Grumpy about a heart attack (a sibling tale)

I learned yesterday that my brother Mark was taken to the hospital the night before. He had a heart attack. He seems fine, but it’s early in the evaluative process. So far all indicators are that my family is still completely ridiculous.

I heard the news after we finished a pretty strenuous 4+ mile hike with the kids in the Shenandoahs. We’re still on our 3-week vacation. There’s very little cell coverage in this part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but the hike ended at an overlook where we had a few bars of coverage. So on a whim I unlocked my phone. I was greeted by a text from my brother Eric, filling me in briefly on Mark’s attack. It was a terrible emotional jolt, and I blurted out an exclamation.

My bad. I got about .4 seconds to process the news before Jesse stepped into the fray. “WHAT?? What’s wrong??” She’s already been in full-throttle jackass mode for a couple days, so this came easy to her.

Uncle Mark seems to have had a heart attack, I answered.

“What does that mean??” She yodeled. “WHAT’S A HEART ATTACK??”

Deep cleansing breaths as we looked for kind ways to tell her to shut up.

Standing on the overlook, I called Eric. He was at the hospital. He started to answer my questions but there was noise in the background, and in exasperation he said, “here, I’ll just let him tell you himself.”

Mark got on the phone. He spoke in a gravelly, sickened whisper. “Hey Carla, thanks for calling…” Then he started cracking up and spoke in his normal gravelly voice. “I’m just kidding, sis!” Sooo funny.

I hit back. “What happened, Mark?? I got Eric’s message and almost had a heart attack!!”

He answered with more. “Hey don’t worry, sis. You know most FATAL heart attacks happen in women. So I’m fine.”

There’s nothing like stupid joking around to mask deep, painful feelings of love and fear.

Here are the essentials of what I understand happened, based on what Mark and Eric told me:

For two days, Mark experienced pain in his left shoulder and severe heartburn. Also he couldn’t stop sweating. Finally Mark called Eric, who lives about 3 hours away, and asked him to get on the internet and look up the symptoms of a heart attack. Bingo. Eric also called a doctor friend, who suggested Mark take an aspirin and get help. Now. Eric passed this along.

Meanwhile, at my mom’s home (where Mark was hanging out)…

Mom’s husband John also called a doctor for advice. He called Dr. Kim, who’s something of a family doctor. For the dogs. He’s a vet.

Mark realized he didn’t want Mom or John to drive him to the hospital. Mom doesn’t drive since her stroke. John’s driving would have just given Mark another heart attack and finished him off.

John promptly pulled out the yellow pages. He was going to find an ambulance company, presumably under “A”. Mom decided this wasn’t the right approach. She called 911. But her English has gotten so bad since her stroke that she couldn’t articulate the situation to the operator. Also she gave the address of one of her rental properties, not her house. Mark, recognizing that all of this was problematic, took the phone from her and cleared things up.

Mark made it to the hospital in one piece, they did something with a stent, and he’s alive.

I learned most of these details from Eric, who shared them with me in a tired, wry voice that told me he had moved past anger straight on to humor as he tried to manage the situation and keep me and our brother Ted (currently in Malaysia) in the loop.

Some time after I spoke to Eric at the hospital, I called Mom’s home number, hoping to find her there. A male voice answered in Korean. “Yoh boh seh yoh?”

“Hi John, it’s Carla.”

There was a brief silence, and then, “Helloo?” piped the voice in a Korean accent.

I was irritated immediately. I didn’t need this shit right now. I spoke very slowly and carefully, as I’ve done many times before. “John. It is me, Carla.” I prepared myself for more confusion.

The voice started laughing. “Carla, it’s Eric. I’m just messing with you.”

Sigh. We both made fun of me for getting grumpy so quick. We chatted about Mark, Mom, John. Without my asking, Eric gave me the data points he knows I need. BP, O2 sats, heart rate, status. We told stupid jokes, made loose fun of the situation without really meaning it, gave each other a few laughs.

As my brothers and I held each others’ emotional hands, my heart broke and healed and broke and healed. If I’m the princess of grumpy, then Mark and Eric are the crown princes. We grew up under the same duress, grumbling and yelling our way through the days. But in a time of crisis and fear, Mark and Eric are both coming through, as I hope I’m doing, turning that grumpiness from ugliness into a head- shaking acceptance of the comedy that shapes our world. If Ted weren’t in Malaysia, I know he’d join us in this essential, life-affirming self-mockery.

I’d probably break if it weren’t for the laughs. Mark is an anchor in my life. He keeps me grounded when I get uppity; he picks me up when I’m down on myself; he face palms me when I get too grumpy. I can’t imagine this world without him. So I’m afraid right now.

But good news: Eric just told me that Mark has now achieved full volume and grumpiness, and he should be going home soon. Mom and John are going to visit Mark at the hospital today anyway. He isn’t all that thrilled. “They’re just going to stand there and stare at me.”

Yeah I know. It’s annoying. But it’s probably what I would do too if I could be next to Mark right now instead of 3000 miles away, because I’m so grateful that he’s still alive.

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