You know what’s crazy? I’ll tell you what’s crazy™
Losing your soul mate.
I get off the plane and my phone begins to buzz. It’s my dad.
“I’ve got bad news,” my dad says.
And so begins a kaleidoscope of emotions and vulnerability that I have never before experienced.
I booked this flight months ago. I am flying to California to visit with my father and step mom, who simply goes by Gammi. They are both in their 80’s and have lived together for 33 years.
They are the type of couple who finish each other’s sentences. He knows how she’s feeling. He records her soap operas and she knows he likes his bacon burned. They both love their 2 little dogs who are both 13 years old.
“We’re a house of four senior citizens,” she would often say with a chuckle in her voice.
Lately she has been feeling less and less like herself. That cough we all thought was a bug or a cold never went away. Suddenly it had a medical name and symptoms that were scary and incurable.
“I just want to get my energy back,” she would say more and more frequently.
The sluggish feeling became the new normal for a woman who had always been active. She rode dirt bikes as a young mom and she traveled the world with her husband, fishing in ports of call from Puerto Rico to Hawaii and Costa Rica.
By all accounts, they lived a life that most people only find on post cards.
But in the end, time catches us all flat footed and changes the game, flips the script.
Now just breathing is a struggle for the woman. Drawing regular breaths are not simple or taken for granted. Suddenly a breathing machine is introduced into the household of seniors.
“I always know where she is,” my dad said with a smile on his lips, as he pointed to the lime green oxygen tube on the floor. “It’s 50 feet long,” he adds.
I remember looking at the 3 foot tall machine pumping fresh o2 down the small hose that runs the length of the hallway. It turns the corner and leads into the bedroom where she is resting.
The once vibrant, active woman, now attached to the plastic tube connected to her nostrils has learned to live with the inconvenience of breathing.
“I just want to feel like my old self,” she will tell me over and over and over.
Sadly, feeling like her old self will never happen.
“Bad news?,” I query to my dad revving up the rental car. “What do you mean, bad news? I thought she’d be out of surgery by now and in recovery.”
There is silence on the other end of the line. “They had to crack her ribs,” he says, his voice full of pain and tears.
I drive to Stanford Hospital, a beaming edifice of medical purity. “I am greeted by my step-sister who has red glassy eyes from crying.
“How’s Gammi doing?,” I say giving her a big hug.
She clings to me longer than she ever has. I can feel her heart pounding, the emotions, the stress, the uncertainty hovers around her like a rain cloud with no silver lining.
“She’s still in surgery,” she laments.
I look at my watch. It’s close to noon. The surgery began at 7:30 am. The procedure to put an artificial valve in her heart was suppose to take 90 minutes. Now it’s going on 5 hours. I feel a lump in my throat.
“The longer it takes is good news, right?” she says trying to convince herself.
We will quickly come to learn that Gammi’s heart was fragile like a butterfly’s wing. The surgeons needed to put a pacemaker in her heart to regulate life. But her heart was thin and tired and worn down like sea glass rubbed by the constant roar of the sea. When they pushed the device into place, something the surgeons have done to a thousand patient’s before, it punctured her heart. Suddenly this life sustaining muscle was in peril.
Suddenly the simple procedure designed to enhance strength and endurance has jeopardized life. Suddenly the crash cart is wheeled into the operating suite and the mood inside the OR has turned gravely serious.
Life and death has entered the equation. The surgeons crack the 82-year-old’s ribs, and suddenly the simple procedure has become very complex.
Tick Tock. Tick Tock.
The surgeon with the youthful look will emerge multiple times to give us updates.
He barely looks old enough to scrub in, no less lead a 12 hour surgical procedure where every heart beat is monitored by a team of highly trained experts.
He will talk quietly and expertly and in a hushed tone. He uses words like pericardium and aortic valve and sustainability.
“We are going to try for a Hail Mary,” he says.
Hail Mary to me is a football term. It means you have no chance to win, but you are going to try. It usually means your quarterback drops back and then throws the ball as far as he can. Every receiver goes to the end zone and leaps into the air, as twice as many defensive backs try to knock the ball down. Usually the game expires and that’s it. But every now and then, a receiver catches the ball and the outcome changes in a single instant.
When a Cardiac surgeon says we’re going to throw a hail Mary, it’s frightening to a family that is unnerved.
We wait and wait and wait. We pass the time with small talk, trying not to think about what must be going on inside that operating suite.
We often talk about Gammi being brave and fighting to survive. It gives us hope that the Hail Mary has a chance.
At one point my step sister reads Gammi’s horoscope. Unbelievably it says a small inconvenience will become a big issue that must be overcome.
The cosmic symbolism is vatic, hard to ignore.
The operating doors open and close innumerable times over the hours. People in blue scrubs come and go. Each time, there is a frosty chill in the air, and I find myself hoping nobody approaches us. No news is good news, I think to myself.
Then, almost 11 hours after it all began, after my father kissed his beloved and said, I’ll see you when you come out, the cardiac surgeon with the youthful eyes emerges.
His face reveals all, the Hail Mary was not successful.
We cry and hug and listen to his words, full of science and medicine.
And like that, a life is gone.
There is very little good that has come from this moment. Our group is paralyzed with a feeling of loss. Tears flow and emotions churn to the surface. A loved one is gone and there is no solace for the tidal wave of grief.
If there is a silver lining, it is the fact that Gammi didn’t suffer. She was asleep the entire time. She passed quietly.
As we hug, we know she is in a better place and she no longer has to suffer, to struggle to breathe, to feel the pull of gravity so intensely.
Now she is free of the pain and basking in the glow of the ever after. She is waiting on her soul mate who cries openly like a baby mourning the unexpected, shocking loss of his beloved.
After 33 years of being one half of a loving heart, he is suddenly inundated by 100 percent of loneliness.
A life bed for two is now twice too big.
Suddenly the man bursts into tears. “I told the boys their mommy was coming home soon. I lied to them.” My father is talking about his two 13 year old dogs who are treated less like canines and more like children.
I’ve never seen my father cry. This is an overwhelmingly difficult moment. The shock of losing his better half is immeasurable.
I expected to chat with Gammi later that afternoon. Instead, I am now left with only a lifetime of memories.
We talk to a counselor about mortuary arrangements and death certificates. It is all so surreal and horrible.
With red eyes and sad hearts, we go to dinner that night. It is late and we are exhausted. Upscale Palo Alto is alive with revelry. Young people fill the sidewalks with exuberance and zest. They have no idea about the valiant fight the 82-year-old woman exhibited in the operating suite just a few miles away. No matter how difficult, life always seems to go on.
We sit in a pizza parlor, worn down by the reality of the moment. Bathed in the glow of neon beer signs, we raise our glasses and clink them together. “To Gammi,” we simply say.
That’s all we need to say. She was an amazing soul, suddenly taken from our corporal reality. But somewhere, her golden glow watches over us, swirls around us. she is on the other side and she knows now what mankind has longed to know.
We will see her again one day. She will be youthful and healthy and full of the life that lit up a room.
Now we must support the living. We must come together for our father who will have to relearn how to live. He will cry many more times. He will pet his old dogs, who will cock their faces questioning where their human mother is. The house is filled with reminders of the love of his life. Pictures of amazing trips and family gatherings are stuffed into the shelves.
The home is filled with hand written post it notes reminding the old man to buy paper towels and coffee and to feed the dogs. She was suppose to come home in a day or two. The death couldn’t have been more unexpected or unwanted.
The post it notes are so simple, so innocuous, yet they are super charged fuel that is combustible to an old man’s heart.
They say time heals all wounds. I’m not sure there is enough time to heal this wound. Sometimes life forces you through a door that shuts behind you and forces you to look only forward.
With life comes opportunity. The man with a broken heart has options. He has his children and a family that cares about him very much. He is still relatively healthy and could live many more years.
Life is what it is. Growing old is rarely easy and without complication.
The finality of this loss is supreme. It is a loss that every family will ultimately experience.
It is my first experience with death.
I will undoubtedly hear the knock from the reaper again sooner or later.
For now, it is day 2 of the rest of the broken hearted man’s life. He will relearn how to do the simple things she always did for him.
She is watching from above, waiting to share with him the glory that exists in the golden glow of forever.