For a good five hours on December 13, 2012, I was convinced I was going to die.
As many know, that was the day I suffered a surprise heart attack at the age of 35. With a family history of heart disease, but no personal health problems up until that day, the last thing I expected after my walk to the Emergency Walk-In Center was a quintuple bypass on the evening agenda. But there I was. This was the new reality and my world had been rocked beyond belief.
Moments before being wheeled into my first surgery ever, I was told that I had a 97% chance of survival. It put me at ease, but in the hours preceding it, I was sure the risk was much higher. This was a quintuple bypass we’re talking about here. The Heart Attack Grill doesn’t even have a burger that goes that high. I was certain that I wouldn’t live to see whether the Mayan Prophecies would come true eight days later. My Armageddon was on its way.
So, I made my peace with the universe and began to do the one thing that everyone is supposed to do at a time like this – lament over missed opportunities. As I bopped along in the ambulance, in between listening to the paramedics talk about the new hot dispatcher and the sirens kicking in every time we hit a light, I started to take stock of my life and think of all the things I’d left undone.
Do you know what I came up with? Nothing. I didn’t care about skydiving or rocky mountain climbing. I didn’t wish I had gone 2.7 seconds on a bull named Blue Manchu. I was content with both my personal and professional life. To be honest, it shocked me. All of my frustrations about my website or my son’s emerging special needs, which had been very real hours earlier, were meaningless in the face of my own mortality. It made me see that maybe they weren’t so dire after all. When the end was near, all of the superficial worry evaporated.
A realization like that would be life changing enough. However, it was when I changed the question in my head from what was left undone to personal regret that things took a turn. It turns out that I did have regret. I had one major one.
My mind drifted to all the times I had been absent from the lives of my children. Not just physically absent, but mentally and emotionally. I remembered days when they would be playing in the living room and I’d be in my home office starting mindlessly at the computer screen; so bored that I’d type in the same address as the page I was currently looking at and then wondering why nothing changed. I flashed back to pumpkin picking visits viewed through the side of my cell phone screen and holidays where I’d sneak away to check my email…for 45 minutes.
I never regretted anything so much in my life. All I could think about was my family in the wake of my demise. That’s the only instance where you can’t be replaced. You can leave your job and they’d fill your desk within the month. Your voicemail will be deleted and anyone who asks for you would be told “He no longer works here. Stan can help you”. But leave your family behind and they’ll talk about you forever. It leaves a hole that can’t be filled with an Indeed application.
It killed me to visualize my family without me. I imagined Olivia telling people about how her dad died when she was three and my wife struggling alone to manage Lucas as he grew through the years. It was the worst feeling I ever had in my life and, in my mind, it was not just a possibility. It was a definite and it was happening that night.
Well – spoiler alert – I lived. Five years later, I’m still alive and have never been healthier. I also approach my life with a completely new perspective. My family is my number one priority. I want to be present in every possible way – physically, emotionally, and mentally. Those few hours where I thought I would lose my life changed my life forever.
Now this isn’t another anti-cell phone and technology lecture. I won’t do that. There’s nothing more annoying than looking at your phone and seeing a self-righteous viral image about not being on your phone. There are some moments that are genuinely important and require your attention. People get busy. That’s understandable. It’s the world we live in and everyone drifts away now and then. I still do it too. Now, though, I’m conscious of it and work to make sure I drift back quickly. There’s a difference between being called away and willingly taking yourself away with little regard to when you’ll be back.
We’re the first generation of parents that can physically be with our kids while still being away from them. Growing up, our moms and dads either came to the Little League game or they didn’t. Thanks to Al Gore and Steve Jobs, it has become possible to be there and not be there all at once. Sure, maybe you’re in the stands when your father wasn’t, but does it really count if you miss the whole game? This isn’t school detention. You don’t get credit for just showing up. Paying attention to your kids is what counts, not being in the same general area that they are. It’s like sleeping through the circus.
You probably know the old quote about how no one wishes they spent more time working when they’re on their deathbed. So I won’t sit here and tell you how I think that might be true. I also won’t say that you could end up regretting the moments you chose to let pass you by.
Instead, I’ll tell you that I know it’s true and you will regret it. I know because I did.