Everyday is a Second Chance

I died recently.

I haven’t reported this, but I’ve had a lot going on since then. Finding my way back from pneumonia, a heart attack and a triple bypass has been a long, rough road that I’m still stumbling down.

In a hospital bed, doctors and nurses pounded on my chest for 15 minutes until my heart beat again. I owe my life to doctors Aram Neuschatz, Samuel Brown, Hamaif Dar and a whole bunch of others at Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge.

The second chance is more than a working ticker. A second look at how I got there and how I go forward is a chance few people get.

Dying was amazingly uneventful. I didn't float out of my body toward a light, and no departed loved ones beckoned me home. When I drifted back to consciousness, I saw my boss and pal Mark Harden looking tired and worried in a chair at the foot of my bed. He brought me a charger for my phone. It was not exactly the extended hand of God. 

I always hoped my grand finale would be one last flourish. I’d say something instructive, profound but wholly unoriginal.

“There’s no crying in baseball,” I might say with a wink, thump the brim of a brown fedora with my index finger and climb aboard the glory train.

Instead, I just went. Poof. Everything I could say had already been said.

I feel tremendously grateful, balanced against my grief for four close friends and my older sister who have died in the last two years. I struggle to accept why I drew the lucky card. Surviving is overwhelming.

At 2:30 one morning during the weeks I waited to get stronger for heart surgery, I called the Colorado Crisis Services hotline. Last year I wrote about the people there who answer calls there 24/7. Anonymously for no charge, professionals help people in all kinds of distress. That includes those racked by the guilt and worry of a stolen life and whether a life of stitches and doctors is worth living. A counselor named Marin said she understood and gave me good advice about anxiety and inexplicable fate.

I also know this now for sure. The beauty of life is the bounty you reap from the seeds of friendship you sow along the way, the laughs, the meals you cook for friends, the times you open your heart instead of your mouth.

In the lowest moments those seeds bloom. I didn’t expect all the kindness I’ve received, and it constantly fills my eyes with tears.

I remain a journalist to the marrow of my bones, but this unexpected furlough away from the grind of what I do has made me thoughtful about the cold and calculating soul of politics. People use one another. Every exaggeration and allegation against someone who disagrees with you gets attributed to some moral flaw, solely in the name of winning.

I’m lucky my heart chugged on as long as it did.

Symptoms had been mounting for a while. I pushed on. At the Republican watch party on Election Night I briefly thought I was going to faint, but after the results were in I gathered myself to do a radio show. The next morning I was up early for another round of radio, then gave a lunch talk to the Foothills Republican Club, guzzling coffee and tea just to keep going.

I scheduled some time off the next week, but I got the chance to talk to Mike Coffman after he lost his re-election for Congress and to break the news he would run for Aurora mayor. I turned that into a magazine story, cranked out a column then took some time off at the end of the week.

Election years are a bucket of adrenaline and stress. We talk and we talk and we talk to try to get an edge just to win. That’s the business.

But none of that talking amounted to the last thing I wanted to say for myself. That’s something all of us in politics should think about: What are we saying with our actions when we breathe our last.

“The Andy Griffith Show” covered this.

Remember when Rafe Hollister wouldn’t let the county nurse give him a tetanus shot? He fired a rifle to chase her off and wound up in the Mayberry jail.

Sitting in the cell, Andy told Rafe he didn’t blame him, because taking that inoculation might ruin Rafe’s chance at immortality, to be an inspiration to others. When Rafe gets cut by a rusty saw or bitten by an animal and epidemiology takes its course, the sheriff explained, his death would motivate everybody else to get that good shot.

Andy said the town would probably put up a statue of Rafe, slumped over in agony, the way they found him. Andy, if he’s not too broke up, might sing a dirge -- “Dig my grave with a silver spade …” -- and tell Rafe’s widow to remarry.

Rafe looked down at his feet like he was viewing his own coffin. He changed his mind, the way I’ve changed my mind about a few things to do with politics and living.

“I don’t want to be a dead hero,” Rafe told the sheriff. “I want to be a live me.”

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