Post-Heart Attack Life

Life happens in layers, I think, each action and each event having far-reaching implications, many of which are not known until months or years later. We spent the months after Matt’s heart attack (if you haven’t read the story, see here for parts one, two, three, four, and the aftermath) focusing on making the necessary changes to our lives. Matt is on medication and sees his cardiologist regularly, and he began exercising, first every other day, and then every day, and we completely transformed our diet. We’re always tweaking things, and Matt is continuing to try to lose weight, but, for the most part, things have been pretty stable.

But one night in May, I came home from an evening of hanging out with other women as part of our church’s women’s retreat, and Matt told me he felt off. As I asked more questions, he said he wasn’t sure what it was, but he’d been outside that day and gotten sunburnt, and he’d used some different exercise equipment at the gym, and he was sure that’s all it was, but his chest had felt a little weird. Just to be safe, though, since he was home alone with all four of our kids, he’d taken some meds. Alarm bells immediately went off in my mind. He was sure it was nothing – but he hadn’t really thought that the chest pain he’d experienced in the couple days prior to his heart attack warranted more attention than an aspirin.

By this time it was getting late, but I’d just been chatting with a nurse friend at the women’s event, so I was sure she’d be awake, and I called and got her opinion – which was that if this was anyone else, she’d say it was probably no big deal, but with Matt’s history, we needed to check in with his doctor. We are so blessed to have, as Matt’s primary care doctor, a friend from church. I texted him and asked him to call me if he was awake, because we had a question about Matt’s health, and he called within five minutes. After talking with Matt, he advised him to head to the ER – that it was probably nothing, but better safe than sorry. Matt said he didn’t want to turn it into a big deal by having someone else come here and watch our kids or having someone come and get him, so he drove himself in, while I stayed at home with our kids.

And honestly, it was an emotional night. I was relieved when, by 2:00 a.m., he texted me to say that bloodwork was showing that his troponin levels were normal and an EKG showed nothing out of the ordinary. He stayed for another round of bloodwork 4 hours later and then, when all looked okay, came home to get a few hours of rest and then to hang out with our kiddos, so that I could go in to speak at day two of our women’s retreat. Interestingly enough, for a portion of my talk I was using as examples some of our experiences after Matt’s heart attack, so my mind and my heart were already steeped in some of the counsel I’d received then.

Most poignant among all of it was and continues to be, “Enjoy your time together, it is a gift. Use this time to draw close to God and Matt.”

After Matt’s heart attack, I hadn’t realized that I was afraid to draw nearer to him in our relationship until my friend spoke those words to me. Even knowing that our time together might have a hard stop years before we’d dreamed it could, we were and are called to this marriage relationship together, and I realized then and I know now that I cannot take him to have and to hold, to love and to cherish – as I stood in front of our family and friends 14 years ago and promised to do – if I’m holding him at a distance. And so I push fear away and draw near to him.

I’ve been thinking about Philippians 4:4-8 lately – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

These are hard verses in that they do not promise what I wish that they promised. They don’t say, “Don’t be anxious, because if you pray, God will give you what you want.” They tell us not to be anxious, and they tell us to pray, but what is promised is not the desired result but peace. What I’d like is a guarantee of long life and love, but try as I might, I’ve found that nowhere.

But I contemplate a God who is true, a God who is honorable, a God who is just, a God who is pure, a God who is lovely, a God who is commendable, a God who is excellent, a God who is worthy of praise. I trust that He is sovereign and that He is good and that this life that He has given to me and is giving to me is the one He laid out for me to have, and He will walk with me through it.

I don’t always feel peace. Matt and I are watching through the first season of This is Us right now. We just watched the Christmas episode, in which Toby collapses, and I felt my breath catch in my throat and my heart pound in my chest. I know that panic, and I know those hospital beeps. I know that there’s no guarantee they will stay at bay for years or even days to come.

And yet there is an undercurrent of peace throughout our lives. I choose to trust myself to the God of the universe and throw myself into this life He’s given to me. I expect there will be more ER trips in the future. That’s something that, 15 months ago, it didn’t occur to me to anticipate as part of this new reality, but I know now to expect it. If you experience cardiac arrest at age 39, chest pain earns you a trip to the ER to be checked out, and it’s going to happen, though I hope it’ll be infrequent.

But as long as we’re here together on this earth, living this life, we’ll press on and try to use the days that we have well.

a week of anniversaries

In a way that I’d never have predicted, the middle week of February has become one of great significance in our family’s story.

This Tuesday was the one-year anniversary of the shocking death of Matt’s older sister, Denya. Her daughters, in a gesture of which she would have been proud, chose to celebrate her life this week by asking Facebook friends to share their happy memories of her. It was fun to read of her love and laughter as experienced by other friends and family, too, but we definitely miss her. I miss her always encouraging Facebook and blog comments, her support for every new venture we pursued, her wise parenting advise, and, of course, the times spent hanging out together in her kitchen, enjoying and chatting about life together.

Yesterday was actually the one-year anniversary of our receiving pre-approval (PA) to adopt FangFang. We didn’t post about it far and wide on Facebook or anywhere else at that time – largely because we were en route to New York for Denya’s funeral, and we hadn’t yet told all of our close friends and family about our pursuit of adopting her. But still, as we drove on, snow-covered roads bringing us ever closer to the reality of the loss of our sister and friend, we celebrated the news that a new life would be joining our family, a precious girl we knew primarily through these pictures.

Our next milestone is today – the one year anniversary of Matt’s heart attack. One year ago today, after attending the calling hours for Denya, we were all resting in our hotel room when Matt suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. With our children looking on, I called 9-1-1, and our reality quickly transitioned from this

to this.

Matt’s heart attack has been a defining moment in our lives, one that, like having our first child, divides all of time into “before” and “after.”

Post heart-attack life is different than pre-heart-attack life. We have a radically different diet, eating almost exclusively low-sodium, plant-centered, pescetarian foods. Exercise is no longer viewed as a luxury to be pursued “once things settle down” but as a necessity, essential to sustaining life. We’ve become convinced that we cannot allow others’ desires to govern our lives – saying “no” has life-giving power. And beyond the practical changes we have made, we see life differently. Our default assumption is no longer that we are virtually guaranteed to have long, healthy lives together. The statistics for survival after cardiac arrest are sobering. My hope and prayer is that Matt and I will have many more years together – and I dream of what our future may look like – but we can no longer pretend that death is a far away specter of which we need only think once we are retired empty-nesters. Matt shared some of his thoughts on this day and that reality here. And the truth is that it is a source of some anxiety for me. We’re doing all we can to live healthily, though – and that’s all we can do. Beyond that, the calls for us are the same as those for anyone else – we seek to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. We fumble toward one another, seeking to love and care for each other well, to honor our marriage vows. We pursue growth as parents and do what we can to encourage and pray for our kiddos to grow into thoughtful adults who will pursue God, be thoughtful and understanding, and fight for what’s right in the world around them. We look for ways to engage with the community and the world around us.

Life this week, while in many ways haunted by these anniversaries, has, for the most part, been simply normal. We’ve read books, learned about math, coached kids through resolvoing squabbles, played outside, eaten meals, done laundry and dishes, and relaxed with an episode of the West Wing or a game of Yahtzee after the kids have gone to bed.

And we look forward to the last of this week’s anniversaries. Tomorrow 4 years will have passed since the day Madeleine CaiQun joined our family.

This sweet girl has brought so much joy to our family – so many snuggles, so many good conversations, so much laughter. And so tomorrow we will eat Chinese food – noodles and dumplings, in honor of her province and the foods she loves so much – and celebrate.

This week is such a strange mix of reminders of life and death, of mourning and celebrations. We press on and pray that we can act honorably in the midst of it all.