Things You Think When You Think You’re Dying

Have you ever thought you were dying?

Not, I was so embarrassed I thought I’d die.
Not, I‘m dying for a cheeseburger.
Not even, one die I’m going to die.

I mean, have you ever been suddenly swallowed up by a terrifying, suffocating, this is it, end-of-the-line, kicking-the-bucket certainty that you are leaving this life in these very seconds?

I have.

I was a few days past my recent brain tumor surgery. For the delicate procedure, my surgeons had brilliantly traversed my nasal cavity, removing the bone at the top, allowing them access to the dangerous foreign growth surrounding my pituitary gland, removing it in sections through my nostrils.

The upside, was that I had no exterior wounds, no invasive cutting into the skull—and outwardly, almost no visible evidence of the complicated, nearly five-hour surgery inside my head at the base of my brain.

The downside, was that my wounds were all within my nose and sinus cavity, and extremely vulnerable to sudden movements, bending over, sneezes, deep breathing— and any number of relatively normal actions that could disrupt the surgery site enough to dislodge the tenuous blood clots.

Apparently, I’d performed one too many of those actions.

Lying in my bed, I felt a tickle at the back of my throat, as if I’d drank water a little too fast. By the time I remembered that I’d been on strict fluid restrictions and that this couldn’t be water, I was suppressing a cough fighting to force its way out. I stood up to try and get ahead of it, and as I caught my reflection in the mirror I could see a slow trickle of blood begin streaming out of one nostril, then the other, and then—boom.

As if someone had turned a garden hose all the way open, two crimson rivers furiously spilled out in front of me and onto the floor. I slammed the nurse’s call button, and by the time I heard a voice say, “Did you need something?” my mouth had so filled with blood that I couldn’t answer. When she failed to hear me, I forced out a coughing, gurgling, desperate, “Help!”

A small army of nurses burst into the room and began attending to me. I felt the pressure in my ears rising as my head filled with fluid and my hearing became muffled. My heart rate skyrocketed.

Holy sh*t, I’m dying. I thought to myself.

“Call my wife!” I screamed, as several hands held pressure and giant ice packs around my head. They gave me injections and reassured me that I was going to be OK. I thought they were lying.

Choking on blood, and horrified at the sight of my own blood pooling around my feet, I pleaded:

“I need my kids!I need to see my kids right now.”

They’re 45 minutes away, I thought to myself. I’ll never see them again.

“Sh*t!” I kept yelling.

“Where is my wife?” I asked again, as if she could have been reached in the ten seconds since I’d last called for her.

I thought about my mom, my siblings, my friends. I thought about my father who died eight years ago and wondered if I’d soon meet him.

They say when you’re about to die your entire life flashes before your eyes, but that wasn’t true for me. What flashed before my eyes were a handful of people who have defined my life. People flashed before my eyes. They were my life.

Within ten minutes, the chaos had subsided, my bleeding had slowed to an intermittent trickle, and I was being extricated from my blood soaked gown and bedding while people diligently mopped up the Steven King crime scene I’d quickly managed to generate. My breathing and heart rate began to return to normal.

I wasn’t going to die.

At least, not right then.

But I thought I was, and that was enough.

For the rest of the night I laid there thought about those earlier desperate moments: about what I’d felt, about where the entirety of my energies became focused, and about all the stuff I didn’t care about:

What do you imagine you’ll think when you think you’re dying?

Do you suppose you’ll think about work projects you won’t get to complete? About not getting to upgrade the kitchen cabinets that you’ve been complaining about? About your waistline or your hairline or your career path?

Will you think about the raise you’ve been waiting on or the cost of the kids’ college or the weight you’ve been wanting to lose or your retirement account balance?

You won’t.

Trust me.

In the moment death feels imminent, you won’t give a damn about your work or your portfolio or your house or your job. The, long, sprawling, and expansive story of your life will suddenly and completely shrink down to those human beings who know you intimately and whose lives will be most devastated by your departure.

I don’t know what you imagine is important right now, what monopolizes your time, what occupies your mind on most days, but I have a feeling it may not be worth it. It may not merit the energy or the worry or the minutes you spend on it, and in the moment you feel or are actually pressed up against the finality of your days—you won’t even think about it.

I’m living differently now.

I’m measuring my life in by the people I love and am loved by, by the relationships I get to spend these days inside of and by the human beings I alter with my presence.

What will you think about when you think you’re dying?

Think about that today.

And then, live your answers.

 

 

A Message From ICU Nurses to the Unvaccinated

Disclaimer: I am not an ICU nurse.

I am a collector of stories, a war correspondent.

My life’s work is to meet people in the brutal and bloody trenches of their daily lives and to report what I see for those who aren’t present, so they might experience something they may not otherwise be able to. I try to connect people through the affinity of our shared humanity.

This week, that storyteller’s journey led me to an Intensive Care Unit bed here in Raleigh, North Carolina, after a four-hour operation to remove a deeply-embedded benign tumor at the base of my brain. My surgeon had told me during our pre-op conversations that I’d find myself here for a couple of days so that they could “monitor my levels.” I probably should have asked what that could entail, though I’m actually glad I didn’t.

I remember emerging from the thick, grey amnesia haze, staring up into a raking rectangular fluorescent ceiling panel as my wife’s voice began to slowly pull me into the present. Surgery had went well, though my blood pressure had dropped dangerously low and they’d to insert an arterial line so they could closely watch my blood pressure with every single beat of my heart. A bladder catheter had also been inserted, as my urine output had to be copiously measured from the moment I arrived. In four different places, I was tethered to machines that made nearly all movement both challenging and painful. It was as vulnerable as I felt in my adult life—and I was the healthiest person there.

I’ve always deeply respected frontline healthcare workers, but I honestly had no real understanding of just how incredibly taxing the work they do is, the emotional toll it takes, how utterly thankless their jobs often are, and the furious pace at which they are required to both oversee and execute highly detailed lists of critical tasks—and to be jovial skilled agents of empathy on the frontlines of terrified people’s trauma. Yet, these men and women were.

Over the course of my week-long stay in the hospital, I met dozens of nurses, doctors, and medical techs, and every single one of them treated me as though I was their only patient (thought I knew full well that was not at all the case) and they managed to be both adeptly skilled and genuinely nurturing simultaneously. Three of them joyfully told me I was “the strongest person in the ICU”—and I could barely turn myself in bed, eat on my own, or wipe my behind.

Several times a day I would hear codes and alarms go off, and through the window of my room, I’d watch the nurses’ faces turn from casual to fiercely urgent and see them run down the hall toward some vital, pressing moment. And before long they arrived again at my bedside without a visible sign of the chaos they’d just been thrown into, and gave me the very best of themselves.

On my second day of recovery, I casually asked my kind-eyed nurse Tara about COVID patients. There was a long pause.

She said, “I arrived at this hospital recently. We hadn’t treated patients with the virus where I’d been.” She stopped what she was doing, looked me in the eyes and said, “Nothing I’d done before prepared me for them. I could not believe how sick they were, how long they were here—if they were able to leave.”

After a deep exhale she said, ”

And still… people will not simply do the right thing.”

I wanted to give her a hug, but wouldn’t have been able to reach her with her help.

I don’t know if unvaccinated people understand this individual ripple of their selfishness, this byproduct of their political tribalism, this specific consequence of their refusal to educate themselves. They are willfully injuring those who tend to our wounds, exposing already physically-exhausted, under-appreciated, emotionally-spent human beings to unnecessary adversity.

It should be unacceptable to decent human beings.

We need to do better at advocating for those who heal and help and save us.
We need to take greater care of our caregivers.
We need to remind people refusing to mask or be vaccinated, what the human collateral damage of their actions are to so many—least of all these sacrificial servants who give so much in the best of days.

Near the end of my stay, I asked Tara what she’d like unvaccinated people to know.

She replied while wiping away a tear: “I want them to know that I don’t want to meet them.”

She went on:

“We nurses don’t want them or the people they love to be here. We want them to be with their families and loved ones and out enjoying life—and we want to focus our energy on more people who could not avoid coming to us.”

Thanks to the extraordinary work of dozens of sacrificial servants, I am now home recovering. They are still all there, doing this vital saving work with unbelievable resilience and confounding hope. I wish more Americans wanted to make their work easier.

Tara deserves better.
The nurses alongside her do.
The frontline caregivers in their own brutal and bloody battles deserve better, too.

Please get vaccinated.

(Note: Tara and the ICU nurses I spoke to may not speak for all frontline healthcare workers. It would be a good idea for you to find some near you and ask them how they feel. Then, really listen.)

Yes, I’m A Hateful Human Being

I often have people tell me that I’m a hateful human being.

Sometimes, these are complete strangers who incessantly lurk like sharks in my Twitter feed, other times estranged family members firing one last injurious email salvo before blocking me from responding, or self-righteous former church friends assuring me that I’m going to hell but promising they are praying I will find Jesus before it’s too late.

For a long time, I’d passionately refute these accusations; mounting a fierce defense of my position and offering a ready litany of evidence proving that they’ve mislabeled me, and outlining the many ways I’ve been misrepresented or misunderstood.

I don’t do that any longer.

Now, I simply admit that they are right—because they are.

I am a hateful human being.

I hate the heart cancer of racism.

I hate the way it dehumanizes and distorts people, the ugliness it perpetuates, how fully toxic it is to those afflicted with it and how much it violates those who absorb it. I am disgusted at how little we have learned and how much of our grotesque history we are repeating in these days.

I hate open contempt of refugees.

I hate the brutality that already battered, exhausted, and terrified human beings face after braving injury and imprisonment and death in order to find safety and rest for themselves and those they love—the utter lack of mercy so many here provide them. I hate how the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe freely find so little respite here.

I hate violent resistance to diversity.

I hate the fact that a huge portion of our population has become addled by such irrational fear of difference, that they are threatened by immigrants and terrified of change and walling off the world and shouting down conversation and eliminating anyone who does not look and worship and love the way they do.

I hate defiant anti-Science ignorance.

I hate watching beleaguered healthcare workers and traumatized school children and still-grieving family members, having to fight not only a vicious and insidious virus that has killed hundreds of thousands of people—but the very people they live alongside and are tethered to. I am sickened by the reality that no amount of death will move them to act with a shred of empathy, and that they are inexplicably doubling down on disinformation, knowing full well they are wrong.

I hate terrorist sympathizers.

I hate seeing once-rational, decent human beings defend violent insurrections, ignore mass shootings, shrug at brazen assaults on voter rights, rationalize police executions of black men, applaud gun-wielding politicians, and cheer social media bullies.

I hate that sick people have to choose between getting well and paying their mortgages.
I hate that we have a bloated Military and a starving citizenry.
I hate that LGBTQ teenagers can’t simply live in peace from their peers, their pastors, or their politicians.
I hate that people of color are still being denied a voice in our political process.
I hate that president who try to overturn elections are idolized by 75 million people.
I hate that so many Christians seem to have no need for Jesus or his teachings.

Yes, I love disparate humanity so much, that seeing it under such constant and needless duress and witnessing it being subjected to such mindless violence at the hands of its neighbors boils my blood and turns my stomach and breaks my heart.

And yes, I fully, completely, and unrepentantly hate all of it.

I wish you did, too.

I wish you were as disgusted by the seemingly bottomless inhumanity this nation is immersed in as I am; that the conspiratorial online garbage and grocery store anti-mask terrorism and intentionally incendiary Fox News fiction and MAGA repugnant white supremacy—was something you abhorred instead of participated in.

I wish you weren’t so comfortable with and complicit in and dismissive of this stupid, shallow tribal violence that so many here have been manipulated into, because it is rotting you from the inside-out and making the already difficult and painful experience of living so much more so.

You hate to be asked to wear a mask.
You hate to hear the words Black Lives Matter.
You hate the idea of everyone having healthcare.
You hate evidence that the planet is warming.
You hate to see your country growing less white.

Good and loving people should despise bigotry and discrimination.
They should be sickened by the denial of people’s inherent humanity.
They should be disgusted at perversions of truth and distortions of facts.
They should rage against the poverty of empathy we are living in.
They should have a ferocity for humanity that will not let them rest.

Good people should hate the hatred this nation is afflicted with.

I do.

Order John’s book ‘If God is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk’ here:

Dear Conservative Christians—Exactly What Jesus Do You Believe in?

Dear Conservative Christians,

I need your help.

I’m trying to figure out your stance, here.

I can’t make sense of it.

You’re telling me that you’re a follower of Jesus.

Yet, I’m looking at the last 18 horrific months here,
at hundreds of thousands of people taken far too soon and with such unfathomable ferocity,
at so many people needlessly dying alone in hospital rooms,
at a recent timeline littered with so much sorrow and such breathtaking grief,
at ICUs overflowing, and people dying in emergency room lobbies, and children on brutal machines forcing them to breathe because they cannot,
at one of the single most traumatizing seasons in our history.
And I’m looking at you, supposed Christians, in your obstinate refusal to wear a mask or get vaccinated or make the smallest of sacrifices to keep people from getting sick and dying—and I’m wondering just what Jesus you’re telling me you follow.
It’s not the love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus.

It’s not the lay down one’s life for one’s friend, Jesus.
It isn’t the Jesus who had compassion for the harassed and helpless crowds in front of him.
It isn’t the Jesus who healed the bleeding and touched the leper and embraced the terrified.
It isn’t the Jesus who scores of sick people came flocking to; lowered through rooftops or crawling through the mud or pushing through crushing crowds, in hopes of getting relief for their bodies and their minds—both assailed by their present pain.

Exactly what Jesus are you emulating, praying to, and perpetuating:
as you threaten school board members,
accost strangers in grocery store parking lots,
protest in front of hospitals,
expel mask-wearers from your business,
taunt and threaten on your church signs—
and stridently resist any efforts to stop the spread of this insidious virus?

I can’t find that Jesus in the Bible. Maybe you can. Feel free to show me.

If only you could see how much you’re blowing it here, what an opportunity you’re missing, how big a waste this all is.

If there was ever a perfect moment for you to be the kindhearted, generous people you say you are, it is this moment.
If there was ever a day made for you to embody the empathetic, sacrificial heart of your faith tradition, it is this day.
If ever there was a time when you could clearly incarnate the God so loved the world message of Jesus in a way that altered the planet—it is this time.

This could have been your finest hour; the loud testimony of your better angels.

There is a disparate, wounded, terrified multitude stretched out in front of you right now, just begging for you to show up with something resembling the Jesus they’ve heard about.

But you aren’t doing that.

Instead, you’re complaining,
you’re doubling-down on defiance,
you’re magnifying conspiracy,
you’re digging in your heels,
you’re mocking caregivers,
you’re refusing to help—
you’re partnering with the sickness and the suffering.

And it’s simply antithetical to Jesus.

It is adversarial to human life around you, and a willful rebellion against the deep love for humanity that his life and work were marked by.

Worse than that, it’s a sin.

It’s a sin not to wear a mask or get vaccinated.

It’s a sin to have in your power, the ability to bring wholeness and healing and rest to the exhausted humanity in your path—and to choose not to.

It’s a sin to be given the gift of doctors and scientists and medicine and learning, and to choose to ignore them.

And it’s a sin to pass the buck to God, simply because you are so politically poisoned that you aren’t willing to do what it right and good and loving.

If you have a problem with that, talk to Jesus and tell him why you refuse to love your neighbor and tell me how that works out.

As for me, I don’t know exactly what Jesus you believe, but I know I’m certain of one thing: it’s not any Jesus I know.

Order John’s book ‘If God is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk’!