When she penned “Breathe,” Becky Hemsley ended the poem with:
And she found a small clearing surrounded by firs. And she stopped ... and she heard what the trees said to her, And she sat there for hours not wanting to leave, For the forest said nothing, it just let her breathe.
“Breathe” is a poem about finding one’s self in the middle of the expectations of others. I always find myself in the trees, they expect nothing of me. I can commune with them for hours. I never tire of it.
Concern for the expectations of other people was a problem for most of my childhood and young adult years. But that concern was never as big a problem as the expectations I have for myself. Things really go south when I don’t meet my own expectations.
When my cardiologist began talking about open heart surgery and value transplant, he gave me the statistics:
- Average time in the hospital – 10 days. “Ha!” says I, “I’ll do it in 8.”
- Average time in ICU – 5 days. “Nah, I’ll be out the following day.”
- Average time for return to work – 8 weeks. “I’ll see you all in four!”
I’m the exception to the rule, don’t you see? Average is death. We must strive for above average, even if we have to pretend. Oh, what a struggle it has been to realize my own limitations. How humbling it was to see, without a doubt that I wasn’t going bypass the TSA line of life, and I wouldn’t be driving in the heart surgery recovery express lane.
There were many times in ICU when I thought I might not survive. While I had taken for granted it would not be an issue, I had several failed attempts of coming off the ventilator. Alone with my thoughts, I could not recall anyone I knew that had not died after being put on a ventilator. With every failed attempt, came the realization that death was possible. I regretted not writing farewell letters to my beloveds. Most people think of claustrophobia as something that happens inside closed in spaces. But being strapped to the bed unable to move my arms, unable to get up and walk, unable to breathe on my own, created the same claustrophobic feeling. All I wanted to do was get out of this space and if I let myself give into it, panic was the result.
Once home, my failure to be the overachiever in my recovery time was complicated by the well meaning messages of friends. With every declaration of “You got this!” or “You are a rock star” came the realization that, in fact, I probably did not have this and I definitely was not a rock star. I hated to disappoint so many people who had so much faith in me. Where did that faith in me come from anyway?
The first month felt like six and it seemed there was no end in sight. This was my life, forever. Nothing felt the same, nothing tasted the same, nothing smelled the same. I felt like a visitor to a foreign and somewhat hostile land. I was a stranger to myself. I was not pleasant to be around.
Once the weather turned from rainy and cold to its last hurrah of warm and sunny again, I was able to spend some time outside – first, just sitting on the porch and eventually walking out onto the property. While most of the wildflowers have gone to sleep for the winter, I can still visit my beloved trees. Some are still green, some yellow, some red, and others are completely naked, but they are still there for me. They remind me who I am.
Every day outside increases my strength and my mood. Every minute I can put my hands in the dirt and feel the sunshine on my face, and the wind in my hair, move me closer to finding myself again.
While I feel like my old self again in so many ways, there is also a change in me. I am coming into focus, but even clearer than before. I have a better idea of what it is I want out of this life, but also no notion that I’m entitled to have it. I can pursue it, and I will give it my best shot, but there are no guarantees. The pursuit is what makes life interesting, anyway.
Success is no longer the goal, except in terms of my marriage and important relationships. Goals are centered around health and joyful experiences and writing it all down. I’m interested only in being happy to be alive, which I am. I am grateful to those scientists who made it possible to take a valve from a cow and make it work in my heart. I honor the cow whose life ended so mine could continue. I am forever in debt to those doctors and nurses who make it their mission to save lives. To those family and friends who stood by me, prayed for me, brought food, sent flowers and cards, and tolerated all the personality changes I went through, I will do my best to show you how much that means to me.
There is a clarity now – like when the optometrist says “which one is better; one or two?” I did not realize I was slightly out of focus until the lens was flipped from external to internal.
I see myself clearly now. I am not a rock star, I never have been, and truth be told I have no interest in rock stardom. I just want to be what I am, an average woman who is getting stronger every day. An average woman, closer to 60 than 59, who has not given up. An average woman with hopes and dreams that aren’t as big as those of Taylor Swift or Pink, but are just as important.