To be full of strength and vigor one moment and virtually helpless the next, in the pink and pride of health one moment and a cripple the next, with all one’s powers and faculties one moment and without them the next – such a change, such suddenness, is difficult to comprehend, and the mind casts about for explanations. — Oliver Sacks
One of the readers of these pages commented recently that I write a good deal about death. Strangely, a few weeks earlier a reader commented that she thought I wrote a lot about love. Everything is a matter of perspective based upon our experiences of the moment. To these readers I responded “I write about what I know about life and two of the strongest elements of my life are love and death.”
It has taken me two years to write about this experience. I do not know why as a day does not pass without my conscious remembrance, but until now, I have not written a single word about an event which completely changed my existence. The three things having the most influence upon my life have been my experiences, travel, and the people I meet along the way. On December 28, 2016, two years ago today, I had a heart attack, and everything in my life was suddenly and forever changed.
A heart attack is a scary, life threatening experience. I did not know if I would survive it. I believe remembering my EMT training and somehow getting a few aspirin into my body before I passed out on the bed saved my life, although I fumbled with the childproof cap for a few moments as my left arm was completely numb with pain. I was surprised when I regained consciousness as I saw death positioning himself to take my soul. The most frightening part was being alone and not having the mental or bodily control to call for help when it happened. I know exactly how my brother felt during his last moments of life when he recently died alone in his home of a heart attack. The police think he was trying to make it to the front door for help as he had his keys in his hand. I was doing everything I could to remain conscious that afternoon trying to get assistance. I had walked a bit farther than normal that day, nothing unusual. I thought I was just dehydrated until I stepped into my room and experienced that tightening in my chest.
The attack itself was the most pain I had ever experienced. It was as if someone had put a 200 pound belt around my chest and tried to squeeze it into the last hole ten sizes smaller than my body. The pain through my left arm and my jaw was unbearable. I remembered thinking, “I know the symptoms, if it is my time, thank you for this life.” As I fell onto the bed, with my head almost drowning in sweat and waited to die, no position was comfortable and I could not speak to call for help. It was not possible to stand up. My entire body was overheating, bathed in perspiration, and in excruciating pain. I tried to focus my mind on the front door, perhaps I could make it, but I could no longer even move. The moment before I went unconscious from the pain I remember thinking, “I will go, but I am not ready yet.”
This all started around two o’clock in the afternoon. I regained consciousness around eight that evening. It was dark and I was not sure where I was until I was able to discern from the darkness my desk, my bed, my room, little by little coming back to me, or I was coming back to them. I do not know which. The pain was mostly gone. I could move my jaw and speak. The key indicator in knowing I was still alive was I had to pee. “I am still alive.” I said to no one or to anyone who might be listening. I did not expect to experience this life again.
I cannot change myself any more than I can pull myself up by my own bootstraps. Changes to ones self usually happen from outside the self primarily through experiences which the individual hopefully is prepared to handle. How can I change myself when I am asking that which I deem inadequate or in need of change, myself, to do the changing? To correct its own self? It is akin to asking Congress to police itself of its own corruption when corruption is its nature. An individual can only change himself through a lobotomy, death, a life altering, or other worldly experience. I am reminded of the Parable of the Scorpion and the Frog.
A scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung, but the scorpion argues that if it did so, they would both drown. Considering this, the frog agrees, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When the frog asks the scorpion why, the scorpion replies that it was in its nature to do so.*
Our nature is who we are at the core of our being. I have had a number of life altering experiences. This life has taken me on many journeys, and I have come back, knock on wood, from each a changed person from the one who started the adventure. Each time I return with a larger spirit, with a greater capacity for love, for life, for the understanding and appreciation of my fellow man and woman, with an abundantly greater acceptance and love for myself.
Although I do not wish a repeat of my experience and I do not wish a heart attack on anyone, I think everyone should have a metaphorical heart attack. An experience that takes your everyday life to the edge. An experience that shakes the body and soul from the roots of your everyday existence to the stratosphere of what it means to be alive. Unfortunately most humans will reach death without ever having such an experience in life. I hope you are not one of them.
Following my heart attack, I was uncertain if I would make it to my seventieth birthday. I am now approaching my seventieth-first. Life is complicated. I had no say in my arrival to this life and will have little input if any over my departure. In between I dance with the joy of being alive with greater appreciation for this gift I have been given. This is my nature.
Everything means something until one is dying. In that moment books, movies, lovers, paintings, collections of anything; suddenly, they no longer matter. Their prior importance and place in my life instantly disappeared. Their roles did not diminish, understand, they completely disappeared as if they never existed or had any importance what so ever. I was that close to death.
Everything means absolutely nothing when the heart is a beat away from its last beat. Life becomes a pin pointed focus. I was ready for death then but now the only thing that matters for the rest of my life is that I am alive. Death will come. I know that. I was given an extension, not to change my life necessarily, but to embrace it with a greater capacity.
I am not the same me anymore, at least I’m not the same me I was.
The title “I Am Not Me Anymore, At Least I’m Not The Same Me I Was” is taken from the book Motorcycle Diaries. The words were spoken by Alberto Granado at the end of his journey around parts of South America with Ernesto “Che” Guevara.