It’s hard to explain the fear. There was anger, too. Why didn’t anyone tell me this would be an issue? I was born with a heart defect. It wasn’t clearly explained to me until I was thirty-six. My parents told me it was simply a “hole in my heart.” My brothers apparently had these ‘holes’ as well. Eventually, theirs went away.
I’d have to “keep an eye on it.”
Looking back, the uncertainty in this explanation makes me mad. Crazy.
I was a fairly heavy smoker. I had my first cigarette under the bleachers at a high school football game at age 12. It was okay. I didn’t cough. My friends were impressed. From then on, I smoked regularly. At some points, up to a pack a day. And so, in the spring of 2013, I got my annual sinus infection. I didn’t let it slow me down. I was used to spitting green mucus from my inflamed and congested lungs. But this time, I had cramping feeling behind my rib cage. It felt like a runner’s cramp, but it wasn’t always there. It would… “pinch” randomly, causing me to make a grunting sound. It wasn’t unbearable. It was most annoying. My girlfriend noted the pain and requested that if it didn’t stop by the week’s end, I’d have to go to the Doctor.
One chilly spring day, I worked with a friend to install a new front porch railing at my house. It was the end of the week. My phantom “pain” was getting more intense. I went to the urgent care in North Canton, where I lived at the time. They conducted an MRI. I was sure it was nothing and believed I had to go through the motions to satisfy my girlfriend.
I recall waiting for a long time after the test. There was no nurse update. No knocks at the door for quite a while. Then, the doctor came in and looked worried. He explained that he had other doctors looking at the MRI results to determine whether I should be taken in for emergency heart surgery.
I felt nothing. I believed there had to be a mistake. He was kidding, right? The pain was under my right rib, far away from my heart.
The good news, he pointed out, was that the pain I was feeling was simply pleurisy, swelling of the tissue between the lung and rib cage. It could be treated with prescription-strength ibuprofen.
The doctors also saw that an aneurysm had formed on my aorta. Deliberations were held to review the size of the aneurysm and determine if there was a danger of aortic dissection based on other factors. This is the bursting of the aneurysm in which the heart essentially pumps blood into the chest cavity, and death typically occurs in seconds.
Though a smoker, I ran regularly and was active at this time. I was on my feet all day, and generally, my life made good use of my heart.
The doctors’ deliberations ended and determined that I had not reached the critical range where surgery would be needed. But eventually, I would. I’d have to monitor the size of the aneurysm at least every six months.
I was relieved for the short term, but I had questions.
Why didn’t the “hole in my heart” go away?
Why were there no side effects?
How come I didn’t feel it?
How come my parents didn’t know?
When would I have to get surgery?
What was that like?
Would they have to cut through my sternum?
What would the doctors do to fix it?
Along the way, I came to understand the cause of the aneurysm. The aorta is a high-pressure valve that carries blood to the whole body. Generally, it’s a pretty hardy vessel. I was born with a bicuspid aortic valve. In my humble understanding, this means that the valve should close off from the heart with three “flaps.” My valve only had two. So this caused the valve to not close all the way, and the blood pumps continuously and with more pressure than a normal valve. Ergo, a bulging or aneurysm can occur. The operation would solve the problem by installing a new valve and grafting the aorta where the bulge had been.
John Ritter, Albert Einstein, and Alan Thicke…what do they all have in common? They all died of complications from an aneurysm. I also learned that it was the 13th leading cause of death. I don’t know if that’s still true.
I watched the condition closely. I graduated from grad school, got promoted, married, and lived on. In January 2017, at 36 years old (immaturity-wise as well as age-wise), my doctor commented that I should get the surgery done before I was 40. And so, I booked the surgery for June 12th, 2017. I spent the next six months coming to the realization that this may change the nature of my life. I made a bucket list just in case and completed each item.
On the day of the surgery, it still hadn’t fully clicked. I was shaved by the nurses, and my wife and her family were there to comfort me. I was wheeled outside the OR in the cold hallway before the operation to contemplate my abundant life.
I woke up.
My first two thoughts were, “why haven’t I spent more time outdoors, hiking?” And “I want to see a giraffe…”
I was uncomfortable, but there was no pain. Just…tenderness.
On the first day, they asked me to get up and go for a walk. I was excited because I felt I was recovering quickly. (I know, it was the first day.) But I was out of breath after just one step when I got up. I can’t explain how scary this was. At this point, I didn’t have dreams of being an ultramarathoner. But I did run regularly. I ran seven miles the day before the surgery, and the day after, I couldn’t walk more than a step.
I was truly scared. As a matter of fact, all of my emotions were off the charts. I hid tears from my wife when I saw on the news that a senator had been shot and was in surgery, barely holding on. And, when an apartment building in Europe burnt down, most of its inhabitants were still inside. These news stories from this time will forever be in my heart.
Then I got a chance to speak with people from the On-X company who made the artificial valve used in the surgery. They thanked me and referred me to a “twenty-five-year warranty.”
I did the math…I’d be 61.
Perhaps it was my heightened emotional state or something else. But it felt like it wasn’t… over. And that it never really would be. On top of that, no one told me how loud it would be! I sounded like a ticking clock…ALL THE TIME! I took comfort in the warm feeling that I’d have my wife with me the next time I went through this. In coping with the fear, I’d fall asleep beneath the blanket of this fear each night.
When I got home, I had to defeat my first enemy. I couldn’t accept the fact of being immobile. So I walked. At first, it was just to the end of the driveway. But it extended to the end of the street, then to the park, and then for hours and hours each day. Until one day, I just started running again.
Once I healed and ran several marathons, I asked for the toughest assignment at work to prove my promotion-worthiness.
I got it.
It caused the end of my marriage, a deep depression, an inability to leave an abusive relationship, and eventually a spiritual awakening and rebirth.
And here we are.
I’ve come a long way. I’m grateful for the experience. It woke me up and caused me to question, grow, to reach for authenticity.
But another thought crossed my mind for the first time a year or so ago…
What would I do if I knew I only had 25 years to live?
How would the constraint add meaning to my life? How would it motivate me to act differently than before? What kind of life would I create? How would it make me better? Worse? What did I really want to do with my time on earth? What was it that really mattered?
And here I am.
It’s been more than five years since the surgery. I’ve got some time left.
This blog seeks to log this journey and how it is different now that I literally hear the clock ticking… to the expiration of my 25-year warranty on my heart valve on June 12th, 2042.
There are seven major chakras: root, sacral, solar plexus, heart, throat, third eye, and crown.1 The seven are divided into two categories, Matter and Spirit. Chakras were first identified in the Vedic writings as long as 1500 years ago. Chakras are referred to as ‘spinning discs of energy’ found throughout the body. They are described as constantly moving in an attempt to balance the various energies in the body to reach homeostasis.
After a disappointing 20s and a heartbreaking 30s, I’m out to have the best decade of my life. I’ve studied the past and applied what I’ve learned to how I’m directing my future. I’m following five tenets that have changed and evolved to this point including connecting and engaging with relationships, being authentic without sacrifice, accepting love with grace, experiencing deeply, and going public.
I am less than a week away from another completed solar trip and so its time to take stock and revisit my 40s manifesto.
At some point, I became aware that the main benefit I received from yoga was the breathing. The Ujayii – the champion’s breath – is my favorite. I do it most of the day, especially when working on tasks. I’ve wondered if this is the most important thing I’ve learned in my practice. James Nestor seems to have had a similar question as is evident by his 2020 offering Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. The book was NPR’s Book of the Year1and notes Nestor’s journey to discover how breathing impacts our health and well-being. What he discovered is beautiful, terrifying, and all too useful.
In the book, Nestor explains how he had a doctor plug his nose with silicone forcing him to breathe only through his mouth for ten days. There were ethical concerns with the experiment and so Nestor both conducted and funded the experiment himself having just one other participant. He recorded several items influenced by mouth-only breathing. His blood pressure skyrocketed, and he began to snore and experience sleep apnea. The quality of sleep was dramatically affected. He experienced dry mouth and felt physically drained.
Nestor reported that recovery after workouts was terrible. The experience was reportedly far worse than he expected. He experienced extreme irritability and anxiety. Nestor questioned his reasons for doing the experiment before the end. Towards the end, Nestor began to get a serious sinus infection caused by the blocked nasal passageways.
The second part of the experiment involved breathing only through the nose. An experience much more pleasant than the first.
Humans Are Terrible Breathers
It is speculated that 25-50% of the population breathes only through the mouth. Sixty to seventy percent of the population mouth-breath while sleeping.
Especially early in life, mouth-breathing impacts the structure of the face. Mouth breathing can cause an elongation of the face, crooked teeth, and swelling of the tonsils. It is speculated that this issue may be predominantly caused by our modern eating of ever softer foods. Ancient human skulls support this theory due to their proportion of mouth-to-face size and straight teeth. Humans are the only animals in the animal kingdom to have misaligned jaws and crooked teeth.
Along with softening food, this phenomenon is due to the enlargement of our brains. The development of the brain is put in higher priority than our ability to breathe.
Benefits of Nasal Breathing
The nose filters, cleans, heats, and moistens the air allowing us to absorb 20% more oxygen than when inhaling through the mouth. The nose plays a role in erectile dysfunction, triggering hormones and neurochemicals lowering blood pressure. The nose can ease digestion, react to a woman’s menstrual cycle, regulate heart rate, store memories, and control blood vessel dilation.
The nose is more connected to the genitals than any other organ. The right nostril appears to be an accelerant. Breathing through the right nostril increases circulation and body temperature rises in activation of the sympathetic nervous system – fight or flight. The right nostril will increase blood flow to the left side of the brain, increasing the ability to solve problems, conduct logic, and perceive language. The left nostril is a decelerant working opposite the right nostril. This nostril activates the parasympathetic nervous system causing rest, relaxation, and digestion. The blood flow is increased in the right hemisphere impacting abstract thought, creativity, and negative emotion.
Nasal breathing causes the sinuses to release nitric oxide, dilating and flushing the blood vessels resulting in more oxygen getting to cells.
Typically when there is nasal blockage it is possible to train your nasal passageways to allow more air to pass through. Nasal dilators are sometimes helpful in this retraining of nasal airways.
Nasal breathing during sleep causes the body to release vasopressin, a hormone that regulates kidney function. This will prevent waking up late at night to urinate and further, will help prevent losing too much water causing dehydration while sleeping.
Many doctors have their patients tape their mouths shut while sleeping in order to force nasal breathing in a practice called “mouth taping”.
Nasal breathing while exercising can actually lessen the number of breaths necessary during extreme physical activity. One study highlighted an athlete going from 47 mouth breaths to 14 nasal breaths while maintaining the same heart rate. The participants reported feeling invigorated while nasal breathing and exhausted while mouth breathing.
Critics of Nestor’s book warn that “mouth taping” is riskier than reported. There is some chance of suffocation. And even though it is mentioned in the book, nasal breathing is not always a cure for sleep apnea as is sometimes reported by those citing or reading the book.2
Other criticism points out that the conclusions that he draws are a bit beyond what the research may point towards. The “experiment”, though backed by scientific data remains almost an “n of one” study.
Simply said, focusing on breathing and realizing the power of nasal breathing can have an enormous impact on well-being. I have spent a lot of time in the past six months doing yoga and working with nasal breathing. I’ve noticed a big difference in my well-being. Specifically, I ran two half marathons both at PR paces. I considered what happened as I did not focus on training as much as I had in the past. I believe what made the difference was increased lung capacity and nasal breathing during the races. This idea actually led me to this book. My experience is very similar to that of Nestor’s.
It is a place we all know. It is our hopes and dreams, our perfect manifestation of a perfect life. We express our experience with the higher place in our work, our families, and who we choose to be. Those connected to our higher places are often the most important people on our journey. This remains true even when our connections faded long ago. We remain connected, an archive of this mythical place.
It is so rare to discover this place with another. To walk through the gates simultaneously. To have a partner in the discovery of this magic. Brian and I discovered our higher place together. We discovered it in song.
In this higher place, we are not limited by our bodies, our resources, or abilities. The confusion and pain in life instantaneously transformed into purpose, energy, declarations, meaning, and ecstasy. We can transform into our most true apparitions of ourselves. We can transcend the earthly existence we were born into. We are more than just the sum of our parts. The truth of this is obvious in this place. We are joined with something bigger than ourselves, yet it is also ourselves. It is something ancient, something pure, something truer than our worldly states.
Some may call this a spiritual experience or awakening. Others, finding your purpose. A peak experience, a calling, a gift. I think you may know of the experience that I describe.
Brian and I shared in the discovery of this place, this place between places.
So what does this mean?
This means that when we made the discovery we got to look each other in the eye and say “holy shit”. It meant that because we shared and understood the experience of discovery of this ethereal place, we held each other’s key to enter. It was a feeling, a memory, an oath. Perhaps more importantly, we discovered that we could add to this place. We could define it, grow it, shape it… and it would do the same to us. We were changed, transformed. This was fantastical, magical. There really aren’t words to describe it.
But like all higher places, they are higher. Meaning they don’t exist on this earthly plane. And that’s a hard lesson to learn. But we found a workaround, you see. We could take pieces of this higher place; parts, and entities, and display them when we returned. They were emblems of who we truly were and the path we would cut into this world. These entities are in the form of songs.
Brian and I were about fourteen when we discovered this place, though we were friends long before this. We discovered an Eden of endless possibilities and purposes. We would be forever bound by this experience.
And we’d go back to this higher place. Sometimes together. Sometimes apart. It was a blessing, you see. A gift. And we knew the importance of it and we kept it sacred.
Later in life, Brian would constantly remind me of the importance of this higher place. He would instruct me that it alone was truly the important thing. He would warn me against becoming too wrapped up in this earthly place. He reminded me that the most important things were those we simply didn’t always have the words to explain.
It’s important to note that Brian was enormous in this higher place. He was a giant. He was more of this world than of ours. All who know him understand this at some level. Sometimes, this looked…strange. He was often the loudest person in the room. He would always touch you when he spoke to you. I guess because he wanted to remind you as well of the importance of this higher place. And sometimes it took that disruption of an unexpected touch to break through our social programming. Connection, love, meaning. He wanted you to remember why it is you came here.
This was a power I resisted for most of our time together. But eventually, I gave in. Because… in all my studies and searching I found that … he was right. We came here to connect to each other, to experience one another deeply, and explore this mystery. And Brian did.
Brian and I recently had a discussion about meaning. All of the things we thought we wanted in life. The things we grew up wanting, feeling like we had to have – the job, career, money, or sex – it was about finding what all this means to us. And realizing that in all this searching we found that we already had everything we needed. And the journey is really about coming to terms with this truth.
So…What does that mean?
Hmmm… I think we were talking about a deep realization and comfort in the purpose of your existence.
It almost seems too simple.
And that made it difficult to accept. But I do know that Brian held on to this purpose, this care, this love, this concern. And sometimes he did so to the point where it hurt him. And in this, he suffered. But Brian found a profound sense of meaning in how much he cared for me and all of you.
Brian’s life was filled with love, care, and feeling – so much feeling.
There may be no monument to his life, but this does not matter. It does not change the magnitude of his impact on all of our lives.
There is a higher place…
And perhaps the strangest thing about this is that Brian doesn’t feel gone. I thought it was denial at first. And maybe some of this feeling is that. But there is something else…
Yeah, he’s not gone. He is still in us. The important parts of us. He’s connected to us by that higher place. The place we go to…there and back again.
We’re more there than here, now.
I suppose this place has many names all referring to the same place…The light, the grey havens, the enlightenment, the transformation, heaven, eternal rest. We go there and back again. Bringing pieces back with us. Brian brought so many gifts from this place.
Some are so obvious you may not realize them. Brian is my open-heartedness, my extraversion, my sense of adventure, my sense of humor, why I call my mom, why I give hugs, why I sing, why I drink beer, why I like Saves the Day, my spirit, my courage, my love, my kindness, my voice, my laughter, and my tears. All these, sacraments from the higher place.
I can only guess that he is some or all of those things to you as well.
He’s still here you see, the important parts anyway. The troubled parts of Brian’s life will fade into insignificance and only the good will remain in our hearts.
In the final weeks of Brian’s life, I was more connected to him than I had been in years past. I am so. grateful. for. this.
In our usual cadence of conversation, he called on me to remember our higher place. We would share links to songs, the gift from our higher place. And if anyone has any doubts about the joy, love, and purpose that existed in Brian’s heart, let me read the lyrics to this song that Brian shared with me just a few weeks ago. A song that revisited his journey, his transformation, and his love for all of you.
The Best I’d Ever Had
It was a young and angry summer
A song changed my mind
I heard it on the radio
and if everyone else heard this
they wouldn’t be so sad
It was the best I ever had
We were right about it
No one could ever take that
While the world was waking up and putting on their suits I was planning my escape
They were wrong about us
We showed them not to doubt us
No one could ever take that
And if I could go back I’d do it all again
It was the best I’d ever had.
And if everyone else heard this, they wouldn’t be so sad