Ordinarily, when a dark-skinned man opens your mother’s chest with a power tool early in the morning, one might be inclined to reach for his sidearm or other instrument of revenge.

In this case, though, we’re all writing him a fat check. Metaphorically, of course – my mom’s on Medicare and we’re talking about heart surgery.

A little more than two weeks ago, a surgeon buzzed through my mom’s sternum, stopped her heart, and inserted a valve from a cow into her aorta. He then sewed her back up, wheeled her out, and washed up – all in about the time it takes to watch one of the extended Lord of the Rings movies. “Routine surgery,” he called it, though anything that looks like an autopsy in progress is hardly routine in my opinion. I couldn’t help but marvel at both the state of medicine and the resilience of the human body; the former for its precision and mechanical approach to the flesh, the latter for sustaining abuse in the name of healing more gruesome than nature had ever intended.

Her recovery seemed excellent, and within two days she was to be moved out of the ICU. Moving her into the wheelchair, though, she reported that she felt faint. Oh, you’re fine, assured the nurse. Then faint she did – and her heart stopped, triggering a “code blue,” summoning the entire ICU staff to her room. They performed CPR on her for several minutes and were able to revive her, but at great cost to her recovery: she’s still in the hospital, eighteen days later.

That Sunday wasn’t the first time this year that I had stared down shinigami at my mother’s bedside; the first was just after Christmas, when her COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) laid her low, bringing her within a hair’s breadth of death by respiratory failure. This was brought on, of course, by her smoking – a habit that she’s unwilling (and unable) to break, even up to the day of her heart surgery. I’m hoping that these hospital vigils don’t become a regular occurrence, but with her history as a serial boundary-pusher, I can only think that this won’t be the last time that I find myself at her bed, wondering, “is she still unkillable? Has she used up her nine lives, or does she have yet one more to bring forth with her iron will?”