“Cheers!” “Good stuff!” “So very happy!” “All I can say is UNBELIVABLE!!!” My friend, Chris, uses more exclamation points on his Facebook posts than anyone, ANYONE else I know…and I’m jealous. JEALOUS!!!!!!!!!!!
Valerie and I were in a haze during much of transplant number one, being rookies, we were led by medical staff and carried by family and friends. We would have ignored meals without someone delivering them, and we were too inexperienced to know what to ask or tell doctors. We were, thus, grasping to a flimsy raft, riding up and down in a sea of unknown, uncertain emotional waves.
Especially adrift were Valerie’s emotions, but who could blame a young mother with her toddler clinging to life in ICU? Trenton had two cardiologists. An intelligent, elderly man who seemed well-adept at pointing out problems, would take Valerie splashing down in fear, only to have the other, a somewhat younger, happy, brightly-dressed woman pull Valerie up from drowning by showing the opportunities. Valerie also tied Trenton’s prognosis to the outcomes of others. At times, it would be the teenager in the next room who had suffered from heart problems similar to Trent, and Val would project his outcome onto Trenton’s. Other times, it was someone well-meaning telling us how their relative had a health issue and how it was resolved; and again, Valerie projected it on to Trent.
I learned, after being pulled under by a few large waves, to stay on shore and remain aware of them, but try to ignore their amplitude. I’m not distancing myself from the situation. In fact, I think I am better with my awareness of the emotions of others, but have chosen to take an “I’ll believe it when I see it” stance.
By the time cancer entered our lives, it had been sixteen years of monthly visits to Children’s Medical Center, so the surroundings were no longer intimidating. On the morning we received the news that Trenton’s tumor was malignant, Val and I were standing in Trenton’s hospital room with three doctors, staring at a monitor that displayed a scan of Trent’s abdomen. We caught enough of their doctor mumbo jumbo (“See this gray area?”), and asked a few questions before one of the doctors turned to Trenton and asked, “Do you have any questions?” Trent was noticeably caught off guard and hesitated. Years of doctors, and this was the first time they had included him in a discussion. Trent asked, “Is it serious?” Years of doctors and this was the first time I had seen them caught speechless, so I stepped in. “Yes, it’s serious,” I replied. “We don’t know if it’s a little serious or a lot serious, but that’s what we are going to find out.” I covered for the doctors (knowing doctors don’t like giving definite answers) and I knew Trenton was old enough and experienced enough that he deserved the truth, and could take it. And the ability to control my emotions helped me manage the situation.
Transplant number two in 2014 showed me how much I had trained (or contained) my emotions. Soon after a procedure that is “routine” for heart transplant recipients, a cardiologist and a chaplain visited Val and me in the waiting room to inform us that Trenton’s heart had stopped beating and they were trying to resuscitate him. Valerie had dropped to her knees, sobbing before I fully realized what was happening, but I kept my wits and helped her off the floor and into a small consult room nearby where we could begin our mourning. During ten of the worst minutes of our lives, we sank to a level of mourning and fear that included regret and sadness, but also acceptance, understanding and appreciation.
My ability to control my emotions has been helpful during our health adventures, however not easy to transition back from our surreality to reality. When my kids have success – graduations, jobs, weddings – I am truly thrilled for them, yet may only show it through a smile, a hug and a kiss. I’m rarely the type to jump and scream with excitement, and I realize I should change. Thankfully, I have no problem hugging and kissing my kids, regardless of how old they are (or how much facial hair the “boys” have).
I am not writing this blog because I have it all figured out; life is a nonstop journey I’m still trying to learn. I don’t claim to be an expert, just a witness/victim/survivor/observer. I write to share what we’ve learned that may have similarities to your life journey, and thus, give you an idea of what it MIGHT be like (remember not to project what happened to our family directly onto your experience). That said, I can tell you that it’s not worth worrying about what your journey will be or when it will begin or end.
Chris’s life isn’t perfect. OK, playing tennis with Richard Branson on his private island and befriending Richard Dreyfus while in Beverly Hills certainly pushes Chris up the cool list. However, he has taken on huge responsibilities in his work life while being a devoted single dad, working hard to raise a wonderful daughter. What Chris takes on is more than most people can imagine, yet he jumps in with excitement and energy. Maybe he doesn’t tell me everything going on inside his heart and brain, but whatever it is, he knows he is in a position to impact many with his happiness and he continues to show it. I love you, Chris, and appreciate your optimism more than I show. People like me need people like you to remind us that expressing happiness can, and should, go hand in hand with being – Still Thankful.