If you’ve been reading between the lines, you may have noticed that this has been a challenging year for me, something I’ve alluded to, but not shared. I have been riding the rollercoaster, touching some of the scariest parts of life, death, and everything in between. There was no recipe for this year of my life. I learned about resiliency. The power of love. The magic of the unknowable. And now that I’m on the other side, I can share.
It’s about my steady, brilliant, inspiring husband, Gregg.
Gregg is a HUGE source of inspiration for me. We’re the perfect example of that old adage, opposites attract. Technologist, renaissance man, scientist, engineer, and software architect, Gregg has always been 10 years ahead of our time. He’s created a lot of technology that we use now and take for granted… but he’s very quiet about it, very low key, very stealth.
He’s also an avid diver and underwater photographer, loving father and grandfather, father of our dog girls, and not so much my rock as my redwood tree, with deep, strong roots. I just sit at the base of that tree and feel so nurtured. He’s that kind of guy. That served him very well going through the ordeal I’m about to describe. He was able to hold his center. It’s not like he was being stoic—he was going through a lot of pain and it was very difficult. But his equilibrium, his even, steady character, really served him well. I marveled. And I think his story will inspire you, too.
Expect the unexpected: Gregg’s heart surgery
Thirty-five years ago, Gregg was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that starts in the white blood cells called lymphocytes. At that time, the way they treated Hodgkin’s was extremely aggressive and included complete body radiotherapy along with the removal of the spleen. That set off a number of downstream side effects, about which Gregg says rather dryly, “Well, I’m alive to complain about it.”
One of the biggest downstream consequences he experienced is aortic valve stenosis, a narrowing of the aortic valve making it harder for his heart to pump blood to his body. On August 30, 2017, Gregg was scheduled to have a minimally invasive procedure to have his aortic valve replaced. The surgery was expected to last 4 ½ hours. I had made lots of Magic Mineral Broth and his favorite soups to nurture his recovery. This was in my wheelhouse. We were prepared.
The minimally invasive procedure turned into full throttle open heart surgery and bypass once they discovered radiation damage in the heart and lung area much more extensive than expected—a theoretically remote possibility that become very scary and very real.
Eight hours after his surgery started, I was permitted in the room and was told, “We’re still working on him. He’s lost a lot of blood. You can only stay for a couple of minutes.” Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. It was like part of the tree had been scorched, or the leaves had unexpectedly fallen. Two weeks after his initial release, he was back in the hospital with a post-op infection—a little aftershock—making things really confusing. None of his doctors could quite figure it out. Five months later, the tenacious infection returned with a vengeance. It took three surgeries, seven weeks in the hospital, life-saving antibiotics and other integrative therapies to beat back the life-threatening infection.
But the tree had survived.
Living in the smallest slice of now
One of the big takeaways during the months of confusion: I had to live in the smallest slice of now, in less than a day-to-day basis, in a life that was changing all the time. And I had to accept that all my expertise couldn’t help my husband eat.
So much for our soup plans. Everything he told me he wanted to eat after his surgery, he didn’t want and would push away. Are you kidding me? I thought. I’m supposed to know how to do this! His head wanted it but his body couldn’t get there. I could never predict what he would eat. Every day was a different day. I felt woefully inadequate. I could not feed this man. The one thing I thought I would be able to do, I couldn’t.
One day he turned to me and said, You know what I want for dinner? I want a wet burrito.
I didn’t even know what that was. (Gregg chooses his own food out in the world and I don’t ask and I don’t comment.) I learned that there’s this joint under the freeway in San Rafael that makes the best Mexican food around. I went and stood melting in the heat of the summer night in a line that was out the door. It turns out a “wet burrito” is just a big burrito with enchilada sauce on it. This burrito was the size of a little baby, swaddled in a blanket. I smuggled it into Gregg’s hospital room (the friendly nurse conspired with me). He ate exactly 3 bites. But those were the 3 bites he wanted, and that was enough to nourish him that day.
The months went by. Things started shifting, slowly but surely. He absolutely had his heart set on going to Washington, DC to give an address for an event in his field. I couldn’t believe he’d have the strength, but I kept my mouth shut, his doctor approved, and he went. And something happened. He got out of his sick world and into his Gregg world and when he came back, a healing had occurred. Even his doctors noticed it. It really stunned me in the best way possible, witnessing Gregg’s remarkable capacity and his body’s capacity to heal itself.
Healing can happen.
Sixteen months later, I look back and realize that while I was unable to find the right food, what I was able to nourish my husband with was unwavering love, respect for his resiliency, and my absolute faith in him.
I felt what many caregivers feel, that yearning to contribute to someone’s health and wellbeing. I always equate food with love! I thought I should be able to feed him. It’s what I do for a living! When that didn’t work, I felt inadequate. I felt guilty. But now I realize that just showing up, being present, and loving someone through the darkest of the darks is a pretty powerful vitamin and tonic. Sometimes we can only be a witness. This is especially hard when it’s someone you really love.
Gregg had one last surgery to correct a few things last week (his sixth since we started on this roller coaster), and it went great! He’s home, he’s out of pain, he’s got his appetite back! We’re closing a difficult chapter and a whole new year is unfolding right in front of us, that we never anticipated, that is all about what is possible.
Sometimes it’s about being open to the possibility that things change. That healing can happen. Healing never happens in a straight line. It’s more a process of being open, and not getting in our own way, showing up and doing the work.
I didn’t give that word a lot of weight before, until Gregg demonstrated this to me through his courage, indomitable strength and positive outlook, even in the face of death. He showed me that we all have the ability to exercise our resilience, even when we’re not consciously aware of it at the time.
Sometimes we don’t realize how great our capacity is to love. Because we’re not tested. We’re going through our day to day life. We love our kids, our mother, our husband… But sometimes when life really brings us up to the brink, we discover more capacity than we ever imagined! For love, resilience, courage, strength—to feel happiness in the face of challenges. We GAIN capacity because we’re stretched. Nobody volunteers for change, nobody volunteers for shit happening. But when it does... it’s quite an amazing thing. To be able to feel so deeply.
On his way home from the hospital last week, Gregg said, you know what I feel like eating? Your Red Lentil Dal! With all those herbs and spices. And of course, the lentil, along with the black-eyed pea, is the food identified with good luck!
Wishing you good luck for the new year!
A perfect meal for my beloved husband, originally created to honor the visit of an honest-to-goodness Indian saint on the occasion of her visit to the Chopra Center when I was fresh out of culinary school interning there. And I daresay, a perfect meal for you. :)
Easy, seasonal, delicious, and of course, lucky! A perennial favorite in my household. Try this one, you’ll love it. :)
This is a lovely, seasonal salad with a delicious flavor profile. Roasted beets, lentils, garlic, cinnamon, fennel, mint, walnuts, and toasted cumin citrus vinaigrette. Are you catching my drift? :)