Lee keeps bringing up how our relationship has deepened during our pursuit-of-a-heart adventure.
I feel what he means. I agree with what he says. At the same time, I find I want to identify, as precisely as we can, how our union is changing in this particular experiential petri dish. So, in part, this will be an interview with Lee about how these new depths show up in our relationship -- and in part, a spelunking expedition to see where these caverns might lead. I’m fascinated at the prospect of consciously observing and recording the subtle shifts in how we relate as we travel towards a new heart for Lee.
This current journey has a specific arc even if an indeterminate duration. This makes it ideal as a life lab experiment. Restricted to within a half-hour radius of UCSF, limited to less-taxing activities, facing new learning curves daily around everything from mastering self-administered blood tests to how to navigate taking the Muni J line to the San Francisco Railway Museum -- in the controlled microcosm that is our life is right now -- -- we can almost isolate and record gradations of change in how we jointly respond to life and to each other. I say “almost”-- because we’re talking about an extreme intangible -- an evolving relationship. AND because we’re not just trying to assess how Lee is changing or just how I am changing, but we’re attempting to chronicle a separate metamorphosis -- changes experienced by the third entity called “us”.
Over lunch today (a return trip to our favorite neighborhood Chinese restaurant), Lee and I revisited something we’ve said many times and we see there’s even more power to this truth now. Here it is:
We wouldn’t trade places with anyone else. Not for greater financial ease, although we’re on track for that and it’s an unquestioned life enhancement.
Not for youth -- although we do allow ourselves to feel that youthful innocence and wonder frequently.
Here’s the one that is a newer realization: Even though a significant health crisis undeniably stretches our endurance and our strength of character, we wouldn’t trade places with anyone else -- not even for the freedom of unbroken vibrant health. And yes, we both intend to get stronger and stronger, and honor this second chance at great health.
Imagine a balance scale. With PRIMARY RELATIONSHIP on one side, and WEALTH/YOUTH/HEALTH on the other side. On one side -- relationship --unquantifiable; on the other -- wealth, youth, health -- all numerical, all quantifiable on some scale.
For us, there’s no question which side of the scale drops. We feel we have the most valuable treasure -- without which wealth and youth and even good health would be hollow victories. We’re in a constant state of wonder (and can bore you with this at a moment’s notice) over all the ways our relationship WORKS -- freeing us to explore our respective gifts and combine them to sprinkle sunshine on all the other children we come across on the world playground.
So, we’re setting out to do something a little nonsensical -- find measures of the immeasurable and see if the documentation of our “experiment” leads to a workable theory. We’ll call it THE THEORY OF EVER-EXPANDING LOVE.
We’ve identified three areas where our relationship has taken on new depths.
WE ARE WHO WE THOUGHT WERE
What we’ve each claimed as our gains in personal growth -- increasing honesty, kindness and empathy refined over past decades -- have now been put to the test. Through pain and exhaustion and discouragement for Lee -- and through almost-panicked fear at the start to anxiety over mastering all the critical nursing skills for me -- who we are, individually and as a couple, has come into laser focus.
For me, it registered as “He really is the man I thought he was” -- as I watch Lee’s signature optimism and encouragement of everyone around him carry him through all the invasive tests and then make a slow but steady comeback after a traumatic surgery.
Equally gratifying is the realization that yes -- even with temporary failures of faith and attitude -- I am the woman I thought I was. Lee reports the same “Aha” moment, reinforcing both his own expansion and the quality of our love.
Lee adds: “It turned out that Susan is more than I thought she was. I thought I knew her, but I realize that there’s always something more to know -- and there’s always more to know because we’ll continue to have intense, expanding experiences on both ends of the happiness spectrum. One of the ways I’ve been surprised by the woman I love is how she takes care of me -- not out of duty and without complaint; I have the sense she feels privileged to be the one to care for me.”
At the outset, we kept hearing these words from the medical staff, “If I wasn’t looking at your numbers, Lee, I’d think you were entirely healthy.” Both times Lee was admitted -- once to the hospital for accelerated assessment and back again to prepare for transplant-- we were asked “Where’s the patient? Are you bringing in a family member?” Lee refuses to approach life broadcasting defeat at the outset. Lee is known for bouncing onto the scene with a big smile and inquiring how whomever he’s addressing is faring in life. He was always asking the amazing staff there if there was something he could do for them. This caused a few double-takes!
Lee has a signature question in business: “Are you fun to work with?” And he had a signature statement in the hospital: “I’m the best heart transplant candidate this hospital has ever seen.” More than a few times someone leaned in the doorway to say, “I’ve HEARD about you!”
One night, a nurse not even assigned to Lee came in to hold his hand and be encouraged to claim a life of rock-climbing adventure. This is just one of many heart-connections (pun-intended) that Lee made during his month and a half of hospital time.
I’ve always admired Lee’s capacity to rebound quickly from the low points, but now I know this capacity can withstand stand trial by fire.
UNITED IS MORE THAN JUST A WORD
Also on the increase is the pride and confidence in who Lee and I are as a team. We already knew we are a dynamic business team, and it was gratifying to demonstrate to everyone in the hospital from the surgeon to the cleaning staff that we were teachable, resilient, unified and positive about our outcome. We were both being evaluated -- physically, mentally, psychologically -- to see if we qualify for the great gift and responsibility of a new heart. Testing wasn’t quite complete when the Heart Transplant Team met and reached unanimous agreement that our recipient/caregiver team qualifies.
Lee’s comment: “From the beginning, everyone recognized our path and our destiny.”
THERE’S FREEDOM IN FULL DISCLOSURE
We’ve reached a new level of intimacy, both physically and emotionally. Lee has always been conventionally private about certain bodily functions but, like all patients, he was compelled to abandon all modesty in the hospital. My “exposure” was not as absolute, of course, but I realize that I’ve graduated from the need to maintain any semblance of an alluring facade on a regular basis.
Nurses have told us that they believe there’s some correlation between heart patients in particular and the tendency to suddenly and regularly break into tears. We got used to nurses saying, “Now you know what PMS feels like!”
In the six years since we started traveling in tandem, my experience is that being overcome by emotions like gratitude and love is not uncommon for Lee. But in the hospital it was greatly amplified and he was initially alarmed by frequent intense bursts of tearful gratitude punctuated occasionally by tears of discouragement. One day in particular when Lee was wondering if he could make it through this particular tunnel of fire, I said, “Well, let’s just cry together” -- and we did.
It feels like all that was previously undisclosed is now part of our shared experience -- like the last known boundaries are down. There’s something freeing about full disclosure both on a physical and an emotional level.
From the beginning it’s been our intention to expand our relationship. In fact, it’s part of our wedding vows. I tell Lee that what convinced me to say yes to his proposal --more than anything else -- were these words, “It’s just going to get better and better.” Since it was astoundingly good to start with, who wouldn’t sign on?
Knowing that we’ve signed on for a union that gets better and better frees us to expand in both good times and bad, without giving it a second thought.
So far, we’ve identified three areas of where our union is stronger as a result of this mountain we’re climbing. Our admiration for each other. Our confidence in our union. Our transparency with each other/ AKA intimacy.
Lee and I like to proclaim that ours is the greatest love affair in history -- and that no one has to agree but us. And we’re so grateful that it’s going to get even better.