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So You've Had Cancer and a Heart Attack -- What Now?

I sat up and as much as I could, gathered the heart monitor's leeds to the side, and brought Aura's body sort of close to mine. I pressed her ear against my chest. We were speechless, so she might as well just listen to my heart, and I might as well just breathe.
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It's been one week since my heart stopped beating. Today is my first full day at home alone.

I don't know what to think of all this. It's so unreal. It's so surreal. I don't remember the attack. I passed out. An hour after the operation, I was awake, alert and in a hospital room feeling very minimal pain. A heart attack behind me, and God knows what before me.

Everything is exactly the same and impossibly different.

My wife Aura runs to my side, and I lose it. I want to disappear in her arms, but all I can offer is my hand. For a number of hours, I am weak, distracted and full up with emotion. My grandpa Leonard Dyk survived his first heart attack at 51 only to succumb to one in his sleep a decade later. My grade school friend's dad passed away from a heart attack at 33. Over and over again, these memories pound through my brain. My thoughts are a tangled daydream of the undone and unfulfilled. Only a week before, I experienced the unadulterated joy of a clean CT scan (1.5 years after allogeneic stem cell transplant for Hodgkin's Lymphoma), and a subsequent sense of purpose. And then...

Life is so precious.

I keep touching Aura's skin because I can. It is staggering. Intoxicating.

Even now I am lost in my mind, remembering my first breath out of doors after stem cell transplant.

We only experience so many moments of absolute joy or devastation in our lives. A balance of the two is not even close to a guarantee.

I remember the day of my grandma Audrey Hoekema's funeral. Almost the entire family was gathered over paper plates and pizza delivery to mourn with my grandpa Pierre in the house he himself had built. A house reverberating with memories of family, holidays, Sunday coffee time, scripture and subpar soup, but on that day memory itself was proving too much for him. He was slowly beginning to lose his mind. Through tears he exclaimed over and over again to whoever would listen, "I didn't love her well enough. She was a good woman. I didn't love her well enough." It didn't matter that it wasn't true.

We all want to believe these moments won't be our moments. We legitimize what we prioritize, until we can't.

I have a second chance. I'm the miracle 30-something. The evidence of grace. A reason to believe. God must have plans for me. I must be destined for something great. That is a lot to live up to. Truth is, it's entirely possible I'm just another schlub that got lucky enough to keep schlepping my way along. That's okay too.

My gratitude waxes and wanes. I feel terrible even saying that, but it's true. In the days after narrowly escaping death, it's easy to vacillate greatly. In one breath, I cry with joy and sorrow over the fact that I can still feel anything at all. Something as silly as a walk, a good belch or a kind word from a friend can send me reeling. I'm hypersensitive, and I want to change everything and I want to change it now. And I can't. I was already the man perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop, and then the ceiling collapsed. It's hard to feel lucky when I've checked cancer and heart attack off the bucket list at 34.

Even so, I'm beginning to build a narrative for my future. I'm fairly convinced it isn't delusional. There is nothing I can do about the fact that this is my journey, but there is a chance I can decide where it goes. I shouldn't even call it a chance. I should call it an opportunity. I was at death's door, and I survived. It would be a shame if I schlepped, wouldn't it? I want to meet this challenge head on. I just have to figure out how to do that -- day in, day out.

Recently, a friend of mine wrote candidly to me about her depression, and how she is learning to cope and heal and live. She wrote, "I've learned to accept that life sucks sometimes, and I've tried to be worthy of it."

What an incredible concept -- to feel worthy of the reality of suffering and never succumb. While I recover, I'll be working hard to gather this kind of confidence and self worth. It'll take some time, but time is something I've got back on my side.

As the first day of my second life -- or maybe third or fourth life if you count interstate rollovers and transplants -- wore on, the medical staff and our family gave Aura and I some alone time in the hospital room. I sat up and as much as I could, gathered the heart monitor's leeds to the side, and brought Aura's body sort of close to mine. I pressed her ear against my chest. We were speechless, so she might as well just listen to my heart, and I might as well just breathe.

Life is so precious, and none of us know that all of the time.