It took place in the wee hours of November 25, 2000. My night of bartending had drawn to a finish. My till and tips were calculated, and I relaxed with my fellow bartenders as we waited for the okay to go home. We were all reminiscing about the night and making fun of the people we served when I felt an odd sense in my left arm. At first, my fingers felt tingly, but then the feeling circulated throughout the entire left side of my body. I thought, “Hmm, well that’s different.” I figured that if I ignored it, it would probably go away. It didn’t, and I recognized something serious was going on. I shuffled away from everyone, hoping that they didn’t notice my drooping face, and staggered into my boss’s office. I asked him if he ever had trouble moving one side of his body. He laughed at first because he thought I was high (in fact, I had touched no alcohol or illicit substances that night), and then he became serious once he realized something was definitely wrong. He called the ambulance and a fire truck showed up. It was embarrassing because I had all my co-workers standing around me and a group of firefighters. The firefighters did some tests on me until the ambulance showed up and they strapped me on a gurney and took me to the hospital. The ride in the ambulance is a blur. I remember the paramedics talking to me and trying to keep me from falling asleep, but all I wanted to do was close my eyes and drift away. Once we got to the hospital, I was seen right away and was asked a bunch of questions, most of which I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t remember my middle name, phone number, or address. It became frustrating and a waterfall of uncontrollable emotion poured out of me as tears streamed down my face. The kind nurses said it was okay and would get back to me later. The doctors were certain I had taken drugs and treated me poorly. I’m thankful for all the wonderful nurses who were compassionate towards me in the state that I was in.
They admitted me to the hospital after all the tests were completed. The doctors said I had a small hole in my heart and apparently a blood clot slipped through and journeyed to my brain. An orderly wheeled me away from the emergency room and took me up and down some halls. I noticed I went by some fancy rooms and I jokingly asked the orderly, “Hey, can I get one of those rooms?” He laughed and said, “No, you don’t want those rooms. If you get one of those, you’re pretty bad off.” We stopped by a desk and they gave him a clipboard with my room number on it. He looked at it for a second and then gave me a sympathetic glance. He thought for a moment and then turned the wheelchair around and pushed me into a very nice room. He looked at me and smiled and helped me into my new fancy bed. That room was my home for the next eight days. There were times while in that room I thought I would die, and moments I wanted to die.
There is something strange that happens to someone while their backs are on a hospital bed. My family and friends made constant visits. My new girlfriend (who I later married) was constantly by my side. My phone rang daily from friends I hadn’t seen in years. Fellow bartenders that watched me get carted away made frequent and rather inappropriate deliveries to my room in attempts to cheer me up. The nurses loved me and would do their paperwork in my room. But for some reason, I felt alone.
As hard as it was for me to be in that hospital room, it was nothing compared to what was waiting for me once I got home. The road to recovery was a long one and many days of yelling at therapists occurred. It was months before I could return to work part-time and what seemed like forever to get back to full-time. I’m a pretty cheerful guy mostly, but depression grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Because I didn’t have insurance, large bills poured in. It was too much for me to think about, so I stuck them in a drawer and shut it tight. I looked at letters from family and friends the same way. I presume I thought people wanted something from me and I couldn’t give of myself to them. I stuck their letters inside the drawer with the bills. Months went by without paying a bill. I’ll never fully understand what made me do those things.
Thankfully, my support system of family, friends, and my girlfriend never gave up on me. No matter how mean or standoffish I was, they continued to see my need and put in the time, energy, and finances to help me out. I’m lucky to have had so many people in my life.
For most of my life until that moment, I was a decent guy. I had my moments of being an ass, but mostly, I could be classified on the nicer side. But deep inside, I was incredibly selfish. My ego, attitude, and self-worth became my god. In a sense, I was my god. My presence on this earth was my gift to everyone. My happiness depended solely on me. I’d grown up in church and knew all the stories and could answer any Bible test thrown my way. But I didn’t really grasp that there were larger forces than myself at work. I didn’t really fully believe it anymore. Why believe what a book says when my flesh is right here? Why look for some all loving/all powerful God to determine what happens tomorrow when I can choose today? The God stuff didn’t exactly make sense in my new life. Well, my alarm clock went off that Thanksgiving weekend of 2000. There was a moment that I thought if I just closed my eyes, I would die and all would be better. As quickly as I thought that, I became terrified that maybe my eternity would not be what I hoped it would. There was nothing in my life up to that moment that said I had lived a worthy life. Things didn’t alter for me all at once and I didn’t have that “spiritual awakening” some people have. My spiritual process was a slow one that continues to this day.
Months after the stroke and after my body slowly got stronger; I went in to have surgery on my heart to repair the hole. While the doctors were running tests, I heard one say, “Oh no.” It caught my attention, and I asked what was wrong. “Nothing,” the doctor said, “the hole isn’t there anymore. Your heart healed itself.” Occasionally, I get my heart checked out, and it is still whole.
I became a new person 21 years ago. A person who looked at the world differently. Not at how the world can serve me, but how can I serve the world? I think about when my time comes, will I have left it better? It’s too bad I needed a hole in the heart to wake me up. As always on this day, I’m thankful it was there and I’m thankful that it’s full. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got 4 kids to wrangle. Something else I’m thankful for.