Fran and I got up Thursday morning at 4 am, the filthy hour reserved by Stalin’s secret police for breaking down doors and claiming their victims. We were not in a very happy mood, heading for the Mayo Clinic for her second major surgery in less than two months. We had not been expecting the hip surgery for very long when the heart problem was discovered in preparation for it. Then, hoping for an easier procedure, we were informed that it would have to be done open heart.
Open heart surgery is scary, no other word for it. The surgeons, in order to get at the heart, have to cut through the sternum (breast bone), stop the heart and lungs, and attach the patient to a machine which performs their functions during the operation. (Hunters may refer to their experience of splitting the sternums of deer they have killed.) The operation is not without its dangers. The head surgeon warned us with welcome, but necessarily brutal candor, that there was an approximately 1 - 3% chance Fran would not come through this operation without catastrophe in the form of heart attack, stroke or, of course, death. These odds are not prohibitively against, but would you, for instance, fly commercially given such chances?
Thinking our gloomy thoughts, we proceeded west on I-90 towards Rochester, on what I thought was dry pavement, nothing coming down. As we crested the rise before the long descent down into Enterprise just short of Lewiston, we spied emergency lights ahead. Fran suggested I slow down, and when I touched the brakes the rear end of the car broke loose, fishtailed once, twice, and then, the third time that usually signals total loss of control, hurtling towards a police cruiser, wrecker, and car in the ditch. For what seemed like an eternity, I braced for the surely fatal crash, and then the car magically righted itself and we flashed on through, speed barely diminished. An omen? If so, of what?
In pre-op at St. Mary’s Hospital, a parade of nurses, anesthesiologists, and surgeons trooped into Fran’s room asking questions and measuring vital signs. I was told by what they call the nurse-communicator that she would contact me with regular progress reports. They were all very reassuring, but I noticed that each one wished us good luck. I was not reassured. Finally the orderlies came to wheel her down to the surgical floor, and my throat squeezed up tight. Fran said goodbye, and with a flash of vehemence, to be very careful driving home. ‘You have a safe trip, too,” I managed to squeak.
Threading my way down through the bowels of the hospital to the subterranean parking garage, I had the most profound sensation of parting, and a vast, empty loneliness. I drove out to I-90 and picked my way home through the gathering gray dawn, the highway slushy and treacherous.
When I got home, exhausted, and just before I lay down for a nap, the cell phone rang. “They have just opened the incision,” the nurse-communicator informed me. “Your wife is hooked up to the heart and lung machine. Now they are going to work on the heart.” I put the cell phone on the table next to the bed and despite everything, fell fast asleep.
After what seemed a second, but was a good hour, its cheerily demented ring tone woke me with a jolt. I flipped it open with mounting dread.
“Your wife is off the heart and lung machine,” said the nurse. “We’ll have her up in the ICU in an hour or two. The operation went well.”
So, it seems, we went by the merest of chance from almost certain death, safely through a perilous surgery, and out the other side with the happiest of results although, of course, Fran has not fully recovered yet by any means.
What to take out of such a profound and wrenching experience? I can only say that I am grateful for and trying to live deeply in every moment of this mortal journey. And I take nothing for granted.