The steady beep-beep-beep of the heart monitor was somehow soothing, sort of like elevator music, something that's always there, but which you don't notice unless it's not there.
I knew that as long as I heard that constant noise, things were all right.
I was sitting in a chair in the intensive-care unit next to the prostrate form of my husband, who was just an hour or so out of open-heart surgery.
At that moment, my emotions were just about wrung out. I had cried, I had prayed, I had raged at my helplessness. I like to stay busy, which is why I still work as a teacher even though Ricky makes a very good living as a lawyer, and I like to be in control of my life.
And I could do nothing but sit there in the quiet riot of the ICU, with midnight approaching, and wait for my husband to come out from under the anesthetics -- the little death that allows surgeons to do the things they do -- so we could begin the long process of recovery.
The surgeon, the cardiologist and the attending nurses had all said the procedure was a success, that Ricky would make a full recovery, but I knew I'd have to see it to believe it.
The crisis that had led us to that point had come on us suddenly, just six days earlier.
It was a Sunday in early August, and hot like it can only get way down South. Because it was so hot, we'd spent the day indoors doing laundry, with a baseball game on in the background.
I teach English at the local high school, and had started back to work the previous week. We still had another week to get ready before the kids started their year, and I had a few odds and ends to get pulled together that day, so I'd be ready the next day.
He got this funny look on his face, and I noticed he was making an effort to belch, without success. After a few minutes, though, he seemed to relax and the moment passed.
A few hours later, I'd gone on to bed while he'd gotten on the computer to do some preliminary research so he'd be a little ahead when he went to work the next day.
He is a general practice lawyer here in the small Southern town where he grew up, and he's the best at what he does.
About 12 years ago, he traded in the rat race as a high-profile corporate attorney in Philadelphia, where I grew up, for the much slower pace of having his own firm in a smaller town.
I sleep with the light on until he comes to bed, so I wasn't totally out of it when he came in looking pale and slightly disoriented.
"Beth?" he said softly, and I could hear a slight bit of panic in his voice, which brought me out of the light sleep into which I'd fallen.
"Ricky? What's wrong?" I said in a voice still thick with slumber.
"Something's not right," he said. "I can't get comfortable, and I've got this ... weird feeling in my chest, like I've got a hard ball in my esophagus, and a tingling feeling down my left arm."
He sat down heavily on the chair in our bedroom, and that's when I got up and looked him over. I was alarmed at what I saw. He didn't appear to have a fever, but his skin was clammy and his face was covered in a cool sweat. He also seemed to be having a little trouble breathing
"Go lie down on the couch in the den," I said. "I'm calling 911."
"You don't have to do that," he said as he stood up on legs that looked shaky. "I'm fine."
"You are not fine," I said, a little more crossly than I intended. "I'm not having you drop dead on me. Something's wrong and we're getting an ambulance out here. Now!"
Just then I noticed a grimace cross his face, and he didn't argue with me, but went right into the den and laid down on the couch.
Less than 10 minutes later, the ambulance was pulling in the driveway and the EMTs were starting to work. The first thing they observed after checking his blood pressure and pulse rate gave me a little bit of comfort.
"It doesn't appear that he's having a heart attack," one of them said. "But something is going on, so we'll get a nitro drip going as soon as we get him in the truck and we'll let the hot-shots take a look at him."
Ricky seemed to relax once it became clear that we were going to the hospital. He was alert and even a little jovial, although he was still clearly in a fair amount of discomfort.
Once they had him secured, they hustled him out to the ambulance while I threw some clothes on, then our 16-year-old daughter and I got in the car and followed them to the emergency room.
That began the six-day whirlwind that led me to the ICU and a nearly-comatose husband lying on the bed.
It turned out that Ricky had had an angina attack, not quite the same as a full-blown heart attack, but still nothing to ignore.
Once they got the pain abated and his condition stabilized, they sent him on to the large general hospital in the city nearest our hometown, where our two sons live, and began the battery of tests to find the source of the problem.
It didn't take them long to find it.
We were stunned to learn that Ricky had already had a heart attack. We have no clue as to when he had it, but the evidence was clear as day when we looked at the picture they got from the heart catheter. He had one artery on the back of his heart that was almost completely blocked and two others that were more than 50 percent blocked.
The cardiologist didn't hesitate. He recommended immediate bypass surgery.
"Frankly, I'm amazed that he's just now showing signs of trouble," he said.
I consulted some people in the medical field in this area that I trusted and got the name of the heart surgeon they considered the best, and said that was who we wanted. He was put on the schedule for the following Friday to have the procedure done.
We were completely baffled as to why he'd developed heart trouble. He had no family history of heart trouble, he was only 51 years old, he'd always been healthy and kept himself in good physical condition.
The only thing we could come up with was his 20-some years of smoking cigarettes. He'd taken up the habit in college, but had quit nearly 10 years earlier.
Whatever had caused it was irrelevant. It was a problem that had to be dealt with, and Ricky didn't look back for a second once the decision was made to have surgery.
I'll be honest, though; we were scared. Up to that point, our lives had been a fairy tale, and now suddenly we were confronted with a mortal crisis that could take my Ricky away from me.
I've never felt more alone in my life -- notwithstanding all of the family, friends and clergy that were surrounding me -- than in that moment when they wheeled him into the operating room. I was absolutely lost, and that's when I finally cracked. I just buried my face in my father-in-law's shoulder and sobbed uncontrollably.
Now, as I sat by Ricky's bedside, I thought back over the 27 years of our marriage, plus the three years of courtship before that, and the life we'd made together.
You would be hard-pressed to find two people from more diverse backgrounds than ours, and I've always been convinced that we were fated to be together, because it took a peculiar set of circumstances for us to meet.
I'm the middle child from a family that was a fixture on the Main Line of Philadelphia. We're talking old -- very old -- money. If you've ever seen the movie, "Trading Places," with Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy, you have a fair idea of the kind of life I came from.
My father was a financier, much like in the movie, and my brother, Allan, three years my senior, followed eagerly in his footsteps.
My sister, a year-and-a-half younger than me, also followed the pattern. She was always gorgeous, always flirty, always popular, and she did the debutante thing with gusto.
For a long time, we also hated each other's guts, because she was everything I was not. I was pretty enough, just not in Lisa's class, and I was a little taller than average and a little gangly as a kid.
I was also a bit of a rebel. I preferred being alone, preferred the sanctuary of books to the company of others and I absolutely abhorred the society dos that were so much a part of my mother's and my sister's lives.
I wasn't so much of a rebel, though, that I could defy my folks on where I went to school. So I dutifully trotted off to an exclusive prep school, where I did pretty well, just not well enough to get much attention in the uber-competitive academic environment the school fostered.
So when my mom insisted that I follow her footsteps and attend Bryn Mawr -- and, oh by the way, join the same sorority she'd been a member of -- and hinting that she and Dad wouldn't pay for me to go anywhere else, I was stuck.
It was the worst two years of my life. The only halfway decent thing I got out of it was that I learned a little bit about sex. I started to fill out during my senior year of high school, and I was somewhat amazed to find that I could attract guys.
Unfortunately, the guys I met when I was at Bryn Mawr were the same kind of simpering idiots like my brother, snobs who thought their shit didn't stink.
After my fourth abortive relationship with some moneyed clown, I'd had enough. I informed my parents that I was transferring, and I'd wait tables if I had to in order to pay for it. I'd poured myself into my studies, so I had the grades, and I chose to go to Penn.
My parents was taken aback at my determination and acquiesced.
Being an Ivy League school, Penn isn't exactly like Penn State or Michigan or some other such state university, but it was a whole different world from Bryn Mawr. I actually met real people for the first time in my life, and I threw myself into campus activities.
.... There is more of this story ...