Affairs of the heart

Talk about anything. Just don’t breathe a word about your heart, okay? Not a word.” With that, my parents ushered me into the dining room where Sender was waiting, adjusting his tie and looking very young and earnest. Our first meeting was very nice. I liked him a lot, and we got along very well. Three weeks later we were engaged. Sender never found out about my heart palpitations. In the days leading up to the wedding, I worried about what would happen during the dancing. At other people’s weddings I knew how to pace myself, but I obviously had to participate a little more enthusiastically at my own nuptials. If I danced longer than two minutes, my heart would start palpitating wildly. I would sometimes get so short of breath that I was danger of fainting. Having been rescued more than once by Hatzalah, whisked into a side room for a whiff of oxygen until I could breathe normally again, I recognized the importance of moderation. “Why are you acting like you’re 90 years old?” my friends would ask when they found me at a corner table drinking soda with one or two stragglers. Why indeed? I had to wonder. I remember telling my father when I was eight that my heart pounded every time I took the stairs. “At your age you shouldn’t even know you have a heart,” he said. After a while I realized that I was physically more limited than my friends, who didn’t feel like blacking out after tying their shoelaces or playing volleyball.

torah portion

My mother didn’t like to discuss my condition. It was a taboo subject, one that she believed could be wished away with enough B12 tablets. Alas, tachyarrhythmia couldn’t be wished away. As it was certainly exacerbated by stress, I believed my mother when she admonished me to “just calm down.” Still, most of the time the electrical signals telling my heart to pump needed to be controlled by medication. Overexertion was out of the question. On the night of my wedding, copious layers of makeup couldn’t hide the exhausted hue of my face. I made sure to take pictures with each of the well-wishers so I could rest between dances. I also sat down on a chair next to my grandmother and allowed everyone to dance around us. I was experienced at hiding my condition. Sender and I went home and began our new lives, but there was a secret hovering over our relationship that refused to let me rest. In my sock drawer, carefully rolled up inside a pair of black socks, was a vial of pills. As soon as Sender left the house for first seder, I would unroll the socks, remove a pill from the bottle, swallow it quickly and return the bottle to its hiding place. One night I noticed Sender rummaging through one of my drawers. Maybe he was just looking for something of his own, but to me the intrusion felt dangerous. My heart almost stopped altogether when I saw him inspecting the shelves. Did he know I was hiding something? The stress made my heart even more active than usual. The third time I secretly summoned my neighbor, a local Hatzalah volunteer, to administer oxygen after Sender left the house, I felt deceitful and guilty. I was so petrified that my husband would walk in and find me stretched out with an oxygen mask on my face that I asked the volunteer to stand guard at the window to make sure he wasn’t coming down the block, even though I knew he never came home at that hour.

The Hatzalah man was uncomfortable about leaving me alone, so he called my parents. My phone rang almost immediately afterward. “Ari Friedman told us what happened,” my father said. I could hear my mother’s shallow breathing on the extension. She never handled it well if her children were anything less than perfectly healthy. “Are you forgetting to take your medication?” she asked. “No,” I replied. “I’m taking care of myself. But I can’t stand keeping my condition a secret anymore. I think the stress is making it worse.” “Not a word!” both parents warned me in unison. “We’ve been married for nine weeks,” I told them. “We already know each other. Sender is my husband. I don’t like keeping things from him.” “Nine weeks is a very short time. Believe me, it may seem as if you know each other, but in the grand scheme of things your marriage is still very fragile. Do not tell him.” I knew I wasn’t going to listen to them. I couldn’t take the stress of hiding something so big from my own husband. This was not the foundation on which I wanted to build my marriage. I already regretted not having told him before the wedding. Why couldn’t I have said something then? I hadn’t been comfortable about it at the time, feeling strongly that it was wrong to withhold such information. Also, I’m not sure why I had been so fearful that he wouldn’t want me. The truth is that he hadn’t been the most sought-after boy on the market. Hadn’t he ever wondered what made us “equal”? But my condition didn’t prevent me from having a normal life. I was holding down a full-time job, and the doctor had given me the green light to start a family.

I was an ideal wife. The only thing that set me apart was a pill I took once a day and occasional dependence on a small amount of supplemental oxygen. Nonetheless, I felt that revealing my secret would help prevent the episodes that were now occurring with increasing frequency. The rav had advised my family that since my condition was not an impediment to normal life, I didn’t have to mention it with regard to shidduchim. Now, however, shidduchim were over. “I’m sorry,” I told my parents. “I’m just informing you of what I’m going to do. I’m telling him.” “You’re ruining your own chance at happiness!” my parents said angrily. But I was angry too. For years my happiness had been overshadowed by the secret I was carrying. Instead of being matter-of-fact about my condition and just dealing with it, I had been forced to hide the truth from teachers and friends lest the secret spill out, ruining my chances of finding a good shidduch. Another big part of the secret was my mother’s fears. She desperately wanted her children to be healthy because she wasn’t. An overburdened woman, she had forced me to go to school even when I had a fever, saying, “I’m not taking care of a patient today. Sorry.” In her life, wellness was the barometer by which she measured everything she could or could not do. She wanted better for us. If she pretended that we were hale as horses, we would be. Then we could operate at full capacity, unlike her. “If you’re going to tell him, make it as innocuous as possible. And you should also impress upon him that just because you’ve taken him into your confidence, it doesn’t mean he should pass the information on to his mother. If he does, it’s all over.” It’s hard enough to be a girl in today’s lopsided shidduch scene, and it’s even harder when you have to put up a front you know you can’t maintain forever.

Worse yet is marrying someone under false pretenses, thinking that if he knew the truth, he wouldn’t have wanted you. I didn’t want to live the rest of my life in a pseudointimate relationship with someone who would run away at the first hint of the real me. With these thoughts in mind, I resolved to tell my husband the truth. For a few days, I rehearsed in my mind what I would say, practicing my speech over and over again. Then I mentally prepared myself for the backlash. If it came, it was only what I deserved. I hadn’t been straightforward with Sender. But there was no going back; I could only forge ahead. What he would do with the truth was up to him—and of course, Hashem. I davened intensely. One day I invited my husband to a meeting at our kitchen table. I spoke for a long time, beseeching him earnestly with my eyes while I expertly delivered my lines. He didn’t say anything. When “I was done I sat back, willing my heart to stop pounding. “That’s it?” he said. “I thought you’d tell me G-d knows what.” I felt giddy with relief. My parents had always pushed my suffering under the rug to ensure a good future for me. Now that I was in the “future,” it was a pleasure to let my guard down. Still, even though my husband took the news quite well, I felt an obligation to prove that I was as strong as an ox. I needed to show him that there was no need to coddle me. I was perfectly healthy. The only problem was that I wasn’t. The episodes became more infrequent now that the stress of concealing my condition was gone. But pregnancy rekindled my symptoms, and it was back to the cardiologist for an adjustment of my meds. This time, though, I had my husband at my side.

He was more curious than concerned, and I felt normal again. As time passed, I felt an increasing urge to demonstrate my hardiness. I was offered a promotion at work that involved more hours, and I took it. My husband and I walked and biked, and I pushed myself to keep up with him. I never stopped to question if perhaps he was more active than other men, and certainly more than the average woman. Fortunately, our son was born without complications. Aside from the usual joy, my child proved to the world that I was a mother like anyone else. Watching my mother-in-law glowing at the bris, I couldn’t help feeling smug that I had “arrived.” I didn’t know then that I wasn’t done yet. Just because my pills were now in the kitchen didn’t mean that I had left the shadows of my shameful secret. When my baby was four months old, I came down with appendicitis. The pain was excruciating, but I was afraid to tell my husband. I didn’t want him to think that he had married an ailing woman who couldn’t stop complaining about her health. First a heart condition, then pregnancy with all its discomforts, and now something else? All the time we had been married, my husband hadn’t even had a cold. I called my mother for help so as not to overburden Sender. It was the wrong move. I should have had more faith in my husband. “It’s probably viral,” my mother pronounced predictably. “We mustn’t bother Hatzalah; we’ve already been too much of a burden on them.” I should have remembered that my mother’s approach to my health was denial. She was more ashamed of my new crisis than I was. She also felt helpless because she couldn’t alleviate my suffering, so she tried to minimize my distress.

That night, though, in light of my worsening pain, she took me to the emergency room, where she kept repeating, “It must be viral” as if it were a helpful mantra. Finally, a doctor looked at me and advised surgery right away. When I called my husband to let him know what was happening, he was very hurt that I’d gone to the hospital with my mother. “Why didn’t you tell me how sick you were?” he asked. I had no answer. After the operation I needed to recuperate. I felt silly asking for assistance with everything. My hands shook and it was hard to lift a spoon. I couldn’t ask my husband because I didn’t want him to see me in such a vulnerable state, so I went to my sister for a few days. When I came home, I went straight back to work. I couldn’t admit to being anything less than perfect. But my supervisor took one look at my pasty face and said, “You don’t belong here. Didn’t you just have surgery?” “Yes, but now I’m back.” My mother’s lifeline was Motrin; she normally went through two Costco-sized bottles each month. I decided I would do even better. I would grab life by the horns, regardless of the price it exacted. The next week I came down with strep. My body had to force me to slow down and do what I wouldn’t do myself. Over the next few years I always put up a strong front. This year, though, it’s been one thing after another. First I had bronchitis, then cellulitis. Two weeks later I woke up with a fever. I was pregnant, shaky, still working full time plus holding down another part-time job that had started as a hobby and morphed into a business. “Get into bed now!” my husband said when he came home one day to find me playing with our kids and my three nieces in the playroom, looking like death warmed over. “Kids, we’re cleaning up and being very quiet. Mommy needs to rest.” “No!” I protested. I didn’t want my family to suffer the same way I had as a child. I also didn’t want them to know what a weakling I really was.

I was filled with shame, especially because my husband had mentioned my sickness in front of my nieces. He then called my sister to ask her to pick up her kids. He couldn’t understand why I’d invited them over when I wasn’t feeling well. When my sister had called me earlier that day to kvetch that she couldn’t manage and had to take her baby to the pediatrician, I’d offered to take care of the three older children. I knew it would be difficult because I was running a fever, but I couldn’t let that keep me from being the strong older sister. After my husband sent them home, he looked me in the eye. “Why can’t you just accept that you’re under the weather? Everyone gets sick now and then. You have to take care of yourself.” “I’m not sick,” I insisted. “I just have a little temperature.” “What’s that if not sick?” he asked. “Sick is…I don’t know, cancer or something.” I forced myself to stay up, cooking a lovely supper and putting the kids to sleep before collapsing in bed. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I take care of myself? My mother had never permitted me to stay in tune with what my body needed, but now I was an adult. Why was there so much shame associated with a simple flu? That night my mother-in-law left me a message on the machine. “We’re making a birthday party for Bubby. Can you make a pot of your delicious mushroom soup? Nobody’s is as good as yours.” I felt so resentful. I could hardly reach out from under the blanket to turn off the lamp. She had eight married children, and Bubby had countless other grandchildren. Why me, the daughter-in-law? Didn’t she know that I simply couldn’t? She didn’t, because I wouldn’t tell her. I was too embarrassed to admit that I felt sick.

I called her back and said I’d make the soup. I sweated out the night and showed up at work the following morning. “What are you doing here?” my supervisor asked for the umpteenth time since she’d known me. “I’m fine. I can’t take a day off for every sniffle.” “What do you think sick days were created for?” “For sick people. Not for me.” “I’m insisting that you stay home until you’re completely better,” she ordered. That day I remained in bed with the door ajar so I could keep half an eye on the children. My boss was right; I felt awful. All of a sudden I looked at the clock and saw that it was 5:30; my husband would be home from work in ten minutes. Gathering all my strength, I pulled on a sweatshirt. I had to get rid of the evidence that I was sick—dump the pile of tissues, hide the Tylenol, spill out the dregs of the tea and wash the cup. He mustn’t know. “Why didn’t you tell her that you couldn’t make the soup?” my sister-in-law asked me at the party when she saw how exhausted I looked. “I was embarrassed to admit that I was sick.” “Embarrassed?” she repeated, not quite comprehending. What did she know? For me, illness was synonymous with humiliation. My marriage had hinged on hiding my condition. The most egregious sin in the world was to burden others. Being sick meant being needy. How could anyone love me when I wasn’t physically as capable as other people? The worst part is that I am not without self-awareness. I know how skewed my thinking is. Intellectually I know I have a medical condition and that it’s no big deal, but the problem isn’t physical. I need to learn to accept who I am, with all of my strengths and weaknesses.

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