Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
At the time, it felt like our wings had been clipped just as we were about to take flight.
Just over a year ago, in March of 2016, Lee and I divesting ourselves of nearly all our possessions in record time. We left behind a three bedroom, two bath farmhouse with an endless porch and a large detached barn/office on 2 acres, a forest of sunflowers and four vegetable garden boxes. We found new homes for every dish, table, couch, desk, lamp, for 90 percent of our clothing, for every antique treasure and physical photograph, every file cabinet and monitor, an ocean of cords -- for every seed… as well as three vehicles.
Unencumbered, we were ready to fly.
In April, we began our nomadic adventure touching very lightly on the planet and moving on every few days. We felt a kind of buoyant bliss to have pulled up our roots. It felt like going from a heavy, vegetative state to much more airy yet sentient one. We were acutely present, aware of each new experience -- but also more and more alert to Lee’s changing physical condition.
By month’s end --one year ago -- a different adventure had rooted us in space once more. In fact, our circumference of movement had become severely restricted.
In April we left the quintessential beauty of Yosemite ahead of schedule because it was clear that Lee’s heart was failing rapidly. The next breath was so hard to come by that he felt like someone was holding a pillow over his face, and I spent the nights lying awake trying to capture the next breath for him. I counted as many as 12 to 15 seconds between breaths and lying next to him, I could feel his heart beat infrequently and with effort -- like each beat was barely breeching a high hurdle. I couldn’t help asking myself, “What are my first five actions if his heart just stops now in the middle of the night in the middle of this campground? The options weren’t good.
It wasn’t my fear that propelled us from that campground that morning. It was Lee's surrender as he sat by the window with the shades still drawn. He was weeping --not in fear of the outcome -- but in dread of the process. Against all reason but true to character, Lee never doubted coming out the other side strong, grinning and sure of his steps again.
From Yosemite, we drove straight to Lee’s cardiologist’s office in Petaluma, and within minutes, Dr. Lehrman informed us that he would be recommending Lee for a heart transplant at UCSF Medical Center. For both of us it felt something like jumping off a bridge, trusting the bungee technology and the practitioners of the sport to bring you springing back to safety above the raging falls. Not something all of us elect to engage in. It may be that the heart transplant adventure is more like being pushed into a well. Lee didn’t have the option of walking away from the brink, and he didn't know how far down he’d have to fall before the team could assist his prolonged climb to the surface again.
A week later, Lee was in the hospital undergoing intense evaluation, our new home was in storage, and we were again in a stationary abode -- this time within the required 30 minutes of the hospital. This is where we would wait for the call that a heart had been found for Lee.
Lee spent almost a month in the hospital at the start, leaving -- after a very close brush with death -- with a turbine (LVAD, Left Ventricle Assist Device) implanted in his heart. This device boosted Lee’s dying heart from an feeble 23 percent performance to between 80 and 90 percent. Now Lee was battery-driven during the day and plugged into the wall at night, but the LVAD gave us the freedom -- once he’d recovered for a month -- to visit the Botanical Gardens, try one of dozens of neighborhood restaurants, and take a ferry to visit friends and family- to have some fun while we waited for the call that Lee was on the active list for a heart.
We always been clear that if one had to be confined in a city, San Francisco is indeed a gilded cage -- but, for us, it was a cage all the same. The sensation for each of us was that with buildings looming all around and wires obscuring the sky, we were indoors even when we were outdoors.
Altogether, we waited five months between one major surgery and another. It seemed like forever, especially to Lee. Given that it’s crucial to be fully recovered before a second major surgery is performed, it was in reality a very, very short wait.
Lee’s heart arrived on election day, November 9, 2016. It was a joyous day for us, full of excited phone calls to friends and family, and it was a somber one too. We may never know who Lee’s donor was or how he/she passed, but -- even as we rejoiced at Lee’s rescue -- we felt the sharp proximity of grief. Our team reminded us that this heart is a gift. Lee didn’t take it from someone else. It is a gift from someone who Lee now honors by living and loving deeper than ever before.
Between waiting for a heart and waiting to recover sufficiently to travel, Lee and I spent endless hours viewing Youtube vlogs of other budding nomads and planning our travels once what we were released back to the wild by our post-transplant team. We took our imaginations on daily test flights to all the peak experiences we anticipate.
We remained in the city for just under three months after transplant with outpatient appointments four or five times a week at first. From start to finish, our San Francisco adventure lasted nine months. And yes, it did feel like gestation was complete and birth was imminent.
I sit here looking at the pine and bay trees out the window and listening to the birds and to children playing in an adjacent loop of the campground. Lee is at a thrice weekly rehab appointment re-growing his muscle strength after two major surgeries within a five month span of time. He’ll complete 36 of these sessions, and then the promise is that he’ll be as strong as he ever was, and we can begin strenuous hikes again to awe-inspiring vistas starting in June.
We can’t fly far yet, but now I see. Hidden in the wrapping of this miraculous gift of a new heart is a sister gift. We’ve both been boosted to a new level of appreciation, a new intensity of mindfulness. This adventure that felt so much like a detour is really a first destination that will make all destinations that follow much more precious and purposeful.
Our wings weren’t clipped. Our hearts were grown in 2016, and we can roam much farther now and love much deeper in 2017.