Now. Not after lunch. Not tomorrow. Not when you have time.
You don’t have time. You have less time than when you began reading this. And you don’t know when time’s up.
Now began on March 8, 2014. It was my last Odd Couples Dance at Sycamore High School, where moms are paired with sons and fathers with daughters, where we dine on rubber chicken at round tables set on a basketball court, where we dance with our kids and their friends and the parents of those friends, some of whom are my friends, some of whom I have never met. It’s an evening I shared in varied combinations with my two daughters for six consecutive years, and each was an event to cherish forever.
I spent the morning and early afternoon of March 8 shopping with Anna, my daughter and date for the evening. We had purchased the perfect black and white striped dress for her the night before, but my tired wardrobe left much to be desired. Let’s be clear, the finest materials and hippest designs would still render me unworthy of my lovely date, but we were on a mission. Since I abhor suits, and because my girls are as repelled by conformity as their father, we found a new pair of black jeans. Took a few tries, but we found a pair that worked and actually fit. Not so easy these days. Then we found a white shirt with tiny black dots. Cool. Different. Perfect. Oh, and my new gray Chuck Taylors. Yeah, a bit on the hipster side, but whiskey tango foxtrot. We were going to dance and I wasn’t going to be slowed down by a lousy pair of scuffed dress shoes. The dance floor would be ours, dammit!
Now was nowhere in my consciousness at that time.
Around 6 p.m., Anna and I were ready to roll. The selfie in the car kicked it off. At the dance, the drinks were non-alcoholic, of course, the chicken was rubbery, the pre-band music was just okay, but we were laughing, strutting around and having a grand time at our final Odd Couples outing.
Then the band started. Hoards of teenagers and parents rushed the dance floor. Hands in the air, hair flying (not mine), shoes kicked off to the side, hips shaking that hadn’t shook in years, old guys screaming lyrics to older songs, young kids having too good a time to remember they should be embarrassed by their parents’ rhythmic misgivings. Damn, this was fun!
Fortunately for me, I have two daughters who are as relentless on the dance floor as their old man was three decades ago. They showed me no mercy and I took no prisoners. It was on. We didn’t care how we looked, we just let loose. Pure joy, pure fun. These are the moments when we feel alive. The times we forget about the sleepless nights, the endless homework, the last-minute projects, the hormone-fed arguments. None of that mattered. We were on a date and we were rockin’ out. Pure joy, pure fun.
A guitar riff. What I Like About You. The Romantics. Not a fan, but whatever. Hold on and look out! Timmy’s in the house! I jumped, I twisted, I shook. I stopped. I stood there, in the middle of hundreds of dancers. Just feet away from the band. Stood for an instant, wondering. What was that? Was it anything? What…oh. Oh no.
The sound in the room was sucked away, as if drawn into an enormously powerful vacuum somewhere behind me. Music played, people danced, I stood frozen, hearing not a sound. I swayed, dizzy, panicking, a witness to something of which I knew nothing. I saw Anna to my left. I grabbed her arm, trying to steady myself. In an instant, Now mattered more than ever before.
“Daddy! Daddy!” The sound of Anna’s cries were the only sound, at first. “Daddy, oh Daddy, wake up!” I slowly opened my eyes. I was on the floor at the foot of the bandstand. Anna kneeling over me, dozens of faces standing behind her, looking down on me. To my right, the drummer and bass player kept time, nervously unsure of what to do next. The guitar player, a friend of ours, had stopped playing and was looking down with great concern. Having directed many live events in my day, I made a circular motion with my hand, urging the band to play on. No matter what, the show must go on.
“Daddy! Wake up,” Anna cried again. I turned my attention to my daughter’s face, streaming with tears, mouth straining from sobbing, blonde hair hanging down toward me. “It’s okay, Anna,” I said, unaware of what was going on around me, not realizing that it was me going on around everyone else. Taking Anna’s hand, I began to stand. Others helped me to my feet as I stood before them and the band, utterly embarrassed from what I was just beginning to realize was the act of passing out while trying to dance like a 20 year old. Damn. Dammit. Shit. I had just ruined Anna’s senior-year Odd Couples Dance. Our last dance. Shit!
We walked slowly to the other room, me feeling anxious and confused but physically fine. Anna walked behind me sobbing, held close by her concerned friends. Michelle, my wife, who had been volunteering at the dance, saw us come into the room. Seeing our daughter with hand over mouth, she first thought something had happened to Anna. An accident, maybe? A fall? A whack from her dad’s errant elbow? Michelle came running over to us. Alas, it was not a broken tooth, it was me. The cardiac kid. The heart patient who never ever let a genetic condition get in the way of a good time. I had passed out cold as the crowd danced on.
My heart is a pain in the ass. But it’s the only one I have, so we’re stuck with each other. I inherited a genetic glitch that goes by the moniker, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. It’s also been called idiopathic hypertrophic sub-aortic stenosis. (Sorry. I like sounding really smart from time to time.) I could bore you for hours with the gory details, but the bottom line is that parts of my heart muscle are too thick, resulting in heart chambers that are smaller than normal. A fun little byproduct of this mess is a susceptibility to arrhythmias, irregular heart rhythms that can range from skipped beats to atrial fibrillation to sudden death. Imagine going about your life when you feel a sudden thump in your chest. Next, you have a momentary loss of breath. If it’s severe enough, you may experience a drop in blood pressure, giving you that woozy feeling you experienced as a kid, when you’d wind up the chains of a swing, let yourself go, and spin fast as lightning, while you desperately held on and watched the world whiz by in colorfully horizontal blurs. And with arrhythmias, you never know when they’ll make an appearance so every occurrence is an unpleasant surprise, often happening at the most inopportune moment.
Once you’ve had enough practical experience with these annoying arrhythmias, doctors sometimes take mercy on you with the lifelong gift of an implanted cardiac device (ICD). Mine was surgically implanted in 2008, with an electronic lead hooked up to my right ventricle and another embedded in my right atria. If you ask nicely, I’ll let you see the scar. And yes, there’s a bump, so you can even make out where it resides beneath my skin. Now, there are pacemakers and there are defibrillators. The former sends a helpful electronic signal to a misbehaving sino-atrial node, helping it maintain a regular sinus rhythm. Meaning, you’ll have a nice thump, thump, thump, instead of a thump, thump...long pause…thump. The latter is a bit more dramatic. We’ve all seen those AED boxes on the walls of offices, schools and recreation centers. They’re like the pads that paramedics use to deliver a lifesaving shock when a patient is experiencing a catastrophic heart event. “CLEAR!” Thud. “Sparky,” as my daughters refer to it, is a combination of both a pacemaker and a defibrillator. It paces me, which ideally keeps me in rhythm (heart-wise, not on a dance floor), reducing the number and severity of any arrhythmias that may arise. And in the unfortunate event of a life-threatening situation, the defibrillator part of the device will deliver about 400 joules of electricity to my heart muscle, hopefully returning me to that normal sinus rhythm we all know and love and to which most of us are generally oblivious.
The morning after the dance, Michelle and I sat at the kitchen table having a typical Sunday morning breakfast, albeit a thoughtful breakfast after an appropriately odd Odd Couples experience. My phone rang. It was my cardiologist’s office or, more specifically, my electrophysiologist’s office. When we returned home the night before, I sent data from my ICD to my doctor’s office through the use of a modem. They were able to see my cardiac data leading up to, during, and following the moment I hit the deck.
“That was the big one,” the nurse told me over the phone.
“Excuse me?” I replied. “The what?"
“You experienced a ventricular arrhythmia last night,” she continued. “The big one. Your ICD most likely saved your life."
Did I mention sudden death? Yeah, there’s that, too. Like the ventricular arrhythmia that instantly took my mother’s life. Here one minute, gone the next. Not a bad way to go, when you think about it. Of course that’s from the die-er’s point of view. Sudden death is devastating from the point of view of love ones left behind. No last moments together. No last kiss goodbye as grandpa drifts off into the great beyond. No family gathered conveniently in one place to make a horrible moment a little easier through the proximity of each other’s company and sympathetic shoulders on which to cry. No, sudden death happens in the blink of an eye. And if you’re one of the few who come close to the line but, for some reason – physically, metaphysically, spiritually – you fail to cross over, you’re never the same in its wake.
I sat with my phone up to my ear, Michelle staring at me as the blood rushed from my face. I cried. She flipped. It was a moment frozen in time, like the lingering black spot that remains after staring into the sun.
On the other end of the phone, the nurse was speechless as I broke down. She later admitted that she had made calls like that to other patients, matter-of-factly delivering similar news, but never fully grasping the gravity of these situations until hearing me sob in her ear like an orphaned child.
What followed that call was months of change. I changed, Michelle changed, our daughters changed. There were tests, adjustments in medications, a moratorium on driving for six months, which – to this day – I am repaying to my wife with a year of designated driver status. There have been horrifying moments for me. Skipped heartbeats that send me into a pure, dire fright, a sort of post-traumatic stress reaction to my near-death experience. There have been moments of sadness, realizing there is no longer a sense of permanence, how I ruined our final Odd Couples dance, how I nearly died at my own daughter’s feet.
But there have been, and continue to be, moments of joy, of welcoming every single day. Literally saying, “Good morning, Monday!” as I slip on my shoes and take out Pudge, the World’s Greatest Dog, for his morning constitution. Joy and a deeper, nearly desperate appreciation for hugs, kisses, dog hair on my sweater, the opportunity to drive, and every single moment I share with Anna, Mallory, and Michelle, with my sisters, their families, and our friends. Joy in saying hello to every person – known and unknown – I pass on my way through this gift I call my second take.
The time is Now. There no longer is time to waste. I no longer have patience for petty bullshit, nonsensical bickering, the insignificant crises of Corporate America, or for back-stabbing, self-important divas. I have things to do, and there are far too many distractions I continue to brush aside as I finish out this second take.
Understand, my sense of urgency is not one of a fatalistic man. Yes, I think about March 8, 2014. I think about it every day. I think how lucky I am to be here, in this moment, crafting these words that I hope you can somehow work into your own journey. I’m keenly aware of my mortality, but I don’t have time to cower in the face of death. I stared into that hole, I gave it the finger, and now I’m living a life on a mission.
I’m on a mission to make a difference. To live a purposeful life, full of purposeful work, embracing purposeful relationships, and leaving this world a little better than it was on March 7, 2014.
My journey is ongoing. It will never end. I must continue my search for meaning. This is not simply living in the moment. It’s living with a reason, living purposefully, living to make a difference. Living to be more than just another guy who some people knew but who passed away with all his ideas undeveloped, his passions unexplored, his words unspoken, his purpose undiscovered, his dreams unfulfilled, his fate left to people and circumstances that mattered not. Living with a drive to be someone who doesn’t simply play by someone else’s rules, doing what he is told, coloring inside the lines, never making waves. I don’t want to be just another person who was here and is now gone. Forgotten. Past tense. A memory. The hitchhiker passed on the highway. The half-eaten apple, tossed out the car window.
That’s not me. That can’t be me. I have a purpose and I’m on a journey to discover it, nurture it, and watch it grow.
Do the same. Do it Now.
March 8, 2015