We have a Berkey water filter in our kitchen, and it seems to be empty whenever I’m thirsty, so I’m used to filling it back up. It takes three full blender pitchers to fill it, and it’s just one of those little things that I take for granted. Like a good night’s sleep, or walking up three flights of stairs or having lunch with my good friend of 40 years.
Five months ago, I had unexpected heart surgery, and after a week in the hospital post-op, I went back home. But since I wasn’t allowed to lift anything heavier than a half-gallon of milk, I couldn’t fill the Berkey water filter. And it wasn’t just doctor’s orders—physically, I couldn’t do just about anything that I hadn’t thought twice about doing before the surgery. I couldn’t even put on my socks by myself. Talk about feeling like getting hit by a truck! That first month after surgery was primitively tough.
The heart surgery was unexpected because I was pretty much asymptomatic. The thing that caught my attention was the four or five times I got short of breath while walking the dog. When I felt it, I stopped walking and waited a few minutes until it went away. But I have a family history of heart failure, and for years I’ve fit the profile of a likely candidate.
So I said something to my doctor about my shortness of breath. This was very out of character for me. For most of my life, I would notice an ailment—physical or emotional—and just ignore it. If it were 10 years ago, I would have been macho and pushed through the shortness of breath. I have a strong physique and a pigheaded streak. But for some reason, this time I said something.
I don’t think just having 10 additional birthdays automatically makes anyone wiser. I do think that aging with intention—not just out of habit—offers the possibility of getting closer to being the person we’d like to be. As we age, the things we think are really important can change. As we age, we can slow down, contemplate and reflect. Saying something to my doctor probably saved my life. I can’t pinpoint exactly what made me speak up for myself; I’m sure there was a variety of factors. I said something because I have changed as I’ve aged.
After I said something, my doctor said, “Take a stress test.” After the results of the stress test, my doctor said, “Have an angiogram.” Before I was even off the angiogram table, my doctor said, “Tremendous blockage, you need to have surgery right away.” And a week later, I did.
If I’d still been my former macho-man self, there’s no telling what would have happened.
After the bypass surgery and the new valve, my heart’s good for another 20 years or so. That doesn’t mean I’m guaranteed another 20 years of life, but I’m still alive for now, and I’m appreciating many of those little things that I used to take for granted. And, at the same time, this afternoon I filled up the Berkey water filter without a second thought, already taking it for granted again.
Marc Blesoff was a criminal defense attorney for 35 years, then he began facilitating Conscious Aging workshops, which has helped him melt the armor he’d built up as a defense lawyer. He’s a founding member of Courageus (formerly A Tribe Called Aging), a group of activists and thinkers trying to re-frame our culture’s outlook, policies and fears about aging and dying. Currently, he is the chairperson of the Oak Park, IL Aging-In-Place Commission.