Death rarely crossed my mind before I had kids. That said, I have always been wildly entertained by “Dateline”, “20/20”, and way back in the day, “Unsolved Mysteries” but I never thought about me dying. And in the off chance someone brought it up in a “for instance” or hypothetical scenario, my mind would briefly go there and think: Big deal. Everyone dies. What’s there to be afraid of?
That all changed after I had my now 4-year-old son, Archer, and intensified after I had my now 8-month-old daughter, Isla. Like most parents, I love those little shits so much it hurts, which makes thinking about leaving them ache all the more.
Obviously, as parents, we think about who will take care of our children after we’re gone. But what if no one qualifies? What if you and your partner can’t agree? It’s a difficult and relationship-testing discussion. Sure, my husband, Greg, and I have talked about it and after some back-and-forth, reached a decision, but we have yet to put it in writing. Maybe that’s the sadness of talking about death and not being there for our children. Either way, it’s stupid, which leads me to Turkey. The country.
Two years ago, Greg and I were vacationing in Turkey. Right before boarding the plane to come home — and indulging in some raki — I called my brother, Michael, to tell him what I wanted to happen with Archer (Isla hadn’t been born yet) should Greg and I die in a plane crash. I was panicking and sentimental and scared. Couples should never fly on the same plane because of this very reason. I knew this and yet, here we were. We also knew better than to not have something in writing about what would happen with the thing we loved most in the world.
Thankfully, the plane didn’t crash so naturally, we put off a will.
Last week, I began to have chest pain. It started as a heavy pressure on the right side of my chest. I ignored it for two days until I thought about my dad having a quadruple bypass at age 47. I’m 41. So, I texted him and asked what his symptoms were, all the while knowing that heart attack symptoms in women present differently than those in men. (I’ve written for several hospital magazines.) His symptoms, my dad told me, felt like he was getting stabbed in the middle of his chest. Mine doesn’t feel like that, I told him.
“Just lay off the caffeine,” he told me.
“But I only drink two cups of coffee in the morning and a soda in the afternoon,” I said. It’s not like I was downing those stupid energy drinks.
“I’m telling you, lay off the caffeine,” he insisted.
I grabbed two Diet Cokes — one for me and one for Greg — and hopped in our car with our kids. We were headed to Sedona for a day hike. Greg was driving, looked over at me on my phone and said, “Mindfulness.” This is the word we use to let the other one know they’re not enjoying the moment.
“Hang on,” I said, “I’m Googling if I’m having a heart attack.” Before now, I hadn’t told Greg about the weird chest pressure. But by now I was so distracted, I had to.
“You’re not having a heart attack. Are you worried about something?” he asked.
Yes, I was worried. I am always worried. But now I was worried I was going to die.
Google didn’t persuade me otherwise. The Centers for Disease Control noted the following as heart attack symptoms:
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the chest
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness
I’m aware of anxiety being confused for a heart attack, which is why I denied my symptoms at first. I didn’t want to be one of those people who go to the ER, convinced they’re having a heart attack only to be told they’re experiencing anxiety. But when you’re middle-aged, have a family history, a hearty dose of neurosis and two children, you don’t ignore it.
On day three, after the hike, the pressure gravitated to my left side and shot down my arm. My jaw was a little sore, too. I didn’t have any nausea or lightheadedness, but I had woken up recently in a cold sweat. I was convinced it was my heart. I called Michael who is an ER doctor.
I bawled to him — about my heart, about dying, about my kids, about everything.
“You don’t need to go to the ER, Meghan,” he said, “Sounds like you need to go to the psych ward. Nibble on some Xanax.”
I imagine he has a better bedside manner with his patients.
I also imagined he was right. About not going to the ER, that is, but I knew my anxiety wouldn’t dissipate until I was certain my heart was OK. I went to see my primary care doctor. She did an EKG that showed my heart was working properly and told me to take some Xanax. She also recommended a chest X-ray, alluding to the possibility that I pulled a muscle or pinched a nerve while hiking for a few hours with 20-pound Isla in a BabyBjorn.
Anxiety is real and can manifest physically, she told me. Which I knew, but my anxiety typically presents as migraines, hives and cold sores. All annoying, sure, but not life-threatening. The chest pressure was a whole new thing for me.
And so is motherhood. Yeah, I’m four years in, but this role takes a while to wrap your head around. It took me a year to feel competent in my current job, so I’m giving myself a break in my role as a mom. We, as parents, should do that more often.
During the time I thought I was having a heart attack, I couldn’t stop thinking about how my kids would fare without me. Who would help take care of them? Would they know to always give Archer a piece of chocolate before bed? Would they care enough to throw him dinosaur birthday parties with silly themes like Three-Rex and Fourasaurus? Would they understand that he’s an observer and needs to assess a situation before engaging in it? And, Isla. Would they cuddle her as much as she wants and not worry about spoiling her? Would they warm her bottle to the right temperature? And sing and dance with her around the house?
And what about me? What would my children remember about me? What was the best way to tell them who I was? Is there an app for that? Should I make them photo books? Write them letters? Craft a video? Have I done enough good in this world to make them proud of me? No, I haven’t. Do I have time to do more? And, on and on and on.
I don’t have answers to any of these questions right now. But what I do have is time. Time to spend with my children and time to enjoy them.
I’m sure I may need a little reminding now and then. Someone to chirp in my ear, “Mindfulness.” And Xanax.