The first time death was mentioned to me in connection with my heart was when a cardiologist in the emergency room told my stunned and disoriented self that "the good news is that you are not dead." What, I wondered, was the bad news? The second time was when a chaplain came by to see me in the hours before my surgery to ask me if I needed spiritual counseling. He was very nice, and I asked him why he had come, and he said he always makes it a point to people who have brushed against death, or were confronting it. It was, he said, the spiritual side of life and of surgery.
He had my full attention.
The third time was when the surgeon came to me just before the surgery and explained to me all of the things that could go wrong in open heart surgery – I won't list them here – including dying. The fourth time was when a physician's assistant came with a form for me to sign in which I acknowledged that I understood that I might die in the surgery, or suffer a clot or stroke.
"What are you trying to tell me?," I asked. "I'm telling you that you could die," he said, matter-of-factly. After the surgery, a different cardiologist told me that I has been one or two walks away from a possibly fatal heart attack.
At that point, I began to grasp that I had had a near death experience. I was impressed. Five mentions of death. This was important. If I woke up, I thought, great stuff to write.
I ought to say that there are many people in the world I consider much sicker and closer to death than I was – people in combat, in awful accidents, plane crashes, people who have been assaulted or shot, people with diseases and illnesses more severe than a broken heart, people who starve or nearly killed in unexpected ways.
If I was near death, I never knew it or sensed it or felt it, it was told to me retrospectively, I did not experience the sensation of it or have a chance to be frightened or overwhelmed by it. Still, this idea of death and me was shocking, the chaplain said my heart and body would surely have sensed it, he said the experience would change me. One friend told me when I got home that I seemed "softer" than before the surgery, I didn't have the heart to tell her I was just on pain killers. But the surgery and the idea of my death altered me in several ways that I do know and have come to recognize.
I have felt both more emotional and vulnerable at times, although that is diminishing.
I have a keener awareness of the value of time, and the important of living meaningfully. Once you are told you might have died, you begin thinking about how you might live. In fact, in the months before the surgery, I was getting so tired and feeling so weary I was beginning to prepare for the end of my life, starting to get my affairs in order.
Now, I am preparing for life, not death, and starting to get my affairs in order. It sounds the same, but there is a big difference.
Then, there is finally a club that will have me. People who have come near death are a community, a fraternity and sorority, we find one another, we give each other hugs and pats on the backs, we have been to the same place and care for one another. It is a beautiful and surprising thing for me.
And there are practical, but still spiritual things. I am getting more blood and oxygen to my brain and body, about 95 per cent more. I am writing more, taking more photos I love, making more plans, working with more energy and clarity. Spiritually, I feel a great sense of calm and purpose to my life, silly things seem too small, anger seems a waste of precious time, regret seems almost ridiculous to me. I will not waste my time in this world on anger or fear.
A broken heart can never completely heal, not in love, not in life. Sooner or later, it will fail, as happens to almost everyone eventually, perhaps sooner for people with chronic heart disease. I have to watch it, and closely. I think that is liberating in so many ways, I think the purpose of challenge and struggle is to remind us us to use our time well, to be good to other people, to find love and cherish it and to remember what is truly important in life. My near death experience, like almost everything else of meaning in life, was a gift, I believe it has left me with a deeper, richer, fuller and more creative life.
How ironic, that in so many ways I am healthier than I have ever been.
In the early morning hours after my surgery, when I was beginning to awaken, I had the richest and most powerful dreams, I felt I was face to face with death in a beautiful open field, I felt we were seeing one another clearly for the first time. I think my late dog Rose was running in the fields beyond, Maria was calling to me. Rose always came running when I was in trouble, so does Maria. Was this just a dream? A vision? A portent? Of course, I do not know and cannot ever know.
It may have been a dream, but it was also the truth, and I am wiser and better for having encountered it. This is what it means to be a human being.