If you had asked me at 20, where I’d be at 40, I’d have told you, “Probably dead.”
I don’t know why, but I never expected to live all that long. I imagined a scenario like Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain that saw me drift off into the great unknown while people back home told folk stories about my days here. It was all very romantic in my brain. Those who wronged me would be sorry and my legacy would live on.
Or not. Who cares? I’d be dead.
I can’t tell you how I expected to die or when, just that it would be soon and a future without me was all but assured. In my head, I was forever 21 and reaching middle age just didn’t seem to fit with my persona. I was a young in-your-face guy with lots of things to do and not a lot of time to do them.
Death would be coming as I got older, but in my youth, I was invincible. My friends were too. We literally headbutt the walls at bars and picked fights when we were clearly outmatched. At the end of day, nothing could hurt us and, even if it did, so what? We were openly apathetic about our personal safety. Although we laughed about it outwardly, I was serious as a heart attack, a prophetic statement given all that was to come.
I remember one night of heavy partying, where a close friend of mine urged me to get up and keep tempting fate. I looked at him with all seriousness and said, “I will, man, but I think we’ll probably die.”
He smiled and asked, “So?” I laughed and got up. The night continued.
Today, I’m 42 and he’s passed away.
That’s reality. That’s truth. All those times I imagined my own demise, it was never truly real. It was my brain projecting my own self-doubt and worries about adulthood into a worst-case-scenario. When I thought about dying, I never pictured the actual event or a life that I was needed for. I just pictured the tearful aftermath. It was a daydream more than anything.
2012 was the first time my own death was ever put to me as something real. My heart attack and surprise bypass surgery were the first time that anyone had ever assigned a time and cause on my passing. That changed in a heartbeat. On that insane December day, I was told the day was that day and the reason was my heart. No more daydreams needed.
It was also the first time I imagined the immediate results of my own death within the present life I had created. I didn’t think decades down the line or see my face in a black and white photo. I thought about that moment right then. The grief I pictured wasn’t on aged and blurry generic faces. It would be on the faces of my family who I saw every day.
Then I knew, I didn’t want to die. It’s crazy to think that it took 35 years to realize that, but it did.
That’s not to say that I had lived a downtrodden existence up until that point. It’s just that, to me, death was a whatever thing. We all die anyway, right? No one talks about it, but it happens. I think if we all really focused on our inevitable exits with the pressing urgency that it might warrant, we’d all go crazy. But it’s true. I was always conscious of that real, albeit abstract, fact.
So, why not tempt it? Who cares? The things I ingested and the lifestyle I lived all implied that I was good with whenever my checkout time was. I didn’t avoid anything. My job was to devour all the world had to offer before going silently into that last goodnight.
Prior to 2012, though, I had already started to see chips in the armor of my thinking. I had lost friends – many friends – over time. The invincibility we seemingly shared wasn’t real. I watched as it disappeared before my eyes. I had also, without realizing, begun to live the life that I had thought impossible during my darker days of youth.
I was an adult. I had kids and responsibilities. Those were terrifying to a 20-year-old. Bills and children and neckties – they all seemed so difficult to manage. Rather than picture living up to those lofty expectations, it was just easier to think about being gone.
All had changed by 2012. I was a grown up and my mortality was very real. Having narrowly avoided my own death many times since the age of eight, it took the words of that one doctor to make it all a real thing with a real timeline.
You know how you hear about those healthy guys who drop dead of a heart attack at 40? That was going to be you.
But I caught it. And they fixed it. And now, years later, I’m on a new timeline.
Had it not been for that life-changing event, I’d probably still have that dark mindset today. I’m not perfect and I have down days that sometimes linger, but my outlook is much more positive than negative. I know I want to be here, and I know that I’m proud of the good I’ve tried to put into the world. I work to keep myself here for those I love, and I don’t waste time on those who try to sour the remaining days I have left. I think about those who have wronged me far less than they’d believe.
Once the worst-case scenario of all – my own death – became a genuine possibility that I had to come to mental terms with, the other stresses that life threw my way seemed pointless. I thought about all the fears I had carried with me for so long and how many of them never happened. Still, I spent years fretting about how they might. It was imagined anxiety for the sake of imagined anxiety.
And some of those fears did come true. Although they did, I still went on. Not only did I go on, but I was at a point in my life where I wanted to keep living. It told me that those doom and gloom possibilities weren’t so doomy or gloomy. In fact, they all shaped me into the person I am today. They all weren’t as fully good or fully bad as I envisioned.
I live every day as if it was my last. Truth be told, I always have. Today, though, I do it with a sense of hope and happiness as opposed to reckless indifference. I don’t know for sure what will happen after I die. I don’t think anyone does. All I know is that I’m here now and I have this one life. I’m going to soak up every moment while I can.