LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
When March turned into April last year, for the first time I was depressed to meet my birthday month. I was set to turn the ugly 35, a number not even I could romanticize. The milestone for me, at the time, was one only of departure — saying goodbye to my lighthearted, fun-loving youth. My 20s were long gone, and now I couldn’t even say I was in my cute early 30s. It was just those two odd numbers pressed together, fast on the road to 40.
For the most part, turning 35 was difficult because I was having difficulty getting pregnant. We’d been trying for years and with each passing birthday, I was keenly aware that my hope of becoming a youngish mother was dissipating. But now, the pressure was really on. Age 35 is when things change for women fertility wise. All of a sudden, pregnancy becomes Risky. The brochures say it. Google says it. Your doctor tells you that.
So as my birthday bore down, the only thing that made me happy was thinking about eating the carrot cake my husband makes me every year. Eating the whole damn thing. By myself.
And you know what? Throughout the year, the age of 35 didn’t get much easier. In the past year, my friends who didn’t have children became pregnant. I watched the children of the rest of my friends get older. I heard endless conversations about potty training and sleep deprivation. And as we tried fertility treatment after fertility treatment and my newly pregnant friends hesitated to tell me their good news for fear that I would be reminded of my bad luck, I realized I was not only a Risk according to my doctor, I was Fragile according to my friends.
But after my husband got sick, the meaning behind the number 35 instantly reinvented itself. When William was first admitted to the hospital nine weeks ago, an echocardiogram showed he had an ejection fraction — how well the heart pumps blood — of 20. An average man of William’s age and fitness level has an EF of 60 to 65. Someone with an EF of under 35 is considered to be in heart failure. Stay that way long enough and you’re going to need a heart transplant or you’re going to die. But if you’re 35 and over, though your heart is still compromised, it’s at least not performing so poorly it’s failing.
When I turned 35 last year, I believed I had thought about that number — and its ramifications — about as much as it was possible to think about one. But now I realized I hadn’t even scratched the surface.
Because now I hoped for 35. I prayed for 35. I loved 35. I had dreams of 35 in which the doctor would shout hooray and hold up a sign with the number written in black Sharpie. Then I would have others in which the doctor would shake his head sadly, say one word: “Failure,” and I’d wake up panicked.
Last Friday morning, I could hardly breathe. We were sitting in a patient room waiting to hear the results of the echocardiogram William had had that morning. It was an important test at a crucial time. If it showed William’s EF was still under 35, it meant it was far more likely his heart would stay that way.
In the room, there was a mirrored sconce in the middle of the wall, flanked by two pictures of flowers in gold frames. I stared at the flowers, and wondered if there is a store that sells decorations meant specifically for doctor’s offices, one filled with perfectly neutral, bland stuff whose only job is to prevent anyone from feeling anything.
I felt like my entire life had been carved down to this one moment, and I was on this tiny, powerful fence that was on the edge of a big, waving prairie. It had always been there, but I’d rarely noticed it, too busy was I playing in the wheat field of my lucky life. But on this fence is where all the chaff blows away and things really matter, get deadly serious. In a few minutes, no matter how still I stood, I was going to get pushed off of it. I was either going to land in a soft place or I was going to get pushed in the other direction and I may or may not land at all.
The nurse came into the room to ask William a series of routine questions, some of which pertained to the external defibrillator vest he’s had to wear since he first got sick. When she started asking questions about its comfort level and usability, my heart sank. Surely if the echocardiogram had been good, she wouldn’t care if the vest were comfortable because he would be able to get rid of it.
But then she stood and told us she was going to get Dr. Thannoli.
“You’re going to be happy,” she said. “It’s good news.”
And so for the past week, I’ve been contemplating the number 43. Because, yes, my dear, dear, generous readers, that’s where we stand now. Always an over achiever, William sailed past number 35 and climbed up to beautiful 43, which is and will always be my favorite number.
We still have a way to go before we’re in the clear, but I can tell you two things with utter certainty: William is on the mend, and I can’t wait for my birthday this year.