When you Go into Heart Failure and it Turns out to be a Metaphor for All The Things Right Now

They say that for years I didn’t have iron in the veins.

That the whole medical team really didn’t have a clue that, just because I’ve been stumbling around with pretty much no iron in the veins, that it would throw me into heart failure this summer.

Sometimes, you can feel like you’re suddenly falling off a cliff—- and you’re really just falling into the arms of God.

Sometimes you don’t even know that your falling has already begun.

I mean, who knew that the falling would begin like this:

I just took the elevator up to the operating floor, with my paperwork in hand for a straight-forward surgical procedure of a feminine nature. How was I to know that I’d been walking around for weeks, months, years, for who knows how long — with a hemoglobin in the 60s?

Which is half of the baseline 125 it should be.

And, unbeknownst to anyone, that was causing this systolic heart murmur — that was going to be what first started the nudge off the edge.

“So —what exactly is keeping you standing right now?” the OR nurse asks wide-eyed, stands in the doorway, touches my arm, like she can help keep me upright.

I shrug, laugh embarrassed. Maybe we’re all only standing because we’re standing under a reign of grace. Maybe we’re all only standing because grace is the actual air we breathe.

Maybe, somewhere along the way, my body had just slowly acclimated to lower hemoglobin levels, iron levels, oxygen levels. Acclimated to greater fatigue.

Maybe that’s what happened: When dysfunction moves slowly, it can masquerade as normalcy.

And this is what does happen in a thousand ways, every day: Life makes boiling frogs out of the inattentive.

Before the surgery, they get me into one of those flimsy hospital gown get ups, drop 2 units of blood into my willing, needled vein, and the red drip trickles into me for hours, the thin bedsheets pulled up over my milk bottle white knees.

After the blood bags drip dry, they roll me in under the glare of the OR lights for this womanly procedure and I’m feeling like an exposed, splayed duck.

The last thing I remember before going under is the nurse asking if I was the lady who wrote about brokenness and thankfulness and just take 3 deep breaths and everything blurring together, the thankfulness, the brokenness, the remembering to breathe — then the falling into the dark.

******

Two days after the 30 minute surgical procedure, I’m home and in bed with a fever of 102.6 and doubled over with cramps. My mama, she stands in our bedroom and tells me she’s not playing anymore, she’s still my mama and she’s taking me back into ER, so go get my shoes on.

In the waiting room, I lay across chairs, head feeling too heavy for one thin aching neck, joints aching like embers burned in each socket. Mama strokes my hair back. I close my eyes.

When they get me into an ER bed, I’m a teeth-chattering mess, feverishly huddling under a stack of warmed blankets and a nurse pokes around with a needle to start IV antibiotics in one arm for whatever infection is spreading.

Dr. Matthews orders another 2 units of blood for the other arm because I’m still registering ridiculously low hemoglobin levels and she calls out into the hallway for an abdomen and chest x-rays, and for someone to call the lab and draw blood so they can somehow track down the source of infection that is spiking raging heat through the bones.

They decide to admit.

Mama nods my way from the corner of the ER room, because she knew, because Mama always knows best. Motherhood is about mastering the art of listening — listening to what’s said and what isn’t. And making your whole life your response.

Rolling up to the elevator, up to the floor, to be admitted into an ICU room, I just keep thinking that maybe there’s something else to admit? Something to admit to heal a broken heart? Something to admit because maybe I’m slipping off the brink of something and I don’t even know it’s beginning? They wrap me again in another shroud of warm blankets and the antibiotics drip late into the night and I toss and turn with the feverish ache of things, staring out the hospital window long after Mama kisses me on the forehead and heads home.

I listen to the machines all dripping, watch car lights in the street, all the black sky lighting up.

Suffering can be a friend who drives you where you didn’t know you needed to go.

And there’s no way in this suffering world I could have possibly known where this all was going to go, where this was all actually headed, or falling into — but I knew it that first night:

Life’s detours means God wants you to run right into His arms so He can reconstruct your heart.

By the time the sun bleeds up the sky in rose and scarlets, I’m bent over on the edge of the bed, hacking up a horse, racked with coughing,  feeling like a steely vise is crushing the cavities of my lungs.

A second chest x rays shows the lungs are filling like two empty buckets under an overflowing eavestrough.

“We are — trying to figure out what’s going on here?” The doctor’s pressing the stethoscope across my back and I’m throat raw with the hacking and ribs aching.

“You came in here with an infection lurking somewhere from your surgical procedure that we’re still trying to find” — she’s listening to my breathing — “and we transfused another two units of blood because you’re still struggling with low hemoglobin — and your initial chest x-ray was clear?” Dr. Matthews straightens up and turns to look me in the eyes.

“Yet this morning it looks your lungs are filling up with fluid — frankly, your lungs look shockingly like… serious crap — and it looks like you have post-operative pneumonia?”

Post-operative pneumonia?

I came in with a little fever from a surgical infection?

30 minutes later the doctor’s back in my room — instructing a nurse to hook me up immediately to a heart monitor.

A heart monitor?

“We called to the city hospital — to speak with a cardiologist. Looks like you’re in heart failure. You have post-operative pneumonia because you’re in heart failure. Your heart can’t pump the fluids we’ve been giving you to fight whatever this infection is, and that’s why your lungs are filling up and your hacking like you’re dying. It’s because you’ve tipped into heart failure.”

Heart — failure?

Sometimes when it feels like things are falling apart — we’re all just really falling into the arms of God.

“We should be able to give you 10 litres of fluid and the heart of someone your age should have no issues. We’ve given you?” She holds up her fingers. “2 litres — and you’ve tipped into heart failure.”

She writes it on my chart:

Tipped into failure.

It’s right there in ink.

******

You’ve got to be kidding me — I haven’t just tipped into heart failure just right now. If you want to know the truth of it: I’ve been falling in failure for years — failing sons and failing daughters and failing kind strangers and long-suffering family and failing in bruised relationships, and busted expectations and broken hearts.

Sometimes when you kinda feel like you’re falling — it flashes before you, all the ways you’ve fallen.

The whole spinning world has tipped into a heart failure of its own.

“We think — it’s actually years of the lack of iron — that’s tipped you into heart failure,” is what the doctor said. “Which is causing the post-operative pneumonia.”

Without iron in the veins — the heart fails.

Without the nails of Christ in the DNA — the heart fails.

And I’m lying in a hospital bed in heart failure and all I can think is: You only get so much time before here is over. There is only so much time.

There’s only so much time to forgive, to wipe slates clean, to make things right when you’ve gotten things wrong.

There is only so much time to make love your life.

Because time here will run out one day and one day your heart will stop its brave beating and there will be no more time to love here, to change the story here, to make your life say what your heart feels.

I can’t breathe.

I just — want to go home. Is there a more powerful word known to the heart than Home?

I want to go home and hold my babies, sit around a campfire, turn s’mores over the flame. I want to sing Count Your Blessings off tune around the circle and give Him thanks for all that’s been, look into eyes, all their eyes, and witness the light. I want to hear the zinnias stretching up in the kitchen garden and rock on the front porch swing with a posse of kids and one fine farming man, and hold them all with all of me until the stars come out and the Big Dipper tips over the farm and baptizes us all in a flash of ordinary glory.

Dr. Matthews tells the nurse to book me for a CT scan, another ultrasound, another set of chest x-rays, an echocardiogram. She’s hooking heart monitor leads to my chest.

Dr. Matthew’s orders all IV antibiotics to cease and the nurse has me instead swallowing down a cocktail of oral antibiotics because the old ticker’s failing in pumping any of these liquids. And there’s the order of a twice daily dosage of Lasix, prescribed for congestive heart failure, for the fluid accumulating in my lungs, the pulmonary edema that’s causing the rapid shortness of breath.

I keep struggling to breathe.

Literally — the nurse holds up an Incentive Spirometer and asks me to take the tube and suck air into my lungs like I’m drinking from a straw and I try to inhale and it feels like a catalytic explosion tearing through my chest and my eyes leak for the pain. My heart rate keeps blinking on the monitor like it knows that all the heartbeats of a whole life add up to a blink.

Because your life can change in a moment — it’s all your moments that can’t be missed.

I lay awake all night coughing and choking wildly on the past. For five long nights, I look out a hospital window, sit on the edge of a hospital bed, screens blinking and tracing my failing heart and I cough up at stars:

How do you find a way to forgive yourself for all the ways you’ve failed and fallen? How do you find a way to forgive yourself for all the life not lived well because you’re still learning what it means to love well?

And I’ve blamed instead of owned, controlled instead of calmed, faked instead of forgiven, dismissed instead of peeling back everything and lavishing attention on souls just yearning to be seen.

When you’re in heart failure, you start to think of how your heart’s failed how many other hearts.

When you’re in heart failure, your broken heart just yearns for more of Christ’s.

I don’t care what the heart monitor is reading — I can feel my heart breaking.

Maybe we all only fear one thing: failure.

And then four words come out of nowhere, out of the past, out of the heart of the cosmos, and looking up into the night sky over a little sleeping country town, looking up at fiery blinking lights birthed from the star nursery of God, those four words keep my struggling heart beating, keep echoing through the chambers of a million aching questions and regrets:

Jesus, friend of sinners… Jesus, friend of sinners.

There can be failing and falling — right into His arms.

And it may seem like an obscene, gory fact of pre-modern times for a prehistoric people, this archaic notion of the shedding of blood, and yet I witnessed it: Blood was shed for me. It was hanging there in a bag, meandering down into my arm.

This is the glory of the universe: Sacrifice always saves.

Sacrifice always saves the broken and the divided and the wounded and the busted and the hurting and the falling and all the failing. Sacrifice always saves.

I had heard them ask that too, in murmuring and rumblings, in hallways of academia and sophistication and modernity, “What’s with all the blood? Why can’t God just forgive? What’s the deal with this whole idea that ‘without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins?’ ”

Maybe, somewhere along the way, along my own failing, falling way, that is what’s grown painfully clear in a busted world:

Forgiving can only happen where there’s a dying.

Forgiveness always requires a grave.

Forgiveness always means giving something over to death.

This is the way it always has been and always will ever be, just go ahead and ask anyone who has limped down the hard roads:

Without the dying of things — there is no forgiveness of sins.

Without the burying of expectations, grieving what was and what will never be, letting go of self-righteousness of being right, letting go of dreams, letting go of retribution and resentment and rage and laying to rest a million hemorrhaging hurts — there is never the freedom of forgiveness.

Forgiveness always means the very real death and burial of hatchets and hopes and hurts so that healed relationships can resurrect.

All the honest in an angry and hurting world know it and will testify: All forgiving means suffering.

And the depth of God’s forgiveness of us means He suffered so deeply He shed blood for us.

God so forgave the wrongs of the world, that He bled for the rebirth of the world.

It doesn’t hurt so much to breathe:

Jesus is here with the busted, His Presence is closer than your breath, and His shed blood transfuses you with the steely hope and brazen courage to live the cruciform way, and He has union with you, intimate communion with your heart, and because you are His beloved, this begins healing all the brokenness.

Your failures can be forgiven — because forgiveness always requires a grave. And you have Jesus who went down to one so you could rise.

Your failures are completely forgiven — because forgiveness always means giving something over to death. And you have Jesus who gave Himself over to death so you would never have to wonder if you’re really loved.

Your failing heart is never failing — because when God claims you, He doesn’t fail you.

You can’t fail — because God never fails you.

And I wouldn’t know it later, until after I was discharged from the hospital with a litany of pills and a warning from the doctor that the heart would need echocardiograms to track function and that the body would need 3 months of recovery from infection and post-operative pneumonia and heart failure.

I wouldn’t know till I get home, heart ringing with that one lifeline: “Jesus, friend of sinners” — that it’s a line of a long forgotten song:

“ … There is a Friend who won’t let go
There is a heart that beats for You
There is one name by which we are saved

Jesus, Friend of sinners… Jesus, Friend of sinners.”

And that is the cruciform iron that can run through the veins of this wounded world, that forgives you for all you’ve done and all you didn’t do, that can make you stand and not fall and not fail.

Every failure in the hands of your Saviour can be made into a kind favour for your heart.

There’s a Saviour who can turn even failures into favour.

There’s no failing unless there’s giving up.

And He forgives us when we think our failing — is stronger than His unfailing love for us.

Never doubt that His unfailing love is stronger than any failing.

And —- If there’s enough forgiveness for even us, there’s enough forgiveness for even everyone.

When the rain falls heavy on the roof overhead, on my first night back home, I wake and lie there listening. Home. We always, one way or another, get to make it back Home. 

And there is always enough time to love — to forgive — to begin again. There is always enough forgiving grace. 

I lie there in bed, listening to the washing away of all the grime of what was, and growing what could be, even now, and the thrumming beat of it all, beats on with my broken heart.

And there is returning strength even in the middle of our darkest night.

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