If I Should Die Before I Wake

Every year a certain percentage of people undergo surgery and never wake up.  From the little reading I’ve done that number is small.  The likelihood of winning the lottery is small too, but every week someone does.

Yesterday, I was informed that I am going to need surgery to resolve the issues I have been having with my neck since September.  Interestingly, if the first doctor I went to see had correctly assessed the problem (a bulging disk in the C7 vertebrae) I could have had this surgery months ago and skipped the time and expense of physical therapy, steroid injections and multiple office visits.  When I finally sat down with the right doctor and explained the same thing I had been saying all along, he immediately pinpointed the problem.  But that’s not really what I am here to talk about…

I am an introspective person.  I am subject to emotion, and emotional outbursts, as are all other people.  But, if I have a chance to think through things I am generally able to overcome fear and anxiety, and a host of other emotional responses, through the application of logic and reason. However, I have to admit I spent some time tossing and turning last night.

I have spent a good bit of time analyzing myself over the last 24 hours.  I am clearly encouraged, perhaps even happy, about the thought that in the not too distant future this ordeal I have been going through since September will end.

Major events also have a way of creating a new beginning in some way, separating time in to the period before and after the event.  There is a glimmer of hope there.  There is the notion that perhaps there will be a new opportunity or environment, or a new path of some kind, waiting for me on the other side of this surgery/recovery. However, the simple truth is, when I think about the possibility of a new path, I must consider the path already traveled.  This is where I find myself this morning.

I read a brief story this morning about a kid with terminal cancer, with a week to live, whose wish was to meet Eminem before he died.  And I wondered for a moment, if I knew the end was nigh, what would I do with my remaining time?  Of even greater importance, what have I done with the time already passed?

I also began to recognize the fact that there was a bit of trepidation in my heart regarding this surgery, and I began to ponder why that was. I have said all of my life that I am not afraid to die.  Many men make this boast.  Some of them even prove it.  But I am not a hero, or a daredevil.  I am not prone to death-defying acts of craziness like say, Evil Knieval.  In fact, I tend to go out of my way to avoid potentially dangerous or life altering situations.

But at the end of the day I lean towards the belief that we live, we die, and that’s it.  Last night however, when faced with a day and a time when I knew for sure someone was going to stick something in my arm; and I was going to fall asleep; and there was a chance (albeit small) that I would never regain consciousness; that (for reasons I am attempting to ascertain) was cause for concern.

So, in keeping with my manner of thinking and living I began to ponder what the source of that concern was.  Let us say for a moment that I lay down on that operating table, the room goes dark, and the light never comes back on.  From a practical standpoint, I’d never know the difference.  There would be no pain or fear.  There would be no audience or tearful loved ones.  I would simply close my eyes and never reopen them.

So what’s scary about that?

I can think of no end more peaceful or more bearable than that one.  So why does it trouble me?

I think the answer lies in the thoughts I have been expressing about my life for the past several years.  Stop and ask yourself for a moment why being lost scares you.  You could have a full gas tank, plenty of money, food, water, what have you.  But, if you are driving through the city in the middle of the night, or hiking some trail, or strolling through the forest, and you suddenly realize you do not know where you are, most people have a bit of a panic attack at that point.  Why?

It’s hard to explain what I’m thinking at the moment, perhaps because I lack sufficient vocabulary.  But I believe the fear may have less to do with any danger, real or imagined; and more to do with being disconnected from the people in our lives.

In my case for example, the thoughts that go through my mind are of my daughters hanging out with friends when their cell phones ring and my wife informs them that I am gone.  How would that impact them?  Will they go forward in their lives knowing how much they were loved?  Will they recall the wisdom and encouragement I tried to pass on?  Will I live forever in the hearts and minds of my children, or fade away as time and circumstance conspire to remove all thought and evidence of my existence?

Is this not the crux of the fear in the lost scenario?  It is one thing for the news to report that there was an accident on the train; or that you died of a heart attack while coaching little league.  It’s an entirely different thing for the story to be, “Mr. Johnson pulled out of the driveway one Friday morning 18 years ago, and has never been seen or heard from since”.

On an intellectual level I understand that dead is dead.  But perhaps “missing” and “dead” are not the same thing.  Perhaps an opportunity to “get your affairs in order” is different from simply vanishing.  Perhaps time to look your wife and kids in the eye and say, “You’re the meaning in my life and what makes it worth living”, is different from simply falling asleep and never reawakening.

There are a lot of things I wish I had the time to say.  There are a lot of days I wish I could have spent just sitting next to my daughters in the living room, chatting about nothing.  There are a lot of missed opportunities to laugh, and cry, and smile.  There are a lot of moments spent with my wife arguing about pointless bullshit.There have been a lot of wasted moments over the 44 years I’ve been here.

Yes, I am going to take the time to hug my kids, kiss my wife, and tell them they are important to me over the next couple of weeks.  Yes, I am going to lay down on that table, fall asleep, wake back up, and come home.  Yes, I’m going to continue to be a terrible pain in someone’s ass for many more years to come.

But, I think I’m going to try to put these moments of introspection to use.  I think I’m going to try to more carefully weigh the words I say and the things I do.  I’m going to try to find more time for living, and spend less time just going through the motions.  I am going to try to do all these things, and fail.

But perhaps what will be different is, I will try again.

And I’m going to try to form more and stronger connections with people around me.

Because the truth is you can know exactly where you are, and still be lost.


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