It’s been one week since Becky returned home after her open heart surgery. It’s been wonderful.
But it’s been hard. In fact, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I hesitate to write those words because I’m utterly relieved to be home, to have this surgery behind us. I’m so thankful for Becky’s successful procedure and for the supportive community at both the hospital and the Ronald McDonald House. And I’m forever grateful for the countless prayers said around the world on her behalf. Despite the set backs of a collapsed lung and continued pulmonary hypertension, she is recovering very well.
We’ve had abundant support here at home. School families have stocked our fridge, keeping our family fueled with food. Teachers have shared their personal cell phone numbers so they can relay messages to our kids in an instant. Johnny has the world’s most patient Kindergarten teacher who keeps sending home the same permission slip for the class Valentine’s Day party. Friends have taken our grade school kids in the afternoons, giving them snacks and a sense of a normal. I love the Travel Note which changed Mary Frances’ afternoon transportation arrangements one day. Surely the School Office chuckled at my new “signature”.
All of that being said, if I’m honest, I have to admit that it’s been an overwhelming week.
Becky came home last Wednesday afternoon after a final red wagon trip out of the hospital.
She enjoyed the ride home while I enjoyed driving again, seeing landmarks such as Dunkin Donuts and Panera. Anything other than the inside of a hospital room.
Sam picked us up and we took my mom straight to the airport. After a month, she left. Words cannot express my gratitude for her presence during this time. In some strange way, it was wonderful. We passed the time holed up in a lovely hotel suite, waiting an extra week after Becky’s surgery was delayed. We walked arms linked to the hospital each day in time for morning rounds. We grabbed salads for lunch and over-priced Starbucks in the afternoons. We spent long hours at Becky’s bedside. We walked arms linked back to the Ronald McDonald House every night, eating dinner in our room due to Covid restrictions.
We did our Bible study in pajamas while sitting in bed. One night, we laughed so hard about the book of Leviticus that we both cried (you had to be there). She was my constant companion. The head PCICU doctor summed it up best after a 30+ hour shift during morning rounds with six of her colleagues. With a catch in her voice and tears in her eyes, she said, “I never knew any of my grandparents. But if I did, I’d like to imagine that that my grandma would be just like you.” Mom’s steadfast presence and unwavering optimism made quite the impression.
Sam and the kids did a great job keeping the mothership afloat. But the sheer volume of everything at home shocked me. After returning, I sat down in our family room briefly and looked around. Something was off. I quickly identified the culprits: Christmas stockings, manger scenes, and a dead Poinsettia plant. In February. I had left so unexpectedly, that I never packed away the holidays.
There were also piles of tax forms, medical bills, and mail. As well as the remains of Greta’s and Angela’s life at home after a 10-week break from college. As I surveyed the scene and processed the work to be done, something brushed up against my leg. Honestly, I’d forgotten that we had a dog. Rudy was looking for some love. And his wee little charge.
Eventually, I walked upstairs to our bedroom where Sam had deposited all of our things. For the first time I saw Becky’s growing medical arsenal which now includes oxygen cannisters, a pull cart, a pulse oximeter, and a concentrator. I saw her medications sprawled out on the bed, an additional one in the refrigerator. These are given at 12am, 6am, 9am, 3pm, 6pm, 9pm. Thankfully, the pulmonary hypertension team tucked a detailed chart into my bag, an essential reference detailing each medication and its proper dosage.
The weight of everything became too much. The emotion welled up and the tears came. I lost it. Grabbing my my phone, I speed dialed my sister. From the depths of my soul, I cried out in a blubbery mess:
“I don’t think I can do it.
It’s just so much.
I don’t know where to begin.
I don’t know if I can keep up.
All the equipment.
The medication schedule.
How do I meet everyone’s needs and manage to get dinner on the table?
IT’S JUST SO MUCH.”
When I calmed down, Karen finally spoke. I don’t remember what she said. But I remember what she did: She took a long, deep breath into the phone. And she slowly exhaled. Somehow this simple act calmed me down.
It reminded me of Becky’s breathing. Before surgery she struggled with this most basic function. Her entire abdomen would retract, sucking in deeply, revealing each individual rib. Karen once commented that she could hear Becky’s breathing through the phone. Like a little freight engine. I often looked for signs of increasing distress: skin color changes, snorting, flaring nostrils. In the days leading up to her operation, I slept right next to her, fearful that maybe she wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demands of her tiny body.
Now her corrected heart enables smooth, rhythmic breaths. The chambers are properly divided, the pathway of blood straight and mostly one-way. Even if she needs oxygen and a pile of medication to assist in her recovery, at least she can breathe. Hopefully, over time, she won’t need as much medicine. Or oxygen. Or pulse ox monitoring. The doctors’ appointments and virtual visits will fade away as well. But I will always enjoy the barely audible sound of her soft baby breath. And remember what it took to get here. And who accompanied us along the way.
It is overwhelming right now. Blessedly overwhelming. We continue moving forward. Improvising as we go, adapting as we must. I realize that, for now, it’s not just one day at a time. Or even one moment.
Sometimes, it’s just one breath.