They say that only the good die young. So I guess I should be insulted that I lived through my heart attack last month. God must think me still half-baked. He picked me up, shook me like a snow globe, then set me back down on the earth. He’s crazy like that. Now the truth showers down all around me in pieces of white, but I don’t seem able to piece it together. The puzzle remains more blank than filled. Much more blank. And I have to shake my head and wonder what’s really wrong with my heart, that after so long I still can’t seem to get it right.
So God, I’m asking You, what is the meaning in all of this?
On the night of my cardiological altercation, I woke up sometime before 4am with a strange pain in my heart. It was like I had been crying, or had just seen a really sad movie (yes, I cry at sad movies). There was a strong and inexplicable emotional ache inside. I went downstairs, took an Alka Seltzer because my stomach was feeling a little gross, and then read the Bible. “In my Father’s house…” the whole chapter out loud. The feeling of sadness left, but was replaced with fear. A very intense and overwhelming fear. I began to pray earnestly, but it wasn’t getting much better. It was like fighting in treacle – wrestling against Satan. But I kept at it – I didn’t know what else to do. I wished I could just walk away and pretend the fight wasn’t happening, but it was. And I wanted victory. I’m not sure how long this went on. The sense of fear eased up, but now the pain in my heart was becoming more actual than metaphorical. I went back to bed to lie down.
But it didn’t help. The pain became extreme, like a really bad cramp, but right in the heart. Sharp and intense. I had heard that having a heart attack was like having an elephant sit on your chest. This was nothing similar, so I rationalized that it must not be that. The hurt grew until all I wanted to do was roll around in agony, but even the slightest movement – even moving my hand a few inches – brought an instant increase in pain.
I thought if I died there, Paula would have no one to pick her up at the airport that afternoon and she would start to panic, and then have to come home and find me dead in bed. I didn’t want her to have to go through that. I thought about the huge pile of laundry unfolded on the couch – and I felt bad about that too. I felt bad about all the loose ends I would be leaving behind if I died right now. I thought about all the people I love. I didn’t feel bad about the idea of dying, of leaving, of going on, but I did feel bad about leaving people behind. Especially my Paula and Sam. Fear had pretty much left me at this point. I was going through a frightening experience but not experiencing fright. There was no panic. I wasn’t afraid to die, there was no doubt in my mind that going forward was better than back. But I couldn’t figure out a way to go on without leaving hurt behind.
And now there was a horrible, intense feeling of sickness in my mind, like really bad motion sickness. In my mind a vision formed – stronger than a dream – stronger than the pain. I could see something like a rocky shore off to my left – a dark rock cliff – with thick obscuring fog all around. There was an opening in the rock face. Stairs lead upwards through the opening. I asked God if I was going to die and He said, “No. If I wanted to take you I would take you.” To which I replied, “Ok, can you do something about the pain then?” There was silence. I looked in my mind for the shore again. I could see it through the foggy darkness off and on, but looking at it made me intensely mentally nauseated. I was fascinated and intrigued by this mental image but also so repulsed that I wanted to do whatever I had to do to make the nausea stop. It was like I was in dark waters that were moving up and down, back and forth. It was partly this sense of motion that was making me sick, but also the realness of the shore. I longed to slip back into the fog. The fog was my denial, my self-pity, my pride – the world of half-truth I live in. The shore was real and it made the sin – the phoniness of those things so clear. I was like a child that did not want to grasp the enormity of an adult reality – like discovering Santa’s not real, but worse. I was discovering God is real, and I was discovering it by getting a glimpse of His holiness. I was being exposed by His terrifying holiness, and it was more than I could deal with. Without Jesus.
“For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” Heb:18-81
I knew if I leaned into that shore I could push through the fog and go up those stairs. And that would be dying. I was not upset by that thought. It seemed very natural and normal. I was, however, very disappointed that the sensation of dying seemed so unpleasant. What I was experiencing was the mechanics of dying. The base but unavoidable side of it. The process of it. What I wasn’t experiencing was the relational side. I was not experiencing what it will be like to do it in the presence of Christ. I was not experiencing the emotional side of love and joy and peace that comes as you move into the arms of God. This was just the matter-of-fact cold and clinical reality of death. I was looking at the doorway into the eternal, but the Eternal was not Himself in the doorway. It was like experiencing death unredeemed. But I wasn’t there to die, I was just there to be shown some things.
I gave up on the shore, let go of trying to see it, and as it receded so did the nausea in my head. Everything seemed lighter again, and although I was in tremendous pain still, there were some epiphanies that came to me. I knew I have to change the way I live my life. Not to work harder at it, but to change my approach to it. First, I need to accept the certainty of death – for all of us. How that simple truth is not real in my life. That I don’t live ok with that – but try to deny it and act like it might not be real. Second, what really matters is how am I going to live while I’m here. Will I choose to look for God in everything – He is here in everything. Will I choose to live in joy – or will I choose to live in doubt and fear? Will I accept that joy is a choice? And third, I need to stop holding myself back. I should be pouring myself out, as I feel lead by God to do so, without fear of the consequences. I should choose to pour out love, when God leads me to pour out love, without fear of what pain, heartache, or embarrassment it might bring me.
But then the practical reality of my present circumstances filled my mind – and fear came rushing back in. I started to think that this event was not going to end well without assistance. I thought about calling an Uber to take me to the hospital, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sit up for that long, so I called 911. I didn’t want them to have to kick the door down, or find me naked, so I got dressed somehow and went downstairs. I don’t really remember how I got down those stairs, I only remember unlocking the door and laying down on the floor in the living room. The paramedics showed up and hooked me up to an EKG and talked a little amongst themselves. I was embarrassed by the whole experience. Both my total weakness and total dependence on others – and the fact that I was in so much pain. I was embarrassed that I was going to cost so much money. They wheeled me into the ambulance – I was embarrassed about that too – to think that the neighbors might see me like this!
They put two IVs into me as we raced along, and then they realized they needed to take my sweater off. So they cut it off. My favorite sweater in pieces. They turned the siren on, and I said, “The siren? Really?” The paramedics laughed and said, yes, they needed to get me there as quick as possible. They told me everything was ready for me at the hospital and there was a team waiting to take me in. When they wheeled me out the shock of the cold air was welcome. They pushed me into some large room at the hospital and there was 9-12 people in there. I was surprised to see so many people standing there and they seemed surprised to see me. I suppose being fairly young and in reasonable health was not what they had expected. Someone introduced themselves, I said hi, and tried to think of something funny to say, but then the room was all busy with people all doing different things and talking to each other. They pulled my pants off, which of course I objected to in the presence of so many strangers, but they were insistent. Someone pulled a EKG sticker off my chest which was spectacularly painful and for a moment let me forget about my heart.
They did a readout of some kind and then the doctor told me he felt we needed to run a catheter into my heart. He said there was some risk involved. I asked if he was sure I was having a heart attack and he said based on the readout from the EKG it looked like it. A guy had me sign an iPad with my consent to operate. I asked for my phone. As they began to wheel me through the hospital I started to send Paula an email, knowing that she wouldn’t read it until the operation was over. A just-in-case note. But it was hard to write, and they were pushing me so fast I knew I didn’t have much time. I went ahead and called her. I did my best to sound positive and keep the pain out of my voice. I was half successful. She didn’t freak out until after we hung up and she had time to wake up enough to figure out what I was saying.
As soon as I woke up from the operation I felt much better. Everyone was wonderful and professional and gave me outstanding care. I definitely felt I was in good hands. My chest was achy – like a bad bruise – but the sharp pain was gone. And I just felt better. There was blood in my head! They told me one of my main arteries had been 100% blocked. They had taken two clots out, and put in two stents. I had been feeling increasingly tired and week over the last year or so, and figured it was just me getting old, but it must have been my artery getting more and more clogged, until I had one French fry too many, and it put a cork in my heart.
I had the sense that my life was changed now. That I was being carried to a new place. It was kind of scary – or maybe intimidating is a better word. That I was moving into a new chapter of my life and it was going to take some figuring out. Things seemed new and a little unclear and mysterious. I knew I didn’t want to go back – I didn’t want to just recover – I wanted to move forward and discover. Discover the meaning in all this. Discover the holiness of God, discover His greatness.
We’re only here temporarily. It’s so easy to get distracted by things in the here and now, so hard to keep our eyes on the Eternal. But He’s what’s real. And He’s what really matters. And He says love is what really matters. That we should love one another. Maybe that’s what He’s been trying to tell me all along. For sure I have been discovering how wonderful and kind most people are. I have been opening my eyes to how good it is to walk the journey of faith with believers like you. I have felt the strength and power of Christian fellowship – because I have been lifted up and carried through this dark patch in my life, on a miraculous stretcher of your love and prayer.
So my grateful thanks to you – and my love.