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Photo by D Sharon Pruitt; used under a Creative Commons License

The day after that oh-so-notorious, greeting-card-company-created celebration of love, desire, and the burnings & yearnings of the human heart, my father-in-law went in for a routine angiogram, to check the status of his heart. There had been a couple of occasions in recent months when he had experienced pain and restricted breathing that had, fortunately, subsided after a few moments.

Still, he figured he’d best check it out. He mentioned it casually, during a visit, and tried to dissuade my husband from giving him a ride, insisting it was nothing to worry about.

My husband and I, meanwhile, were packing and preparing for a romantic getaway from the grey and skeletal Ontario winter, during my mid-semester break. We had used the funds from the sale of a VW van we were no longer going to have time to use, and were all primed to fly down south, to sample some of the Cuban delicacies in Miami, before boarding a relaxing cruise that would whisk us away to Arruba and Curacao, among other such glamorous locales.

But, as we all know, the heart sometimes has other plans: in this case, my father in law’s–and indeed, our own–as we learned the shocking news.

My father in law’s angiogram revealed that his left artery was 90% blocked, and several veins also had major blockages. The doctors moved him to the ICU immediately. They were astonished that he had lasted this long, given the severity of the blockage. He, meanwhile, had experienced so few symptoms that he needed some persuasion to undergo the triple bypass that the doctors were recommending. He wanted to go home for the evening, but they pointed out that his heart could give out at any time, and he needed to stay under observation until they could get him into the OR.

Normally, the wait time for surgery can be weeks or longer. They got him into surgery the next day.

Yesterday was one of the longest days I’ve experienced in a very, very long time. While elsewhere in the city, an airplane with two standby-filled seats took off for Miami, we sat in a crowded lounge with other families of patients undergoing cardiac surgery. Every now and then, a surgeon in scrubs would emerge and speak with one or another cluster of anxious people, whose expressions would either subside in relief, freeze, or crumple, depending on the nature of what they heard from the low-voiced doctors.

Finally, it was our turn. The surgeon sought us out, and delivered the news: he was out, stabilized, and apparently doing fine.

This morning, less than 24 hours after his major surgery, we were allowed to stop in for a brief visit. He was sitting up, eating, talking. Exhausted, of course, and in severe pain. But it was still astonishing to see–less than a day earlier, his chest had been opened, his heart exposed in its full, vulnerable peril. And now, it had been rewired, repaired, closed back into his chest, and here he was: sitting up, eating, recovering.

So this year, we’re celebrating what I’m calling Valentine’s Week in a different way. This year, it isn’t about greeting card companies, heart-shaped candy boxes nor any of the other trappings of the season. It’s about taking the time to feel deeply and truly grateful for the strength of the human heart: of a human heart that has survived the trauma of blockage and surgery, and of all those hearts that keep beating, strongly and bravely, in cardiac wards here and everywhere. It’s about seeing, with wonder, reverence, and sadness, the steadfast love in all those hearts of loved ones who are waiting for the news about whether their husband, wife, mother, father, son, daughter has survived the surgery.

Happy Valentine’s Week, everyone, and may your hearts be strong, and good, and filled with love.

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