In 2001, at the age of 33, with one young son and another on the way, I went to the doctor for a check-up and was diagnosed with a heart aneurysm. And it had already burst. Feeling perfectly fine but in fact slowly dying, I was scheduled for immediate heart surgery. I spent a week in the hospital, getting ready for surgery and recovering. A month later, I was healthy and back at work, albeit with a totally new outlook on my life and the lives of others. Since that surgery five years ago, I have said often, “I would wish open heart surgery for all my friends.” A strange wish, I know. But the lessons I learned from this medical crisis have enriched my life enormously. Here they are, sprinkled with five years of perspective:
1. You and I are going to die. Someday. My death is going to happen. Your death is going to happen. My wife and children are all going to die, too. It’s not a matter of “if.”
2. Death might be right around the corner. Today, tomorrow, or the next day. You and I might have only three days, and we might have 60 more years (21,900 “last days to live”).
3. Every day is a gift, every friendship is a gift, every child and every interaction with your children is a precious, fleeting gift.
4. Be kind and loving to everyone. From your spouse and children to the guy at Dunkin’ Donuts who gives you your coffee at the drive-thru. Tell people whom you love that you love them. Reveal to people their own greatness – NOW. It might be your last week on the planet, and it might be their last week on the planet.
5. Perceive the time you spend with loved ones, or working on projects you’re passionate about, through the imaginary lens of a home video camera. Savor everyday moments with loved ones. Record them on film in your brain and thank God for these memories that you’re experiencing first-hand right now. Laugh often at how fast time goes by, and be grateful that it doesn’t fly by even faster. Ironically, this will slow down time.
Ultimately, I have learned that if I die today, what a great life I’ve had! Because of my gratitude for life and my moment-to-moment appreciation of relationships, experiences, the wind blowing and the rain falling, I am literally ready to die at all times. I can imagine the future moment when I’m lying in a bed or on the ground, knowing I am about to die, and I imagine smiling, feeling no surprise or regret (though I also imagine the enormous sadness of leaving my family behind).
I live every day with the realization that any additional time that I am granted is stolen time. After all, had I been born at any other time in history, before current heart surgery technology and know-how, I would have been dead at age 33, two of my children would be fatherless, and the other two would not have been born.
My appreciation of life is greater than that of 99% of my friends. And I have open heart surgery to thank for that.