“Short then is the time which every man lives, and small the nook of the earth where he lives; and short too the longest posthumous fame, and even this only continued by a succession of poor human beings, who will very soon die, and who know not even themselves, much less him who died long ago.”
When I was 7 years old, I got sick.
It wasn’t very alarming at first. Kids get sick, right? I remember having this fever… it wouldn’t go away. So, my mom took me to see Dr. Bishara.
I wasn’t a fan.
Dr. Bishara was always poking me with needles. He was a big proponent of immunizations. Whenever I went to see him, I expected a needle in my arm.
So, I was pleasantly surprised when my visit with Dr. Bishara ended with a lollipop rather than a sore arm. He actually seemed a bit stumped. “It’s probably nothing,” he said to my mom. “But I heard something with his heart. I’m referring him to a cardiologist at Children’s Medical Center, just to be sure.”
To this day, I have no idea if Dr. Bishara really believed this, or if he was just trying to keep my mother calm.
Off The Chart
We went to see the cardiologist at Children’s. She was a fierce woman who didn’t mince words. “He needs surgery. Actually, he needed surgery yesterday,” she said.
She then, in true doctor fashion, pulled out a chart. It showed the size of a healthy human aorta (the main artery coming off the heart) from infancy to adulthood, with room for variation. She proceeded to point. To the top border of the chart. Literally, ‘off the chart.’
Surgery was scheduled and my world began spinning out of control.
I still don’t understand why I didn’t have surgery that same day. I think they were trying to book a very experienced surgeon, or maybe they needed to order some equipment. Whatever the reason, I was sent home with a ticking time bomb inside my chest. At any moment, my heart might tear itself apart.
I didn’t know this at the time, but 8 out of 10 people who suffer rupture of an aortic aneurysm die before they ever reach the hospital.
Even without knowing the details, even as a 7 year old kid, I was terrified.
I had my first panic attack inside a movie theatre with my family and suffered extreme night terrors. My mom tells me I wandered into her room one night crying about ‘buckets of blood.’ I remember a recurring dream from this time in which I was being chased by a huge boulder (Indiana Jones style).
Then I had to ask the question.
My sister was a cheerleader and we were at her game. I was sitting with my dad.
“Dad,” I said.
“Yeah, buddy?” He replied.
“Am I going to die?”
It was a hard question, an honest question, but it probably wasn’t an entirely fair question. As a kid, I believed my parents had the answer to everything. Now that I am a father myself, I know how far from the truth this really is. My dad changed the subject as quickly as possible. I don’t blame him.
Death isn’t something most 7 year olds seriously consider, but it was something I was forced to confront.
I made it to the night before my surgery. Dad offered to take us out for dinner, whatever I wanted. And what food does a second-grader love more than anything else?
Pizza, of course.
We went and had pizza. My stomach hurt, but I enjoyed the time with my family. The next morning, my dad ordered a limousine to come and take us to the hospital. These were all expressions of his own fear and uncertainty. No one knew if I was going to survive, and dad wanted me to have a few great experiences in case my time on Earth was cut short.
We came into a cold room where I was given ‘goofy juice,’ (that’s what they call the stuff they dope you with before surgery at a children’s hospital). It tasted horrible and made me want to throw up but I downed it.
Then, everything went dark.
The next thing I remember, I woke up feeling heavy. Everything felt warm around me. I was comfortable but I couldn’t move. I slowly regained consciousness and was relieved to find that I had survived!
There was only one problem.
The surgeon told my parents that there was a chance he had stitched through a bundle of nerves while sewing up my new heart valve. If that was true, then my heart might not be able to keep proper rhythm, or even continue beating on its own. The surgeon was humble, apologetic, and transparent.
“Wait and see.”
I don’t remember how many days passed before it happened but suddenly my heart quit beating. Out of nowhere, I flatlined. My parents learned what ‘code blue’ means.
I’m sorry if you came here for a near-death experience story because I don’t have one. I didn’t see anything; I don’t remember anything other than simply being gone.
After I was brought back and stabilized, the doctors wanted to “wait and see.” Would this happen again? Was it a one-off occurence due to the stress of surgery?
I flatlined again. They brought me back.
Then they were ready to act. It was time to put in a pacemaker to keep my heart beating. I knew I needed it but I was so scared of going under the knife again. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t given a choice, and even if I had been, I knew I had to have the surgery.
When I woke up with the pacemaker, I felt amazing! I can hardly describe the difference between before and after. I was hungry for the first time. I had energy! My mood was through the roof.
That’s when I believed for the first time, “I am going to get through this. I am going to live.”
My health improved rapidly and the doctors sent me home. I spent several more weeks at home recovering before going back to school.
Then I began processing everything, and I don’t think I’ve ever stopped. I realized how fragile life is, what a precious gift it is to be alive.
For Thanksgiving holiday, my 2nd grade class made a giant turkey out of construction paper. Each “feather” on the turkey was made by a student, who was supposed to write down one thing they were thankful for. Mine read: “Being alive.”
My dad eventually had it framed. It now hangs in my home office as a constant reminder. The greatest gift I have ever received is a gift I enjoy each day, with each breath.
What I’ve Learned
I am thankful to be alive. Life is a precious gift.
There are other things I’ve learned too. People are uncomfortable talking about death. They’d rather believe it only happens to other people, but talking about it is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. It keeps us inwardly honest.
I’ve also learned that becoming too attached to life is a very real problem also. For years I suffered crippling anxiety with frequent panic attacks. Why? Because I knew death was coming for me.
Pretty ironic, isn’t it? Spending your life fearing death…
So, while we need to be honest about life’s final transaction, continually dwelling on it proves counterproductive. We only add suffering on top of suffering when we are so attached to our personal existence.
Balance, then, turns out to be the key to a life well-lived.
Intentionally enjoy simple pleasures: a video game, walk in the park, or a funny movie. After all, life is short. You won’t always have time for it, so make time for it now.
But never waste your time. It is far too precious. If you find yourself playing that video game like a zombie, walking through the park because it’s just a part of your routine, or binging on Netflix to the point of nausea, then you are out of balance.
Live Your Way.
This is your life. No one else can live it, and only you can decide whether it has been a life well-lived or not. Sure, others will try to judge the quality of your life, but upon close inspection, we find they are merely judging your life against their own.
There is no objective standard here.
If you’re happy and peaceful, if you feel free and fully alive each day, then you can walk toward death with a sense of satisfaction, knowing you lived your best possible life.
That is why I’ve adopted the phrase, “Live Your Way” as a personal motto. It isn’t about being rebellious or reckless. It’s about finding satisfaction at the end of my life. That’s what I want for everyone; that’s what I want for you, and that’s why I’ve written this article, built this website, and dedicated my life to helping people achieve the life of their dreams.
So, live your life. Live your way.
Cody Ray Miller