Yesterday morning I sat down after my kids had gone to school, and forced myself to have some tea and a piece of toast. I was trying to center myself a little, so I could teach my morning class. The house was quiet, and so was the street outside, and as I sat at my dining room table, I wondered what Elias A. Zias, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon I’ve never met, might have had for breakfast. Or whether he’d had any. Or if he was having a good day, or if he’d been up all night worrying about his teenage daughter. If he even has a teenage daughter. I wondered all kinds of things about this man I don’t know. I wondered if he might have sat at his dining room table, looking at his list of things to do for the day, counting amongst them holding two human hearts in his hands. Especially because one of them would be my step-dad’s. That’s crazy, right? That your job, the thing you do every day, could be to save two lives. I think I’ll mow the lawn, drop my kids off at school, break someone’s chest open, and give them twenty to thirty more years with their family and friends.
Anyway, I should back up, I guess. My stepdad was feeling some pressure in his chest and he went in for a stress test last Tuesday. I could give you all kinds of details, but yesterday, a week after his stress test, he had quadruple bypass surgery. I’ve been educating myself over the last week, so I’d know more about the procedure, the odds, the recovery, all the normal stuff you’d want to know if someone you loved was going to be on a table for six to seven hours with their heart outside their body for at least some of that time. And I spoke to a number of people who all reassured me that this is like a root canal these days. Or an appendectomy. But still. It’s the heart, right? The heart, the brain, the spine, all surgeries you can’t help but worry about.
Tuesday night, the night before the surgery, I stood on the baseball field during my son’s practice talking to my step-dad. If he was scared, he did a bang-up job of hiding it. And I didn’t want him to be scared, and I didn’t want to scare him with my own fear. But, y’know, you have to say what you have to say in a situation like that. So I tried to get everything out without crying, and then I just went ahead and cried, but I said what I needed to say. I wanted to make sure he knew how much I loved him and how grateful I was to have been watching him love my mom from the time I was seven years old. He’s taught me a lot about sticking to it. Whatever it may be. He loves my mom. We had hard times in the house like every family. But there was never a second in my entire life where he gave me any reason to question whether he loved her. Even if they were fighting. He’s taught me a lot about devotion. And about loving people at their best and their worst, which is really the thing. Loving people when they’re at their best is easy. No one is at their best all the time, and certainly not for thirty, forty, fifty years. If you want a long-term thing, you have to be willing to fight for it.
We have our ideas about how things should look or be or feel, and sometimes reality matches those pictures in our head in no way whatsoever. Love isn’t linear or pretty or glowy all the time. Love can be an act of will. I’m not talking about allowing yourself to be abused, here, so don’t get me wrong. I’m saying, if you really want to love people, you have to figure out how to see them and accept them as they are. And I think you have to do that for yourself before you can do it well for anyone else.
So I’ve been thinking about all of that. On the way home from baseball practice, my seven year old asked me if Grandpa’s operation was serious, and I said it was. I said his doctor was great, though, and that he performed these operations every day. I said I thought Grandpa would be okay. And he said, “But there’s a chance he won’t, right?” And I said yes, there’s a chance. Because you can’t lie, right? This is reality. I told him we’d call when we got home because I wanted my kids to say goodnight to him. And my son said he was going to tell him he loved him. He said, “He’s probably not going to sound scared because he won’t want me to be scared, right?” I said that was probably true. Anyway, when I picked my son up yesterday afternoon and told him Grandpa was okay, he threw his fist in the air and said, “Yes!!” And my daughter, who’s four, said she “knew it”, and hadn’t been worried.
I can’t imagine what it must feel like to hold a human heart in your hands. To understand you’re holding a life, a life full of beauty and pain and joy and heartbreak and disappointments and love. A life that overlaps with so many other lives, that affects the way a seven year old and a four year old view the world, that reduces someone to tears on a baseball field in front of strangers, that touches the lives of people all over the world. And that’s just one heart. Multiply that by seven billion, and you start to understand the potential we have to love each other and heal and grow something so unbelievably beautiful between us that we’re all in awe.
I think acceptance and clear seeing are the things. Forgiveness helps a lot. Awareness that you don’t have forever and neither does anyone else. The understanding that the absolute best thing you can do with your heart and your time and your energy is to love. I don’t know what Elias A. Zias ate for breakfast yesterday. But he has my heart and my gratitude. May we all cherish each other’s gorgeous hearts. Sending you love. Ally Hamilton