The Power of Meaningful Conversation

For my first post of 2015, I’d like to start off by returning to my Happiness Series–this time, the focus is on engaging in meaningful conversation. I hadn’t had an opportunity to have any in-depth conversations for quite a while until the holidays rolled around, and then suddenly it seemed like that’s the only type of conversation I was engaged in. Most of them came out of an incredibly stressful event that occurred just the day after Christmas.

My husband, son and I stayed at my mom’s house for the holidays. No, no, wait–there’s more… In the wee hours of the morning of the 26th, my mom was woken up by a severe case of heartburn. By that afternoon, the pain was so unbearable that my mom asked me to drive her to the doctor’s. She was turned away because there weren’t any available appointments, so I took her to the emergency room. My son was asleep in the car, so I took him home and waited for my mom to call to pick her up. She was sure she’d just be prescribed heartburn medication and be sent on her way. But there was something far more serious happening than heartburn.

She was having a heart attack.

When people think of heart attacks, they envision a dramatic chest-clutching episode before collapsing on the floor. But what most people don’t know is that women experience different symptoms than men. Chest-clutching is a dude thing. Heartburn is a chick thing.

When my mom called me in tears to say they thought she was having a heart attack (based on an abnormal EKG reading), my husband had returned home and I was able to rush to the ER. They drew blood to test for more definitive evidence of a heart attack, and they found it. My older brother arrived just as she was admitted to the hospital and transferred to a different unit to undergo a cardial catheterization, which is a procedure that allows the doctor to see the extent of the damage to a patient’s heart.

As my brother and I waited in the hospital lobby–complete with baby grand piano and a world away from the complete chaos of the ER waiting room–I could hardly keep it together. My mom is 60 years old, a little overweight but a healthy eater and an avid fan of zumba. This is not someone who has a heart attack.

My brother and I share a dark sense of humor and were trying to keep things light and optimistic, encouraging a slightly “off” older man to play the piano, quietly commenting to each other on our fortune at having stumbled into the whites-only lobby. Our jokes were interrupted by an overhead announcement:

Code Blue in the Cardial-Catheterization Unit, Code Blue…

As my brother and I realized what this might mean for us, we looked at each other with wide eyes, silenced. My brother rose from his seat and walked briskly to the information desk. He returned smiling, relieved: “It’s not her.”

But it was. We later found out that her heart stopped beating during the preliminary procedure. I’m sure the women at the information desk had been trained to lie to family in order to avoid a scene; I guess I’m glad they did because my mom’s heart re-started on its own. But it’s hard to grasp how close we were to losing her just during that exploratory step.

The doctor approached us in the waiting room; he was kind but his expression was serious. Three out of four arteries going into her heart were 90% clogged. She would undergo a triple bypass first thing in the morning, if she survived the night.

I heard his words, but it sounded like he was speaking a foreign language. My brother–thank god–asked the doctor a series of pertinent questions that would’ve occurred to me 10 minutes after the doctor had left the room. After the doctor left, the relief on my brother’s face had been replaced by fear. He looked a few years older instantaneously.

We were directed to another waiting room reserved for the ICU, but I had started to cry and couldn’t stop, so I stepped outside and rapidly walked around a central courtyard over and over until I couldn’t tell if the lush Mediterranean plants around me were blurring from the speed of my pacing or from the tears filling my eyes. I wasn’t ready to lose my mom. I couldn’t lose my mom. My mom. Mom. A strangled whimper erupted from somewhere deep down, and it was all I could do push it back down.

After a deep inhalation of cool evening air, I walked back inside and found my brother. He delicately broached the topic I’d already considered in the mad immediate moments after discovering my mom’s heart had stopped and that she’d need surgery: What will we do if she dies? Who takes care of finances? Who do we call? We had to tell our younger brother, living on the other side of the country. It couldn’t be me; I couldn’t talk without erupting into a new bout of weeping. Then my aunt and uncle. My older brother bore the brunt of all of these administrative tasks.

Then we returned to our conversation. What will this mean for our lives? How do we go on without our mom? We just felt so blindsided. We hadn’t prepared ourselves. But it was happening, so we pushed on.

The next morning we rushed back to the hospital to give our mom one more hug and kiss. The surgeon offered us no assurances that she would survive the procedure, saying only that the surgery itself had a high rate of success–if she survived it.

While we waited for our mom’s surgery to finish, the rest of the world faded to the background. All I could see were the shoes on my feet, the cuticles of my fingernails. My husband suddenly became a single parent, as had my sister-in-law. Nothing else mattered. When the surgeon emerged from the operating room, he was smiling widely and enthusiastically declared that her surgery had gone perfectly! Once she recovered from the procedure, she could look forward to a long, healthy life.

Her story of recovery doesn’t end there, and there have been setbacks along with victories along the way. But one of the biggest take-aways from all of this for me is that engaging in meaningful conversations–life/death, how much our parents mean to us, the importance of sibling support–is an essential component of happiness. It may seem counter-intuitive to link the worst day of my life to happiness, but it’s the deepening of my relationship with my brother that has brought me happiness. It’s my profound appreciation for my mom’s presence in my life that brings me joy. It’s finding myself surrounded by such an outpouring of love and support from close friends and mere acquaintances alike that fills me with gratitude.

Meaningful conversations don’t have to revolve around such weighty subjects as death, and you certainly don’t need to wait for a near-miss like the one I experienced with my mom to have a meaningful conversation. So instigate one on your own terms. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how it feeds the soul.

My brother and I celebrating our mom's successful surgery. Boy do we look worn out.

My brother and I celebrating our mom’s successful surgery. Boy do we look worn out.

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