I did not anticipate that the main artery of my heart was about to be blocked. I was about to go out for a walk when I felt an intense pain across my chest. This was the first sign that my life was threatened. I was both fortunate and privileged. Regine drove me to the emergency ward of a hospital. Medical professionals attended to me. I underwent surgery and was placed in intensive care.
I am now at the beginning of an uncertain period during which I must focus on recovery. I am warned about engaging in the routine activities of life and work – the things that gave meaning to my existence as a person. I stand before God and my friends as someone that is weak and unable to care for himself.
There are strong emotions after a heart attack. Some of these feelings may be intensely personal and shaped by the circumstances of an individual. However, I suspect that there are common questions and anxieties shared by many people during a medical crisis.
- “Why me?” In my case, medical tests had not revealed a susceptibility to heart attacks. It is easy to wallow in self-pity and to think that there was something unfair about what happened to me. But I also ask: “Why was my life spared?” Our friend Louise died of a heart attack a month ago. I cannot bring myself to think of God as a divine puppet-master that pulls the strings around us. I prefer to contemplate that life is a gift and that my days have been numbered since the date of my birth. I have been given more time for a reason.
- “What changes must I accept and embrace?” I thrived and found my purpose within the mission of an international organization. I enjoyed friendships, collegiality, the sharing of gifts, and the commitment to common values. I sense that I will lose something of my identity and passion if I take the logical steps into retirement. What meaning will I find when separated from the vocational community to which I belonged?
- “How do I feel about death?” I admit that I was afraid in the emergency ward. But more dominant that fear was the desire to live longer and enjoy my life with Regine. There are things we want to do as a couple. I also want to spend time with children, grandchildren, and friends. It seems too early to say the final good-byes. I want to savour more deeply the rich experiences of life.
- “How do I place my sufferings in the context of the injustices and violence of the world?” I feel the weight of privilege. Millions of people in the world are crying out for mercy. They lack food, are displaced by violence, and struggle each day to survive. I contrast my circumstances to theirs. Last week I had the best of medical care with the costs covered by Canada’s social medicine program. The disparity requires me to find an ethical perspective in which I continue to hold some responsibility for those on the margins.
I want to conclude by emphasizing the meaning of friendship and family in the days following my heart attack. We are grateful for those people that hold us up in prayer, drop off meals, mow our lawn, and simply listen to the confused expressions of my heart. In a time of weakness, they allow us to experience community and ministry in a new way.