We almost lost our marriage. My husband, David, at 33-years of age, almost died on May 6th, 2011. With his medical scare came a pending of his life, my life, and our life as we had known it. On that day in May, David and I were almost three years into our marriage and had a 10-month old daughter, Sarah. I was about to finish my second year of a doctoral program in clinical psychology. Sarah and I were on a walk together when we came home to find my husband nearly unconscious, vomiting uncontrollably, and in a barely audible voice complaining of a headache. A few hours later and he was in the ICU for a subarachnoid brain hemorrhage. Three weeks later he was home but barely functioning. And six weeks later he was back in the ER for emergency surgery due to a significant blot clot in his femoral artery, probably due to an angiogram procedure. But who knows. And the result? He survived. We survived. Six months later and our life looked similar to how it looked "pre-bleed." Yes, the bleed was severe and in a "highly concerning" area of his brain. Yes, for the most part, he retained his previous level of cognitive functioning. Yes, he could have died, which was told to me as a possibility almost every day of his first 10 days in the ICU. But no, the doctors never found the cause, so they could never fix the cause. And no, they couldn't say for sure that it wouldn't happen again.
"Go live your life."
That phrase was said to us repeatedly towards the end of this ordeal.
"Go live your life."
Like the rest of us. Every day could be the last, in theory.
But after this event, our lives were different. More serious. Quieter. More eye contact. Less talking. More listening. More intense. Everything has been more intense: the dialogue, the silence, the feelings, the sex. David and I feel more connected and grateful. We also carry around with us a variation of depression -- a sort of heaviness, graveness, or just surrender about life. There's also a strong desire to play and feel alive. We talk about death more freely. It's very close to our consciousness. We visit our wills often. We've written letters to our children should we leave them too early. I've gone over time and time again what I would do if another bleed happens. It's made me more determined to complete my doctoral degree. I'm now in my fifth year of clinical training, and when I see my clients, I know how important it is to provide them with space to tell, and retell, their stories -- to find meaning amidst the confusion of their life experiences. Above and beyond all of the fancy empirically supported techniques we have in our field of "healing the mind," providing a space and an ear to make sense of our chaos is integral to that healing.
It's also made David more committed to his law firm. He owns and manages his own litigation practice in Philadelphia. Sometimes I think the firm has healed him; he can lose himself in his work. For him his work is purposeful, and woven so tightly into his identity. One may say he works every minute of the day, but I would argue that he's not really "working" at all. Litigating for fairness is just being for him.
More so than his firm, I think our daughter has been most healing to David; the more he grows to know her, the more he grieves what he could have lost, and the more tightly woven becomes their bond. And in the aftermath, we had another child -- a son -- who was conceived about six months after David landed in the ICU. His name is Jonah, and for us, he is a symbol of moving forward, hope, and growth. Sarah is now three, and is sensitive, empathic, and constantly scans our family for potential problems so she can "fix" them. Band-Aids, lowering our voices, and being calm are her usual healing offerings. Her favorite phrase is "things happen", and she cries in the middle of the night -- almost every night -- for her father. She likes to "make sure he's here." So his medical trauma affected all of us in subtle ways.
I was at a wedding recently and wanted to scream during the ceremony. It didn't help that it was at a Jewish history museum, focused on Holocaust remembering. I wanted to selfishly scream during this beautiful, moving ceremony: "We almost lost this. We almost lost our marriage. It may not last. This is a celebratory farce. One of you may get sick too early. You may get divorced next year." As I held my husband's hand, I felt rage. When I looked over at him, I could tell he was feeling similarly. We spoke about renewing our vows -- cliché, I know -- to symbolize an attempt to capture a renewed connection and a sense of hope for our future. I think I've felt ambivalence regarding every wedding I've attended since his bleed. I feel ambivalent about so strongly celebrating something that is so fragile. A bond that may break tomorrow without your permission. A relationship that needs to continually change and bear so many hurdles. A partner that you hope to share a life with, but that life may slip away without your consent. These celebrations are more about the present and the current intention for longevity, more so than partying for the longevity itself. That longevity takes luck and work. It's exhausting. It will continue to be exhausting.
And our story has a good ending. For now. We regard ourselves as lucky, and our marriage has become a symbol of healing, love, safety, and yet profound vulnerability.
I feel for couples that did not get so lucky. I feel for that shared, hopeful, connected life ending for whatever reason -- divorce, sickness, accidents. These losses happen far too often.
I think that David and I have learned from this experience that we lack control. We need to strive to feel gratitude that every day, we are adding to our life that we are building together. As challenging as being a parent may be, just having that challenge is a blessing. Living and building and sharing and being are tough. We keep trying to create more spaces for crazy directions, health scares, and troubling experiences. There is space for not knowing and vulnerability. There is space for change. There is more than enough space for hand holding and humor. In the end, my hope is that our family will continue to grow stronger with grace and reverence for life. If sickness, separation, loss, and death are part of our life, like all lives, then we'll tolerate that together too. We'll ultimately learn and maybe find meaning. As my wise preschooler would say, "Things happen. We can cry. And then we can say 'okay' and try something new." I think we sometimes forget our humanity. Miracles and traumas, however big or small, help to connect us with our humbling and empowering human experience.