Memento mori (Latin ‘remember that you [have to] die’) is an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death. – Wikipedia
When you’re young and healthy, it’s understandable to feel invincible and for death to be an abstract concept, either happening to those belonging to earlier generations or the unlucky. At some point, we all come to realize that we are actually mortal; when people close to us die we are reminded of mortality, but I didn’t realize how differently it would feel when faced with my own. Surviving a heart attack, having surgery, and making the necessary adjustments to my life has made an already unusual 2020 even more poignant.
When I was told a couple weeks later that my bout of indigestion was actually a heart attack, it didn’t really register that it was a near-death experience. It was more like this freaky, WTF moment that I had to wrap my head around after the fact. It’s probably more like watching a news clip days later of a train derailment that happened after you got off that specific train, then realizing how close you were to being part of the tragic story. It could’ve been me!
The first time in my life when I actually thought that I might die is when I went in for surgery. Other than having to say goodbye to my wife in the lobby of the hospital, which sucked, I didn’t have a religious awakening nor succumb to ennui, anger, or despair. I was surprisingly at peace, though sad, with the thought that I might not walk out of there alive. I vividly remember this feeling and have thought about it a lot since.
The second time I truly felt like I might die was just a few days later. It was four days after my surgery on Sunday evening and we had gotten ready for bed when I had the same heartburn sensation that had accompanied my heart attack 3 weeks prior. I took my ECG reading with my Apple watch and my blood pressure, and though neither showed anything was amiss, neither device said they’d be able to tell if I was having a heart attack anyway. Given my situation, we called 911. I clearly remember thinking then that I might die that night. Four EMTs were in my bedroom in less than 10 minutes doing a full ECG and asking me a series of questions. Given my recent surgery and condition, it was suggested that I go to the ER. We decided we would drive to the hospital and forgo the ambulance ride since I wasn’t particularly in distress. We had the presence of mind to pack myself a change of clothes and bring a battery pack for my phone and tablet. The EMTs left once we were in our own car.
As before, due to the pandemic, I had to say goodbye to my wife in the lobby of the ER as I was checked in. They did another full ECG and drew blood for testing troponin levels before I was taken back to an ER observation room and changed into a patient gown. A good friend who has had too much personal experience with hospitals due to a chronic disease gave me the pro tip to ask for a warmed blanket, which I did. It was such a comfort to have that in a cold ER bed.
Heart attacks elevate troponin levels in the blood. A common test requires drawing blood every few hours to see the trend, and if levels are going up, then I was likely or had very recently had a heart attack. So I lay there in the ER watching crappy informercials on mute in the wee hours of the morning. My wife is in the parking lot, and we are both texting each other while trying to keep ourselves otherwise occupied since sleep was clearly not in the cards. Once I realized that it was going to be a few more hours, I asked my wife to go home and wait there instead. My time was spent waiting for hours in between blood draws and nurses or doctors asking me how I was doing without being able to tell my much of anything. I got hungry and thirsty, and before they were able to give me anything, they had to check with the doctor on duty to approve the request. The warmth of the blanket had dissipated but I was glad for the insulation. I don’t remember what I ate, but I was glad for the water. I was allowed to get out of bed to pee.
Sometime around 7 in the morning, after the 3rd blood draw, the hospital decided to move me to a room upstairs. They said that my troponin levels were flat, so it’s likely that I didn’t have another heart attack, but I should be checking in with one of my cardiologists that morning. My interventionist, the doctor who had done my angiogram, angioplasty, and stent checked in on me, saying that things looked normal but that I had done the right thing by coming in. They always recommend those who had recently suffered heart attacks or had surgery to go to the ER when in doubt. He said things were looking good and that they just needed to get the attending doctor to sign off on discharging me. Then I waited some more. By noon I really started to get impatient and asked the nurses, yet again, to check on when the doctor was going to release me. At the shift change in mid-afternoon, I pretty much lost my patience, and I had to explain to the new nurse in charge that I had been waiting for most of the day. Thankfully she investigated and found that the attending doctor thought that another doctor was going to discharge me and so I had waited for over 6 hours for no reason. They resolved the problem, and within an hour I was being discharged. I happily called to let my wife know to pick me up once again. I walked out into the sunshine and hugged my wife before getting back into the car to finally go home.
While waiting to be wheeled into surgery the first time, I remembered seeing this clip when the inimitable Keanu Reeves was asked by Stephen Colbert, “what happens when we die, Keanu Reeves?”
“I know that the ones who love us will miss us.”
Say what you will about the vacuousness of Hollywood, but that’s one of the best answers to that question I’ve ever heard.
This year is when I truly realized my mortality, and the introspection that came with facing death has led to some of the most profound insights I could wish others could also get without the whole almost-dying part.
The single, most important realization that this experience has given me is this – I may not live a perfect life, but I am living one that I am happy and proud to live. I could, truly, die happy. I have grown into my (aging) skin, and I can forgive myself for not living up to my impossibly high standards even as I continue to try and meet them. I can live (or die) with my choices, both the good and the bad. I have many regrets, whether things I did or could have done, or things I said or could have said. But despite all of that, I am happy with my imperfect life.
And so it is with profound appreciation that after surviving a heart attack I returned to a life that I am proud to live. I am thankful for the people in my life, and I hope that I don’t have unrealistic expectations of others. I am okay with the imperfection of being human, with deep apologies to those who I may have hurt in some way. I am also still okay with not having to be liked or respected by everyone, nor do I have to like or respect everyone else. I still reserve the right to be annoyed about things big and small, like how inconvenient it is to have to pee (seriously, if I didn’t have to pee, it would be amazing). And whether I have hours or years left, I can continue to live and miss those who die, and know that when I die, those who love me will miss me.