“Today, the first Sunday after I my congestive heart failure diagnosis, I didn’t want to be alone…in the huge chasm, the sudden free fall of fearing both that I’m losing my vocation and hence my identity, purpose, and meaning in life; and that I might die soon. No longer is my death to be imagined 25-30 years hence. Rather, it might occur when I’m merely in my fifties. Between now and then, my life is likely to be greatly restricted. I tune in to my heart and the way I feel. My chest hurts. My breathing is shallow. I realize my heart is very ill indeed. I spend this first Sunday morning alone after all, sitting on a rock in a nearby canyon. I read for a while. I look at the green foothills above the creek bed. ‘I look to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from God, Maker of Heaven and Earth’ (Psalm 121).
“The southern slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains used to be covered with forest, all the way to the top. In the 20th century, the forest was lumbered and completely cleared out, except for a few trees that remained along the peak of the ridge. A different type of foliage and growth covers the slopes now, and they’re beautiful against the blue sky. But the deep beauty of the mountain forest is gone and will not return. Instead, we learn to appreciate the type of beauty that has taken its place. Will I be able to do the same with the changes in my life? On my first Sunday, this is my prayerful question” (From my first journal entry of January, 2005).
With CHF the heart becomes gradually less effective at pumping blood. This slowly affects other organs until the patient dies. Even when caught early and treated, it has usually been fatal within two to eight years. With the new protocols of the past decade, these statistics will probably improve. Now CHF can sometimes even be reversed. Generally though, it’s considered a chronic, ultimately fatal disease that greatly shortens one’s life span. In my case, the progression of CHF has been slowed, but I can’t be cured. CHF changed the cellular structure of my heart and will be with me for the rest of my life. I have a good life, post-diagnosis, even if it’s radically different from what I would have had without CHF. The doctor says that if I ever slack off on my diet, exercise, and medications, though, I’m gone. I think I’ll behave.
As the reality of my CHF settled in, I knew I didn’t want to die in less than eight years, the usual timeline in 2005. I wanted to be a 30-year survivor and a good candidate for stem cell therapy when it becomes available. I’m going to fight to find a new kind of beauty in this new version of my life. I plan to live well until the end. Those are still my goals, five years after I sat and looked at the mountains: to be a 30-year survivor, a great candidate for the benefits of stem cell therapy, and to live well until the end.
P.S. Thank you, dear ones, for your words of encouragement, connection, thought, and faithfulness on my first post. As you can see by the difference in the size of the picture above from those of the previous post, I need to keep learning…in many ways.
Learning: Even when life as you know it seems destroyed, look for a new way to find beauty and goodness in what can develop. The mountains are different now but still beautiful. Make it happen.