a long time. His heart output was diminished to half what it should be and he had irregular heartbeats.
For a man who has pursued active sports almost daily and kept himself in good shape throughout his life, this was a blow. He went from a fit athlete to a hospital patient with a bad heart, right before my very eyes. But it got worse.
“The valve is in such bad shape, we are not sure it can be repaired. We will need to do open heart surgery in order to see its condition and change course to a replacement if need be.”
The very words Open Heart Surgery conjured terror in my own heart, and I wasn’t even the one facing it. I had plenty of bedside time to come to grips with the sudden change in Rich’s life – and therefore my life – while kept captive in the hospital over the weekend. Although they offered to let him go home to wait, it came with a stiff warning.
“If you have another incident like you did on the trail, your heart may not start again.”
It was enough to keep him under watchful eyes and a heart monitor in his hospital bed.
The days were long leading up to that big surgery. Rich didn’t feel all that bad, he just knew he was in bad shape. It was scary knowing just what they were about to do to him. The best times were when someone asked him about birding. Word spread quickly, all about his photography and “his owls.” Rich’s face would light up and his mood lifted when he recounted following the baby owlets throughout the spring and summer. It was like seeing the old Rich return for the moment.
The day of the big surgery came and I was allowed to come before visitor hours to be with him beforehand. Inevitably, it was delayed, leaving us hours to kill with that hanging over us, out of things to say to one another in the heavy waiting. Then suddenly, “It’s time.”
To this point we had discouraged our children from coming. Due to COVID, patients were allowed only one visitor a day, and that was me. We tried to tell them there was no need to come, but they knew better and Karen arrived in town before they wheeled Rich into surgery. We met up in the parking lot entryway, where she handed me a large steaming hot latte and a bag lunch. Despite a negative COVID test, she was masked and backed away to visit, console and support me from a social distance. Even when I retreated to the waiting room, just knowing she was there was a great comfort.
I received multiple updates throughout the surgery, learning that they had to replace the valve and best of all hearing it was going well. I passed them along to the kids, both to keep them informed and to occupy my time, to feel useful. The final report was in person from the surgeon, who delivered a glowing report – the surgery went without a hitch and Rich was doing really well. That news brought huge relief and joy, and I texted it out to the kids with a thankful heart. But in no way did it prepare me for what came next.
At 5:45pm I was informed that I could go see Rich in the ICU. I eagerly but nervously rode the elevator to the highly controlled floor where I had to be buzzed into his area then ushered into his room. There I found him encumbered with tubes, needles, IV lines, monitors, machines and collection bags. “Doing great” didn’t look great to me at all. It took all my fortitude to believe those words as I sidled up to his bed, hoping I wouldn’t bump something I shouldn’t. But the nurse’s quiet manner as she moved around checking, adjusting and explaining in a hushed voice reassured me. I spoke to Rich and slipped my hand into his, my squeeze answered by his in return. It spoke more than words.
We spent almost five days in the ICU, an eternity. I was amazed at how I could wile away the hours and days in a bedside chair. There was a constant parade of doctors, RNs, nurse practioners, aides, surgeons, chaplains who came to talk to us. I took on the role of notetaker, trying to capture every instruction, every warning, every bit of encouragement they had to offer, then try to understand it. Rich made it a point to get everyone’s name, and to thank them. He even thanked those who administered IVs, who poked him, who interrupted his rest yet again.
“I’m just glad to be here. Not to be undergoing all this, but to be here where you can take care of it all. Fix what’s wrong with me.”
On the home front, the kids had organized a rota, driving long distances to take turns being there for us. I would arrive home at the end of each long day to find a hot dinner waiting, and a willing ear when I poured out my day’s anguish. They made sure I got outside, running with me in the early mornings or taking dark headlamp walks at night.
Day by day Rich shed the tubes, his IVs and even got up to walk. But the monitors continued to beep and buzz, drawing scrutiny by everyone who came in the room. Soon we were hit by another unforeseen pronouncement.
“You’re going to need a pacemaker and defibrillator. Now.”
Although the new valve was doing its work, the heart was damaged enough to need help. The pacemaker would ensure a regular heartbeat, and the defibrillator would come into play should his heart stop again. The logic was there, but it carried an emotional toll.
“My heart can’t do its work on its own any more,” Rich lamented.
This time they assured us it was a routine procedure – not even called a surgery. The device was implanted in his left chest and connected to his heart with two wires. I caught up with him in the hall as they wheeled him to his new room, and already he was conversing easily.
From there, Rich made rapid progress and was out the door in just two more days. The moment we arrived home was emotionally charged and Rich shed tears as he climbed the 27 steps up to our front door – returning to a home he wondered if he would ever see again. Being able to hear his owls hooting outside, watch his beloved birds at the feeders and sleep in his own bed again next to me.
His journey – our journey – is hardly over. Recovery is hard work, and the fatigue that comes with healing is unfamiliar to a normally healthy person. But we are all thankful that he’s here with us. Thankful that he fell where he could be helped to safety. Thankful that the medical team discovered the underlying problem. Thankful for each and every person who cared for him in the hospital. Thankful for the support of friends and family. And thankful for modern medicine and technology.
“I’m not as scared as I was before,” Rich says. “I know I still have heart problems, but now I have my own personal paramedic team in my chest.”
I can already see that I’m going to have one heck of a time holding him back from skiing before long. Watch out, Rich. I’m moving from the passenger side into the driver’s seat.