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.