My father had quintuple bypass surgery for his heart about five years ago.
It was a long, complicated surgery with some highly emotional moments for everyone.
There were many grim faces, hushed tones and euphemisms when people talked about it. There were comments like, “God is with him,” “He’s going to pull through,” and “He’s a tough guy.”
My dad is a tough guy in a lot of ways. His parents were farmers, and they worked hard to provide for their family. My dad helped on the farm and has had a large “garden” for as long as I can remember.
My dad was also a ninth-grade science teacher, for 35 years, in a small rural community. When he retired, he started a lawn care and snow removal business (lots of physical labor) and has never been happier. Like I said—he’s tough.
I myself have had a number of surgeries in the last five years, the biggest one being a year ago. After that surgery I thought of my dad many times—how he was able to recover from a quintuple bypass and keep going. Recently, as I passed the one-year anniversary of my operation, I reflected on all of the things that helped (and didn’t help) my recovery in the months following that event.
There were many things that I had to learn that I didn’t know earlier in my life.
First, there’s no way to go through something that hard without changing in some way. Very few people like change. Although many of us are eager to get back to “normal” after surgery( whatever normal means)—what we have to accept is that now, normal is going to be different. Research has found a strong correlation between heart surgeries/procedures and depression.
Perhaps when our hearts (or bodies) are opened, so are some of our feelings.
There’s nothing like facing death, to force you into dealing with your own stuff. We are no longer able to use denial with thoughts like “this is probably nothing” as a coping skill. We are no longer able to procrastinate on dealing with issues that have been bothering us. It’s hard to say, “I’ll deal with that in January, after the holidays,” if you’re not sure you have any holidays left.
Suddenly, now is important, and things that are hard come to the forefront.
The good news is, that by dealing with those things, life can become richer and sweeter. It’s easier to forgive wrongdoings because we realize how fleeting and precious life can be. It’s easier to live in the moment, because we realize that this moment is all any of us ever have. But it can take some getting used to, and it can be hard to do without support, good therapy and love from those around you.
The second lesson I learned is that it’s okay to accept support. It’s ok to let others cook for you, bring their pets to visit you or help you change your bandages. You don’t have to, and can’t, do it all. The more we accept help, the faster we’ll heal. If you are fortunate enough to have loved ones who want to help, let them.
At the same time, we have to set limits. It’s ok to tell friends, “I’m too tired to talk. You’re welcome to sit here, and read or watch tv with me, but I have to close my eyes and rest.” Or it’s ok to say, “Thank you so much for the lovely bread, but since my surgery, I can’t digest wheat anymore.“
It’s ok to tell people that you go to bed at 8:30 because life wears you out more these days. It’s ok to tell people that you can’t make plans for the weekend yet, because you have to wait and see if you’ll need to catch up on rest.
Your life is too important to not put your health as a first priority.
Third, it’s okay to give ourselves time. And it will take time. I mistakenly thought that after six weeks, when I was cleared for work, I’d feel back to normal. And since I’m usually pretty energetic, I thought I’d feel better even before that time.
But I didn’t—at all. I was still sore, exhausted and tearful at times. And I was so very tired. When I had my 10-week follow-up appointment with the physician, she said, “After six months you’ll start to feel a little better again.”
As I sat there, barely clothed in the clinic robe, with my mouth gaping, I thought, “What do you mean, six months?! Why didn’t you tell me it would take this long before?”
And then I remembered how life has a way of teaching us things. Life was teaching me to slow down, listen to my body and pace myself. Life was teaching me to honor my need to heal, more than my work schedule, my PTA responsibilities or my child-rearing tasks. Life was telling me to find love and enjoyment in small, meaningful ways, rather than pushing myself to work harder, play harder or serve harder to make up for the time that I missed when I was sick.
Life was telling me to cool it.
Finally—I’m not sure I’m the same person I was before surgery.
My body has changed, in some good ways and some not so good ways. I’m healthier overall, but I no longer see myself as invincible—as someone who can just recover quickly and go back to the same pace. I protect my health more. I eat healthy, I exercise more gently, and I go to bed earlier than I did before surgery. I still work hard, but I also keep reminding myself to slow down and find balance. I have a lower threshold for stress, and I’ve learned that for me that’s healthier.
I’d like to think I’m wiser. I have a renewed perspective on my relationships and what I want to accomplish. I realize that I won’t live forever, and that I want to leave the world better than when I came into it.
I find myself mesmerized by small things—like the spider-web outside my window, the morning dew on the blades of grass and the texture of my sweet little dog’s nose. I wonder more. My musings are gifts of appreciation for the world around me and the miracles that are there.
Instead of having a sense of future that spreads out before me like an unharvested field, I see myself in the middle of that field—with gifts all around, if I stop to look and appreciate them.
Author: Cindy Nichols Anderson
Apprentice Editor: Lindsay Carricarte/Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Photo: Flickr/Shawn Rossi