Life Takes a Sharp Left Turn

Sometimes the journey of life takes a sharp left turn. Last month I noticed a mild burning sensation in my lungs when I exercised too hard. I hadn’t been going to the gym regularly, so I figured I was probably just out of shape. Then again, I thought, it might be a side effect of my acid reflux—so I visited my Ears, Nose, and Throat doctor to get checked out. She sent me immediately to my family doctor who referred me on to a cardiologist. Ten days later…

On Good Friday, I had open heart surgery—a quadruple bypass. It happened so quickly, it was hard to embrace the event at first as the good news it actually was. Had I ignored the symptoms,  would have traveled to China on April 9th. I’m told a 14 hour plane flight in a low pressure cabin is not recommended for someone with a 99% blocked artery; and even if I had survived the trip, I would probably have ended up in a Chinese hospital. Also not recommended, I was told, if you don’t know the Mandarin words for, “Please, please, may I have the clean needle?” 

The night before the surgery, I found myself contemplating the end of life. It’s hard not to think about it when you know someone is about to saw your sternum in half and stop your heart for five hours. The time in the hospital room felt like some kind of surreal ritual. I was alone, except for one night nurse. I took a special shower with two kinds of bottled disinfectant as she changed all my bedding. After four hours of sleep, I was awakened for another disinfectant shower, and then sat in silence as I awaited the journey to the operating room. I wondered if this was what medieval squires experienced during the vigil before their knighting ceremony. Or was it a taste of what death row inmates feel facing an inevitable end?

Thankfully, my anxiety was mitigated by a mysterious gift of peace I received the afternoon before. A friend from church had visited me, and as she prayed over me, I had a profound experience that imparted just enough strength to face the day. In order to explain what happened, I have to tell a story I’ve shared many times over the past 33 years:

When my oldest child Emily was about a month old, I was holding her in my arms when she fell asleep. Her head was turned away from me, however, and I couldn’t actually see her face—so I carried her into our bathroom and looked in the mirror to make sure her eyes were closed. I could see they were, but I also found myself looking at the image of the two of us together—this beautiful, vulnerable child, fast asleep with my own arms wrapped protectively around her. At that moment, perhaps for the first time, I was overcome by the powerful feeling of being a father—a feeling of unconditional love. And in the middle of that feeling, I had a thought that just about overwhelmed me. I thought, ‘Oh dear Lord, could this possibly be how God feels about me?’

I’ve told this story so many times over the years, quite frankly it had lost its power to move me directly. But for some reason, as my friend was praying for me in that hospital room, it washed over me with full force. Quite simply I thought, ‘Of course—if God loves me as much as I love Emily, everything will be alright. Whatever happens—everything will be alright.’

As it turns out, the “whatever” was of the positive kind. The surgery went very well; I had very little pain; and I’m recuperating on schedule—fully expecting to resume my writing, performing, and directing duties by mid-May, (though perhaps not all of my lifting and loading duties.) Not to mention--throughout this whole experience, I’ve had the joy of receiving an outpouring of love and care and prayer from a wide community of friends and family. Thank you, all!

Research shows that a third of all heart surgery patients have significant depression after the operation. By pure grace, I’m feeling a sense of hope instead. God has my attention, and I can’t help thinking there may be something significant He wants me to do in the years ahead—if not in a new direction, at least with new attitude. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.