Broken Hearts

“Wanna hear something funny?”

“Of course.”

“Donnie just walked out of Mom’s bedroom with one of her chocolate bars.”

“Oh my God! Nicky, I just pulled her wallet out of her purse and guess what was stuck to it? A wad of tissues.”

My sister and I laughed like two tipsy friends at happy hour, but it was a thin veil for the fear that was coursing through us.

It was déjà vu all over again.

The last 10 years of my grandmother’s life were largely spent in and out of emergency departments and specialists’ offices- waiting for test results; waiting for new diagnoses; waiting for medication adjustments; waiting to hear we had more time; just…waiting.

When she passed, tucked underneath the 6 months of almost insurmountable depression that covered me like a heavy wool blanket, was a tiny, almost imperceptible feeling of relief.

She was free, and we could breathe.

No more 2am trips to the ER; no more frantic phone calls; no more watching her fade in and out and bargaining with God to bring her back to us.

Fast-forward 8 years, and there I was on Saturday afternoon, white-knuckling the steering wheel as I followed the ambulance to the hospital.

Three episodes in 2 hours. Chest pain, jaw pain, shoulder pain, dizziness…that horrible wince on her face and the faint whine that escaped her lips as the squeezing caused her to double over in pain. And it washed over me. The day my grandmother had experienced 3 episodes in a few hours….had called 911 as a precaution…and had a massive heart attack in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

I watched the techs take vitals, chart symptoms, and assure my mother that no, she wasn’t wasting their time and yes, she did the right thing by calling 911, because all of her symptoms pointed to a heart attack.

I closed my eyes and there was my grandmother, arguing that she was fine- it was just indigestion- and she was ready to go home.

I unstuck my legs from the vinyl bench to get up and adjust the height of her bed; as I searched for a button I was suddenly back in Grandma’s rehab center, laughing like a little kid as I pushed all the buttons, making her bed dance, and she warned, “You rotten kid, when I can get out of this bed I’m gonna hop you in the ass!” while she laughed alongside me.

I listened to one doctor after another.

“You should think about getting a stationary bike to get your heart muscle going, maybe just put it in the living room…”

I closed my eyes and saw my grandmother’s exercise bike, sitting in the living room, draped with clean laundry.

I watched the monitor reading off blood pressure, oxygen levels and heart rate, the numbers blurring together the more I stared at it, expecting it to give me some sort of answer.

I pulled open a tiny cranberry juice container and bobbed a tea bag into a Styrofoam cup of lukewarm water because my mother wasn’t allowed to exert herself too much until they were sure she was stable.

“I’m not touching that broccoli…you think they could have spared a little more pasta?….ugh, this tea is cold….I do like this fruit cup though.”

I shuddered.

Déjà vu all over again.

When my mother had been admitted- and she had promised me she wasn’t going to try to make a break for it- I decided it was safe to go home. I kissed her goodbye and she smiled at me, and once again, it washed over me.

The afternoon that my grandmother had kissed me goodbye, assured me she was fine…and then had 2 massive heart attacks in her hospital bed as I was pulling out of the parking lot.

I got in my car and stared at my phone. It stared back at me.

And suddenly…I couldn’t breathe.

The next day we waited for more doctors to chime in. I sat on another vinyl bench seat and watched my mother’s emotions range from nonchalance to anger to fear. I listened to her complain about the consistency of the cream of wheat and opt for the French toast. I saw her joke with the nurses and tell me about all the alarms she heard going off in the other rooms overnight.

“I’ve been praying for Room 9 all morning….2 code blues, Cathy. That’s not good at all.”

I searched the hallways for the water machine and we laughed about how I pushed the button too hard and an avalanche of ice came pouring down on me.

They released her with no real answers and instructions to, in the nurse’s words “call 911 and get your butt right back here if you feel ANY pain at ALL.”

And the entire time, the feeling was washing over me like a frigid waterfall, trying its best to drown me.

Here we were again.


Would this become my new normal…again? Juggling schedules and doctor visits with my sister, as I had watched my grandmother’s children do for all those years? Scolding my mother for eating Chinese food because “How many times do we have to tell you it’s loaded with salt! You have a heart condition!” and watching her face dim slightly because she didn’t appreciate being treated like a child?

How many more times would my son climb into my bed at 6:30am, asking, “Where did you go yesterday, Mommy? You said you were just going out for a minute and then we would go to Francine & Ryan’s barbecue and I could play with all the other kids…but you never came back.”

How could I effectively explain that as I drove past my parents’ house on my way to the liquor store, something had tugged on me to turn around? That I didn’t have time to come home and tell him anything before I grabbed my mother’s purse and followed the flashing lights onto the highway? That I had snuck into his room when I returned from the hospital, hugged him as he slept, and wondered if he’d ever have that same intuition and find me sitting on my couch, wincing and looking into his eyes with the fear of not knowing why my body was betraying me?

I didn’t tell him in that moment. But I’ve decided that eventually, I will.

I’m going to tell him that if this ever becomes his “new normal,” he needs to laugh.

He needs to laugh when he finds hidden chocolate bars in my bedside table (because we all know I’m going to be the old lady who hides chocolate). Laugh when I blurt out “What is this cold brown water?! Get money out of my purse and get me a real damn coffee.” Laugh when he pulls my wallet out of my purse and 17 tissues fall out.

Laugh when I ask him to raise my head a bit, he accidentally pushes the wrong button and my feet go flying into the air instead. Laugh when the ice comes pouring out of the machine and he’s frantically putting cup after cup under it and looking around to make sure no one is watching this fiasco.

I’ll tell him. He should know, just in case. Because if there’s one thing that the wild ride with my grandmother taught me, it’s that laughter is the only effective way to numb the pain of a broken heart.

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