Two Wonderful Girls. One Day At A Time…

It’s been one week since my surgery. The whole experience has been a whirlwind that I still have yet to comprehend. Over the last several days, I have taken my time to soak it in and understand what it all means. While I still try to make sense of it all, the journey is more than eye-opening and certainly a profound time in my life. I thought I’d capture it for posterity’s sake.

A week ago, I was groggy in a bed in a Palo Alto hospital room with a tube down my throat and my wife and brother telling me I had passed with flying colors and that I’d never need to worry about this issue again. Great news indeed, but I was in a fierce fight with some shorter-term issues. Specifically, I was in desperate need of water (which I couldn’t have yet) while continually gagging on the tube and wondering how long the torture would last. I had IVs in all different places and the room seemed like a fluorescent circus of horrors as I fluttered in and out of consciousness. While novel to me, I imagine the surrealness of those first moments out of surgery is not unique and probably caught in some book somewhere that could do it far more justice than I. I only know that this is the first time I ever was admitted to a hospital since I was born and I am not anxious to go back. It’s not the fault of the hospital, of course—wonderful people, all first-class who made my stay manageable and never seemed to run out of optimism for me. I can’t complain about much (well, the food sucked and the gown left little to the imagination) and I will always be grateful for what they did. I look forward to visiting, but no need for long-term stays for a while.

I spent the days leading into the surgery not sweating the details. I knew all of this was part of the process. I had spoken to a friend who had been through this before. I spent my time on the internet. I talked to cardiologists, surgeons, and plenty of other folks. Plus, I finally got to tap into all that $$ my folks dropped on my brother’s medical school education. I knew what this was (or at least as much as anyone else–technically they wouldn’t be absolutely certain on some of the reasons until they got in). I knew it wasn’t my fault and I knew we could probably take care of it. While I wouldn’t categorize myself as a health nut, I hit most of the check marks for a healthy heart with flying colors. In fact, they kept referring to me as "the runner", which suggested that they weren’t getting many guys in here running 20-25 miles/week. I kept wondering why this wasn’t happening to one of those kids I knew from high school that were smoking then and probably still smoking now? Or one of those karma-less idiots that were fat and out of shape at Microsoft. It really doesn’t do much good to wonder those things. I imagined Lance Armstrong, Teddy Bruschi and Alonzo Mourning (three sports heroes who faced much worse than me and whose off-field heroics far outweigh anything they’ve done in sports in terms of inspiration) wondered the same for their ailments and I’m sure they realized the time was better put towards getting back to health. So, I dumped the bitterness, proceeded onwards and left the "woe is me" schtick for some other poor sap.

Through this whole process, I was never scared. I knew that there are risks with every surgery. Or, who knows, that they could possibly discover something worse. I told myself that I had led a life I was proud of and to close on this body of work would leave me with no regrets. But I had things left to do and this wouldn’t be it. It was that simple. I am not ready to go, so obsessing about that as a serious option wasn’t worth my time. Of course, I spent time going through making sure everything was set for that remote possibility. As a father, you have to do that. 10 years ago, I might have almost thought this was cool. I’d be the bad mofo that withstood open heart surgery. Heck, I could’ve even gotten a pretty cool tattoo across my chest. Five years ago, I’d have been a little concerned, but Cherise would still be able to go on without me. But as this blog has tried to point out for three years, fatherhood changes things. All the knocking on wood and "God Fordbids" aren’t going to protect from the the day if it comes, I need to make sure the three ladies in my life are taken care of. I continually obsess on how much money Cherise would have if I died. Would Iris’ education be paid for? Robyn’s? How soon would Cherise have to go back to work? Cherise and I had these conversations over the years (though not nearly as often as I had them with myself). They’re not quite as fun as when we talk about politics or Iris’ latest escapade, but I couldn’t sleep at night unless those things were covered. Fortunately, not spending much over the years has allowed us to save a decent amount and know we could survive for quite some time in relative comfort.

But money isn’t everything. Love is. And there will never be a shortage for love for Iris and Robyn and I know we’re fortunate for that. And I’m smart enough to know that no one will ever be able to replace what I will give to her. Every little girl needs a father. And folks, I am the world’s greatest father. That is in a sample poll of 1 and that 1 is the only opinion that counts–Iris. When I see Iris, I see endless possibilities. I see love, pure love. It’s in the grin she has on her face the minute she wakes up in the morning and walks over to my bed ready to drag me downstairs. It’s in the first glance she shoots at me every day I get home. It’s in the tucked-in precociousness of her at night when she listens to her bedtime songs before falling asleep. She can be so much and she needs me to help her realize all that she’s capable of. Given the loving extended family we have provided, she’ll never run short on people who will tell her how special she is. But as I learned in my own experience, you only get one father and he can make a bigger difference than 100 other people combined. Every day, I have the belief that I can do that for Iris. It’s why I would do anything to stay healthy as long as possible. It’s why I started running seriously again after so many years. It’s why I got physicals when it was easier to just skip them, including the one that caught the problem. And that’s why I submitted my body to the Stanford Medical Center to do the needed, even though it was the worst time possible on so many levels.

In the last hours before surgery, I didn’t let myself get depressed. I focused on two things:

  1. the fun afternoon Cherise and I spent together the day before while taking care of the pre-operative requirements. Folks, if you want a good litmus test on a marriage, I highly suggest you spend one day together as just the two of you, stuck in long lines, waiting rooms, cars, malls, restaurants, with nothing officially "fun" on the schedule. And then see if it doesn’t rank as one of the most memorable of your life. Cherise took turns making each other laugh and think. We took our typical innocent jabs and recounted endlesss inside jokes (including the greatest inside joke of them all–Iris). I looked in awe at what I had in my corner. Seven months pregnant. Two months removed from losing her father. Middle of selling a house. Still only nine months in our new home. Are you kidding me? And there she was, laughing hysterically and always clutching my hand–not in the manner as to say "I don’t want to lose you", but rather "I love spending time with you". The thing with Cherise and I is that we say "I Love You" constantly. Not just every day. Not just every time we say goodbye. We’ll just pull it out randomly. Sometimes we’ll say it loud and other times, we’ll mouth the words from across the room. And we’ll never say it as a cliche or like "see ya". There’s power in our I Love Yous and we’ve given that to Iris. Next month will mark the 10th year we’ve been together and I can’t describe how much I love her more today than any other day since we’ve met. And there’s something about the afternoon before the operation that really summed up so much for me.
  2. the last 24 hours I spent with the daughter I would soon return to lift on my shoulders, tackle in our toddler football games on the bed, and serve as a horse for. I never realized how much I would love being a dad. Oh don’t worry–I went into this whole experience with plenty of desire to be a dad. But to think that at two years old, I’d head home in anticipation of what Iris was going to do next? No, that wasn’t necessarily on the playcard. The fact that I would schedule my business trip flights to make sure I was there for Iris’ bedtimes, even if it meant destroying my own sleep. She’s just that wonderful. Don’t get me wrong–she’s a handful and I get my butt kicked every day. But her wit. Her empathy. Her sass. And that smile–oh God help me, that smile. An interesting blend of two of the most important women in my my life–my mother and my wife. That’s what I dream of. That’s what I used to fill the time before surgery–just as I used it to fill many of the moments long before I ever thought I’d have to go through something like this.

I suppose the story usually ends there: Father realizes wife and daughters are really cool. Embraces them through survival and recovery. Family comes out stronger. Cue the Academy Awards. No, my experience goes deeper and makes this whole experience so much more deeply profound.

I suppose the most memorable moment of the whole experience was not when I got the news. It was not when they wheeled me away or woke me up. It goes to the night I had with my father 12 days before the surgery where we got the chance to have dinner in NYC while I was there on business. We enjoyed a delicious Italian meal on the Upper West Side while talking about the surgery. I kept throwing my irrational fears at him: "I’ve never had heavy drugs before!", "The only anesthesia I have ever had was at the Dentist", "What if they find something else?", etc. One by one, the wisest man I know gently laughed and reminded at the absurdity of treating as any more daunting as getting hit by lightning. At the end of night, I could see the disappointment in his eyes when he felt he was letting me down for not coming out to California for the surgery and helping me in any other way. But all I wanted to tell him was thank you for the most important three hours I had spent in as long as I can remember. He just saved the next 12 days of my life. The same old calming tricks he made some popular through some of my most difficult grade school and college traumas worked again. Dads don’t lose it–they just get better with age and I never needed a dose of sensibility like I did that day. As if I needed any reminder, I have plenty left to do with Iris.

While my father wasn’t able to make it out to California, my brother was. I’ve never met someone as genuinely dedicated to his career without money being the root motive. It’s impossible to suppress the smile I get when I listen to him talk about his work, his patients, and what he has been involved in.  It’s my appreciation of someone who has truly found his calling and is damn good at it.  But in proof that we’ll always "have each other’s back", he stepped up and came out for the whole time. He was a calming influence for both Cherise and myself, both in his knowledge and his demeanor. In each visit to the hospital, he’d answer every question I asked, and then we’d spend the rest of the time discussing stuff completely unrelated to the surgery. He wasn’t avoiding the subject, but rather reminding me that you don’t need to obsess over these things. And when he wasn’t with me, he was spending time with Iris. Perhaps my greatest disappointment of this whole experience was not being able to watch that in action, but rest assured, I heard all about it from Iris when I was discharged from the hospital. Someone has become a very big fan of her "Uncle Ricky". It’s amazing how these sorts of events can bring families closer together.

As the day grew closer, I started notifying friends and the outpouring was overwhelming. I don’t cry at movies often. But every year, there’s one I always watch that is guaranteed to make me cry–"It’s a Wonderful Life". I’ve watched that movie for the last 14 Christmas Eves and every year, it’s that same damned closing scene that gets me where George Bailey’s friends come to his rescue. I loved that scene so much that Cherise and I actually considered Bailey as a name for a child. Anyone who could inspire that sort of standby loyalty and love was doing things that deserved emulation. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, in some ways, I’ve felt like the last few weeks has been my "It’s a Wonderful Life" moment. Not only the amount of people, but depths in which they’ve tried to show affection and support. I’ve always tried to be the guy who would do anything for a true friend. I’ve always tried to be the guy who would do anything to impact the career or change the life of a mentee or a co-worker. And while I’ve certainly gotten feedback and seeds of appreciation, it’s moments like these that change the very core of who you are because it validates the people you trust, the time you’ve invested, and the philosophy you take in life. A philosophy that becomes all the more important as I’ll the next several years trying to teach this philosophy to my daughters. To those of you out there (friends, family, workers) that took that time to do anything, thank you. And to those of you who said those extra special things or reminded why maybe I am not just the ordinary, I will never be able to thank you enough…

As the insurance commercial says, "life comes at you fast". We live our lives in relative ignorance of what can happen at any given moment. I am not interested in spending my days wondering "what if the sky falls?" Doomsday fatalists don’t live any longer and you’ll never be happy with the answer anyway. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "we endure so much more in anticipation than the actual event". Fortunately, I kept that from happening with the surgery and I saved myself a lot of worrying. It hasn’t been an easy aftermath. I sit here in the midst of a recovery with a 22 gauge wire wrapped around my artificially cracked sternum while I still feel the specter of a chest tube once in my gut the way soldiers feel legs long after they are amputated. I am drugged, puffy, tired, and somewhat immobile. But I played with my daughter today, so all in all, I’d call it a good day. In three months, I’ll be as good as new. Well, except for the lack of sleep, but I don’t think I’ll be blaming that on the surgery. I will run again. And I will be cracking 10 miles a run like I was before. And I’ll probably run a half-marathon, even though I hate races, just as a lesson for Iris and Robyn that you don’t run away from the things the challenge you. You take them head on and show them what you’re made of. Especially if you have a family and friends behind you that’ll never let you fall.

Comments on: "A Father's Reflections on Open-Heart Surgery" (5)

  1. Sandy, this is pure you and pure inspiration, as usual. It\’s funny, I just decided with my personal trainer (to set the record straight right now I do no running) that I was going to do a half marathon this year, so you will continue to be my inspiration. The irony of course is you will likely beat me to it. 🙂
    My best to Cherise, Iris and the rest of the K-clan.

  2. […] think what has really impacted me are the mental changes. I was reading the blog post that I wrote a week after the surgery and I think I’ve stayed true to the lessons I felt at that time.  I’m definitely more […]

  3. […] And then I had open heart surgery. […]

  4. […] and reduce the destruction done by heart disease and stroke. Of course, 12 years later, I’d personally go through an open heart surgery for a fluke infection that created a mitral valve prolapse and I became a beneficiary of their […]

  5. […] was looking back on my post from one week after the surgery, where I felt like I had gained a considerable amount of perspective on things. But what with the […]

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