This essay originally appeared in The Hook.
My 48-year-old doctor-spouse chalks up the pain in his shoulder to post-golf muscle strain and blames his indigestion on the 19th hole chili-dog. As both complaints are side-effects of a sport I liken to leaving home in order to watch hair grow, I wave him towards our chaotic plastic container of medical and veterinary supplies, and head off to bed.
“There might be an antacid in there,” I advise over my shoulder.
He follows a few moments later. I happen to glance at him above my book. He’s taking his pulse. “What are you doing?”
“Checking my heart rate.”
While this does cause me to sit up, my follow-up question is reminiscent of the one I used to ask when calling the bluff of hooky-playing offspring: “Do we need to go to the hospital?”
“I think so.”
“I think we better go in,” he repeats.
In a skewed rendition of a sitcom couple on the way to the maternity ward, I can’t find my shoes. Or pants.
“Calm down,” he instructs. I do. Until he asks if we have any aspirin. I flash on the heart attack prevention commercial that runs almost as frequently as the one for erectile dysfunction. And panic. Even if I accidentally purchased some, it could take weeks to locate it in the jumbled collection of pharmaceuticals.
Suddenly I remember the orange tablets that jumped like little lemmings from my dad’s pocket the last time he was in town. I’d been meaning to pick them up for months.
“Come on! I keep them in the car.”
He climbs in, and I point towards his feet. He shoots me a look, then bends, scoops, peels, and chews. I speed along our rural, foggy road. Out of nowhere, a rolled-up carpet appears in the middle of the pavement like some driving school obstacle. My maternal arm shoots sideways hitting him square in the chest.
“Umphhh,” he exhales.
He doesn’t laugh. At all. Which is alarming, as I think it’s kind of funny. I glance at him. He’s a little gray. I notice my own pulse hammering against the steering wheel. I do 70, no more small talk, and pull up to the emergency department where I drop him.
Unlike say, bleeding profusely from the forehead or a bone protruding from one’s wrist, chest pain is taken very seriously. In the time it takes me to run from the garage, he’s been hustled back to an exam room and hooked up to an EKG machine. I’m exiled to the waiting room.
Eventually an attractive doctor comes out, smiling. I smile back. (I do this even when somebody on TV grins. It’s a stupid habit I’ve been trying to break ever since discovering the facial parentheses that bracket every word I utter.)
Lovely smiling doctor: “It’s good that you got him here quickly. He’s having a heart attack.”
Stunned, smiling wife: “What?”
She repeats herself. I lose it. A solicitous nurse materializes and asks if she should find the chaplain for me.
“Only if he’s carrying drugs,” I think– or perhaps say.
After weighing the risks of paging a sleep-deprived cardiologist to do the catheterization in the middle of the night or having a refreshed physician do it in the morning my husband decides to wait. He’s moved to the intensive care unit. I’m sent home. Alone.
I search for my car and rehearse what to say to our kids who are scattered between Washington and Chile. Even though I’m Queen of Sugarcoat, I’m having a hard time finding the words.
Everything feels different.
In the morning, I go back and am told to wait in the hallway while he is prepped. Eventually my husband is wheeled by. He reaches for me and whispers in my ear that if anything happens he wants me to find someone else. This has been an ongoing discussion for 25 years. With tears streaming, I respond the way I always do to that generous sentiment: “I am not being tricked into giving you permission to remarry.”
I sit in the waiting room watching two children punch each other.
The procedure is long but successful, and he’s brought back a couple of hours later, proudly announcing to anyone within earshot that his artery is so big an extra large device had to be jury-rigged. (Apparently talking about this is the polite way of discussing… shoe size.) Fortunately, being a patient in his own hospital means a steady audience. He has so many guests that a nurse gets into a scrap with a doctor/friend trying to bypass visiting hours. It causes quite a stir.
And it isn’t the only dust-up. My spouse and I get snippy with each other after a couple of days. The big one comes when he notices me fishing through his trail mix. “What are you doing?” he demands.
“I’m starving,” I say with feigned innocence, plucking out a prized almond.
“And you’re cherry picking? Eating all the almonds?”
“Just six– so far.”
The fight takes off like a runaway gurney. Semi-hushed accusations of inconsideration spew. I’m awash in confusing emotions. How can I want to hit a man attached to a heart monitor? Devastated, I hold my tongue. (Sort of– a couple of snide remarks seep out.) But I keep thinking, what if this is our last contact?
Then I realize the macabre hospital scene actually represents cardiac health! The EKG hasn’t so much as squeaked during the skirmish. I take a deep breath for the first time in days. The operation was a success!
Not only have I been granted proof of recovery, I’ve also been given a unique marital aide: my own bedside polygraph.
“So,” I smile, my gaze resting on the EKG. “Let’s talk fidelity.”
“You’re killing me,” he groans. And almost immediately a flat line darts across the monitor. An alarm shrills. I race towards the door for help– and stop short when snorts of laughter ring out.
Behind me, the doctor/patient is holding up the disconnected wires, wildly amused.
“Oh my God,” he groans. “It hurts to laugh!”
I reach for the trail mix. “Good.”