What I Learned From Dying 11 Years Ago.
A wailing siren and a soft, reassuring hand. That is all I remember from my ambulance trip in suburban St. Louis in August 2008. My heart had stopped just as the paramedic team arrived right after my giving a speech. “Break a leg,” is what they tell you before going on stage. Well, I’d broken my ankle a month earlier, had a serious bacterial infection in my leg, and was on strong antibiotics (as it turned out, the heart failure was likely an allergic reaction to the medication).
While my memories of that day are opaque, I can still see in my mind’s eye the dream-like image that was swirling around my brain when I awoke in the Emergency Room: thick, sweet, fragrant oil slowly dripping down the beautiful, dark wooden stairs of a stunning mountain chalet—the skylight casting a kaleidoscope of colors dancing on the walls. I believe this was my experience of “seeing the light” when death was at my doorstep. Each time, I awoke from being “el otro lado” (on the other side), I reported this scene to whomever would listen, be it in the ambulance or the emergency room.
For most of the previous five years, my internal weather report had been much like a cold summer day in San Francisco; I had lived with a persistent fog bank shadowing me from the sun. Most of the obstacles I’d faced—from near corporate and personal bankruptcy, to the painful end of a relationship, to a flurry of friends committing suicide, to a family member unjustly going to prison—would rank high on the conventional list of top stressors in one’s life. But, much of my stressful evolution during this time was below the surface (like it is for so many). But, now the fog had lifted, and I could finally see.
What wisdom do I take from this experience? As Winston Churchill suggested during WWII, “When you’re going through hell, just keep going.” While true, my lesson was not just about survival; it was about learning to make each breath count for more. If I live to 98 (what online longevity sites suggest), I will have taken nearly 825 million breaths. How many will be truly conscious? How many will make a difference in the lives of others? And, more importantly, how would I live differently if I knew I had only 25 million breaths to go?
I have found that as we move toward the finish line, we stop sweating all those past breaths, and think more about the quality of breaths that remain, possibly imagining what will be on our tombstone. I want every breath I take to count for something, and when they write on my tombstone, I want it to read, “Passionately lived his life with grace and grit…in that order.”
What about you?