One year ago today, on February 23, 2009, my husband had open-heart surgery. A 45-year-old man's having open-heart surgery is not unheard of, really. Jack's heart had gone into atrial fibrillation a couple of months before, and extensive testing revealed that his mitral valve needed to be repaired. But just ten months before Jack's surgery, our 14-year-old son had open-heart surgery. So learning that Jack needed surgery as well was a bit of a shock, because we knew what it meant. We knew what was coming.
You see, if a surgeon needs to repair the heart, he has to first stop the heart from pumping. The heart can't be moving and getting surgically repaired at the same time. Open-heart surgery requires that the surgical team stop the patient's heart, repair it, and then re-start it. Of course, a wonderful heart-lung machine with a dedicated perfusionist tending it keeps the blood circulating and the organs oxygenated during surgery. But still. That heart-stopping part is--well--heart-stopping. And worrisome. It's hard to prepare for. Jack made sure that all his affairs were in order, that his will was up-to-date, that I knew everything I would need to know in case things didn't go well. Aside from those practical things, praying is about the only thing you can do. Prayer that all will go well. Prayer that the heart-stopping and the heart-starting-back parts will be successful. Prayer that everyone involved will have peace. But you know that the surgery is life-threatening, and it's hard to deal with that fact.
This day last year was one of the longest days of my life. The Operating Room at Duke got backed up, so the surgery started much later than we were expecting. I stayed with Jack until they took him into the OR at 3:00 P.M. Then I waited. Friends waited with me, and the hours ticked by. The surgical team did a wonderful job of keeping me updated throughout the progress of the operation, which was amazingly helpful, but the time dragged. Two, then four, then six, then eight hours crept by. Finally, more than eight hours after Jack was taken to the OR, the call came that they were finishing up. Our surgeon came to the Waiting Room--vacant now except for me and one stalwart friend--just as the clock struck midnight. He brought with him the news that the surgery had taken an unexpected turn. Before the operation, all of Jack's doctors thought that his mitral valve could be repaired. And our surgeon was one of the best in the world, a real artist at repairing valves. As it turned out, he tried to repair the valve, but it didn't work. There was no choice but to replace the valve. He brought me 8x10 glossies of Jack's mitral valve before the repair and his brand-new stainless steel valve. Really.
The day after the surgery was a difficult but exciting day. Jack was moved out of Surgical ICU into a regular room. He was still very groggy from the anesthesia, he had five IV's, and he had four drainage tubes in his chest, but he was alive and well. Our surgeon came by to check on Jack in the afternoon. Although I had already told Jack about the operation, the surgeon explained it all again. Only this time he added a little more information. "Your valve was really in bad shape," he told Jack. "It's a good thing we operated. Otherwise, you would have died of heart failure."
And just like that, we learned that we'd been wrong. Our anguish had been misplaced. We'd thought of the surgery as life-threatening. Turns out that it was life-saving.
A year has gone by, a year of many ups and downs and a long but successful recovery. And after much reflection, I've realized that Jack's surgery is not the only thing that I was wrong about. Grievances I've clung to, sure that clinging to them prevented their being repeated. Bitterness I've nurtured, certain that I was just protecting myself. Anger I've held on to, knowing that doing so was absolutely necessary.
But I was wrong. Letting those things go is not life-threatening. It's life-saving.
"Come to Me," says the Savior, "all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30).
Jesus's way is the way of letting go of those grievances, setting aside that bitterness, ridding my heart of the anger. And while His way may seem hard, it's actually the easier way. It's the way out of burdensome weariness. It's the way of rest.
And on this anniversary, rest is a very good gift.