The heartbeats in between

The heartbeats in between 
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My husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary in my surgeon’s office on the fourth floor of Mayo Clinic, almost 700 miles from the oak tree on the ranch in western North Dakota where we were married 14 years ago when I was on the edge of turning 23. We vowed for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, as if we really knew what that meant at all.

But we never know what’s coming, do we? We’ve sure learned that lesson in these 14 years, watching our plans try their hardest to fly out the window while we hang on for dear life. Turns out, even when you think you might never come up for air, there’s always the surface, the other side of the hard things. We just have to wait for it.

And so we treated our latest visit to Rochester as if we already knew the news. Eight weeks out of a sternotomy to remove a cancerous tumor attached to my airway, I was feeling a bit more like myself, a bit more like laughing, a bit lighter from the weight of pain easing. After dropping the kids with the in-laws we took to the road like we were going on vacation. Because why not? We were together. We were OK. We were driving along Interstate and highway surrounded by sunflower fields reaching toward the sky and corn taller than two of us stacked up.

We spent the five days between doctors and tests eating as much as we could and finding shelter from the rain and sun under Minnesota trees and patio umbrellas. Once, as we were indulging in a 2 p.m. cocktail and late lunch, the woman a table over stood up to tell us that we really know how to live. We didn’t know if it was the calamari, the drinks or the loud laughter, but we decided it was the best compliment we could have received.

To know how to live.

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I’ll tell you now that the doctor, on our 14th wedding anniversary, told us I am going to be OK. He said he couldn’t have done a better job repairing my airway. And that the cancer? Well, he got it all.

Life will now look like a big scar down the middle of my chest and a CT scan every six months for the foreseeable future to make sure the cancer stays gone, moving it to the back of my mind, instead of the center of our worries.

And for that we are the lucky ones.

Fourteen years ago I carried sunflowers in my bouquet as I walked down the “aisle” in that cow pasture, toward the man who would become my husband that day. Little did I know that it takes so much more than a wedding to make a marriage. Little did I know that the only thing you can really count on is that things go wrong.

And then, right again.

As we headed west out of Rochester and toward the rolling buttes of home, I imagined those fields of sunflowers waving us on into a new year, a new season, spectators with encouraging smiles, reminding me of the love and support we’ve received from our family, friends and community during these past several months.\

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Reminding me that life is just a series of triumphs, roadblocks, joy and heartache. But my favorite times have always been the millions and billions of heartbeats in between.

The carpet sea of lava

The carpet sea of lava
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I wonder if they’ll remember this, when their dad was a jungle gym and they were so small and wild, hanging off his arms like monkey bars, standing on the tops of his bent legs and leaping off into a carpet sea of lava without fear.

In the movies, they would slow this part down, the part where I sat on the floor of our bedroom in my pajamas, watching my young family roughhouse and play.

In the movie, they would play a suggestive song and hone in on my children’s big, wide-open laughs, pieces of their blond hair loose from pigtails and floating in the sunbeam from the crack in the curtains, his strong hands tossing them safely while they squeal. And my smile, too. You would see it, grateful but apprehensive about the turn our story’s taken.

And anxious to get back to complaining about the constant state of stickiness on our countertops the way people do when things are going along just fine enough that you get to be genuinely annoyed by crumbs and laundry and the light fixture that flickers and muddy little boots tracking in on floors that never stay clean, instead of so damn grateful for it all.

But this isn’t a movie — we can’t slow any of it down. And my soundtrack is the voices in my head going down rabbit holes and back again, panicking and then reassuring myself the way I’ve done when faced with tough news about the delicate health of my family members. I know how to find faith there, to center myself. But I’m not sure how to be the one who needs prayers.

For six months, I’ve been having a hard time getting my breath. Was it a cold I couldn’t shake. Asthma? Stress? Was it the reason for the headaches I couldn’t tame with Advil or a nap?

Last week, I found out why. A tumor blocking 90% of my tracheal and bronchial tract. A slow-moving cancer that has likely been growing in my body and spreading to my airway for years, just waiting to make its presence known when it became life-threatening enough to send us rushing to Rochester, Minn., to meet with the experts at one of the best hospitals in the country.

And so that’s what we did. We wrung our hands and clenched our teeth and took deep breaths and called our family and met with the experts and got a plan. And then my husband and I, we sat for three days in a hotel room waiting for the next step, unable to go anywhere to distract ourselves in a world that is all but entirely shut down.

So he laid down and I laid on his chest and we pretended we were on vacation and it was raining. We ordered in food and watched terrible television and woke up early on Monday morning and headed to Mayo Clinic where I hugged him goodbye, the doctors removed the tumor from my airway and I woke up to deep breaths again. Feeling good. Feeling just fine. Headed home.

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That part is over. The next step is going to be rougher, a surgery that we’ll learn more about in a few days, one that will have me in the hospital and away from my sticky counters and muddy floors for a while.

In my life as a writer, lessons seem to find me where I stand. Yesterday, my little sister wondered out loud why we need to keep being reminded, in these dramatic ways, to be grateful.

Is there something more I need to learn here? I don’t know yet. Do these things happen for a reason? Maybe.

But maybe they just happen and it’s up to us to do with them what we will. And there have been some divine interventions that have taken me out of the path of disaster on this journey so far, so I’m just going to work on the brave part.

I know I can be brave.

And I know I can be angry as well as grateful. Terrified and hopeful. Panicked and at peace. In my life, I’ve been all of those things at once already. I’ve had some good practice. But until now, I didn’t know the fear of not being able to be there for my children.

There’s no other option than the option of being OK, so I’m going to be OK.

Yes, in the movies, they would slow this all down, so maybe I can, a little bit, to be like my children — impervious to the worries of the world, dangling from jungle gym arms, too wild and held by too much love to fear the carpet sea of lava.

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