The following is an essay I submitted to a magazine in Aug. ’16 for a contest of articles about ‘Life Changing Experiences’. I never heard anything from them, nor have they posted a list of winners’ names like they said they would or responded to my email, so I guess I didn’t win and am free to publish this elsewhere:
Life seemed to be moving along pretty well for my wife and me as we turned the page from 2015 to 2016. We lived in central Illinois. I was 61 and working at being the husband of one, father of two, grandfather of five, and pastor of many.
We had already made some plans for the next several months that would keep us happily busy. The small church that I pastor was making plans to purchase property that would require renovation, so I knew the summer would get very busy. Meanwhile, a few trips had been planned.
My wife and I had been blessed by friends with a free week in a condo in Florida in May. My two brothers and I planned to spend the first weekend of June with our 88-year-old father in Oklahoma at the NCAA Women’s Softball World Series. I also had plans for the next week to go to the mountains of Peru on a mission trip with a young lady from our church, who is like a daughter to me, and another local pastor and his daughter.
It seemed to me like all was set – life was good. Now, to be fair, three or four times in the fall of 2015, I had some slight concerns. For no apparent reason, lasting no more than a couple of minutes each time, I experienced a tightening in my upper chest and a burning sensation as I breathed through it. Since I had no other symptoms, no real personal medical history, and no history of heart disease in my family, I wrote it off as being a little overweight and 61 years old. However, on Tuesday, January 19, another episode occurred that did not end in a couple of minutes. The pain persisted despite my efforts to ease it. In fact, it got worse. I even began to get a little nauseated. I decided it must be something more than old age and weight, so I drove myself to the hospital just one block away. As I walked into the ER, I called my wife who was visiting family several miles away. By the time she arrived, nitro and baby aspirin had eased my pain.
Our small hospital had done its job and test results showed something was going wrong in there. They sent me on to a larger hospital in Springfield, IL known for its heart care. A heart catheterization the next day revealed several blocks in three arteries, including five in the one they call “the widow maker!” Too many to stent, so the doctors recommended a triple bypass!
That’s right. Me – the guy with no medical history, taking no medication, with no real problems. I didn’t even have a doctor! On Saturday, they cut me open, sawed through my chest bone, took a vein out of my right leg for the new bypasses, connected me to a bypass machine, shut off my heart, built three detours around my blocked arteries, restarted my heart, wired my sternum together, and stitched me back up! On Sunday, I was up walking. On Monday, I was in a regular hospital room and on Wednesday, I walked down the stairs of my home to my bedroom suite where I soon ate supper while watching TV! Amazing!
Now, before I let them do all this to me, I asked the surgeon about my recovery time and those three trips I had planned, especially the one up in the mountains. He said if I spent six weeks after the surgery doing what I was told, then I could do whatever I wanted. I said, “Let’s do it!” – and we did!
My wife asked me why I thought I would be able to change my diet and exercise regularly, when I had never done so before. I was a “meat and taters” kind of guy. I hate all vegetables. I used to be fairly active, but I’m 61 now! My answer was that I had too much to do to let this stop me. Not just those trips, nor even my work as a pastor, but much more.
I was determined to take Melissa, my spiritual daughter, to Peru on her first mission trip. We had hoped to go the year before, but the trip had not materialized. I would not disappoint her again! The new church building meant far more than just new “digs” for the church. It meant expanded ministry potential in a new neighborhood. That would require my help and good health. I write the materials for our children’s ministry – so many depend on me!
I also write children’s books and my hope for them is to broaden my sphere of influence so I might somehow touch many more people. I had received my second book two weeks earlier and had just sent number three to the publisher a few days before the surgery. There would be book signings and book orders and who knows where it all might lead.
Then there were my regular ministerial duties and my family to consider. No, I had too much I wanted to see accomplished before I leave this world and apparently, I might not get it done unless I began to eat right and exercise. So, I must. The decision to have the surgery and make the changes was that simple.
The surgery went well and recovery progressed nicely. As soon as I could do it, I started the daily walking routine and when the time was right I went through the cardiac rehab program. I did make all those trips, plus another to Arkansas just six weeks after the surgery. I only missed two Sundays at church and began resuming pastoral duties and ministries right after that. I later joined our hospital’s wellness center so I could continue to exercise and build up my strength.
Now, fast forward to August. I have lost 40 pounds! I exercise nearly every day and often twice a day. I have NEVER been an early riser, but now I exercise for over an hour, fix and eat breakfast, and get ready to face the day by 7:30 in the morning!
I am not yet operating at full strength, but I am progressing. My ministry “plate” is full, including becoming the Team Leader to facilitate more trips to Peru. I’ll be going back this October and then twice a year for the next several years. I still hate vegetables, but I am eating some! Mostly, I have cut out and cut back on lots of things that are not so healthy.
Sounds good, huh? Well, mostly it is, but there are some drawbacks. The weight loss has led to having to buy a whole new wardrobe! The recovery time has prevented the extra work I usually do to supplement my income – house painting and helping a local funeral home. Book signings and sales have slowed as well. Lots of out-go and less income! Balancing the budget has become tougher.
I am still not fully recovered so I am somewhat limited on some things. Mowing and weed-eating hurts. It is hard for me just to supervise work and not join in. It’s even harder for me to let the women do things in my place, like carry the heavy stuff. The Peru trip was harder on my muscles than I had imagined it would be, so I have stepped up the workouts. I don’t sleep as long or as restfully as I used to. Did I mention I hate vegetables?
I am not sure, even after several months of adjustments and changes, where this is all leading. I look in the mirror and ask myself, “Who is this man?” He’s a thinner, healthier me, but is it really me? HE gets up early, works out, and eats differently. HE takes medicine every day – twice a day. Some things I used to do – this guy can’t. HE’s even trying to learn Spanish!
And now to really confess – there are times I just sit and try not to think. I get overwhelmed easily. It takes longer to do some things. I wonder if I can keep this up for another twenty years. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s worth it. A couple of times, I broke down and cried. Other times, I fought it off. Sometimes I cry out to God and He always gets me through it. He gives me strength and help, but so far, not so many real answers.
I look for answers, but keep going. I am sure the reasons will come when I really need them. As for that man in the mirror? I try to remember that God is not finished with him yet. I may struggle to know just who he is, but whoever he is, he is not yet who he will be when God is done with him! I guess I’ll just have to stick around and stick to it and wait to see who that is!