When I tell the story of my heart attack and subsequent quintuple bypass at 35, there’s a part I often leave out. It’s a part I was asked to leave out, but it’s a part that is incredibly important to the narrative.
Immediately prior to the moment I started to feel the breathless confusion that sent me to the emergency walk-in center, I had been arguing on the phone with members of my family. It was a familiar situation in that yelling and battling was commonplace since I was old enough to know how what yelling and battling was. It was also familiar because the argument was about nothing except the act of arguing itself.
Those phone calls always felt pointless and like I was play-acting for someone else’s enjoyment. I never liked fighting, yet I played a role for those who did. Even as I started a family of my own and had real concerns about real things, I still had to take part in these meandering exchanges that left my head swirling with annoyed anger.
When I was on my way to the hospital, left to ponder life alone in my head, I couldn’t believe that this was how my story would end. Fearing that I was done, I realized that the final thing I could have possibly done in life was fight about nothing with the same people I had been fighting with for years. I never liked it. I never enjoyed it. Yet, I did it right up until my closing moments.
When I learned that my surgery wasn’t an open and shut death sentence, I resolved myself to make some changes, insisted that I would never live that way again, and promised whatever higher being was listening that I would try to make every moment I was lucky enough to have after that day enjoyable.
After I returned home from the hospital, I started making good on that promise. Yet, it wasn’t an overnight change. Becoming happy and pushing past the dark noise that invades our lives isn’t the same as punching a clock or shutting a door. You can eliminate some of the people causing it from your life, but there are others and, if you really think about it, it’s not simply about people.
It was about me. If there were changes that needed to be made, they needed to start from within. Whether it was work, home, or anywhere in between, I needed to discover what would make me happy and run to it. The journey forward was about more than stopping what wasn’t working. It was also about finding what would.
The problem was that I allowed myself to be boxed in mentally by the wills of others. It was about their words and how they affected me.
Upon the release of my first book in 2006, a family member had remarked that I “would never make enough money to feed your family.”
In 2009, another family member looked me in the eye and said, “You’re not as good a person as you think you are.”
In 2011 and years after, it was repeated to me that my non-verbal son’s inability to speak was my fault. According to one person, “I didn’t even think that was in question.”
It piled on. Over and over again, I replayed those and other negative words in my head, even when I didn’t realize how hard they had hit me. They became the soundtrack to my life and the broken record that played during all my decisions. What hurt the most was that I had accepted them.
Being happy wasn’t even a consideration to me. I wasn’t even sure what being happy meant. It was more like I was content and, in many cases, I was content with being unhappy. I stole smiles here and there and ran to my children for the happiest moments, but I never felt completely right. I always felt broken with too many missing pieces to be a complete person.
Slowly, though, I clawed out of that. I put aside my fears of opening up and began this blog in 2017, with my fingers shaking the whole time I typed. It wasn’t just outside my comfort zone, but it was like I had firebombed my comfort zone. Writing these words right now for anyone to read was my biggest fear years ago. Now, I do it and, knowing that I’m getting them out and even possibly helping someone else makes me happy.
I do make money from my writing, just as I did when that book came out. It’s enough to buy meals and the irony of it all is that I don’t even talk to that family member anymore. It doesn’t matter though. She doesn’t need to be at my table to know my children are being fed.
My son’s autism is not my “fault” because there’s nothing faulty about my son’s autism. He’s perfect and, even if those words were true, knowing that I helped to create this magical little boy who, along with his sister, holds my heart in his hands, makes me happy.
As far as being a good person, I try every day to be one. I might not succeed in the eyes of some, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t do it for them. I do it for me. When I feel like I’m doing good, I know I’m doing good for my children and that’s the only thing that matters. Again, it gives me that happiness that had eluded me for most of my younger years.
I do it all for me, but above all else, I do it for that 35 year old with the seven-day beard and fresh chest scar in St. Francis Hospital. He’s the one I owe it to because, on that day in 2012, I promised him I would. Today, I am making good on those promises. Tomorrow, I will too. I want to do it every day until my final day.
And when that final day comes, I know one thing for sure. The last thing I do won’t be arguing with those people on the phone.
YOU CAN’T CHANGE ANYONE BUT YOURSELF
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