I never knew you. But after spending last Saturday with those that did, I am filled with a profound sense of gratitude for all that you were, in your short time with us.
As I listened to people talk about you over the lunch held in your honor, I could not help but notice that most of the stories involved you going out of your way to help others. Most people in attendance remembered a time when you went out of your way to make sure those that needed help never went without it.
My hope is that you find this letter as your spirit drifts from place to place and watch over your family, friends and fellow soldiers in the United States Army, just as you did when your feet walked firmly on the ground.
I wanted to make sure you knew how special your memorial service at our local cemetery was. The veterans that rode in, American Flags on board, and stood at full attention while we all mourned your physical death and the active soldiers that provided a touching and impressive honor guard would have made you proud.
The strength of your parents helped guide everyone through this difficult time. Your extended family was there and remembered you fondly, and your nephews did an excellent job filling your memorial vessel with items to comfort you in your journey. And I am sure those little boys will soon come to realize that those balloons they released that got stuck in the trees was a sign that you wanted to stick around awhile longer.
It seemed from all the remembrances of your life you were on a perpetual search for a place where you would fit in. Fitting in is something we all want, it comes easier to some, and it sounds like you finally found that place with the United States Army.
As we shuffle through life there are many moments that make a lasting impact on us. Ones that we learn from, cry because of, and even smile at the faintest reference to, the pieces of life that we collect and make us who we are.
It occurs to me that the experiences we have, the friends we make and the lessons we learn become the fabric of our lives. And no matter the length, we put together a blanket of these memories which we can use going forward. Whether to help us or someone else, we patch together a quilt that eventually becomes the story of our lives and reveals how we have come to be who we are.
The fact that our doctors were not able to determine your cause of death does leave an empty patch on your blanket. But just because that patch remains blank for now, that does not in any way leave your loved ones in the dark; for it is the empty spots where the light comes through the brightest. And your light will be felt by so many people that you cared about.
I wanted to say thank you for allowing me a day to learn about you and meet all those folks that you cared for and cared so much about you. I will never forget the day and will honor you by adding a patch to my quilt that encompasses all that you lived for, and were striving to become as your body left us.
Rest easy Nathan. See you on the other side.
This week marks four months since I was out running the trails of the Berkshires. Our rough winter weather has been a nuisance for my recently cracked sternum, but I’ve been told that the discomfort gets better. While boot camp classes and elliptical machines are a decent substitute, for me, nothing beats jogging through nature.
There is something about trail running that reaches into my soul, circles my heart and appears on the edges of my eyes while I grin at the sun. Inspiration comes from many places, but when you take up a new venture the challenge to succeed has to originate from inside if it will have lasting meaning. I have toyed with personal challenges like hiking to a mountain peak, trail running certain distances, but they have always been marks I set for myself kept to myself…until now.
My open heart surgery occurred on Friday, January 13th and added another frightening notch in a belt of a number that has been considered unlucky for centuries. In addition to that date, my wife recently informed me that there were 13 people in the waiting room during my eight-hour surgery (it’s a wonder I made it out alive).
Numbers, even anniversaries are different now. They pass through me like a train passes by while you stand on the platform. You acknowledge the passing train and know that another will be coming by soon and may have your name on it. You glance at the train, then look away and bring your focus back to whatever is currently pressed on your mind.
Passing through another Friday the 13th a few days ago Sunie and I talked over breakfast about the day of my surgery. We didn’t talk in big bold letters as I am wont to do at times when I tell the stories of those precious few days where breathe balanced perilously on the brink.
Acknowledging that day when it appears is a healthy practice. Life gives us all some very unpleasant situations to deal with, and allowing them to consume us adds to stress and puts us in a dangerous cycle that can be hard to extricate from.
I ended up acknowledging my scary day of 13 by signing up for a trail race. Yes, that feels as weird to write as it does to say, the last time I ever remember racing in any capacity was during high school basketball practice. Back in those days the last place finisher in the sprints portion of practice had to do more sprints, so my only incentive was to finish second to last, an honor I claimed nearly every time.
Trail running has been a potent activity that kept me moving last year during my recovery. I signed up or this race for many reasons, the main one is I have been toying with the notion of such an act for months now, and thinking and talking about doing things is so very last year while actually doing things is far more hip, not to mention healthy.
We all have things we would like to accomplish. We face challenges every day and how we climb those hills helps define us as people. For 98% of trail runners winning the race is not the object. Getting out in nature, enjoying the camaraderie of fellow runners and overcoming our individual obstacles are just some of the reasons people gather at these events (plus you usually get a cool t-shirt if you finish).
Now for the good part; my maiden voyage at a trail race will be this June very close to home in Pittsfield and it just happens to be called Vegan Power. You don’t have to be vegan to run it but all the pre and post-race snacks I was assured will be vegan, ,and while meeting fellow plant nerds has proven hard in our new community, I am sure I will be running with some of them in less than 10 weeks.
Crap, 10 weeks. I need to start training. Trail races come in all shapes and sizes, this particular one consists of a 50K distance and a 25K distance. I’m unsure as to why we use kilometers so often for race running in the United States but I gather because the sound of K is much softer, and gentler than saying MILES. In fact if you told me to choose running 25 Ks or 15.5 MILES I would undoubtedly pick the 25 Ks (they are the same thing).
Crap again. 15.5 miles? Who signed me up to run over 15 miles over the sticks, stones, grass, and dirt?
You may be wondering how long I have run on my own now that we have established this is my first race. Well, let’s see, without stopping I’ve made it about two miles on the trails. Then I’ve walked awhile and run a little more. Last year I peaked two mountains (my term, not sure if that’s a thing, yet) and had a dozen trail outings that clocked over 10 miles. But never 15, and never in a race, you know, with competitive juices flowing, possible urine wanting to flow and most likely tears in major flow mode.
I have no idea if I am up for this challenge in what will be 17 months after open heart surgery, not to mention a long, slow recovery. And I have no idea if I will even finish this race. As much as I am looking forward to answering those doubts I am not sure if that is what this is all about.
As I continue to travel the road of a bypass survivor I have encountered many people with attitudes steeped in defeat, frustration, and self-doubt. Continuing to heal and push beyond the boundaries set by conventional wisdom is something I have been setting my sights on since this past August.
I have a strong feeling that many of us have things that we would like to accomplish but we get derailed and fall behind. We worry far too much of what others might think of us and end up making excuses along the way and playing what if and what could have been more often than we would like. I share those pains and would love to hear from you and find out about some of the goals you are pursuing and challenges you are looking to run through this year.
For me this last 15 months between Friday the 13ths has been a magical ride filled with every conceivable undertaking and emotion. Each step is an opportunity to explore myself and uncover something that I would have missed if my eyes were closed.
As I begin this journey running on plants in the spirit of shared energy and enjoyment for all creatures I will make sure to keep you posted in the updates section of this site and I sincerely hope you join me in meeting your challenges, physical or otherwise, as we turn the page from one season to another.
For 20 years I was scared. I took the path of least resistance, avoided conflict when I could and directed every emotion inward. Most of my adult life was a sad, slow shuffle through a mundane life of quiet desperation.
When my heart attacked me everything changed. During those precarious days before, during and immediately after major heart surgery, something happened. I wasn’t scared anymore. In the time when I should have been frightened beyond imagination, I was calm.
While doctors and nurses rushed around me, I watched their faces, studied their actions and tried to help when I could. I could barely breathe, but my mind was quiet, lucid and acutely aware of what was going on. At times the pain was more than I could bare, and at one point I remember wanting to give up, but I never felt scared.
Then, when I went away, only kept alive by a heart and lung machine, a transformation occurred. At some point I went from being a human being having a spiritual experience to a spiritual being having a human experience. It is okay if you have to reread that sentence, it’s taken me months to understand and curate this belief and welcome it into my life.
In the 14 months since walking out of Vassar Brother’s Hospital I have carried a lot of weight around, and for almost as long, you as readers have rode along with me as I have shed those pounds in many different ways so it is with great respect for you as my extended family that I bring you into the latest in a series of milestones.
I am not taking my statins anymore.
Against the advice of my current cardiologist I have ended my cycle of one of America’s most prescribed prescription drugs. For those of you fortunate enough to not have to take a statin, I can tell you a little about them. There are several kinds of statins, the most popular, atorvastatin, known as Lipitor for anyone that has watched a television commercial this decade is prescribed to patients as a means to lower cholesterol and prevent heart attacks, and they work for many people.
I have been taking Lipitor for over a year and have been told on numerous occasions that I will have to take it every day for the rest of my life. Ending this cycle was a hard decision and one that many people will not understand. Advice comes from many corners and I have been open to all of it, but when we lay our heads down at night and shut our eyes, in those precious moments before we fade to dream we answer only to ourselves.
My decisions are based on many factors. In addition to how I feel, I have had some impressive blood work results, and at times, considering I underwent triple bypass surgery just over a year ago, the blood numbers are phenomenal.
This decision was made with serious contemplation surrounding all possible results. In the last year I have spent most of my free time reading, researching, learning and listening to everything related to healing not just the heart, but the entire body, mind and soul.
Considering statins are a 30 billion dollar industry, it’s safe to say there are many more members of the medical community against me than with me, but that doesn’t mean I am alone. Statins can be a good way to lower cholesterol and assist those of us with risk factors of heart disease, but I have come to believe that making the lifestyle changes I have made has given my body the tools its needs to begin to halt, and eventually reverse the chronic disease that riddles it without the side effects that will inevitably occur due to a lifetime of medicine.
Eating a completely organic, whole food, nutrient dense, and plant rich diet has changed everything with regards to how I feel. Other additions to my weekly regime have helped with stress management and the love and support from family and friends has been invaluable to me as this process evolves.
The old Kevin would have accepted a fate that the standard prescription based medical community would have bestowed on him. But the old Kevin was the guy that got us into this mess in the first place. Sadly there are many people that revert to their old ways after a health scare or being informed they have a chronic illness like heart disease, cancer or diabetes.
Everyone has their own process and most of us eventually come around to an understanding in our minds to reduce the things that cause us pain and increase the things that make us feel special. When those choices you make are affirmed by the response your body sends out to the world, an insurmountable energy engulfs everything you do.
There may be things you don’t like about yourself or maybe you think you are just a few tweaks away from getting to that next level. In some cases, like me and the drugs, it could be something or someone you need to lose from your life. Or, like me and yoga, it is something you need to add to your life to raise the ceiling another story.
When I reflect on the decision to stop taking the drugs that have been with me for over a year, I see a path with smooth stones and broken glass. There is always the danger of falling into old habits or being nicked by an unforeseen circumstance, but as long as I hit the stones free and true the journey remains open and the impossible rests at the tips of my fingers.
I’ve learned that you don’t need to go to the woods in order to suck the marrow out of life because if you focus, the woods come to you.
Dean Ornish, the doctor that most of us plant nerds look at as bringing the concept of halting the destructive advance of heart disease, and in some cases, reserving it all together, developed a multi-pronged course of treatment that I think is essential to the long term health of everyone of us.
There are obvious ways to improve our health. Exercising more and eating better are universally agreed upon as lifestyle factors that if adhered to will make not only our hearts happier, but our minds, bellies, arms, eyes, and, well, you get the idea, better.
There are two other aspects of Doctor Ornish’s program that don’t get as much attention and during my recovery this past year I have realized just how important they are. The two facets that the good doctor has been preaching for over a quarter century are Managing Stress and How Much Love and Support You Have. For the sake of your weekly five minutes, I will focus on the later today.
Having a system of support and love surrounding you is vital in the management of chronic disease. And if having support is a factor in making your way back from a life threatening illness, as it is in my case, just imagine what it can do for those of you that are not staring down the barrel of chronic disease. Doctors can't write you a script for these lifestyle changes so it is on everyone of us to live better and work smarter.
I have been going hard at the books of late, taking a nutrition certification course and some culinary classes so for a break in the action last month, my wife and I snuck away from the Berkshires and headed east toward the ocean and our old stomping ground of Cape Cod. During our short visit we were treated to a Master’s Course in Community Support.
The Outer Cape is a special, often misunderstood and at times infuriating place to be, but during this particular weekend everything good about it was on display. Friday evening I accompanied Sunie to a special five-year anniversary party of a yoga studio owned by one of our friends. A place where Sunie had both worked and taught and a place I always wanted to go to but as was my way back then, far too intimidated to attend.
This time was different. I am different. Everything is different. As a thank you to the community that has supported the studio, its amazing owner Petra Ledkovsky taught a free class which was followed by a party complete with mostly vegan snacks and some pretty sweet raffle prizes.
The class was amazing. I had heard from my wife what an amazing teacher Petra was and after taking just my first class with her it was easy to see why. Not only did she create a comfortable space but she encouraged me to try new things, to push myself and open my heart to an experience that I will never forget.
After the class we were able to catch up with some old friends, share stories and trade smiles before heading off. The entire night was special and proved once again that small, simple gestures of kindness can move complicated things like your brain and heart to a space reserved for lasting memories.
The next night we went even further out on the Cape to Wellfleet’s venerable Preservation Hall for Chef Michael Ceraldi’s seven-course Valentine’s Day dinner.
Finding a pulse in February on the Outer Cape is not easy, but in the heart of Wellfleet we found one thanks to a few dozen hearty souls and a handful of hospitality wizards. Once again the experience shattered the already high expectations that the Ceraldi crew lives by, and if you are ever on the Cape in season you need to eat the food that they so carefully prepare.
After giving us an amazing introduction regarding the menu, Michael threw out some phrases and descriptions in perfect Italian (and I only thought he knew the Italian curse words).
Not only did this man craft a special seven-course menu of local ingredients prepped and prepared to perfection for his 50 guests, but he was able to come up with an entirely different and equally amazing menu for his one vegan weirdo at table one. I would drive the four hours back to the Cape tonight for the Eastham turnip roasted in an open fire, just one of several mind blowing adventures of what has now become number two on my all-time most memorable dining experience list (Ceraldi also has the No. 1 and No. 4 spot).
That weekend has been circling around my frontal lobes lately for many reasons, but the prevailing thought that keeps occurring centers around the community that both Petra and Michael have helped create. There are plenty of restaurants and yoga centers around but rarely have I entered ones with the profound sense of gratitude for the people that walk through their doors.
My wife tells me that my affection for Petra and Michael stems from the fact that the three of us are New Yorkers at heart, and that may be true. But when I see Michael in his kitchen or Petra with her students I see much more than a geographic location, I see a unique energy that only occurs when someone truly cares about the experience of others.
For a long time I thought Sunie and I would end up back on the Cape. Back in the community where we met and fell in love, and the one that we have some amazing friends and lasting memories. The past three years I have lived in seven different homes and one gigantic food truck. I don’t believe the grass was greener, the food was better or the guitars screamed louder in these other places. Each place we went had its good and its bad. Change can be good, change can be fun, change can be exciting but let’s face it, moving sucks.
The merry go round is coming close to an end as Sunie and I are just a few weeks away from buying our first house together. A quaint, old farmhouse in the Berkshires and we are impossibly happy about the prospects of starting a family in the area we have come to rest our weary heads upon this past year.
It is the area where we got married; the area where I nearly died, and the area where, with her unwavering support, I am making an extraordinary comeback.
Instead of looking for a place to fit in, I found a place that fits me. Our towns on the left side of Massachusetts have a lot going for them, but they can also use some polish and instead of searching for the missing pieces we feel that we can help find some of those pieces and make this even more of a place we are happy to call home (for now).
Let us know when you need a bit of that mountain air because we will have a guest room ready and a cup of tea waiting for you.
When did I decide that eating an apple a day kept the doctor away? And why did I ever believe that milk did my body good and beef was what was for dinner.
I ate what I was given and cleaned my plate. I wandered blindly through my school cafeteria, adding curious creations to my tray without thinking of the consequences. Once my cafeteria years ended and I started food shopping I built my diet on top of a cracked foundation.
I made horrible decisions. I stopped exercising regularly, I loved a good cigar and routinely put steak and chicken in my shopping cart while zooming past the produce section in favor of assorted cheeses and processed snacks.
My dietary decisions were based on what I wanted, not what I needed, and those decisions nearly cost me everything. As I aged I noticed I was slower, foggier, my aches turned into pains and those pains turned into debilitations.
Every afternoon my shoulder felt as if someone had stabbed it. I chalked that up to the 4,124 curve balls I threw in my teenager years and that it was something I would always suffer with. My 20’s were spent dealing with crippling migraine headaches. They came at all hours for any reason. Those were awful years and nothing seemed to help. I had terrible psoriasis, back and knee pain and eventually during my 30’s I added neck and elbow pain just, you know, for the challenge of it.
I eventually made better choices; substituting regular coke for diet coke then just seltzer. For years I limited red meat to Monday nights; I switched from beer to red wine. I stopped breading chicken and ate more fish. But those better choices were always fleeting. I never ate breakfast and spent months at a time existing on clam chowder and a deli sandwich while pounding out 14-hour work days and eating pizza for dinner.
During those years I tried all the fad diets, from Atkins to Weight Watchers, they all made big promises that never delivered lasting results, because just like me, they are built on shaky foundations.
My dietary life was on a downward spiral, and the damage had been done from the years of poor choices. Despite some better habits that occurred in my later years the sins of the past were too much for my heart to withstand.
Having survived those weeks in the hospital and reflecting on what brought me there it became clear to me that while I pulled the trigger, many other forces loaded the gun. The food industry as a whole has been promoting unhealthy options for longer than I have been alive and the entire spectrum of nutrition is overrun with conflicting messages and false promises.
Much like the tobacco industry did decades ago the food industry is now doing a masterful job at confusing us and confusion can create apathy. Disease thrives in apathy.
Heart disease now takes more of us down than all types of cancer, combined. We spend an insane amount of our healthcare dollars treating the effects of heart disease while spending pennies on the prevention of it.
Over the last year I have finally been responsible for my dietary decisions. Being truly honest with how I am feeling, combined with the information I am gathering has made me acutely aware of the effects food and improved nutrition has on my life.
Having existed on plants in their whole form for over a year now has made keenly aware of how the body responds when you treat it kindly. I understand that this way of living is not easy at first, and I was one of those people that wasn’t crazy about giving up my favorite things, or at least what I had been persuaded to believe were my favorite things.
Whole is a word I have become friendly with these days. Not only does it explain what I eat but it describes how I eat and how I feel.
When you have a chance to reflect on what nutrition really is and the role it plays in each and every aspect of our lives you soon realize just how important it is to take back control from factory farms, misguided government guidelines and parlor tricks from greedy food manufacturers.
These decisions we make regarding the food we put into our bodies are some of the most important decisions we will make in our lifetime and it affects every aspect of our culture. From personal health to plant health, what we eat literally means everything.
Here are just three things that have happened to me in the last few months. All of them I attribute to my nutrition and food choices. (P.S. There are way more than these three)
These are serious times and I encourage you to take a serious look at what you are eating and why you are eating it. Ask questions, read books, and be honest with yourself regarding how you feel. Health issues don’t have to be whispered about or be ashamed of. Talk to your friends, ask me, and listen to strangers. Take steps to feel better and live longer. If you are already there, great, if you are like me and just coming around I hope you stick with it, and if you don’t know where to begin, there are plenty of us that can help.
The good thing about blame is that it is temporary. It gets thrown around like a hot potato but eventually laying it all over the place gets old and you are forced to deal with the situation you helped create.
So am I the victim or the crime? I’m a bit of both, but that doesn’t make me a criminal or a charity case. What I believe it does is give me real life experience to tackle our greatest threat, which is chronic disease. Having been able to see the change, and feel the change has made all the difference.
In the quest for truth we come across information laced with lies, and promises that lead to the cliff’s edge. Somewhere on that path there will be answers and if you are honest with yourself you will know they have been there all the time and needed only to have the sticks brushed away or the stones removed for you to see them.
When your heart breaks, or even cracks a bit, things are hard to hold together. But there I was, lying in bed with my wife’s back pressed into my chest, holding her tightly in my arms as she cried.
A few hours earlier an ultra sound confirmed what we knew in our hearts. Our baby had miscarried. Our little Poppy, named after the description a silly pregnancy app on Sunie’s phone used to describe our baby’s size (that of a poppy seed), was no longer to be.
Finding out that we had conceived was thrilling, and the fact that is occurred just four months after my open heart surgery lent the feeling of being doubly blessed to our little household.
We told our family. We made plans. We bought cool changing table at a local yard sale and I started a photo journal of Sunie’s belly in progress. My wife, always the expressive one, started to walk around with the top button on her jeans open despite not gaining much weight.
I had always wondered what kind of father I would make and now I would have the chance to find out. We were thrilled at the prospects of raising a child together and more than once Sunie had told me that one of the biggest reasons she married me was that she believes I will be a good dad.
It is safe to say I would make a better dad now than when we first met. Trading the cigars and cider for plant protein and tea were signals, and my mind and body are much more equipped for a young stranger to enter my universe more now than ever. I began to think that it was Poppy who was waiting for me to get my act together before arriving on our shore.
We talked about Poppy all the time. We started a vegetable garden and I went to work to prove that I could produce healthy produce for our growing family. We were happy.
The day I accompanied Sunie to her doctor’s office for an ultrasound this past summer was just another in a streak of optimistic afternoons. As I sat in the examination room I watched the doctor’s eyes widen and his lips get tense. I sat up, the doctor spoke, but he didn’t have to.
He sent us to the local hospital where their machines could get a clearer picture, but we all knew what it would show. At the hospital we saw the image. Poppy was in there, but Poppy wasn’t moving.
I could see the outline of her little head and tiny body. She was just resting without a single care in the world. But she wasn’t part of the world any longer. In her brief time she felt so much yet saw so little. She never saw the flowers, the birds or the sun. She never gazed toward the mountains or watched the waves of the ocean. But she felt her mother and shared in her warmth; and she felt the love of so many others she would never meet.
That afternoon when we stopped crying we got up from our bed, wiped our eyes and went about the things that couples do. The other things. It is the other things that keep you willing and able to deal with the bumps and bruises. The other things.
The woman that I get to lay with every day is a peaceful, special soul that can have her head so lovingly in the clouds while, at the very same time, digging her feet firmly in the soil.
I always claimed that I was unbreakable. That no matter what life threw at me I could survive on my guts and my wits, but I was wrong. Sunie took care of me, never wavering despite being seconds away from losing me. Sunie is the unbreakable one, and her greatest gift to me will always be picking up all of my broken pieces and putting them back together.
In this time returning from the brink I have learned many things. This has been a year of education, observation and exploration, and those actions continue every day. They have to.
I spent a recent weekend attending a writing workshop and during my ride home I was trying to remember a quote from Kurt Vonnegut about how he thought of his audience when he was writing. As I drifted home, following the Housatonic River past old homes and open countryside I remembered what the man said.
“Every successful creative person creates with an audience of one in mind.”
This blog and the extremely rough and terribly organized draft of a memoir that it has turned into have been life altering creative activities. I often wondered, even doubted why I bother to write down these moments. I ask myself if writing it really matters. If anyone will read it, and if they do will they even care?
Then I think of Poppy, the sweet, beautiful creation of my most optimistic spirit. She is laying there listening and reminding me of what life is like when you live it truly happy and without judgement.
She is the spirit now. Poppy. My audience of one.
A few minutes into his jaw dropping set at the Monterey Pop, Jimi Hendrix playfully eases into a cover of the greatest song ever recorded. The opening notes of “Like a Rolling Stone” are easily identifiable, and Hendrix’s’ conversational style of singing is perfect in this place. But just as we are settling in for the ride we hear Hendrix hesitate and then tell the audience, “Yes, I know I missed a verse, don’t worry.”
The master finishes the song, and then a half an hour later his time on stage climaxes when he lights his guitar on fire before smashing it to pieces in one of the most horrifying and beautiful moments my eyes have ever seen.
But what I always think about when I hear parts of that set is how does he so easily put aside the forgetting of an entire verse of one of the more well-known songs of any time? After making a name in Europe, that show was his coming out party in America and he dropped a verse from a song he had performed many times before. He failed, in front of everyone, yet it is hailed as one of the most memorable performances in rock history. How can that be?
Despite my relative ease at accomplishing it, failure is something I have never been comfortable with. At times the only success I have had was failure and despite failure becoming a frequent guest of mine I was never at ease with it as a dinner guest.
Albert Einstein said, “Anyone that has never made a mistake has never tried anything new,” and at no point am I going to argue with the genius.
Last week I had planned to take a couple of classes at our local health center. After leaving the first, a meditation class, I wandered into the next one that was just about to begin. Seconds after walking into the gym my body tensed up and a pit formed in my stomach. I saw big dudes exposing their muscles through shirts void of sleeves and weird looking equipment littering the floor of the gymnasium. I was out of there faster than I walked in. I went to my comfortable space on the elliptical machine and lasted all of five minutes before giving up there too. I was clearly rattled and it messed me up for most of the day.
You would think that after all I have been through and accomplished in the last 13 months the sight of Hans and Franz stretching amid some archaic exercise toys would be nothing but a chicken wing on a string to me. I chalked it up to another failure. But was it? Are failures that big of a deal that I need to allow it to negatively affect the rest of my day?
Excuses flew around me, perhaps the meditation class went deeper than I had thought and I was feeling especially open and exposed when I walked into the gym or maybe the medicine I am on has depression and mood swings on its list of side effects?
There was a time when I never tried anything new and I was dangerously close to entering into a life where complacency was so natural that it was going to kill me. It almost did. During those years I felt no real emotions, no monumental loss or happiness despite plenty of things to be happy and sad about. It was just years and years of going through the motions.
In times of dying we all develop ways to cope and engage in practices that may not improve the situation we find ourselves in. But we get through the night and tell ourselves tomorrow will be different. But they never are, they certainly can be, but they never get there unless you flip the coin and get honest with yourself and comfortable with failure.
During one of the few times I played a round of golf I was riding in the cart with a friend of mine who we will call Cos because well, that is what we all called him. After firing shots in every direction under the sun, wandering around like Lewis and Clark looking for lost golf balls, and on more than one occasion cursing the heavens for inventing a sport so infuriating, I looked at Cos and asked him why he did it. Why if this game was so full of failure and disappointment did he play it all the time?
“Well Kev, yes, most of the time the ball goes nowhere near where I was hoping it would go, but every once and awhile I hit it perfect. I swing, and it goes, it’s in the sky and it drops exactly where I wanted it to drop. And that’s awesome, and that’s why I come back and play the next time. For moments like that.”
Cos always seemed much more comfortable in his skin than I ever felt in my own and I always envied that about him. I think about the point he made as I recover and move forward with a life completely unlike the one that preceded the cracking open of my sternum.
To be comfortable with failure is as important as being humble when we succeed, even more so as we stumble far more often than we stand tall. This week I am attempting some new things and while failure is a distinct possibility the prospect of it is less ominous than it has ever been.
A writing workshop is on my schedule, as will be continuing education courses in plant-based nutrition and cooking. The chances of having to share my thoughts and my writing in a group setting excites me and gaining a better understanding of how plants provide the nutrition we need to excel is something that I have been building towards for months.
Old habits may creep in. At times I will hesitate and feel uncomfortable, but not only do I possess the tools to deal with those moments, now I relish these moments and treat them as learning experiences and a reminder that we are all works in progress, and that true happiness, and true sadness can be found in the work. That is what is most important to me now. The work, a word with a new meaning and a different journey than my dreams could have previously conjured.
“Mistakes are portals of discovery,” said another genius. As I embark on more learning and more discoveries in my post bypass surgery self, the days become more precious, and it’s the moments that mean everything.
This week, just one year ago, I woke up, still tired from a restless sleep, but excited and focused on the tasks at hand. I had been at my new job for 10 weeks and learned a great deal. Settling in for the winter meant it was time to focus on implementing new policies and procedures, taking my experience and applying it to the knowledge I had gained during many hours of guest service, and staff meetings at a venerable New England resort and conference center.
I was excited for the prospects of working with my fellow managers to reenergize the inn and help usher in a new era of memories for our staff and guests; as you may have guessed by now, those plans never got off the ground.
Instead of my year revolving around banquet event orders, holiday menus, room service issues and mothers of brides, it centered on items such as atherosclerosis (I can finally spell it but still can’t pronounce it), rehabilitation, medication, heart rates and hiking.
I have worked just two months this year; yet I have never been richer.
I had my heart stop and life supported by machines; yet I have never been happier.
I have changed a great deal in one year, but do not fear; I’m still weird, I still drive some people crazy and I most certainly still believe that every answer is somewhere blowing in the wind.
Looking back is helpful at times, which is why this blog exists and why I have decided to try my hand at writing a memoir based on this fateful year of my life. But even more important than reflecting on the past is focusing on the future, which is where signing up for trail races, looking for new types of careers, and experimenting with seitan come into play.
While we take care of the past and future in the pages of our lives and with notes on our calendars, the most important lesson I have learned this year has to do neither with our past lives or our future selves.
The lesson is as elusive as a shooting star, and just as explosive. Be present in the moment. This moment, right now, because there is nothing else as important. For me it is as simple and as challenging as being aware of my breath.
To be fully engaged with yourself and the subjects you seek is not easy. It takes a great deal of patience and practice. I have always had a large amount of the former, only now have I devoted real time to the latter.
By truly living in the moment, I have been able to understand things that had previously been afterthoughts or pipe dreams. Being honest with myself was a rough realization. People use the term, “the truth hurts” often but it has been my experience that they are rarely referring to themselves when they turn that phrase.
Sitting alone in my hospital room during my stay at Vassar one year ago, I had more time to think than is humanly safe or psychologically recommended. Drastic times call for drastic measures was a phrase I said to myself many of those nights lying awake in my bed. But as I look back one year later, was it all really that drastic? What have I done? Have I accomplished anything?
Is living in a way that promotes increased kindness and compassion really that drastic of a lifestyle change? Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. I only know that it feels right, and that I have not regretted anything I have done since waking up after open heart surgery.
That statement is so mind boggling that I have re-read it 11 times since I wrote it. From a life full of false starts and pointless daydreaming to a year void of regrets; it is a progression that I can’t understand, but one that I respect and feel fortunate to have awakened for and experienced.
On this anniversary I won’t preach about making your days matter or living life to the fullest because you all already know those things. You won’t get any witty sayings or Bob Dylan quotes because I have already given you far too many of those.
I just came here today to say thank you. Thank you all for everything you have done for me and to me this year. Your constant kindness is something that I cherish more than you can possibly know.
Now let’s get going, we have another whole year ahead for hair-brained schemes to hatch, smiles to uncover, kind words to share and helping hands to offer.
I’ll be waiting on the other side of the road, see you there.
Even by conservative estimations, 2017 was an eventful year in my life.
I brushed past death and was touched by greatness. I learned a myriad of new tricks, but had to be patient while relearning simple tasks mastered long ago. I learned more about myself this year than I had during the previous 40, and fell in love about 200 different times, with the same woman.
I never considered myself strong. For decades I would marvel at the feats of others, a curious wallflower that used the fear of nothing whatsoever to justify an existence on the sidelines.
When my heart attacked me in January my body went into survival mode, but at the time I don’t think my mind and spirit were up for the challenge. I was weak of mind while years of sadness had bruised my soul past the point of caring, and everything was finally catching up to me.
I’ve been asked countless times from the people around me why I didn’t seem nervous as the walls were closing in around me during those hours leading up to my open heart surgery. We all want to live, but a large part of me felt that I deserved whatever fate was to befall me, and that if I had died it would be a fitting end for a life not well lived. I would soon discover just how strong the human is and just how fluid fate can be.
Somewhere between being put to sleep before surgery and waking up half a day later I saw something. It wasn’t a bright light or a figure calling me home. It was an old fashioned photo album using my brain as the projector and my eyelids as the screen. The pictures started flipping and I could see myself in various stages of youth. Some images I recognized because they were actual pictures I have seen in photo albums my mother has, but others were moving images of actual memories. The album went forward, speeding up and slowing down as it traveled through my life.
I recognized myself as a young boy, plodding around while my mother chased after me. I saw clips of my brother and sister, pictures of my father holding me and even our beloved golden retrievers. It went on from there and included images of me growing up, and getting sad. The older I seemed in the photos the sadder I looked, but I saw my wedding day and the image of my wife in her dress standing before me and I smiled. I’m not sure if I was smiling on the outside, but I felt warm and happy on the inside despite the trauma and after effects of open heart surgery. After the image of my wife faded the album flipped through a few blank pages and that was it. It was gone.
As I approach the year anniversary of those events I am blessed, and cursed with so many moments to reflect on and emotions to understand. The one concept I keep returning to is being grateful, and not just for surviving the surgery because that, as I have found out this year, was the easy part.
I am grateful for starting over, even if the prospects of such an act frighten the mind. Everything has changed, so much so that I don’t recognize myself sometimes. I want to try new things and experience everything, so why, during countless occasions this year have I found myself paralyzed on my couch; sitting with feet firmly on the ground, hands on my knees, staring at nothing?
During a session in cardiac rehab one of my fellow patients informed us all of a new study that she had read in a medical journal about the life expectancy of cabbages. I can’t remember her name, but that vegetable moniker was a favorite of hers, and for those that are lost as I was it comes from Coronary Artery Bypass Graft (CABG) surgery, the one she and I had in common. She read with excitement from an article stating that survivors of the kind of surgery we had could expect to live about 17 more years. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she realized what she just told me. Now for her, in her mid-70’s, that news was terrific. Almost two decades of playing with grandkids, going to plays at Shakespeare and Company and tending to her garden were in front of her, but for me?
That walk home from cardiac rehab was rough. I sat on the couch for hours, wondering what the point of all of this was if I was just going to die young anyway. I reflected on those thoughts for a long time and that is where things started to change.
I thought about our first meeting with Doctor Shahani, my surgeon, when he told me how most men my age and with my arteries rarely make it to the hospital, alive. I remembered hearing about all the people that hung out with my family in the waiting room at the hospital, many never even being able to see me because I was resting or undergoing a procedure, and how after just a few weeks of cardiac rehab I was exercising for an hour without giving up or passing out.
Not long after that revelation from my fellow heart patient I had another revelation and it went something like this, “I’ve already beat the odds, and I have a lot of people helping me, what the hell do I care about what some dopey medical journal says?”
I graduated cardiac rehab on a great note, using the elliptical machine for the entire session and down to 222 pounds (from 238) to go along with stable blood pressure numbers. From there I hit hiking trails, reached a few mountain peaks and joined a gym.
There are still rough days. The internal struggle that plays on my mind after my most essential organ fails remains an extraordinary leap of faith. I can’t see inside my arteries and I have no idea if the lifestyle changes I have made are helping me. I only know how I feel and what I believe.
I have not wavered from my vegan diet and cannot imagine a scenario where I would. The amount of exercise I am doing on a weekly basis is something I have not approached since I was a teenager and the effect it has on my outlook and mood is astonishing, which is why, after being carted off to the ER in my third week at the gym I made sure to return the next night and exercise, even for just a few minutes.
There will always be the unknown. Fear of pushing my body too far and being taken to the ER again or worse, but not allowing my body to regress into its old form and my mind to retreat to a space of sadness and weakness instead of strength and love trumps everything.
In a year full of so many ups and downs everything becomes ups when you look at them from the ground. Some have referred to what I went through as tragic; they’ve called it a disease, lamented the fact of how I am so young or just nodded and wished me luck.
What happened to me this year was a gift. An amazing experience of enlightenment and understanding and one that I will cherish for the rest of my days, no matter how many of them are left. I am grateful for this year, and truly grateful for this life I get to lead.
Oh, and those blank pages I saw during my operational drug induced haze? One can interpret them to mean my life doesn’t have much left to it or the blank pages are waiting to be filled in with new memories. But when all is said and done, it only matters how I fill my back pages.
An ambulance gave me a ride to the Emergency Room yesterday.
My second ride of the year. For those of you that have been reading from the beginning of this blog adventure you know about the first. This one was different, and the same. Different because of the cause, but the same because of the questions.
I have been adding to my life’s recovery by experimenting with yoga and meditation with some interesting results. Slowing things down in the mind is something I have rarely been able to accomplish, but that is why we practice. My life has taken many twists and turns; at times I’ve been cruising in the left lane while other times I’ve dumped myself on the side of the road.
There were a string of bad breaks. I had two dear friends die within a year and a half of each other when I was a teenager. My parents split up a few years after that and just a few more years later my father died. Looking back on those days I spent far too much time feeling bad for myself while it was others that were taking the brunt of the pain.
Loss of such significant magnitude while I was struggling for my own identity was hard to handle. And it is fair to say I didn’t handle it very well. I pissed a lot of people off. At times I have drank too much, at times I have worked too much, but most of all I cared too little. Your suffering, I believe, is essentially your own because that is the way we make it.
The inability to move on and find peace with myself after these events resulted in being stuck in neutral for a long time. Imagine a record (vinyl is cool again) just skipping and you are unable to get to the next verse. Over and over again, the same hiccup, but then a (Sun)ie comes along, picks up the needle and begins to let the next song play.
Every so often a record comes along that goes deep and speaks to me, almost as if it was written FOR me. It comes to me at the perfect time. When I needed a lyric to guide me or a melody to get me moving. Its happened before and I cherish every one of them even if they exit the rotation. Bob has done it the most (and never leaves the rotation), seemingly recording albums just for me; first with Highway 61 Revisited and then a half dozen more times; Neil did it with Everybody Knows This is Nowhere which prompted me to write my first book and Warren did it with Excitable Boy, when I was already a man. More recently, Beck and The Black Keys have stopped me in my tracks with their, well, tracks (sorry).
So when I was given Nathaniel Rateliff’s Falling Faster Than You Can Run I got a sharp feeling that I was on to something. It seemed as if I was told a secret and the music was mine for as long as I needed it. So the day after my latest not so free ride to the ER I bundled up and walked my neighborhood with the album playing and just breathed, watched and smiled.
Rateliff’s writing, his voice, and his almost spiritual understanding of my situation is something that is hard to explain. As I stepped around a path I have walked a hundred times I wasn’t sure if I was seeing new things or seeing old things differently. With his words in my ears my mind was quiet, and my mind always struggles to quiet.
A few weeks ago I took my first formal yoga class, last week I started a meditation program and both I am sure have assisted in cooling my mind, but music has been with me far longer than these two latest life tools, but the new ones make for a pretty useful box. Lyrics (or at least how I hear them on the record) from Mr. Rateliff are in italics.
..this wound is going to cancel me out..
People ask me how often to I think about my open heart surgery, and I tell them everytime I see the 10 inch scar on my chest. In reality it is more frequent than that, but how I think about my scars has changed. I’ve taken the scars and regrets of my youth and dropped them behind me the way you would your coat when you come in from the cold. Wounds don’t have to hold you back, and in fact they can propel you toward things you never knew you were capable of, like climbing Vermont’s tallest mountain seven months after having your heart stopped, completing a 14-mile trail jog in 90 degree heat or simply doing an hour of cardio in the same gym where the day before you dropped and were sent to the ER (I did all three of those).
..and you never know what is buried there unless you dig around..
Exploring yourself can be just as scary as a summiting a mountain or a joining an expedition into the heart of the Amazon. Meditation and yoga have only begun to dig under my skin and root around the depths of my soul. In that exploration I have found understanding and acceptance, the latter wasn’t easy. Shovels can take on many forms; books, sneakers, albums or even a stranger, and you can use them all to dig around your soul and toss the dirt aside.
..well I got pain, and I’m going to salt it now..
Pain was something I just got used to. It was always there and while uncomfortable at least it was reliable. Busted body, bruised psyche and battered vision were real things, but I see now they are only temporary. You can always come back after a fall, the sooner I quit licking my wounds the sooner I was able to cherish the moment, and then let that moment go and prepare for the next one.
..it took hours just to find the words..
I’m an overthinker. The tangents of my stories have tangents. I know this and I realize that rarely does figure eight speech result in a coherent lesson. The first thing yoga taught me was awareness, and meditation has broadened that awareness to a level that I have never achieved, and I’m just a beginner. Stories are great, and I have told my share and always will, but understanding the time and place for them has added to my efficiency and my listeners enjoyment for sure.
..the heart just won’t quit..
My heart could have given up. After being smacked around for decades only to have been stopped during surgery while a machine handled its duties I wouldn’t have blamed it if it never started again. There are times when we have all had enough. Times of pain, confusion, fear, hatred, times when you want to stop. But my heart started again, and it did so on its own. There is nothing stopping any one of us from starting again, just wake up and take that first breath.
..this space, has a name, that you can’t, put fame to it at all..
I love all the changes happening in my life. It’s exciting and makes for a fuller experience. Tea has replaced alcohol, cigar walks are now hikes, reading and writing have purpose, almost nothing is mindless.
..some songs we can sing and never mean, some songs leave a ring..
Friends can fade in and out of your life just like songs. They can show up in unexpected places like hearing Nirvana in a department store or Rita King coming out of an elevator in Memphis, and they can disappear without notice like most people on the Outer Cape do at this time every year or my copy of Petty’s “Wildflowers,” which haunts me to this day. I don’t waste time on why they came or even why they left, I use what they can show me or what they have graciously already taught me.
..there is always distance between a shout and a whistle..
My father yelled a lot. He also smiled, hugged, encouraged, assisted, cheered up, taught, believed and loved a lot. I often focused on the shouting; I don’t do that anymore, ever. I just remember the whistles.
..I don’t want to brag, but we made it out of here alive..
When my heart began to beat again it was as if someone flipped the record and dropped the needle on a new side. The unreleased, super secret basement recordings that were often rumored but are now starting to circulate among enthusiasts. Welcome.
..when I hit the ground, I’m gonna laugh out loud, gonna lay there awhile, and stare at the clouds..
Being present in every moment is a challenge, but a challenge with untapped rewards. An awareness, a captivation, a dream while awake, walking with a purpose and running with determination. I’m not looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow anymore, the rainbow is the pot of gold.
It’s simple, but it’s not easy. Thank you for being here with me.
Finding my way to wellness after a series of heart attacks almost ended me at 40...