It was a late Saturday afternoon, nine days before Christmas, 1989. I was in college (not) studying for final exams. I walked into my dorm room and saw that my answering machine (yeah, remember those?) was blinking. It was my mom, telling me to call her back immediately. I did and she told me that my dad had died of a heart attack.
He was 44.
At the time, I was just 19. I can still remember thinking to myself, “Well, he was 44 — that’s pretty old. At least he lived a long life.”
Only now at the age of 46 do I understand what a complete and stupid moron I was as a teenager.
The ensuing years after my dad’s death, I never really thought about how I would die. Why would I? I was young, could drink ’til 2 AM, follow that up with a late night trip to Denny’s for a Denver omelet AND a turkey melt, sleep for a few hours, wake up and go to my job at Starbucks like it was NBD. (Yeah, I was living the dream.) Death didn’t really cross my mind.
Then I hit my 40s … and started to freak the eff out.
In my mind, it’s not a question of “if” I will have a heart attack like my dad, but more of “when.” It’s stupid and irrational, and yet I can’t help myself. I’m not a gambler by nature, but if you were gonna give me 20-to-1 odds that I would have a heart attack, I’d take those odds and bet the farm.
Apparently the story of my dad’s heart attack goes like this:
He was driving to his office, felt a heart attack coming on, drove himself to an emergency room, and stated, “Yeah, I’m having a heart attack.” They put him on a gurney where he had a second, bigger heart attack, and immediately died. And as awful as that sounds, it’s also pretty badass. When I have my heart attack, I will never reach that level of badassery. I get a sore throat and I can’t even walk myself to the bathroom, so I can only imagine what will happen if I have a heart attack while I am driving — which could happen, ’cause I will be having a heart attack.
Of course, rationally speaking, I could die of anything. (Old age. Please let it be of old age and in my sleep just as I take my last bite of a glorious oatmeal chocolate chip cookie.) But rational thinking has no business here. In my mind, I am convinced I will die of a heart attack and no one can convince me otherwise. And how often does the thought cross my mind?
All the damn time.
It may not be at the forefront of my mind, but it is always lurking, making me question how much time I’ve got. I remember feeling so relieved when I turned 45 and didn’t die the same year as my dad did. It was like a little victory, like I cheated death. That was quickly followed by the thought, “Well, I made it past 44, so when does that heart attack happen? 50? 54? 65? What’s my ‘use by’ date?”
You might be saying to yourself right about now, “Hey, Kirk, worrying so much about having a damn heart attack is only stressing you out more, thus giving you a more likely chance of having said heart attack.”
And to that, I’d have to say: YUUUUUUPPPPP.
So I take cholesterol medicine, fish oil pills, flaxseed pills, ground flaxseed, and a low-grade aspirin. I exercise every day, watch what I eat, (except for the cookies, which I eat like the zombie apocalypse is near and I may never have a cookie ever again.) And I do yoga (frequently) and meditate (semi-frequently, which basically is the same as never).
But all of that does nothing to lessen that suspicion deep in my mind that the way I will shuffle off from this mortal coil is by clutching my chest and imitating Fred Sanford.
A few months go, I felt like there was a tightening of my chest and I was convinced it was a symptom of an impending heart attack. I went to my doctor, she did an EKG on me, and my heart was fine. It turned out that I had a strained pectoral muscle from over-exercising, which I do because in my mind if I work out I won’t get a heart attack. (Look, I never said I was smart.) And as my doctor walked out of the room, she smiled and said, “Don’t worry. You’re all good.”
And in my head I couldn’t help but think, “Yeah … for now.”More On