The story is one only a few close friends know, but I’m compelled today, a happy day, to write it out somewhere.
I got married at 23 -– we had been together since I was 18. He was eight years older than me, and I’ve never loved or hated anyone with the sort of passion we shared. It was a disastrous relationship, very unhealthy for us both. But we stayed, as you so often do in an unhealthy relationship.
I stayed out of fear, mostly. Fear of the unknown. Fear of never feeling that passion again. Fear of starting over. Fear of never being loved again. Of not being good enough. When you listen to your fears long enough, they start making a lot of sense.
I eventually found a place of security in myself –- a place where I was brave enough, smart enough, capable enough -– to leave my failing marriage. And to my surprise, my husband didn’t even disagree with me, or argue with me about it. We thought we’d both be better off. We agreed to split on my 25th birthday. Happy birthday to me.
But life has a habit of fucking up your plans. Just four days later, he found himself in the emergency room with what seemed like heart-attack symptoms. I raced to the ER to meet him –- where we, in a matter of moments, were told he had one of the most severe heart murmurs the staff had ever heard. But, hey, at least it wasn’t a heart attack.
That afternoon we sat through an echocardiogram. A CT scan. Exam after exam. Blood draws. And we found out that my husband had an aortic aneurysm the size of a grapefruit, over 9cm and growing, and that he had a rare genetic disease: Marfan’s syndrome.
I stayed by his side in the hospital that weekend as we researched his options. I agreed to have him transferred to an amazing hospital, Dartmouth Hitchcock in Hanover, NH. I arranged for people to watch my cats. I made phone calls. I got shit done.
For two weeks we were in the hospital, largely in the cardiothoracic intensive care unit (CICU). For two weeks I was told I wasn’t allowed to cry in front of him, in case I stressed him out.
I talked with genetic counselors. I took copious notes during every meeting with the surgeon. I took copies of his charts, and poured over medical literature in the medical library so I could decipher the seemingly unintelligible words. (FYI: pleural effusions sounds god-awful, but it means water on the lungs; so not fabulous, but not the worst of the issues we were facing.)
My husband underwent a grueling 13-hour surgery -– spending most of the day on a bypass machine as the surgeon replaced his ascending aorta with a poly-dacron aorta, and installed a silver-dollar sized artificial aortic valve made of medical-grade plastic and carbon fiber.
He lost a lot of blood. He received platelets. He suffered several small strokes; the aftereffects would become apparent in the following weeks. I was alone in the waiting room. I was alone in the hospital. I was alone in his room as he recovered, tubes coming out of his chest, draining blood directly off his heart, catheters, a tube inserted in his neck with a wire directly into his heart to correctly monitor his blood pressure. Thirteen medications a day. And I still wasn’t allowed to cry. Or get angry.
I was sleeping in his room, showering in his room, eating the food they brought us both, keeping family and friends apprised of progress.
It was a good day when we moved from CICU into the standard heart-patient wing, the telemetry unit. As he started being able to sit up, as he started being able to walk, a few steps at a time, things were looking up.
And I naively believed, through all this, he would finally see how much I loved him, despite all our troubles. That sounds incredibly selfish –- to have wanted that for myself as I watched this big, strong, tall, muscular, handsome man, become utterly, irreversibly, undone.
Someone had opened his chest, and held his heart. And it scared the shit out of him. But he kept working at his goals -– and one day finally convinced the nurses and doctors to let him come off his telemetry box and take a shower. Not a sponge bath, a real. Fucking. Shower. It was his first taste of independence in nearly two weeks.
It was something he needed to do, to feel some sort of normalcy, despite the wires holding his chest shut, the bruises on his body from the blood thinners starting to work, the scar that would be there forever. And he shuffled into the bathroom, victorious, and left me watching hospital bingo. (You called the hotline when you had a bingo, and a candy striper would bring your prize by after the game. I wish I were kidding.)
I asked several times, out of paranoia, if he needed anything. For a long, long time, he kept telling me no. Until I heard him quietly asking for me. I went in the bathroom and the 6’7″ giant I loved was on the floor of the shower stall, shivering, turning blue, the water ice cold. He was too tired to move, too weak to pick himself up.
I wanted to get help immediately, but he found the strength to yell at me, “NO! No nurses. I don’t want anyone to know, because I want to go home soon.”
I shut off the water, grabbed towels, and propped him up in a sitting position. I went back into the suite and got a rolling chair. And I, all 5’3″of me, helped get his giant, deadweight, injured, shivering self onto the chair. And there he sat as I toweled him off, blow-dried him, tried to warm him up. I had to dress him.
He had a severe tape burn on his inner thighs from various wires and catheters during the surgery, which I tended, wrapping it. I pulled a sock on over his water-weight swollen foot. And I realized he was crying. I wanted to cry, too, but I had been explicitly told it wasn’t good for his blood pressure to see me concerned.
I simply looked up at him, and our eyes met. And as a tear rolled down his pale, exhausted, cheek, he whispered, “You shouldn’t be doing this."
I quietly replied, “I’m your wife. I love you. I’m supposed to do this.” Something passed over his face right then and there. I realized, in that dark look, that my husband hated me. And no amount of tending to him, caring for him, supporting him, or encouraging him was ever going to change that he had to rely on me, and he hated me. He hated me through and through for being there and seeing him that way. And there was no coming back from the damage that day.
I immediately had to look back down and focus on putting on his second sock, because I was crying, then, too. That was the first time I’d ever had my heart broken in my life.
Our first day in our apartment, after leaving the hospital, we had a blowout. He punched a hole in the wall, his fist going through the drywall clean up to his wrist, his chest weeping, the scar opening a little, the wires holding his ribcage shut jostled. It could have killed him. And it would have done a number on me had he hit me, instead of the wall, which is what he wanted to do.
He hated me more and more, he drank more and more, and I was walking on eggshells, afraid to even make eye contact after months of him being at home recovering.
When he died, just 17 months after his surgery, he left me with bills. He left me with questions. He left me with several girlfriends of his at the funeral, including one who introduced herself to me as the real widow. He also left me with a hole in my heart. A cynical, nasty hole that no 26 year old should possess.
As the years have passed, my heart has healed in many surprising and wonderful ways. And I have learned that the human heart has a tremendous ability to love and be loved, even if it’s been pieced back together.
And yet, I have a hole in my heart that is still tender -- maybe it’s a crack. That little black spot, that opening, that wound, has left me unable to accept a lot about myself. When he smashed my heart, he took my ability to see worth in myself anymore, even as I sat there and did for him what only someone who truly loved him could have done.
Since his death, I have met some men: some shitty, some liars, one a closeted gay man, a pretty boy, an artist. I have learned to not pick fights. I have learned to trust. I have learned to respect. I have learned how to share, how to listen. How to not let my imagination get the worst of me. I have not, however, quite learned to love myself the way I might have had I not been so terribly broken.
Yet I am in a great place right now -– in every sense of the word. I have an incredible career I built for myself. I have pets I love. A new apartment I’m making my own. I travel. I have amazing friends. I’m going to be an auntie this week when one of my favorite girlfriends has her first baby -– a little girl -– whose ultrasound I witnessed, whose hiccups I have felt.
I guess in the end, we’re all a little broken, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have value.