Heart, Broken

Recently, as I was flicking through photos on my iPhone, I stumbled across a pair of back-to-back selfies I’d taken last May. In the first, I’m wearing a tuxedo and mugging with my 11-year-old daughter before a work event. In the next, snapped four days later, I’m draped in a blue hospital gown, wired to a monitor, in the emergency ward of Royal Jubilee.

The Tale of Two Selfies offers a stark lesson: Life comes at you fast. And so might its opposite.

The night before the second selfie, our family had gone for dinner with old friends. We ate, drank, laughed, marvelled at how fast all our kids were growing up. The stress of the past few months seemed to melt away. Walking home with my family, I felt like my heart felt might burst with joy.

The next morning, it nearly did. I went for a jog with my wife, but when we got home I didn’t feel quite right. After quick consult with Dr. Google, I popped two baby aspirin and went to the hospital as a precaution. We figured it was probably just indigestion from over-indulging the night before.

It wasn’t.

“You had a heart attack,” a doctor told me, scanning my blood test. It was a “mild” one, if there is such a thing. We’d gotten to the ER quickly. The heart muscle hadn’t been damaged. But I would spend the next five days in the cardiac ward, waiting my turn until a surgeon could insert two metal stents into my ticker to keep the blood flowing.

While I idled, my family lifted my spirits with visits and emoji-filled text updates about their busy lives. My 13-year-old son sent a video of his aquarium to calm my nerves. My daughter and her softball team wrote me a “Get Well, Coach!” card. Seven months later, my heart has passed all its post-surgery exams. My high cholesterol—a genetic legacy that diet and exercise alone can’t tame—has dropped back into the safety zone, thanks to medication. My various doctors gave me a green light for the seven-week trip our family took through Europe this fall.

But to say I feel the same as I did the night of my Tuxedo Selfie would be a lie. My wife and I have spent 13 years of low-grade fretting about our kids’ health and safety, like all parents do, from cradle through middle school. Years after the fact, I have visceral memories of needing to rush both of them to Emergency: our son due to dehydration from a brutal flu, our baby daughter when a long hair as strong as steel wire got twisted around her tiny toe, cutting off circulation. Even today, we caution our kids to walk, bike, bus, skateboard—whatever—safely whenever they leave the house.

Now I’ve become one we must worry about, too. And that makes me anxious about someday not feeling fit enough to watch out for our kids as a dad should. It’s a perennial parental fear, I realize, the inevitable passing of the torch from giving care to needing it. Still, at 51, I’d rather hold onto that responsibility for another decade or two.

Everything changes, of course, even when we might not want it to. That’s an indisputable fact of life. Accepting those changes—good, bad, otherwise—is vital. As parents we try to teach that lesson, but it’s a hard one to learn ourselves. We don’t want our babies to grow old and leave home. We don’t want to grow old either.

Despite my unexpected hospital stay, I look around and see positive changes all around our house. Our kids are more independent. They have close friends and personal passions. When I scroll deep into my iPhone photos, I’m astonished at how quickly they’ve grown from little imps I could hold like a football into the active, funny, sensitive, curious and loving teen and near-teen who were there for me when I needed them most.

Our kids have good hearts, in other words. And that’s the most that any parent can ask for.

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Oct/Nov 2020

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