Some Thoughts on Dying...and Living

A few weeks ago, I went to the doctor and he was pretty alarmed at what he saw.  So while in the U.S.A. on a brief business trip, I visited my American doctor and he was pretty alarmed too.  I've had a pretty busy schedule so getting more tests and follow-up has not been easy.  But today, I went and the specialist looked at me and said he feels that I am going to be fine.  Obviously, I will continue getting tested and will be careful, but he really feels it's okay.  

 Both Jamie and I are always prepared for the worst.  Having parents die of cancer before your very eyes when you are young (and they are young) makes you lose that sense of immortality pretty quickly.  Every day is a gift and can't be taken for granted.

I've nearly died 4 times in my life.  The first time was when I was an infant and was abandoned and nearly starved to death in a Costa Rican orphanage.  I don't have memories of that, my body and my subconscious do.  Near starvation and abandonment leaves an imprint on you no matter what age that it happens.  

Then there was a second time when I was 16 and went flying off a freeway in Oregon, spun around in front of traffic and ended up in the middle divider---the car totaled (Sorry Dad!).  I narrowly missed a lot of cars and fortunately did not kill anyone; but I survived--and remember feeling an incredible sense of peace and calm as the car was airborne and flipping around.  No shaking, nothing.  Just calm.  

The third time was in New Haven, Connecticut.  There was a very dangerous bridge that we had to cross every day called the "Q Bridge".  Connecticut drivers are some of the fastest drivers in the USA (if not the fastest).  And the freeway infrastructure around New York City is some of the worst, including New Haven.  Everyday we had to merge onto a bridge at top speed, and had about half a mile to move over 4 lanes to our exit.  The bridge bent at the middle so you were blind for the second half of that half mile on the bridge.  I think they have since improved it. 

One day on my way home from school, I sped onto the bridge (as you have to), and made my way across the high speed traffic into the 4th exit lane.  But as I reached the 4th lane, the "blind" half of the bridge was now visible, and there was a car parked--totally still--in that 4th lane.   

I slammed on the breaks as I was headed straight for the parked car.   The car literally screeched to a halt with about 1 inch to spare.  I felt a sense of relief and amazement that I had actually been able to stop...and then I looked in the rear-view mirror.  A full semi-truck was speeding right at me also trapped in the right lane.   I'll never forget the image of that semi-truck barreling down on me.

There was literally no way out. Both my car and the other car were completely motionless.  As I looked in the mirror, I remember thinking "This is the end of life."  And I felt totally calm and peaceful.   I wasn't even afraid of pain because it was so obvious there would be no surviving this crash.  It was just obvious it was over.

Miraculously, the semi-truck slammed on his brakes and he too stopped one inch or so from my bumper.  The grill was enormous in my back window.  It looked like an overly-fake scene out of a TV show.  Something you might see on CHIPS or Starsky and Hutch.  It was unbelievable!  The next thing I remember is the semi eventually pulling out and yelling down at me.  I quickly followed on his tail wanting to escape the death lane.  And as I drove past the car that had parked in the middle of a bridge, there was a guy just calmly sitting in there (trying to commit suicide perhaps?).  I wanted to kill him, to be honest, but I gunned past him to get off on the exit and avoid the crazy high speed "Q" traffic.   There was no way to get out and chat or see what was wrong.  It's just not possible on that bridge.  You speed by or you die--especially on the blind turn. I still wonder what that guy was doing. He could have died, I could have died, and maybe he died a few minutes later!  You can't park in that lane on that bridge and survive.

The fourth time I nearly died was in a hospital in Hong Kong.  My medical incident there was one of the "two worst cases" my Doctor had seen.  When i went in to the operating table, I remember saying "goodbye" and thinking it was the last time I would ever see Jamie.  It was sad but the situation was so obviously grave, I just knew I needed to be on that gurney if I was to survive at all.  The only reason I had gone to the hospital (amidst a lot of pain) was because as I was lying in my bed in pain, a small bird came against my window and knocked up against it.  The same exact thing happened the morning my mother died, as I sat by my window those first few hours without her.  (Some Africans believe a bird will always find you after someone you loved has died).  So I went to the hospital and they rushed me into the operating table... And I felt totally calm and peaceful.  The doctor said I was 2 hours away from dying.  Had he left his shift, like he was supposed to, I might not be here.  Instead, at midnight, I had the operation.  After that i took another turn for the worst and it was touch and go again.  It was a couple of weeks before I left the hospital and several months before I was free of pain, but I made it.  

And then there have been the last few weeks--of wondering if there was something really bad going on inside of me. Although perhaps not as grave as these other incidents, I still thought a lot.   

These moments of near-death have been blessings to me.  A reminder that life is fragile, that every day is a gift, and that we have to make life count.  Those are cliches, but it's amazing how very true and profound those thoughts become when you really are facing death.  Another cliche:  You are not worrying about your stock portfolio or your job when you are dying.  You are thinking of your family and friends.

But for me, I ask myself other questions:  "Did I take enough chances in life?"  "Did I gain some humility and perspective about my place in this universe? "Does my life have congruity?"  "Does life seem fair?" And "Did I love people well enough?"  Two bigger questions:  "Was I a good husband?"  "Was I a good Father?"  

And the biggest question of all:  "Do I really believe in my faith in the darkest times?" 

The answer to that last one is always "Yes."  And I think that is always why I find a sense of calm and peacefulness in these close calls.  I can't say I got it right in life.  I can't say I don't have any regrets.  I can't say I've loved as much as I've been loved.  I wish I could.  Regrets? Unlike Frank Sinatra, I have many.  

But I can say that I believe in this amazing faith of Grace.  And from there, everything else can be handled.   

I do think there are many greater tragedies in life than death:  Never growing up, being conquered by anger, failing to take chances, wallowing in bitterness, not laughing, not growing up and maturing, never finding your meaning in life, not learning your limitations, and not loving people selflessly.  These and many other things are worse than death.  But while we are alive, we always have the chance to find redemption and renewal.  

I'm not a country music fan, but I love this song by Tim McGraw, and the message is so profound.  Listen to it and live like you were dying.   

(Version 1 plays in the USA) 

(Version 2 has lyrics) 

(Version 3 works outside of the USA) 



"and I loved deeper

and I spoke sweeter

and I gave forgiveness I'd been denying

and he said "Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying."