Note to readers: I enjoy writing. It is a chance to sort my thoughts. At times the goal is to entertain and amuse, or stimulate reflection. Always, there is a desire to inspire. Today’s blog may do those things, but it also hopes to be supportive to those who find themselves facing their own daunting situation. It consists of two parts – prior to and following my recent open heart surgery. Part two will arrive later – unless the feedback I get suggests this is of no interest. Expect lighter fare to return soon!
Good advertisers know how to get inside a person’s head! Many of their jingles reside quietly in the depths of our minds like an unacknowledged sleeper cell until something activates it. Here are a few examples: “You deserve a break today.” “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce.” “Can you hear me now?” Resist any sudden urge you now feel for fast food or to change phone carriers!
Another campaign that left an indelible impression on me belonged to a certain catsup-making company. Thanks to the song “Anticipation” as sung by Carly Simon, and the phrase “It’s slow good” it is impossible to think of catsup without hearing that melody in the background. Beyond merely peddling a product, that song shapes the idea that anticipation is a good thing. Waiting is to be valued. It’s worth it in the end!
That sentiment flies in the face of the all too common push for instant gratification. “Give it to me now, and hurry up please!” is the modus operandi for many Westerners. Some days that includes me as well! In contrast to this impatient insistence, some sources acknowledge delayed gratification as a preferable, more mature, even healthier approach to life. Waiting is a practice that slows a person down, encourages mindfulness, and eventually intensifies the satisfaction when the delay is finally rewarded.
Religion jumps on the waiting bandwagon as well. Prophetic words like Isaiah 30:41 teach that “They who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength.” The recently completed period of Advent is a season dedicated to waiting with explicit exhortations to use the time of preparation for the coming of the Christ-child. Time spent waiting can be time well spent, enhancing the effect of what comes later.
This positive spin on waiting can be true. But I must say that in recent weeks it feels like I’ve encountered the dark underbelly of anticipation, if there is such a thing. Three days before Christmas I learned that open heart surgery was the recommended means of addressing multiple coronary artery blockages. For three weeks I had dreaded a heart catheterization, only to discover it was painless and if stents had been an option, I could have been over the hurdle and quickly back to a normal routine. Instead, a more difficult path is mine to follow. The challenges of insurance approval and scheduling being what they are, January 13th was the earliest available appointment. To be fair, that is not a terribly long time, but anticipation during these days has not been my friend! That is not to say it hasn’t been useful. The delay allowed us to educate ourselves about the process and make a few preparations for when I return home, sore and with a more limited capacity.
This surgery presents itself to me as a double-edged sword. Within the last few weeks I had done things like climb on the rooftop to remove fallen leaves or spent an afternoon up and down the ladder replacing gutter guards. I had performed these kinds of tasks without feeling a need for limitation. Being able to engage in this type of physical activity, I had no clue these blockages were interfering with the blood flow to my heart. A stress test revealed that two heart chambers, though undamaged and still healthy, were not receiving sufficient blood. I felt like I owed by heart and body an apology – I’d been asking it to work at full capacity, but not providing the resources it needed.
The news that these significant blockages were interfering with life left me stunned. Nothing in my experience had suggested anything quite so grave. Ever the overachiever I managed to develop not one, not two, not three, not four, but five blockages. One of them is already 100% blocked but generated enough new little passages of its own to permit sufficient blood flow to continue. The body is truly amazing! Had these clogs continued undiscovered until it was too late we would have been left to address them in crisis mode. Sometimes moments of urgency don’t allow for an opportunity to correct the problem. Addressing them now feels like a gift. I am simultaneously counting and dreading my blessings.
Surgery is the first step to recovery and, potentially, a longer life. That is the positive side of the two-edged sword. But the other side of the blade is that this is also the most frightening thing I’ve faced. I once had an administrative assistant who, when something startled her (which rarely occurred), would say, “That scared the waddin’ right out of me.” For those who don’t know, wadding is a stuffing material that can be used in things like dolls or toy animals. In this moment I have some idea of what she meant. This news scares the wadding out me. This side of the knife cuts to the core of my earthly being. The 23rd Psalm came to mind on more than one occasion, and I realize this is the closest I have personally been to the “valley of the shadow of death.” As a minister, I have accompanied many through their own valley, but the feel is different when the journey is one’s own. Like the psalmist, I hope to walk through it, not be overcome by it, but it’s dark all the same.
During a preliminary consult, the surgeon appeared calm and confident. Fortunately for the ones performing the surgery, it’s just another day at the office. They do this sort of thing multiple times in a day. However from my side of the scalpel it feels much more personal and threatening. Is it threatening? A reported 99% chance of success would suggest that it is not, but imagining the process and recovery cloud my judgment. After all, someone has to be the 1%! What if this time it is my turn? Each day when I awaken, thoughts of the impending moment of truth await me like bullies hoping to jump me as I start the day. They prove that my 6th grade teacher, Ms. Moore, may have been on to something when she admonished our group, “Now class, an idle mind is the devil’s workshop” – because these thoughts butt in whenever my mind goes idle for even a second. They usually sneak back in to kiss me goodnight before I fall asleep.
Sitting with the myriad of emotions and possibilities, I recognize that this is a test of my integrity with regards to faith. The event is a reminder of my own mortality. It is not like I had forgotten that little bit of information, but it is easy to push that info off into the distant future to some as yet undetermined time. Kept at bay in this manner, it is less threatening – almost non-existent.
Even though I have always known my day would come, I’m in no rush. Like others in my faith tradition, I believe in an afterlife. With that, death is a transition rather than an absolute end. It is not to be feared. Still, as I’ve said before I will say again, “I don’t think I’m scared of dying, but I’m in no hurry to find out!” The truth is I really enjoy my life. I’d love to keep doing what I do with the woman with whom I do it and keep being what I am for several more years. But as a friend said about himself last week when he called out of the blue after about 40 years and, among other things, revealed he had pancreatic cancer, “This world doesn’t owe me anything.” He’s right. Life comes with no guarantees. I have been blessed in so many ways: a good family, a terrific marriage, wonderful friends, a satisfying ministry, world travels, and more. I have no right or reason to complain. Period. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is the deal we are all given. Moments when that reality stands so close you can smell its breath, are occasions when it is good to know what you really think about the meaning of life and your place in it.
I have no illusions that I can control all the moving pieces of my life. That doesn’t stop me from trying to be prepared. So, I’ve been thinking through the “what does Judi need to know just in case” kind of questions and prepared a list. We used our stimulus money to purchase a lift chair to assist my getting up and down in the early days of returning home. I’m even roasting coffee in advance in the hopes that I won’t be told to avoid it for a few weeks. None of those things changed anything significant about the surgery, but oddly enough those small actions made me feel a little better about it all. At the end of the day and having done all I can do to prepare, I am left to trust in the Provision of the Creator, reciting that well-worn phrase “not my will, but Thine be done” (and hoping I really mean it!)
In an age of HIPAA laws and privacy concerns, this news originally seemed like the kind of thing one keeps to oneself. Judi, on the other hand, saw no reason it should be a secret. At the very least, it would allow many people to pray for me. I wanted to argue that theologically I didn’t think prayer was like a lobbying effort where “the many” weigh in to convince God. I just needed one good pray-er! But then realized I might not actually know who that “one good one” was, so it would be wise to cast the net wide and improve the odds that the right ones were praying! I say that in jest, of course. Several people have offered to pray as I go through this. I have been known to quip a smart aleck remark like, “As long as you promise to pray for me, not against me!” Some wanted to know the day and time. A few plan to gather with a friend so that they can pray together, or to have a prayer walk. Their concern and commitment move me.
As for my own prayers, I recalled a practice from a seminary class in which we were directed to insert our own name in the Psalm as we prayed with it. Psalm 121 called to me, offering to help:
“Jay lifts up his eyes to the hills. From where does Jay’s help come? Jay’s help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. The Lord will not let Jay’s feet slip. The One who watches over Jay will not slumber.”
Used as a prayer, I can only tell you that psalm broke me open, releasing dual rivers of vulnerability and comfort, heightening a sense of Divine Presence. Though I continue to have qualms about how prayer can be used in ways that seem inappropriate, I can say that the effect of these prayers – my community of support and as well as my own — is tangible, contributing to temporary but increasingly longer oases of calm as the countdown edges closer to zero. I treasure each one’s efforts in that regard.
In addition to prayer, a surprising and extremely helpful support has been the words of a few who underwent this type of procedure and reached out to me since learning of my upcoming surgery. This wouldn’t have been possible if I’d kept this news to myself. Hearing from a few of the 99% helped lower my anxiety, though in a typical counterpoint to myself I asked, “And where would I hear the stories of those who didn’t fare so well?” I am grateful for their initiative, and the hopefulness that arose when listening to their experiences. Those things, plus Judi’s consistent strength and love underscore the value of the efforts of people who care. It truly does help build a better community and world.
With that, my sight is set on Wednesday, January 13 with hopes of also seeing the 14th, 15th, and so on! If that occurs, I will write part two as soon as I am able. Stay tuned!