AMHERST - Her best walks are through the Sackville Water Park in late spring.
Ducklings follow their mothers like little parades through a brackish world of cattails and towering grasses still waking from winter’s hush.
“Each day over the summer, you watch how they grow,” said Tammy Ripley.
As an academic exercise, we all get that these moments should be sought and savoured because the beats of our hearts are numbered.
It’s just that Ripley doesn’t have the luxury of forgetting it.
Because the 36-year-old Amherst woman’s heart isn’t her own.
Or, at least, it wasn’t until nine months ago.
Failure of heart, triumph of spirit
“I’m a member of these support groups through the internet and you see some people get 14 or 16 years with their heart but some people only get two,” said Ripley.
“You don’t know how many days you have.”
Long before Ripley was born, a 16-year-old uncle she never knew came home from hockey practice and dropped dead in the house of her grandparents.
That’s how her family learned the words non-compaction cardiomyopathy and hypertrophic cadiomyopathy.
Bad hearts run in the family.
Well, they do and then they don’t insofar as ‘heart’ is a metaphor for human spirit.
Like her sister and her mother, Tammy grew up knowing that the fate that befell her uncle (Steven Smith) could also be hers.
She didn’t let the weakness and shortness of breath that accompanies the disease keep her from leading the life she wanted.
After high school, she became an early-childhood educator and spent the next six years working between Calgary and British Columbia.
She came home in 2008 to be there for her mother, Debbie Ripley, who was dying of cancer.
It was about then that her own heart began to fail.
She was tired all the time. Her legs and arms became swollen.
She soldiered on, working with children at the YMCA and through the school board.
Bright-eyed children excited for a world that she knew she wanted more of.
“I pushed it,” said Ripley.
But by 2013, she’d lost the strength to keep working.
A life of surgeries
She was a young woman watching old friends continue with their lives.
It’s no small decision to get a new heart.
You have to need it.
Be healthy enough to survive the surgery that could just as well cut your life shorter as prolong it.
“You’re poked, stabbed, X-rayed, everything is tested and done,” said Ripley.
Through a life of surgeries, she’d become well-accustomed to the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Halifax.
Now, she became a nearly biweekly visitor to its transplant clinic.
By 2017, she was only leaving her room in her father’s house for her walks, to spend time with her boyfriend (Aaron Secord) and for those trips to Halifax.
Her legs turned bluish, her hands and feet always cold.
On Jan. 17, 2018, she was put on the list for a new heart.
It meant keeping a cellphone with her at all times, keeping a bag packed and making arrangements for her own death.
“My dad knew that if I wouldn’t come out of a coma, if I was going to be a vegetable, to pull the plug and donate whatever organs they could,” said Ripley.
He knew to have her cremated and bury her ashes with the duck blanket she’d had since childhood and sewn full of badges from each province she’d visited (all of them) and every state she’d driven through (all them between Amherst and Disney World).
There were heavy conversations with her friends, her boyfriend, her grandmother.
They all knew she loved them.
Then while finishing a walk through the bird sanctuary at about 2 p.m. on April 27, her cellphone rang.
They had a heart for her and she was to be Halifax by 5 p.m.
She called Secord at work in Moncton and told him, “it’s time. You need to come home now.”
Word spread through a prearranged chain of calls.
Her grandmother showed up with her purse, flip-flops and a night dress, along with her aunt.
Secord tore into the yard and began throwing his work equipment off the back of the truck to make room for everyone’s luggage.
And the four of them were on the highway with This is My Fight Song blaring from the speakers as an aunt followed behind. Her boyfriend’s mother was getting on the next flight from Calgary
She’d had enough of being weak and sick.
“This was: I’m putting all my cards on the table,” said Ripley.
The surgery was delayed until the next morning and so she and Secord spent the night lying awake on a hospital bed talking.
At 4:30 a.m. on April 28, she had her playlist blaring and was surrounded by family.
“I was happy and cheerful,” said Ripley.
“This was my 18th surgery and it was the first time I wasn’t crying going into it.”
A surgeon wheeled her into a room full of light and machines that made pumping and beeping noises.
He asked her if she was ready.
She said she was.
They made small talk and then she was out.