“That’s impossible,” I said when I first heard the news. “I don’t believe that.” I think my mind and body had gone into some sort of automatic defense mode as I tried to process the words that just came out of my husband’s mouth.
I was used to going to every heart doctor’s appointment with him, but a conflicting schedule and lack of a babysitter left me waiting anxiously at home as he discussed the next option with his doctor. A recent hospital stay had revealed that an artery they had attempted to stent multiple times had closed again just months after they attempted a more aggressive form of treatment.
Now, my husband was standing in front of me, frustrated by my reaction, as he told me his only option left was to get on the heart transplant list.
As someone who is so painfully used to navigating the ship against a storm of medical conditions in our household, it felt like I had just left the bosun to man the bridge when an iceberg suddenly appeared. What in the actual hell? Was Rob deliberately holding the telescope to his blind eye in an attempt to get out from under the difficulty of his current condition.
In my mind, something in that appointment had veered away from the charted path and straight into the eye of the storm. Did he explain everything correctly? Did he ask the doctor to explore other options? Was he just tired of living this way? Had he given up?
It took a good meltdown for us to get to the bottom of it. Or, should I say, it took an unnecessary interrogation for me to accept that this is where we were headed. Maybe I needed to ask all the insulting questions to assure my own mind that whether or not I was at that appointment, the outcome was heading in the same direction.
As I sat on the kitchen floor, completely blown away, scared, sad, frustrated…mad at myself for reacting in such a negative way…disappointed that my initial thoughts weren’t to comfort my husband…worried where this new challenge would lead us…sick to my stomach at the thought of my husband going under the knife for such a drastic surgery…I took a hard look at myself.
Why the hell had I just acted that way? It was so far from who I am as both a wife and a person. But it seems that juggling the pressure of being a caretaker to the people I love the most, for more than 10 years, was finally catching up.
It was like those naggy mothers I always rolled my eyes at, yelling at their kids for being kids. “I can’t even turn my back for a second!” While I sure felt that way when he came home that night, I realized that my emotions were rash.
So, after taking some time to cool off…getting my shit together (for lack of a better word)…I sat down and apologized.
“Can we discuss this again?” I’m sure at that moment, the last thing he wanted to do was rehash the shit show of a conversation we just had. He was as surprised as I was by my reaction. But, two things we’ve always agreed on is that neither of us is perfect and that we can work through anything if we cool off and sit down for a follow-up discussion.
This time I reacted differently. I listened. I let him talk. I asked questions about how he was feeling rather than about the technicalities of the surgery or the discussion that lead to this decision. I reassured him. We had been through so much already, not necessarily worse but equally as bad, and we had always come out stronger.
This, too, would make us stronger. When we work as a team against any challenge in life, we have an impeccable record. I was confident that we would remain undefeated. But I wanted to be sure he had the tools he needed to fight.
So, we started an open conversation and left it that way. We began to explain our feelings more to each other than we ever had. We talked about what we would need throughout this process, from each other and from other people. I guess you can say we had the heart-to-heart of all heart-to-hearts. We took a deep dive into ourselves, into our relationship, into our family, into our support system, and we put in all the thought there was to think.
And the outcome was what we needed to suit up and get ready for another battle.
You know, I think a lot of what we’ve experienced so far has been so urgent, emergencies that took us by surprise, that we never had the chance to think before we acted. We never had the chance to question or plan, never mind days, weeks, months, maybe even years to prepare. So, this new challenge has definitely been a learning experience for us both.
In this learning experience, we’ve already become stronger…as individuals, as a couple, as a team. But what I realized about our strength this time is that it doesn’t truly come from within.
I’ve been strong for a long time. We’ve been strong for a long time. But what being strong means to me today is far different than what it meant before we found out my husband needed a heart transplant.
Before all of this, strength meant that I had to do it all on my own. It meant that I didn’t need any help, that I didn’t need to burden anyone with my struggles, that I could carry all the weight on my own two shoulders.
Thankfully, we got through all the challenges in one piece when I thought I was being strong.
Truth is, I wasn’t very strong at all. I was piling up my baggage so high that I was getting weaker and weaker by the day. I was weighing myself down. In doing so, I was falling apart at the exact point when my family needed me to hold it together.
We all carry baggage. Some that’s good for us and some that’s toxic. And no matter how much baggage we have, at some point, we all need to unpack. Some things we need to save for a rainy day and others we need to drop off at the Goodwill. Some things we need to store in a handy place where we can grab it in an instant and others we need to back on a shelf in the back of the closet.
Sometimes we sneak an old shoebox of toxic baggage somewhere no one will find it. It serves as a reminder of the things we don’t want in life, the lessons we’ve learned, the hurt we’ve grown from. There may be times when we need to pull out that old shoebox and shuffle around what’s inside. Find a new way to rearrange all the broken pieces so that we can cope better with what’s weighing on our minds.
Whatever type of baggage we’re dealing with, one thing remains the same. If you don’t unpack it, it’ll just keep piling up, cluttering your life, creating chaos, serving no purpose other than to remind you that your plate is full, breaking your back, weighing you down, stealing your energy and keeping you from having the strength you need to face another day.
I started unpacking my baggage that night. And as I did, I found a million-dollar picture that was hidden under such a big pile of crap that I had forgotten all about it.
We all have a hero…someone who inspires us to keep going when things get tough. My hero has and always will be my Dad. Not only because he was the kindest, gentlest, most loving, non-judgmental, fun person I know, but because he struggled. He struggled a lot. When I look back, it seems his whole life was a struggle. But he always overcame any obstacle that stood in his way.
He was strong not because he walked around with the weight of the world on his shoulders and did everything on his own, but because he frequently unpacked his baggage. And, more importantly, he asked for help when his hands were full.
So, here we are. Full hands. Heavy baggage. But stronger and smarter than ever. Together we’ve realized that this is a battle we can’t win on our own. And we know it’s one we won’t have to attempt to fight alone.
After a little soul searching and some self-reflection, my husband and I both realized that we had been carrying heavy bags for way too long. If we wanted to get through this next major challenge, we needed to do the one thing we had always hesitated to do.
We needed to ask our friends to help us carry this baggage. We were honest…we told them that letting others help us was not on our list of character strengths. To our surprise, they weren’t surprised at all. I laugh now because I thought we were being vulnerable when we were really telling them something they already knew.
We’re the best at helping but not the best at being helped.
So, we’re working on that too. Letting the people we love get a chance to show their love to us. Letting the ones we’re always there for be there for us too.
It’s taking some getting used to, but it’s nice to lighten the load.
It’s reassuring to know that although we’re headed for a long trip, we’re traveling with a group of people whose hands are free. People who are more than willing to help us carry our bags as we dock at one location and struggle to reach the gangway on time for our next departure.
For that, I feel stronger than I’ve ever been before.