"If you're going to leave me, I'd rather you go ahead and do it now."
I was 24 when I told my then-boyfriend these words. Altogether, we had been a couple for nearly six years, having met through mutual friends, spent our college years together, then, after my graduation and subsequent move for a job five hours away, entered a year attempting a long-distance relationship that crumbled. There was a year apart. I moved for a different job, somehow managing to be five hours away from the old job and still five hours away from the guy. Nonetheless, we found ourselves back together in May 2004. We tried to overcome our past, but the fact of the matter was that while we had both changed, we had trouble recognizing that in each other, so it was no great surprise that by winter we were both looking for an easy way out. And then I got sick.
Really, I'd been sick for years, but things had finally come to a head when an incident at work convinced me that I had to get my high blood pressure under control. I'd been having several unilateral headaches on my left side, which I dismissed as stress and heredity. While at my computer one such headache suddenly turned into a dizziness and a numb left arm. The feeling passed, but it got my attention—if I didn't do something about my blood pressure, which had peaked at 220/110 and tended to hover around 190/105, I was going to have a stroke. Since I had recently graduated and moved and then moved again, I confess that I hadn't been as on top of my blood pressure as I should have been. My doctor at student health had taken me off a few meds and put me on a few others to no avail. A doctor I saw while working the out-of-state job did the same. My blood pressure didn't budge. So when I showed up in my new family practicioner's office he recommended something else, "There's something really strange I'd like to have you tested for." I went for an MRI and the strange thing was found—the artery to my left kidney was more than 90 percent stenosed, which meant that the kidney was not getting an adequate blood supply and therefore was emitting renin to raise my blood pressure to try to force blood to the little dying organ. What the MRI also found was that my celiac and mesenteric arteries were 100 percent occluded. We didn't know why, but suddenly the severe gastrointestinal problems I'd had for years on end suddenly came sharply into focus. The arterial blockages were killing my system, and if blood supply wasn't restored, I stood a great chance of a) losing my kidney b) suffering complications from high blood pressure including a weakened heart c) losing my bowel. I was referred and then referred again. There was talk of a vascular disease. There was talk of major surgery.
And finally, there was talk of breaking up. I knew two things: I needed to pay attention to myself and not a shoddy relationship, and if I was going to get out of a shoddy relationship, I wanted to do it before things go ugly, before things got to the surgery and recovery and scars part. It was shortly before Christmas that I said, "If you're going to leave me, I'd rather you go ahead and do it now." And so he did. My parents went to my doctors appointments with me. I spent most evenings at their house, only driving home at 11 p.m. to feed the cats and go to sleep. Bypass surgery was put on the docket for July 5.
I hadn't really had much of a mind for dating. My situation was serious, not the kind of thing to throw at a new relationship, but there was a guy, a friend at work, to whom I had become close. We hung out from time to time, going on "not dates." He had never ever tried to make a move on me. I never made a move on him. Instead, we were just friends—blushing, awkward friends. The night before I was to leave for surgery, I was nervous and alone. I called my "just friend." "Talk to me," I said. "I don't care what you talk about, just talk to me." Three or four hours in to the conversation, I couldn't take it any more. "Travis, why don't you ever hit on me?" There was a long pause. "Well, I will if you want me to," he replied.
Travis came to see me in the hospital, which was three hours away. The surgery had been eight hours long, and afterward, I spent a foggy two, maybe three, days in the ICU. When I finally got to a regular room on the vascular floor, I hadn't eaten in days, hadn't had solid foods in a week, was unshowered, unshaven, and generally looked like a meat marionette held up by IV lines. I think he got to stay for 45 minutes before my meds made me sick and I threw him out of the room.
After two weeks in the hospital, I headed back homeward, but was too weak to live alone. I stayed with my parents for nearly a month. In that time, Travis and I resumed our hours long phone conversations. He came over to my parents' house and took me out for dinner and a movie. And still, he was perfectly, annoyingly polite. Without going into great detail, I'll say that on Aug. 13 I took matters into my own hands. The relationship was everything I'd never had before. We were married just over a year later on Oct. 20, 2006—this month we celebrate our five year anniversary.
In that five year span, Travis and I have gone through a lot with my health. There was the stroke, and the nephrectomy, and the four brain aneurysms, and the gastric rupture. We've gone through a lot in life. I made him let me get a dog (in addition to our three cats), we sold my townhouse and bought a bigger house, I lost my job after the stroke, I went back to school, I started working again part-time. Throughout it all, he's been stoic. He's been by my side. He's sponge bathed and cut up food when the IV in my hand won't let me and changed bedsheets and packed wounds with gauze and driven me to appointments and filled prescriptions and brought chocolates and held me while I cry and nagged me to do my physical therapy and has never once showed any signs of leaving. I don't know how he does it. Sometimes, I don't know why he does it. It would be so much easier for him not to. It would be so much easier for him to close off and close up and want nothing to do with me and my sickness. I try to give him as much as he gives me, but I know that that is impossible.
A lesson that sickness has to teach us then is that in sickness we must not always focus on that which we lose; we must look to what we gain as well. I gained a husband who is my joy, my solace, my caregiver, and my love. I also have gained a community in which fellow patients serve as caregivers, supporters, and friends. I have gained insight into myself, what I want to accomplish in life, and what is truly important and worth fighting for. I have gained experience and knowledge. When there is so very much to be lost and so very much that has already been lost, searching for what one has gained may prove difficult, but it is what we gain that fuels the fire to carry on.
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