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What I Never Would Have Learned About Life if I Hadn't Almost Died

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Post-script: I'm doing quite well. I have no money but feel quite rich in my life, no lover but am entirely satisfied, and no wine but am drunk in my health. I plan to stay this way for a while.

Since I clamored those words into my laptop keys, I've already forgotten much of the time in my life I spoke to. Still, the day I wrote them to sign off on an email update to friends is remarkably clear. I had a dopey, full-bloom smile across my face as I typed, thanks in part to a steady stream of opiates. In a strange role reversal, I sat bundled in a blanket on my baby sister's bed, whom had been tasked with babysitting me. I can still feel the imprint of that profound grin. My cheeks were blush-stained. My sternum creaked.

I was 5 days out from open heart surgery. Only the 9-inch, baby-pink incision running the length of my sternum and my own vote of confidence stood witness to what I had just been through at 24. I was a month out from a master's program with no job. And since having a future brought in a tide of questions predicated on a single day spent under the cradle of a halogen operating room bulb, I hadn't yet planned for one.

That was two years ago to the day (assuming this publishes July 23, 2015). That means I am "celebrating" -- an anniversary with myself. I appreciate the symbolism of arbitrary dates as much as the next person. Candles on a cake to signify another year. New Year's spectacle of lights and plans to be better, to be good on keeping promises -- until at least March.

But just a short time ago I would never have imagined a day every year where I reflect on the fact that I'm still alive.

But now I have one. And here I am, reflecting. And though I'm still quite new to this anniversary, both this and last July 23rd I am instinctively brought back to own words that I wrote just out of the hospital, where I self identified as "drunk in my own health."

For the record, that was a gross misinterpretation of the state of things, guided largely by prescription drugs. (Hello, hydrocodone.) Those words have haunted me, as if they were written posthumously by the ghost of my former self, who had no idea exactly how long recovering from open heart surgery would take. How many hills I would climb and valleys I would plunge, including a not-uncommon depression that nearly threatened my life. Those words couldn't account for the serious neurological and memory problems I would have, the friendships that would be tested, and the change that would happen to my body. But my instinct was pure, and I think still stands. July 23rd has given me something that should be obvious for all of us, but so often slips between the cracks: perspective.

I was by no means out of the woods 5 days out of my surgery, but I was consumed in unadulterated gratitude, thanks largely to where I had just been. I had spent the better part of the two years prior to my surgery struggling to get out of bed or climb a flight of stairs. I made very few plans with friends, and even when I did, anxiety and exhaustion often cancelled them for me. I was sleeping 13+ hours a night, though I spent between 2-4 a.m. most nights awake with my heart clapping out of my chest in unfamiliar rhythms. And I scared the shit out of my parents on more than one occasion by calling them to tell them I thought I was dying.

That's all to say that by the time I made it home from the hospital, I still felt awful (with the addition of a broken sternum) but something had shifted. I had dropped an understanding of gratitude as a mode of being strictly tied to happiness. It's tied to perspective.

So that's what July 23rd was and has become: an anniversary rooted in perspective, and increasingly, about not following rules or expectations. A day where, should I not lift my head from my cell phone normally to meet the eyes of a stranger on my commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan, I will on the 23rd. It's a day where I won't talk about my dreams as if they're second-string priorities, but actually go home and start building on them. It's a day where I won't signal telepathic messages to people that I am thinking about, but will actually send them.


Because I don't have forever. And you don't either. And if you don't have a July 23rd in your life, I highly recommend getting one. You don't have to have a lifetime-movie-worthy story or dramatic occurrence to commit to being invested in your own life. Near-death, though its name doesn't suggest it, isn't. But its proximity to an actual (or perceived) end is enough to elicit deeply rooted fears over what we me may lack. Lack of time, lack of love, lack of closure. Near death isn't an end, but it's a beginning.

It's a chance to check in with yourself and look squarely in the mirror in ways you usually won't.

To ask:
Do I like the person I am becoming?
And where that person has landed, geographically and in their career and in their attitude?
Do I like the company I keep?
And am I genuinely happy, not all the time, but most of the time?
Do I appreciate the people in my life? More importantly, do they know it?
Am I chasing things in life besides a paycheck?
Do the people I meet, whether they've known me for 10 years or 10 minutes, sense that I'm capable of empathy, of intelligence, and of calculated risk?

So, as weird as this sounds, I'm suggesting you pick a near-death day. Hell, make it a near-death daily.

I can't claim to have answered all, or even most of those questions. But I do know that there are a lot of people, some of whom will read this and some of whom won't, that don't have the privilege of health. I used to be one of them.

To learn more about Amy's current projects, visit her blog.