A Christmas Carol Without The Ghosts – Broken Hearted

Since my last post about my father’s devastating news, a lot has happened.

On August 4th, around noon, my father died. The last 36 days of my father’s life were pretty terrible. Although we tried to make the most of them…how can you possibly enjoy the moment when you know each moment could be the last you spend with that person. Obviously death is possible each and every day for everyone, but getting an expiration date thrown into the mix just makes it far more real.

After his death, nothing was the same. How could it be? The void left was infinite.

My mother did her best to cope, but after 53 years of marriage, it is hard to contemplate a single day without the person you spent so much of your life with. Zeb took the loss especially hard, because although my father was his Papa, he was also his best friend. So I spent much of the past 4 months, 24 days consoling both my mom and my son, all the while doing my best to come to terms with my own grief.

For the most part I thought I was doing okay. I planned activities for my mom and Zeb, I threw myself into cooking and baking, and I became very involved in Zeb’s school’s Parent Group and developing a website for them. With all this distraction, I really thought I was doing good.

With the holidays approaching, however, things got more complicated. They say that all the “firsts” after losing someone are especially hard. Christmas being a holiday that was always celebrated heartily in our family, I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. Still, I pushed forward. I bought tickets for all of us (including my Mom) to see A Christmas Carol play, to go to a theater to see a professional choir perform holiday carols, visits to local holiday displays and functions, and a trip to the Toledo Zoo to see their holiday light display and tree lighting. My mom was doing great, truly enjoying the events.

Being that there were so many of our traditions that my father was responsible for or a huge part of, I also took it upon myself to start a few new traditions, while letting these old traditions rest until we were ready to deal with them. One of them was to have a gingerbread house decorating contest. I cut out and baked three different house designs, assembled them (they would have to sit too long to dry before being able to decorate), and then assemble all the icing and decorations for the great decorate-off. This turned out to be an awesome new tradition that my mom is already planning for for next year.

With all the happenings for the past month and a half just for the holidays, I really kept all my emotions in check while still helping my mom and Zeb deal with the ever mounting emotions that were sparked by the upcoming holidays. Or so I thought.

For me, Christmas Eve marked the beginning of the end. It was the last “Christmas” event with my mom, as my brother was spending Christmas day with her. We were going to church for the Christmas Eve service at 3:00, then the traditional Chinese dinner back at my mom’s and opening presents, plum pudding, and relaxing. Christmas day I figured would be very calm because it would be just Hubby, Zeb and Grace. Easy-peasy.

Well, we headed to church at 2:30 and the moment we entered the parking lot, my anxiety level spiked. Walking into church I was immediately flooded with memories of my father and last Christmas when we went to church. Fighting back the tears began immediately. After finding our seats, my mother began to cry. Of course try as I might, at this point I could not control the tears either. For the entire service I sat next to my mother, trying to silence my uncontrollable sobs. By the end of the service, my head was throbbing and I was exhausted.

Once outside the church, I took a deep breath and regained my composure. We then drove to my mom’s while Grace went to pick up our Chinese food.  Everything was going good. We were laughing around the dinner table, enjoying a good meal, sharing memories about past Christmas’s with my father–handling it quite well.

With dinner done, we retired to the great room and began to open presents. First Zeb and Grace, then Hubby and I and then finally it would be Mom’s turn. Zeb and Grace finished their gifts, as did Hubby, but I was slowly unwrapping mine, feeling not quite myself. My head was hurting me, my chest was aching, and I was having a hard time breathing. Still, I pushed forward, thinking this was just because of the pending let down that almost always follows a holiday.

At 6:12 p.m. (I know this because Grace noted the time, knowing from her CPR classes this would be important) I opened a 12″ cast iron fry pan. Without commenting on the pan I asked Zeb to bring me some water. My mom turned and asked me if I was okay. I said, “No,” and grabbed my chest.

Hubby who was sitting next to me with his feet up, shot up, as did Grace who was sitting on the floor. In unison they asked, “What’s wrong?”

I told them my chest really hurt me. Then as I was talking I couldn’t catch my breath. Grace asked if my arms hurt. I told them my neck and jaw and ears were throbbing and hurt terribly. Hubby ran to the entrance yelling behind him, “We’ve got to go.” My mother wanted to call 911, but Hubby knew he could get me to the hospital quicker. He grabbed my coat, put on his shoes, and he and Grace got me to the car. By this time the pain was so intense in my chest, I thought it was going to burst.

It took 14 minutes to get to the hospital and the entire time I was hunched over in agonizing pain. At one point I really slouched, and Hubby told me later that he thought at that moment — That’s it! She’s gone. I heard him yell my name, and I lifted up slightly. I really couldn’t focus on anything. Everything was a blur.  Hubby tore into the Emergency entrance and Grace got a wheelchair. They pulled me from the car into the wheelchair and Grace ran as fast as she could while pushing the wheelchair into Emergency.

For the next seven hours I had three EKG’s, a CT scan, x-rays, blood drawn, and after nearly an hour and a half of sitting in the hallway they finally gave me a nitroglycerin pill and some baby aspirin. At about the hour mark, the pain lessened. On a scale from 1-10, 10 being the pain I felt while at my mom’s, I’d say it was a 7.

So what was it? Was it a heart attack? Was it just chest spasms? Food poisoning?

The unofficial diagnosis was Broken Heart Syndrome or a stress-induced cardiomyopathy. A heart attack in every way, other than there is far less likelihood of permanent damage to the heart and I have no blockages to my heart or in my arteries. A portion of the heart stops working brought on by stress and grief and the heart becomes inflammed and surrounded by liquid.

What a way to celebrate Christmas! Hubby tried to make light of my dismay later by telling me, “This will definitely be one Christmas we never forget.”

What now? Well, against doctor’s orders I checked myself out of the hospital at 1:30 Christmas morning. They wanted to keep me to do more tests, give me drugs for a heart attack, and basically treat me as if I’d had a heart attack with all the whistles and bells. I am not a doctor person. I do not like hospitals or trust that they are there to do much more than pad the bill for as much as they can. I’ve had too many bad experiences with both doctors and hospitals to take a risk like trusting them.

Hubby got me home. I laid on the couch with Zeb until he calmed down while Hubby sat on the computer scouring the internet for as much information as he could find on Broken Heart Syndrome, heart attacks, treatment, side affects, and risks for death, repeat attacks, and permanent damage. Knowledge is power.

Needless to say, Hubby got no sleep that night. I was so exhausted from the pain and emotional toll everything had taken on me that I did fall asleep but not before sobbing for fear of never waking up.  Hubby sat right next to me all night checking to make sure I was still breathing continually.

Obviously Christmas day there is no way to see a cardiologist (not even if I’d stayed in the hospital could they guarantee that one would actually come see me), so the day after Hubby called and talked to one in our area. He told them everything we had gone through, read the diagnosis from the doctor, and gave them as much information as he could. They scheduled an appointment for me for the 14th of January. I guess it’s not as serious as one might believe.

On the 14th I’ll go and have new tests done to get a completely unbiased opinion and take it from there. Hubby, Grace, and my mom have me on the couch until such time as they deem me better. I cannot eat much, as when I do my chest hurts. My chest is very sore and walking short distances winds me and makes my chest hurt more. I’ve rinsed a few dishes, but have little strength.

Our research tells us that it will take between 1 and 6 weeks for me to recover, but it could be a lot longer if by some rare chance there was damage to the heart. Hubby has made it clear that my days of consoling my mom and Zeb are over and it is time for me to concentrate on myself. My mom has not so much as mentioned my father since she’s had me to take care of.

I had a heart attack. Not for the typical reason (heart blockages) but real nonetheless. Broken heart syndrome can kill you, can happen again, and could increase my risk for a more traditional heart attack. I had my heart attack on Christmas Eve, the day more heart attacks happen than any other. My father’s death took more of a toll on me than I thought — it literally broke my heart. Now I am concentrating on building myself back up with meditation, calming exercises, laughter, rest, family support, essential oils, and love — no drugs. I feel really stupid for allowing this to happen. I keep thinking I should have handled this a whole lot differently. Well, duh! Hindsight is always 20/20.

As I sit here on the couch, listening to Hubby putz around in the kitchen and Zeb vacuuming the dining room, I can’t help but feel far more than Simply Grateful for this second chance. Stress and grief can literally cause heart attacks that induce blockages to the heart and kill you. Broken heart syndrome is bad, but this could have been so much worse. I cannot shut off the grief over my father’s death, but I know he would not want me to ruin or lose my life over it. If nothing else, to honor him and his memory I am going to do whatever it takes to get through this set back. Hubby’s favorite saying is, “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” Nothing about this will be lost on me. This was my A Christmas Carol without the ghosts and for this I am Simply Grateful. ~ Tilly

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Preparing For The Holidays — The Days Are Counting Down

Every year preparing for the holidays is a huge deal for me. The house alone goes through a complete transformation that consumes most of my time for more than a month — more like a month and a half. I can’t just decorate a room, I have to completely change it. From the curtains/window treatments to the wall decorations, to every nook and corner being touched by something for the season. Then there’s the baking, cooking, parties, shopping, get-togethers, movies, music, and everything else that makes the holidays special. It’s a labor of love, but some years its overwhelming and more like work than joy.

This year, with everything being set back because of our skunk incident, a huge backlog of canning projects from the garden, cleaning out the garden, and not harvesting the last of our garden until the beginning of November, starting the holiday preparation was set back several weeks.

Then, when Hubby decided to remodel 14 rooms at our motel, I spent two weeks helping strip the old rooms, clean walls and carpets, and then setting up all the new furniture, mirrors, televisions, and pictures. It didn’t seem like this year was going to be a year for decorating or the holidays at all. Plans for dinners, decorating fun, caroling, Christmas parties, shopping trips, and everything else that always was part of the “JOY” of Christmas for me, hung like a dark cloud above my head. The pit of my stomach ached with dread just thinking about everything that needed to be done.

Finally, in between trying to keep up with laundry, cleaning the house, the kids activities and needs, making meals, and trying to maintain my sanity, I did manage to begin the process of decorating. Honestly though, the process was not fun. All the while I kept stressing about being so far behind, wondering if I’d ever get it done in time to invite friends and family over, and practically giving up every time something went wrong — and lots went wrong.

The first tree I put up took me two days to fix the lights. I burned a hole in the new drapes I made for the great room door wall when I ironed them. I blew two plugs because I didn’t follow my own rules on lights allowed per plug. Every time I turn on my villages at least two houses go out so I change the bulbs, but then another goes out. And then the unspeakable happened…I hung one of my most prized decorations, a portrait of Santa, above the mantel and ten minutes later it came crashing to the ground, shattering the glass, splitting the frame at all four corners, scratching Santa’s face, and leaving several gouges on the print.

At this point I knelt among the shards of glass and began to cry. Hubby and Grace both came running, but there was nothing they could do. Although this portrait was not my oldest decoration, it was one of my favorite and one that I bought during a dark time in my family’s life that symbolized hope for a brighter future. The crumpled frame, shattered glass, and damaged picture all mirrored how I felt about the upcoming holiday season–broken. For several days I avoided doing any decorating, leaving boxes scattered everywhere, decorations strewed all over the floor, the basement completely in upheaval, the house a total mess. Yep, I had a holiday meltdown and it wasn’t even December.

For some reason this holiday season felt like a job, not the “Most Wonderful Time Of Year” that I thought it should. Everything I touched seemed to break or lose it’s luster. I felt no joy, no excitement, no childlike anticipation as I had for so many years. And the worst part was that for the first time since my grandmother died in 1999 I could not feel her presence as I decorated. My grandparents were my inspiration for going to such lengths to transform my home every year into a Christmas Wonderland and even after my grandmother died, I could feel her with me as I decorated my home. I’m not sure if it’s because my grandfather passed away this past July and now that they have been reunited, they are both decorating up in heaven finally leaving me for good or if the stress that has plagued our home for the past several months is just taking its toll, but this season started out very hard.

Hubby and Grace both went to great lengths to find a replacement for my portrait, to no avail. The artist no longer paints and the limited edition print was not to be found. Hubby did manage to clean out the broken glass, glue the frame back together and fix the picture as best as he could. I plan on trying to hang it again tomorrow and under the majestic glow of Christmas lights I hope the flaws in the print will not be noticeable.

Eventually I pulled myself together and began to push forward on the decorating front. The house is decorated, as decorated as I plan on making it. The only thing left to do is put the ornaments on the family Christmas tree in the great room. Hubby, Grace and Zeb all helped start that process this afternoon and even if not another ornament gets hung, it’s perfect.

Hubby sat down with me today to talk about the holidays and what plans we have. We agreed we need to step back and rethink the season. Although I definitely enjoy the hustle and bustle of the holidays, perhaps the hustle and bustle from the past several months just burned me out and now is the time to recoup a bit. Hubby suggested we get through the holidays as stress-free as possible and then have people over. He even said to leave the decorations up until we’re done celebrating, why feel tied down by dates on the calendar.

Sometimes having someone acknowledge your feelings is all it takes to pull you out of a rut. With his words, Hubby took the pressure off of me to make this holiday season “perfect.” He gave me back the perspective I’d lost on why I love this time of year and what is truly important.

Tonight I took the kids and Bell to an outdoor mall and we walked among thousands of Christmas lights, listening to holidays music, drinking Starbuck’s holiday drinks, and wishing all we saw a Happy Holiday. Then when we got home Grace and I did holiday facials and made plans to make homemade candy and cookies TOGETHER next week.

A lot of the time during the holidays it seems like all I’m doing is working to get everything done for the holidays…counting the days. December 1st begins the final countdown and flies by. Not this time. I am really going to try to enjoy the rest of December and make the most of every day in the coming year with my family and friends. Christmas is a state of mind, not a time of year, and I need to remember this always, and for this I am — Simply Grateful.