Even when medical professionals see me for the first time, they are shocked to see the ghastly scars that mar my once heroic physique.
“Oh my GOD!” they exclaim, unable to hide their shock.”
“But you’ve read my history” I’d reply, a bit taken aback. “You know I’ve had surgery . . .”
“Yes,” they’d interrupt as their eyes revert to their natural size; “But they’re not supposed to look like THAT!”
Moments like that take me back to the severity of circumstances surrounding my emergency surgery & its immediate aftermath. It’s been 6 1/2 years now & I am yet to commit the entire ordeal to paper. I should do so soon or risk the memory fading away forever. That would be a shame. It’s a story that deserves to be told. It’s a story that could benefit others. I’ve already suffered enough for scores of other people; for at least anyone wiling to listen. There is no need for everyone to suffer for a lesson that I’ve already paid the price to learn; and one with a value I’m willing to share for free.
Barely in my forties and with a physique that still boasted of numerous repetitions in the gym over past two decades, I was shocked to discover that an unrelenting episode of indigestion & acid reflux were actually the effects of a recent heart attack.
A family memory has a well documented account of the immediate aftermath that followed this discovery. To read more on how it played out back then, you can visit that post & their blog via the provided link: https://normalintraining.com/2016/09/13/no-way-out/
I’d like to move forward to the insight that I’ve gained once the open would hardened into scars.
Scars Remind Me
I had a conversation with an old Army Ranger recently. I’m not insulting him, because “old” is how he had described himself. And I don’t mean to insult the military purist out there either, because this man had failed Ranger School & was never awarded either the tab or scroll. But he had served; & he had willingly endured the process. As a civilian who has some understanding of military culture, this old soldier deserves the title “Ranger” in my book. I realize that opinions will vary but this is my story, my word choice.
This old soldier was telling me about all the fist fights he had been in; very few of them having occurred while on duty in the Army. This really didn’t surprise me. I read Chris Kyles’ “American Sniper” before I watched the movie. As tough as Kyle was, most of his fist fights occurred off duty in bar fights over girls. I used to live in a military town myself & saw first hand how easily tensions boil over when a crew of military serviceman walk into a local bar or club & suddenly command the attention of all the hot girls. After a short period of enjoying the social scene myself, I made sure I was home by 10pm on weekends unless I was working. I wanted to be known as a white collar professional. It was too risky for me to get caught up in the chaos of flying fists & subsequent court appearances over something so petty. I wasn’t built for their life; there was no point in me pretending. While it didn’t take me long to realize this, I still had some first hand awareness of the situations my Ranger friend described to me.
I recognize how easy it is to spin a tale. Most men tend to exaggerate & to present themselves in more of an alpha persona than they actually deserve. However, this soldier seemed legitimate. Why? Because he didn’t just tell me about the fights he won. He told me about all the injuries he had sustained too & laughed them off as easily as he had laughed off his victories.
I decided it was time that I share something about myself. In American culture, it’s probably true to assume that most men think ill of themselves for not having played high school football. In Western culture, there’s even a more famous quote that suggests that every man (in Western culture at least) thinks ill of himself for not having been a solider. I believe this is true for most of us until we discover what it is we are meant to do. Well-adjusted males eventually establish what becoming a man means to them; so doing, they can live in peace. For men who haven’t quite found their way, society provides a blue print of what a real man should look & act like. For many of us, it’s often a difficult standard to uphold.
I was one of those men. Despite my prowess in gym & athletically sculpted physique, I have always been noticeably undersized. In addition, refute me if you must, but I am also a minority who has lived in largely rural areas of the American southeast. You can tell me that race has nothing to do with it but your opinion doesn’t override the over forty years of my life experience. I’m a minority & one that’s not particularly fashionable to be. To be brief, society often gives me a cursory examination & almost immediately categorizes me. Pretty woman, workplace supervisors, & other men tend to show surprise & even indignation when my performance proves me to be greater than their superficial stereotypes of me were. It was frustrating living in the prison of everyone else’s perception of the kind of man I was supposed to be; the kind of man they were comfortable allowing me to be around them.
Well, it was too late for me to play high school football to change their minds; so becoming a soldier was always the next best thing. As the years passed, it was obvious I would never do that either. For a long time, I longed to be heroic. I admonished myself for not being more like Chris Kyle or even the character of Shane Walsh from AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” I wanted the world to take me seriously. I didn’t want to be stuck being seen only as a man of words & ideas. I wanted all my doubters to realize that I could be a man of action too.
My War Story
“War is one of those things that, as a soldier, you look for & you look for & you look for. Then you finally find it . . . and it’s something you never look for anymore.”Anonymous Iraqi Freedom veteran from National Geographics Documentary
Although I have been in several tense verbal altercations, stare downs, & handful of shoving matches in my day, I know that those situations don’t accurately summarize who I am. Moreover, even if they did, the world wouldn’t want to hear it anyway. The pretty girls would be much more willing to perceive me as a stellar accounting or ex-chess club president than a strong, visceral male. And other men who didn’t known me who almost assuredly write my tales off as examples of a Napoleon Complex. So I bypassed that handful of experiences. I wanted to be terse with this Army Ranger as he had taken up a good deal of my time & I still had a busy day ahead of me; but I wanted him to get an idea of who I was too. I planned to see him again. I knew there was a good deal that I could learn from this man. Still, it was important that he knew who I was too.
My Story (long version)
“I don’t have a ton of bar fights stories to share with you, unfortunately,” I began; “but I will tell you what the bravest thing I ever did was.”
“Okay, go ahead,” the old veteran agreed.
For more content based on my surgery experience & the reflections that they’ve inspired since, see: https://impurethoughtsblog.wordpress.com/2020/09/19/open-heart-surgery/
After my open heart surgery, they transported me to this recovery area that resembled a FEMA camp. There were at least half a dozen or so other patients placed in this large area with me, separated only by tend-like structures made of tarps & blankets. We were indoors but it had the feel of a wartime field hospital. I could hear other patients moaning & groaning all around me.
As for me, I was in constant discomfort. Looking back, I don’t know if it was because of my broken ribcage or my temporary anemia, but I lacked the strength to adjust my position in that recliner they had me in. The recliner was a little too big for me & I kept slipping down until I ended up in a position that left most of my upper body skeletal structure unsupported. If you don’t recognize how painful this is, our skeleton is the only thing preventing our 70% water composed body from floundering like a jellyfish. Moreover, those big muscles that we celebrate so much are useless if they can’t exert force against a solid bone. Anytime I tried to use my muscles, I’d feel the numerous fissures in bones that supported my torso. It was misery–& completely humiliating to feel this weak & useless.
The nurses would come around & ask me if I was in pain. As it’s human nature, I would respond truthfully at first: ‘Yes. Everything hurts.’
But I quickly recognized that to be a mistake, as the nurse would invariably respond with: ‘I’m sorry. What can I do to help?’
At first, I got them to help me adjust my position in the recliner, which was useful. Afterwards, however, it became clear that there was nothing these nurses could do for me. I had gotten myself into this mess. It was up to serve out my sentence while enduring the pain in silence. I wouldn’t even let them administer any painkillers more potent than Tylenol because I have had adverse reactions to them in the past & was not in a mood to take on yet another irritant.
After a while, when the nurse would come by & asked if I was in pain, I’d just whisper:
“Go help the next patient.”
“That was the bravest thing I had ever done.”
The old soldier gazed down at me in silence as he had about 3 or 4 inches of height on me. After a pause, he just nodded his head with a look of reverence in his eyes & said, “Amen to that, brother.”
We shook hands and I went on my way.
I had a cousin in the Army at the time of my surgery. The next time I saw him after it happened, I confessed that I had longed to become an operator that Chris Kyle or even a basic soldier like he was. I wanted the respect & acknowledgment that would come with it. I yearned for the self-assuredness it would bring. Most of all, I would be happy to shatter the glass ceiling in social status that American culture had placed on me.
But following my ordeal, I arrived at this conclusion:
But after all the pain & agony I’ve been through, I realize that the path it takes to follow in the footsteps of men like Kyle is one filled with more pain, agony, & disappointment. There’s nothing glamorous or glorious about the process. It’s not worth it to me to go through all that suffering just to become someone I’m not. I’ve already endured my share of suffering. I’m brave enough for the life I’m going to live.
For the longest time before my heart attack, I longed for an opportunity to prove my strength. I wanted to showcase my bravery. I wanted to demonstrate to all those pretty girls who automatically relegated me to the status of secondary male; all those men who automatically felt entitled to an award or promotion over me; all those doubters who thought they could size me up & instantly know my limits better than I knew my own–to prove that I was greater than their superficial stereotypes of me were.
I longed to prove myself in warfare.
But after my surgery, it’s aftermath, & the long process to indemnity; I’ve realized an important life lesson. Everyone has their own private battles to fight; and for most of us, it’s not in the setting of a warzone.
Regarding strength, it’s something that comes & goes physically. While it’s important to do our part both to build it up & to retain it, it’s much more critical to maintain strength of mind. Moreover, after what I’ve been through, I am comforted knowing that strength isn’t always something anyone needs to showcase regularly; we just need to have faith that we will all be strong when we have to be.
As far as my dream of becoming a soldier, I have given it up without looking back. My pursuit of a fulfilling life is enough of a challenge for me; and I’m as brave as I need to be to see that challenge through.
“Amen to that,” I’m sure my soldier friend would say.
There’s a peace that comes with knowing who you are supposed to be. Sure, it’s disappointing when people–especially the ones who we respect–fail to see the positive qualities in us. But you should hear this from someone who was unexpectedly at the brink of death & by God’s grace, came back from it to live a better live.
When you believe yourself to be on your deathbed, you suddenly become incredibly honest with yourself. There are only two opinions that will matter when you face this moment: the opinion you have of yourself, the life you’ve lived–and the opinion you believe God has of you.
May you find peace in who you are; and may I never forget the peace that I had already found six years earlier. We humans can be so weak of mind; we often have to remind ourselves the value of lessons previously learned. Luckily, God is patient.