That summer on Oahu, in our early twenties, Carol and I blew through mai tai cocktails the size of soup bowls. We wandered the shore, the Pacific waves burying our ankles into Hawaiian sand. A glorious confidence, fortified by palm trees and rum, salted our skin.
“Can we ride?” I slipped my sunglasses on top of my head.
The young man in charge of a catamaran was haloed by the sun. “Fifteen dollars. Each.”
Our bikinis left no room for cash, so we turned away. “Hey.” He lowered his voice. “You can go free.”
We giggled as we climbed aboard. I delighted in the victory of freebie and freedom, until the sail caught wind. Carol lifted her face to the sea, blonde hair held back by the breeze, eyes set on other worlds. My stomach fought fruit and mighty waves. When the catamaran raised on one hull, Carol hooted. I chummed.
Back on land, we fancied sundresses for dinner and glowed over meals lit by tiki torches. Carol flirted with her boyfriend, my brother. The young man of my dreams, a family friend, invited me to his hotel balcony. Darkness veiled the crash of the waves, but we leaned into the rhythm.
“I want to build buildings.” His voice echoed the passion of the Pacific. “Great ones.”
“I like writing.” My tan hands wrapped the rails near his. I wasn’t particularly focused on careers just then. I’d rather him kiss me. “A lot.” Yet too much alcohol zipped through my blood. I struggled to stay awake. “Talk tomorrow?”
That talk never came. As all dream stuff goes, I never saw him again. Vacations, as life, often turn out differently than we expect.
Years after the effects produced by youth and rum shimmered down, Carol and I settled into marriages and children. Our lives seemed predictable. Then, her mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. Sha Sha, as she was called, fought a heroic eighteenth-month battle until the day came she no longer could.
Arriving late to the funeral, I overheard another family member insist Sha Sha’s coffin be wheeled down the middle aisle. It must be said. A Southern woman is either drawn to spectacle or disavows it. Carol is of the latter opinion.
With a look-of-the-eye , Carol doused that request. “No, Momma will be remembered for her laughter and strong will.” She straightened her spine. “Not some body in a box.” Here stood a far stronger Carol than the one I’d known in Hawaii. This woman was made of steel, even as she cradled grief tender as a newborn.
Depending on our seasons, Carol and I would talk as we could. Our last deep conversation, we settled into Adirondack chairs facing maples thick with elderberry brush.
“We had fun in Hawaii,” Carol said.
“You know Dad got after me for that bar bill.”
“He loved us.”
“They all did.” Our parents had been gone for so long.
More than half a lifetime from those carefree bikini girls, we shared our trials. To fret and worry is one thing; to come away with a plan of action, another. We purposed to love our people in word and deed, no matter what. We prayed. Hope arose. We could do this.
Several weeks ago, my brother texted me from their vacation. I had to re-read the words. I must have misunderstood. Carol had a heart attack? Our stalwart sister, perfumed on occasion with Calla Lily and Kendall Jack, transported to the hospital because of the unthinkable?
“That was unexpected.” Nervously, I scanned my body for any telling quirks of on-coming strike. Years earlier, I’d been diagnosed with a small aneurysm.
“It’ll either eat you up, or you’ve got to find peace.” Dr. Richard lowered his glasses at me, his eyebrows raised. “Your thinking. That’s all you can control.”
For those experiencing life-threatening illnesses, it’s both a horror and honor to live through these events. It’s grief with a gratitude overlay. It’s over-thinking coupled with smiles.
We love/hate the chambers of our hearts, the pathways of our minds, the function of our organs. In stillness, we listen. We wait. We study the slightest aberration, like some homing EKG or pet scan. Yet exhaustion eats a life focused on every stutter, every flutter, every ache.
Some of us turn to obsession, our thoughts circling like devices unable to connect to wi-fi. Some of us pray, or read books, the same sentence over and over. Most of us take sleep aids.
As my sister-in-heart, Carol, plodded through the Florida sand, her medical mind listed all the potential reasons she felt pain. Then, she couldn’t walk anymore.
Easing into the sand, Carol probably pondered her son’s upcoming wedding, her daughter’s graduate studies, and her new house. As she hunched over on the beach, two-thirds of her heart skidded to a halt. The cardiologist described it as if she’d been knocked in the chest with a baseball bat. Yet, Carol survived.
In so many ways, it wasn’t her day.
Whether it’s a biopsy or test result, we can all name moments when it wasn’t our day. Yet, after the shock dies, after the doctor leaves, how do we live with the unfriendly failure of our bodies?
Pay Attention. Don’t Ignore.
A nurse and Physician’s Assistant for more than thirty years, Carol wants us to “pay attention” to the warning signs for stroke and heart attack. Symptoms warned her a month before her episode, such as weakness and indigestion. She didn’t feel right. She dismissed them, as we are apt to do.
Since her health event, Carol’s message has been clear. Her heart attack wouldn’t have been as bad if she’d not been in denial. (Visit this link for warning signs not to ignore. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/warning-signs-of-a-heart-attack)
Handling the Emotions of the Heart
How do we walk through the valley of the unknown? I’m not a professional, but this is what others and I have done. There’s nothing new here, yet these steps lead us on a path from trauma to rest.
Talk to someone. Do not isolate. None of us likes to talk about hard times. Yet it helps. Take your thoughts and feelings to a counselor, faith person or other wise counsel. It eases our burdens to get out of our thoughts and into helpful relationships.
Monitor your thinking. Like jet fighters on their targets, lock-in on negative mindsets. My faith calls it taking captive every thought. Replace fear-driven thoughts with positive ones, re-routing from crisis mode to peace. For Carol and me, knowing our God holds every cell of our body together comforts us and moves us from fear to trust.
Be still. Resist the urge to ramp up into action. Sit quietly and breath in and out slowly, relaxing tense shoulders down to curled feet. I accompany each breath with an inspirational or motivational thought. This is often referred to as being mindful. I simply call it “being still.”
Live like you are living. Singer Tim McGraw’s song points to bigger business. Choose to live, no matter what, through no matter what. Rediscover, as you can, new wonders and opportunities. Discover a new outlook on sunsets and stars. Who knows? You might find yourself riding “a bull named Fumanchu.” (Watch Tim McGraw’s encouraging song here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9TShlMkQnc).
Lift your head, friend, to the horizon. See the worlds beyond. Live this day.
Tell me how you’re doing.