It started in the afternoon with a gentle tingling down my left arm and by the evening my whole left-hand side felt unusual, tingly then numb. As I came to clean my teeth for bed my breathing was shallow and laboured and standing up caused me to be light headed and woozy. Half an hour later I was in my local Emergency Department, my wife and son looking on with concern as the nurses efficiently went about their business to determine if I’d already had a heart attack or was shortly due one.
By this point I was already in the hospital gown that enables easy access for the medical monitoring of my vital signs of life and, bewilderingly, the casual monitoring of my genitals by all passers-by. Luckily it’s hard to feel the fear of death and humiliation at the same time, and I focussed more on my last moments of life than on any possible indecent exposure charges I faced should I survive. The machine I was wired to bleeped in an erratic and ear-piercing, but nonetheless reassuring, way. Occasionally the bleeps would stop and become a continuous droning noise, associated in the mind of the TV viewing public as a ‘flat-liner’. I would stare frantically at my wife, convinced I had seconds to go, until a nurse would wander in and mutter ‘bloody thing’ and hit the reset button.
My wife and son meanwhile sat perched together on a single chair and displayed that heady mix of emotions typical of the late night ED run – the weariness of those who’d prefer to be in bed along with the concern at a loved-ones predicament, encased in the boredom of a place where nothing much happens, and continues to not happen for tediously long periods of time. I’d already caused my young son to be plucked from his slumber and my wife to delay hers, and while they certainly wished only the best for me, if I wasn’t actually knocking on the door so to speak, I think they’d rather be back at the ranch awaiting my jubilant return. When the nurse mentioned my blood tests would be a couple of hours ‘or so’, I let them both of the hook and suggested I could heroically see this one through alone and would be sure to text them if things deteriorated. As they hugged and kissed their way out of the cubicle I reflected that that would be a difficult message to convey in 160 characters or less.
So I lay alone. Dying. With my genitals irretrievably on display. It was a situation that prompted much reflection. In the course of the hours of solitude, facing the abyss, walking in the shadow as it were, I had a number of epiphanies, moments of realisation and clarity. Much of these were lost to me in the morning when I stopped dying, or at least stopped my immediate dying and allowed it to take its more natural pace between birth and the three score years and ten finish line. The three epiphanies that remained with me are perhaps the important ones, distilled through a contemplative mind as it reflected on a life lived thus far and the possibility that someone or something was giving me warning shot.
The first epiphany was on the fairness, or otherwise, of life itself. I’m not a religious man, or even a spiritual man for that matter, though I do try to watch Antiques Roadshow every Sunday if that counts for anything. Like most of my kind though, I carry a basic set of moral and ethical principles informed by millennia of philosophical and sacred thought that can be summed up as ‘if I am a good person, good things will happen to me’. I try to be a good person and live a good life, and beyond a propensity for nose-picking in public places and an urge to kick cats, I think I do a reasonable job. To die before my time, nose-picking and cat kicking notwithstanding, would to me seem incredibly unfair. And not just to me. As I looked at my wife and son I tried to imagine what their life would be like without me. Sure there’d be less embarrassment at the local shopping mall as they walked ‘bogey-free’, and the ability to look cat-loving neighbours in the eye once more. But my death would not all be silver-lining, and it truly broke heart to think of how unfair my passing would be for them.
Fairness though implies an even playing field, and the absence, or mitigation, of bad luck surrounding my dying formed my second epiphany. Whilst I have tried to be a good person and live a good life, this has mainly been in relation to other people. The goodness has rarely been directed towards myself and as I sat dangling in the breeze, if you catch my drift, I looked back on a lifetime of what could accumulatively be viewed as self-harm. I attended my first Weight Watchers meeting before puberty, began smoking at 15, and spent the following decade showing the kind of dedication and reverence for chemical indulgence that I now show for Our Lords Antique Roadshow. It would have been hypocritical to lie in that hospital bed, hand against brow and cry out “why me?” The Doctor called it ‘risk factors’, but we both knew its real name – stupidity – and decades of public health messages ran through my mind with a clarity and simplicity it was hard to ignore. Don’t smoke, eat less and exercise more. I’m thinking of having it done as a tattoo. On the inside of my eye lids.
These first two epiphanies were pretty much reactive – the immediate childlike whimper of ‘it’s not fair!’ coupled with the pathetic atheist plea of ‘God, if you let me get through this I’ll change!”. The third and final epiphany was just as clichéd, though more thoughtful as the time passed and I realised I didn’t have to hurry through my epiphanies as much. There’s a joke, about an old Jewish saying I think, that no-one gets to their death-bed and says ‘Oy vey, I wish I spent more time at the office!’ I don’t think you need to be Jewish to connect to this, which is good because like I said, I’m not really religious. I always thought it was a funny line, especially when it was said by a Jewish comic who could say ‘oy vey’ properly. It was staring at the hospital ceiling, trying to keep my legs crossed, that I realised it was more of a prophecy than a joke.
Like most people of my age, education and entrapment in a puritanically driven capitalist society, I think my work is important. I never used to, and as I drag myself to early morning meetings, stay late in the office and take work home for the weekend I can hear my teenage self sneering at me, gleefully hissing the word ‘sucker!’ I would smile patronisingly back from my nippy little sports car or my nice house in the suburbs, reassured that I had no idea at that young age of concepts like job satisfaction or the sense of security a diminishing mortgage could bring. And even within this polemic, of adolescent angst and middle-age maturity, it was easy to see that both perspectives are valid, and both are parts of how I see the world. It was only while I was facing death that a way to live with the two parts was revealed.
So work is important – no qualms there. What is equally true is that unimportant work is unimportant. What haunted me in that hospital wasn’t the afternoon meetings that ran over meaning I missed sitting down with my family for tea, or the nights I’d spent working and missed my son’s bedtime stories, or weekends I’d spent slaving over a hot laptop listening to the neighbourhood enjoy their leisure. This on its own didn’t bother me. What haunted me that night was the hundreds and possibly thousands of times I’d done all this when it wasn’t important to do so!
I enjoy my work, almost to the point where there’s times when it doesn’t even feel like work. And sometimes it is important, to me at least, to do the work when it’s there to be done, to go with the flow, to make the proverbial hay as the allegorical sun is shining. What I realised that night is that this way of being has become inappropriately generalised so that all work is seen as important, as more important than everything else, as worthy of sacrificing family meals and recreational evenings and weekends. I had put myself in a position where I would make hay whether the sun was shining or not. And a magical formulae was revealed to me, a heuristic for helping me decide in the future if work was important or not – if it felt important to me, it was, if it didn’t I should find something else to do while the sun shone.
My three epiphanies don’t look too profound written down – life’s not fair, look after your health, don’t work too hard. But that’s the thing about epiphanies – they’re not meant to be little learnings you can take from someone else, they’re insights you reach at critical crossroads of your life. And these insights were very real and powerful to me as I lay with my vulnerabilities exposed, if you’ll pardon the expression, contemplating the after life, and I record them because I don’t need telling twice.
There was a fourth epiphany, a little hazy now, difficult to pin down exactly yet enshrined with a fundamental importance, an enduring lesson for life, one of the great universal truths. Something about remembering to pack underwear before you leave the house . . .
[I wrote this article in 2009 after a period of exhaustion, fatigue and panic attacks. It was the best thing that to happen for me as it initiated a change in lifestyle and transformation that is still unfolding].