by Gabriela Frank
You’ve weathered your stressful job for a decade, so it’s a miracle when you finally quit. Your husband’s been begging you to—he wants you to be happy, to finish your novel. You wonder, as you tear down the scaffolding of your twenty-four-year career: Is this a midlife crisis?
Your household contributions have always been equal; now you will have health insurance through your husband. He will be the primary breadwinner. It’s the first time you’ve depended on a man financially. Your husband admits he enjoys being the provider. It’s biological.
You’ve entered into this thinking you understand what it means to love, and be loved by, a man eighteen years your senior. He’s steeped in your favorite flavor: protection. He’s kind, athletic, resourceful—the opposite of your father. You’ve never considered his genetic heart disease.
Your husband is hella-fit and takes statins. At sixty-three, he’s everything you’re not: a hiker, a surfer, a stand-up paddle boarder, a mountain biker. At forty-five, you get winded on stairs. You had childhood asthma and three bouts of pneumonia. Your father smoked indoors. Your mother died of cancer at forty-five.
You’re always worried about cancer. You never consider heart disease.
The day you gave notice, your husband had his annual stress test. He beat the treadmill, as always, and everything looked fine… except onething, which triggered an angiogram. Two days before your last day of work, you drive him to the hospital through the dark, wet streets of Seattle at five a.m. You pull into the dank, moss-covered garage, click off the headlights. Only then do you ask, “What does good look like today?” Your mother’s radiation, chemotherapy, radical mastectomy and death have not prepared you for this.
Your husband asks why you’re rubbing your sternum. You wave him off—you’re fine, of course you’re fine, like he’s going to be fine.
You wheeze behind him as he charges up Seneca Street. You make small talk with the intake nurse who attaches colored bands to your husband’s wrist. The yellow one reads FALL RISK. It makes him look fragile. He hugs you, then disappears down the corridor. In the waiting room, you busy yourself writing work emails but you can’t stop thinking about the reduced blood flow to his heart. The cardiologist said it’s likely not cause for concern. The rest of his numbers look great. I can justify the angiogram to your insurance company, as if the angiogram isn’t necessary, but if your husband wants it, sure.
Your husband always wants it. An angiogram caught the LADS blockage—the widow-maker—that would have killed him at forty-six, like his father. Without that angiogram, you wouldn’t have met your husband. He survived a heart attack at forty-three and three stents but it’s all hearsay because it happened before you met. Heart disease doesn’t translate because your husband is trim and active. He’s older and we all die someday but someday is, like, eighty-five or ninety.
You hope they don’t find another blockage because your husband is dreading an overnight hospital stay. That’s when you reframe your idea of good: good means fixable. You write emails informing your network that Friday is your last day. Dear ____. Paste. Customize. Send. Repeat. You say you’re leaving to volunteer, to reflect, to explore creative projects. You don’t mention your novel. You’re not prepared for the nurse in blue scrubs to call your name. You close your laptop, miffed at the interruption but pleased by the efficiency.
You don’t get it: promptness in a hospital is not good customer service. It’s an indication. You gather your purse, your laptop, your jacket. She guides you down the tan corridor where your husband disappeared.
“Did they find something?” you ask.
“Yes,” she says. “The doctor will speak with you about next steps.”
Ah, HIPAA confidentiality, you think.
Even then—even then!—you think her discretion is a good thing. An orderly wheels your husband’s gurney to the elevator. You scuttle inside with them.
“We’re taking you to recovery,” the nurse says.
Recovery means done, you think stupidly.
You realize: she confirmed they found something, not that they fixed it.
Your husband is awake but silent. You realize: silence is bad.
Your thoughts are a rabid pack of nattering squirrels. You don’t remember how you arrived at the hospital room or what floor you’re on, you’re just there and your husband is wheeled to Bed Two next to the window where gray teardrops of rain glide down the glass. Your chest tightens. Your heart pounds. Sweat rolls from your temples. This is not peri-menopause. This is going crazy. You hold your husband’s right hand after the nurse reminds him to not move his left—he could bleed out. A plastic cuff compresses his forearm to prevent this. You notice liver spots on his skin which were there all along, hidden by his summer tan. Suddenly, your husband looks old. “If you see even a little blood, hold down hard on the wound and call for help,” the nurse says and swishes the curtain closed.
This is bad, you think. You have no idea. Not yet.
Now that you’re alone, your husband’s brave gaze goes slack. He gurgles, “They can’t stent it. I’m fucked,” and shuts his eyes.
Your vein of denial, buried deep, feels the drill of a friend’s careless remark years ago—I could never marry someone with heart disease—to which you spat sanctimonious crap about not being able to stop loving once you started. Truth is, you never thought this moment would come. Not at sixty-three or eighty-five or ninety. You didn’t learn a thing from your mother’s death. You never thought your husband could leave you, that you could lose him—say it: you never thought your husband could die. You and your pointless ambitions. A fucking novel. You never thought five bypasses could be good.