My mom and I were in the cocoon of our booth at the Hilton Hotel in Altamonte Springs, having a light breakfast and taking a break from driving. We were en route to the Hard Rock Cafe and Casino in Tampa. A much deserved break and weekend for us. Our waitress knew my mom from the last couple of trips to the Senior Softball Camp my dad attended over the last couple of years. She asked if I was her daughter and we laughed and said I was. Mom told her she was taking me to the Hard Rock Casino, just the two of us. Our waitress smiled a little sad smile and told us how great it was we were going together. She then told us she missed her mom. Her mom is 83 and lives in Bosnia. She had just seen her this last March, and it was hard to leave. She began to tear up, but recovered and told us that her mom was this little tiny thing, in a small house. But, she told us that her mom told her that she was old, and all that mattered at this point in her life, was that her kids and their families were ok. “I’ll be fine” she told her daughter. Our waitress cleared our table and walked away. Mom and I shared a look, understanding distance. Mom had moved from Texas to California as a young mom. Our’s was the family that always came to visit. I live across the country from my older children and grandchildren, and my youngest child is practically in the Gulf. It wasn’t an ocean and continents, but it was long enough. Each of us had spent countless hours in the air or on the road going back for long visit, or short and sweet visits. We knew distance.
When our waitress came back, she told us to enjoy our time together. She said to us, “I have this,” meaning she would get our breakfast. Then she turned to me and said “Enjoy your mom”, and walked away.
One moment you are in the midst of a beautifully lit late-winter day, doing what you usually do on your day off, running errands, getting groceries, enjoying a cafecito on the ride home on the back roads to the house, without a care or worry in the world. The next moment you are pushing your car to its mechanical limits getting your husband to the emergency ward of the VA, because he refuses to call 911 and have EMS come get him. Maybe because he was still conscious, could breathe and walk (but not deeply – the breathing part and for long periods of time – the walking part) or maybe because he is just a stubborn guy and to admit he needed an ambulance meant his life was threatened (which it was). To this day, I cannot tell you what logic (debatable) he used, all I know is I was able to get him to the VA without him losing consciousness. He wouldn’t let me drop him off at the entrance, while I parked, or get him one of the fifty wheelchairs that sat outside the mechanical doors, so he would not have to walk in what was becoming obviously an effort to do.
It wasn’t a heart attack, as he first thought. It was a blood clot in his lung. A pulmonary embolism. We knew first hand how serious this was. We had lost our friend two years before to a clot that traveled to her heart. When the young doctor told us what we were dealing with, we shared a look, thinking of Karen. We talked quietly as they made arrangements to transport him across the street to ICU at Duke Medical Center. I finally sat down after four hours of standing by his bedside and what he told me next really made me want to strangle him myself.
We had parted ways that morning, me to get my nails done and run errands, he to the golf course. I remember him saying he was tired when he got up from bed and started to get ready. I remember thinking he had been up late, after a night at judo practice, so it was reasonable he was tired. I knew he had been up late the last couple of nights, dealing with the onset of insomnia that comes with this time of year. I was not overly concerned. He tells me he was fine the first five holes. He had a birdie putt on the sixth hole and was walking back to his cart when one of the guys he was playing with him asked him if he was alright. He replied he was, but when he tried to get into the cart, he knew he was not. He grabbed onto the railing so he would not fall and tried to sit down, but actually slid down into the cart. He prayed for help to get through what was happening, telling God he was prepared to go if it be His will, but if it was not yet his time, to help him get through it. His golf buddies are Veterans. They call my husband “Guny”. So when my husband heard one ask “Guny, you want us to call 911?” He told them no. They wouldn’t get there in time. They were ten minutes out-of-town in the country on a golf course, he figured, they would get their too late to save him from a heart attack. Remember I mentioned logic in the beginning of this post, because what happens next certainly stretches the definition.
He continues to ride in the cart, but does not play. He gets out of the cart once or twice and realizes he cannot breathe well, so he gets back in the cart. He continues to watch his partners finish their games. Now, this particular golf course passes by the clubhouse and his car on the 9th hole and he tells me, as he is laying in front of me in the emergency room with oxygen to help his breathing. He remembers thinking for a moment, he should just call it a day and come home so I can take him to the VA, but because he was still “fine”, he squelched that thought and continued on the next NINE HOLES. At the end of the game, does he then decide to get in his car and drive home, which in itself, was risky, given he might lose consciousness and hurt himself or others? My Marine decides to give a few lessons to the young golfer who had joined them to play. Granted, from the cart, but still…Three hours after his first incident on the course and five hours since he started playing, he drives himself home. He tells me he never panicked that morning or later that day, with all that had happened until he pulled up in the driveway and realized I was not home. He called me as I was driving out of Raleigh and was on the back roads, oblivious to what he had been through.
I couldn’t be mad at him. Anyone who knows us, knows I love my husband madly. Knows the sun rises and sets with this man. Besides, how would that look, wife going off on husband in emergency room while he lay incapacitated by a blood clot? Seriously, though, I was thinking if he ever does this to me again, I will kill him myself. Not that it would matter, my being frustrated with how he handled himself, how he may have done his body more harm than good. I looked at him with all the ambivalence of emotions and just said “I don’t know what to say”, which was a lie. I had plenty to say and plenty of emotion to go with it, but I was silent. He knew it too, because his next words put out all the fire inside my heart over what he had put himself through, what could have or might have happened, all the uncertainty of what would happen from this point on. He said simply “Just say “thank you””.
Humbled, I did. I thanked God for getting him through his day without harm to anyone and further harm to himself. I thanked God for the doctors of the VA and Duke Medical Center and their staff who took such good care of my Marine. I thanked God for our family and friends who checked in with us, supported us, offered to do whatever they could to help. I thanked God for the faith that sustains us in dark and uncertain times. I thanked God for the blessing of our marriage and our life together that we both knew could have ended that beautiful sun-filled winter day.
I walked across the street from Duke after I had seen him get settled in ICU. I remember thinking how we arrived seven to eight hours before, anxious, facing the unknown, but surprisingly never panicking, never losing composure. It seemed as if in another time in our life, not just hours before. I drove up to our home and took a picture because, for some reason in the process of the moments of getting him from the house to the car and to the VA, he had remembered, or out of habit, left the porch light on. As if he had known all along he would be coming home.