October 22, Peaceful Acceptance

I wrote this in response to a friend who also is having cardiac issues and is worried because his family and friends don’t understand his peaceful acceptance. I hope this helps. His comments are below.

“I believe you have described it in total for me ..thank you for this ..I thank you because it is something I believe the people that love us need to hear and understand and you have done exactly what I asked of you…I have a tear running down the side of my face because I know when my family reads this they’ll understand what I feel and yes it’s going to hurt them but knowing my  perspective on this situation for me should ease all our pain. ”

And from a mutual friend . . .  “I guess the reflection is in the people we have lost in the past without warning. Who we didn’t get to have closure with or a chance to prepare. I think when you have time to come to grips with it and move forward with preparation it is easier to accept”

Some Thoughts on Acceptance

I am currently recovering from another heart attack, my fourth, which happened 5 months ago. As part of my recovery I’m taking part in a very good cardiac rehab program. Along with my age of 83 all this is giving me a lot to think about, and these days I am thinking about it. As part of this cardiac rehab I’ve had discussions with other patients, and while we come from various lifestyles we have a lot in common. Each of us in our own way has gone through the process of making peace with our cardiac situation and are not afraid of what our next step will be, although for each of us what that step entails is different, but always good. We are ready for whatever. Over the years, in discussions with other folks experiencing cardiac difficulties, some whom I see almost every day, I have noticed the same thing. Peaceful acceptance.

We’ve come to recognize that the folks who care about us often have trouble with our peaceful acceptance of our situation. They see our dying as a loss for them, which it probably is — the cost of loving. There are any number of reasons for this. Over the years in doing hospital ministry I have learned that what is going on with a patient is easier for the patient to deal with than it is for the folks who care about them. For the patient the experience of terminal illness or condition is practical, while for their family and folks who care about them it is theoretical. With respect, there is a difference.

It is one thing to fight a threat that is outside myself, what I have some experience in. It is quite another to deal with something perceived as a threat that is inside ourselves, such as a fatal or debilitating disease, or a cardiac issue. It might be that realizing the seriousness of what we are experiencing helps us to “make friends” with the situation and gradually let go of our initial fear. Our thinking and emotions begin to change. Maybe the physicality and bodily chemical processes are part of the process, but I don’t know.

I often look back at my journey since my first heart attack at age 47. The fear then was real and terrible. For years, even in cardiac rehab as it was back then, I was told repeatedly by many people, even church officials and parishioners, that because I am a priest I shouldn’t be afraid, and just get over it and get back to work. In the Panama City Florida ER way back then only one person told me it was ok to be afraid, and he was an ER doc who had recently experienced his own heart attack. We had a very good and calming chat that I still remember. That it was ok to be afraid was a wonderful and liberating thing to hear, kind of a validation of me and where I was. Perhaps we need to be afraid at the start of our journey so we can move on to not being afraid. We have to admit our fear before we can move towards letting go of it. For some  this journey to letting go of fear takes a long time, while for others it happens fairly quickly. The important point is that it does happen, if we let it.

A cardiologist somewhere on my journey told me that the chemicals released in the course of a heart attack have an undeniable influence on our emotions and thinking. Definitely true. Looking back on my last two MIs, I was aware of this happening, and so was able to deal with it more positively, not just react to it all, but to be proactive, ask different questions, etc. Also since for one of them, when I had the CABG, I was on Active Duty, I was in Army hospitals where the care is very good, but in a different and wholesome atmosphere — we all wore the same uniform, kind of a family with its own style of caring informality. I learned a lot in the course of that experience, and  a peace happened in my life that has never left, maybe hidden a bit once in a while, but still with me, for which I am grateful.

I believe death is not something that “happens” to us, but dying is something we do. In the Christian tradition we believe, to use a phrase from the Catholic funeral liturgy, “life is changed, not taken away”. Dying is a part of life that happens in all life. It is necessary and good. While fear of the unknown is understandable, It is something we come to let go of and move on to a freeing experience and way of living.

A big part of my life these days is cardiac rehab where I am surrounded with folks who have their own cardiac issues and watched over by wonderfully caring nurses who lightly and humorously see all and don’t miss a thing. Their kind smiling “suggestions” are like suggestions from a general officer, — “DO IT”. They are truly a gift to all of us. Not sure they know this, but we, their patients, certainly do. And we enjoy watching them make their magic happen and being a part of it.

I am aware that my life could end at any moment, or that I could be having these same thoughts in 20 years. I am getting used to the uncertainty and am ok with it. Every time I’ve had a cardiac experience I’ve met many wonderful folks I would not have met had these things not happened. For this I am most grateful. Getting used to a “new  normal” is humbling and grace-filled.

God is much more than a doctrine to believe in, not some sort of a super person out there somewhere watching, but an ongoing everyday experience happening in the people around me, the folks I know and the folks I don’t know, with an increasing importance of being open to folks as they are. My leap of faith has a lot to do with simple walking, carrying nitro again, slowing down, accepting and adjusting to a new normal. My values change, and my faith deepens. Because of this I believe the next step is to something good, although I have no idea what that means. And that’s OK. I wouldn’t have it any other way. People are important, grace is real, the two aren’t far apart.  Just sayin  .  .  .