“BUT WHAT IF I DIE??? What would you do???”

My drunk boyfriend is sitting in our apartment that we moved into together just a few months ago. We’ve been together for about a year and a half and we’ve been through PhD exams, unemployment, quarter life crises, and the typical growing pains of a serious couple at our age.

But tonight he’s insisting that we talk about what I would do if he died. How I would handle it. He needs to know. Would I be okay? That’s not okay. No one would be okay…

How do you answer that (when he doesn’t accept the “let’s talk about this in the morning” answer)? How deep do you dive into the hypothetical pit of despair, just to wonder what it might be like?

Why are we, at 26 and 28, talking about this in the first place?

It all started when Anthony went to a doctor’s appointment to get his heart checked. He has had a condition from birth where one of his valves doesn’t work properly and causes his heart to get enlarged over time (insert poetic metaphor here) and can cause really bad complications if it’s not acted on.

He told me this when we first started dating – during one of those conversations where you’re like, “Have I told you all the weird random things about me yet?…. Oh YA…”

We all knew he would need surgery one day. But we thought that day might be sometime after his, I dunno, 46th birthday.

But he went into the appointment and his doctor said that it needed to happen now.

I freaked out. Obviously. This was open heart surgery. They would stop his heart for about 4 hours and he wouldn’t be able to breathe on his own. They were going to open his chest, cut his heart. My guy’s heart. He was going to be cut open.

I was at work when he called me and I tried not to cry all over my lunch and tried to keep it together while texting my sister and Emily for support. Before I went home, though, I tried to pull it together. I knew that this wasn’t about me, and that he needed me to not be scared and to be the strong one for him (because that’s what I would need). Plus I asked him to tell me exactly what he needed from me. I am not good at anticipating needs, but I can follow directions pretty well. And Anthony is amazing at communicating in the most kind and healthy way. It’s perfect for me – he has no problem telling me what he needs from me, and that makes me a much better partner.

The next few weeks were hard. He was really scared. We had to wait for tests, for the angiogram, for the appointment… The anxiety was building. He was researching online for any information he could find, and not sleeping. I was trying to stay positive, and trying to support him. But some nights I would be in bed, while Anthony was online in the living room, learning more about the procedure – and I would think: “Am I being supportive enough? Am I REALLY doing my best to help him? How can I help him be less scared?” Just thinking of how scared he was makes me cry to this day.

Then it was finally scheduled. And we had an epic weekend (when the above mentioned conversation happened). I kept thinking – this is what our lives will get back to after this is over – and it will be AWESOME. I have to remember that THIS is our normal life.

But then it started. His parents came into town and helped immensely. Cleaned, cooked, did our laundry (!!!), and shared some of the weight of supporting Anthony, which helped me a lot – I was scared to be the only one there to tell him everything was going to be okay. Would I be strong enough? Can I bear the weight of this kind of thing for him? I felt very adult all of a sudden.

After the angiogram a few weeks before the surgery, he fainted. His dad called me to say that I should probably head to the hospital (I stayed home sick from work). I remember throwing clothes on, and moving the fastest I ever had in my life and just sobbing the entire way to the hospital. Nothing was supposed to go wrong. Nothing was supposed to be a surprise. Is this how it was going to be? Everyone seemed flustered and taken by surprise, including the nurses. I did not like this.

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But after that I really stopped being scared. Once I met with the doctors in preparation for the surgery I was sure – positive – that everything was going to be fine. They explained that his fainting spell was a vasovagal response, and was totally normal. From that point on something amazing happened that I didn’t really see coming – I handled things pretty well and processed my emotions in a healthy way. That’s a relatively new thing for me. I used to be a mess when intense shit went down – stuffing down my feelings, or running away or shutting down.

But I did it. I kept it together all day when the surgery finally came and really believed the things I was saying to his parents – we need to eat, he is going to be totally fine, he is in great hands, this will all be over soon, etc.

IMG_4480 We walked to the mission in Santa Barbara from our house and ate breakfast at a cafe. We talked about other things. When the hospital called me, a split second went by where I thought something might have gone wrong – but sure enough they were just letting us know that a nurse would come by to update us soon.

The surgery went much better than anyone expected. They didn’t have to do as much as they thought, and it went by a lot quicker than we were told originally. Then we were allowed to see him. The nurses warned us multiple times that this part might be pretty traumatizing (on top of everything) – he wouldn’t look like himself, he would have tubes coming out of everywhere, he would be pale…

I honestly thought about opting out. I had handled things pretty well so far – but this could be my breaking point. I can never un-see that, right? But his parents were like, “Of course we want to see him.” Me: *Nods and follows*

And you know what? He looked great. Who looks great after open heart surgery? Like, RIGHT after heart surgery? My boyfriend, apparently. Sure, he had a tube down his throat and more tubes coming out of…everywhere. But he was okay. There he was, just sleeping, under cozy blankets with a little heater running under them.

I scratched his head (he loves that) so that maybe he’ll know it’s all over, even when he’s unconscious. The tears started coming. The ones that hadn’t been there all day. I felt so relieved. It was over. He is fine.

His parents and I shed some tears and petted this unconscious guy we loved so much. Then we went to the waiting room. I had to go to the bathroom.

Then – BAM. Apparently I had not REALLY cried yet. The tidal wave of all the emotions hit me while I was peeing in a hospital bathroom. I started sobbing. The fear that I had politely asked to leave during the surgery was completely acknowledged now. He was OKAY. It was over. We could go back to being a 20something couple, ignoring responsibilities when we felt like it and taking our healthy bodies for granted.

It felt. so. good. Crying like that. It didn’t feel like I denied myself the emotions I was having and unhealthily pushed them aside the whole time. I had not gone through the worst case scenario in my mind leading up to the surgery. I did not imagine the doctor telling me that he didn’t make it and how I would get through the next few days. Of course, those images arrived at the door to my mind and knocked, and I thought “Hmm, tempting” – and then said “No, thank you, we don’t want any” and shut the door.

This is not something that has always worked to my advantage. In the past, I would need to deal with hard truths and unpleasant thoughts and I would slam the door in their faces and hide under a blanket. Then they would eventually kick down the door and rip my blanket off and demand to be heard – usually at some insanely inconvenient time, like the morning before the GRE.

But this time I looked at them before I shut the door and thought, “Will this really help? Even if he does die, would it have helped to go through the scenario before hand?” No. So why?

I was crying in a hospital bathroom and it was the best feeling in the world. I felt the sadness and fear, but in this warm safe place, when the surgery was over. It was wonderful.

I walked out and into the waiting room, and Anthony’s parents were like, “You don’t have to cry alone in the bathroom! We’re right here!” I assured them that I didn’t mean to break down while on the toilet, and that I wasn’t afraid to cry around them. We sat there, updating Anthony’s huge following by text and Facebook, and every once and a while one of us would say, “I can’t believe it’s over” and we would all start crying again.

And Anthony, because he can never miss out on anything, woke up like 3 hours earlier than the doctors and nurses expected. That guy has always hated sleeping. He seemed normal, making jokes by miming or rolling his eyes at key moments (since he still had a tube down his throat, helping him breathe). Two of us held each of his hands at all times, switching once and a while so everyone could have a turn. He asked for us to take pictures of him, which was so random… but he wanted to share this crazy thing he had gone through, and have it documented. This really happened. It was that bad. It was that intense.

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IMG_4510 The next 5 days in the hospital brought some new awful thing each day. “Today we’re gonna yank these tubes out of you! Then tomorrow we’ll yank THOSE tubes out of you!” He walked around the hospital the next day (totally insane considering his chest was completely open the day before). Someone was always coming in to educate us, we always had questions, we always had a new nurse… I slept there every night with him and his parents came every morning. The nights were (and still are) the worst. You can hear his new mechanical valve clicking, each time his heart pumps blood out to the rest of his body. He would lie there, listening to it click, becoming terrified if it happened to skip a beat or sound extra loud that night…

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How do you trust your body again, with that child-like naivete, after something like this? Once you know how fragile each extremely important working part of your body is, how do you just fall asleep and trust it to all work together harmoniously?

When we came home, the same fear was there, but now there was no nurse to call or machine to start beeping if something was off. We had to decide if everything was working like it was supposed to. But we were fine – Anthony’s mom and I went back to work, and his dad cooked, walked with him each day, went to his appointments with him, helped him sit up… I would come home exhausted from work (which of course got super busy in the week after the surgery) and would try to be present and helpful and emotionally supportive.

Fast forward to a month since the surgery. Anthony’s dad had left and Anthony had been feeling good enough to spend the day downtown or go to dinner with friends – life almost seemed normal again, despite his pain that was kind of always in the background.

I went to my sister’s house to babysit my niece and nephew for a night and brought Anthony along. I figured he would get settled on the couch and just be with us and stay mellow while I chased toddlers around. My sister and her husband were planning on leaving in the morning for a wedding. That night Anthony had such sever chest pain that we had to go to the ER. Quick tip: If you want to bypass those annoyingly long wait times in the ER, just tell them you just had open heart surgery and you’re having chest pain – they’ll send you straight back before you can finish your sentence.

I thought I had conquered this whole thing. That we were done with the beeping and not knowing what the hell was going on and being in that stale hospital air. He was writhing in pain. These people were not giving him drugs fast enough. WHERE WERE THE DRUGS. Can’t you see he’s in pain?? His face looks EXACTLY like the “10” face on that pain scale poster!

He was in so much pain. You are not supposed to be in that much pain after that kind of surgery. That is never good. The doctor doesn’t know what it is. It’s the weekend, so Anthony’s surgeon and cardiologist aren’t reachable. No one knows what’s going on, he just had open heart surgery, and he is in so much pain he is in tears.

It all happened so fast and I was scared. I was very scared. I tried to hold his hand and look him in the eyes and smile and say everything was going to be fine. But when I tried to smile the corners of my mouth started to force themselves down and the tears came. I still tried to smile but I couldn’t be strong in that moment. Anthony said it was okay to cry. Why were we here? This was supposed to be over.

They finally gave him the right drug and the pain was gone. We drove home and took it easy, celebrating that that shit was over. I tried to make sure that I was dealing with my emotions and giving myself time to recover – but mostly I was just exhausted. I climbed into bed to read a book.

Then the pain came back. This time it was much worse. I jumped out of bed and sat with him. He was crying. I grabbed his entire bag of pills he was taking, to show the nurses, and we left again, for the ER.

They didn’t give him drugs fast enough. Can getting rid of the pain be the first priority, for Christ’s sake?? These were way better than the other ER’s drugs though. He was high out of his mind. It was great.

I held his hand as the doctor did an ultrasound of his heart. I stared at this thing – this thing that was keeping my boyfriend alive – and it seemed so unreliable and erratic. It was a healthy heart now, and mine would look the same if I was the one being examined. But it looked so tired and desperate. Pumping frantically. It does this all day, every day? It has done this for 28 years? I stared at the black and white image of this thing and thought – so this is what’s running his whole body? You almost think that there should be something mechanical keeping it going. But it’s this little lump of flesh, just twitching – and it is the reason my boyfriend is alive and can do amazing things – like flips and handstands and playing a vibraphone, when he is well.

They figured out the right cocktail of drugs that will stop the inflammation and fluid build up that has caused his pain. Apparently that can happen after a surgery like that. Lucky us. Now he is on steroids and back on the narcotics that make him feel sluggish. But in a few weeks he should feel much better.

But seriously – lucky us. We went through something that was intense and scary and something that felt a little over our heads. But we did it. I have never felt more grown up. We supported each other and did what had to be done. And now it’s like our relationship is just something beyond what it was before. We feel like family now.

Our lives will go back to normal and we’ll take our health for granted again and his heart won’t be the topic of most of our conversations. I will finally get to lay my head on his chest again and we will feel so far away from what has happened.

But I will always hear it clicking away.