Happy Re-Birthday (or, What Happens When You Don’t Die)

fred sanford 2“Mr. Walker, you’ve had a heart attack,” said the emergency room doctor.

“There must be some kind of mistake,” I said to her, setting off an argument I’d be having for the next two days. As it turned out, I was right—it had not been a heart attack. Instead, it had been myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart caused by pneumonia. Not exactly a heart attack, but pretty close. Close enough to kill me if it wanted to, and to be certain, it tried. On my second day at the hospital, my friend myocarditis decided to reach into my chest for a second time, and give my heart a good squeeze. The general consensus of the doctors and nurses in the cardiac ICU is that if I had not already been in the hospital at the time, I would not have survived. As it was, laying in the hospital bed, clutching my chest like Fred Sanford, popping nitroglycerine pills like they were Tic-Tacs, with the nurses and doctors rushing all around me, I was pretty sure that my time had come. My death was at hand. I can’t describe the fear or the sadness, other than to say both were the most overwhelming feelings I’ve ever experienced. And then I didn’t die.

Today is the third anniversary of that fateful day—the day I went to the emergency room with an incredible pain in my left arm and shortness of breath. If you want to know more about that, click here to read all about it—this is about something else. This is about what I am now starting to see as my “re-birthday.” This is the day my life changed forever, because to be clear, nothing has been the same since December 19, 2010. Somewhere between the 19th and 20th of December 2010, I huge part of me died and was reborn. I don’t mean that in the I’m-a-born-again-Christian sort of way, because that is not what happened to me. I didn’t strike some deal with God to spare my life, though I did strike a deal with myself. I made promises to myself that if I lived, I would start living differently. The after-effects of my illness, however, had other plans for me. Depression and anxiety became my new “normal,” and to this day, I can’t seem to break free of either. To be clear, I’m trying to honor the promises that I made myself as I lay there in the hospital bed, uncertain of my continued existence. But in a weird, existential sort of way, part of the person making those promises did in fact die, only to be reborn as the survivor of a major health trauma incapable of returning to his life as he knew it.

This is all very difficult to explain, because it is all very difficult to understand. Every day, the world around us changes, and in the process, we change. Sometimes we undergo major changes, either by our own design, or by the external forces of the universe. And sometimes these changes are so major, and so complex, that it leaves you uncertain of who you are in the aftermath. “Life-altering” is the term. And though we can intellectualize what the term means, we can’t understand until it happens to us, and even then we can’t understand it. Everyday I try to make sense of what my life has become in the days, months, and years since I lay in that hospital bed, and said to myself, “Well, this is it.” I still haven’t figured it out. But what do you want from me, I’m only 3-years-old.

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