I was too tired to be awake. It was early on a Thursday morning, and I had just returned from a professional meeting overseas. I was exhausted and unfocused. My husband, Steve, was still at home when the driver dropped me off. We sat and talked for a while, and then he went to shower. I remember noticing that my slender husband seemed to have lost a little weight, but my mind was foggy and it didn’t really register.
Steve came home that afternoon to check in on me, then returned to work. He was so devoted to his chiropractic patients and had appointments well into the evening.
The next day, I was still jet-lagged but able to make a dinner of salmon and salad. Steve, who usually ate such a healthy diet, just picked at his food. I noticed but didn’t say anything. Meanwhile, he could see my energy waning and urged me to go upstairs and sleep while he cleaned up the kitchen.
There was nothing too unusual about any of this—two professionals with lots of responsibility coming together at home to reunite, sometimes a little on the weary side.
Saturday morning was different. I woke up and went downstairs to my laptop, determined to catch up on e-mails. When Steve appeared, he was wearing his favorite navy-blue velour bathrobe. I was still feeling pretty wiped out, my mind and senses foggy, but when I saw him standing there in his robe, I had an unsettling feeling.
“I don’t want to die,” he blurted out.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been having pain in my chest.”
He told me it had started on Thursday, when he was working late. Although one of his patients, a physician and personal friend, had urged him to go to the ER just to rule out anything serious, he had ignored the advice. He had patients to see and didn’t want to disappoint them.
As he sat on the couch and put his head back, I could see how tired he looked, but it was still rather early in the morning, so I didn’t really think anything of it. He came and sat down next to me and insisted we talk about our finances and investment accounts.
“Toni, I want to make sure you have the passwords to our—”
“Steve, I just can’t right now. I’m still so exhausted. Can’t it wait till tomorrow?”
“We need to do this,” he said.
We briefly discussed passwords and other matters before he went upstairs to shower. When I went up a few minutes later to check on him, he seemed all right. But right after the shower he lay down again, saying he didn’t feel well. As I sat there with him, the phone rang. I walked into another room to answer. It was my son-in-law calling to see if we were available to meet for lunch. I told him about Steve not feeling well, and he suggested that I take him to the ER. When I hung up and walked back into the bedroom, I could hear Steve on the phone with Blue Cross. Apparently, he had not yet made our monthly health insurance payment and was calling to make sure we were covered. That’s all I needed to hear.
“Get off the phone,” I said. “We’re going to the emergency room.”
In the car, he said he wanted to cancel his Sunday patients and asked me to swing by his office. We were there for a half hour while he made his calls. He wasn’t in any pain, but finally I had had enough. “Come on. We need to go.”
The emergency room nurse told me that Steve would likely need a stent but probably not bypass surgery. He was conscious and could read the electrocardiogram data as they rolled him into surgery. Steve smiled at me and said, “Everything will be fine.” I felt relief.
My daughter had joined me in the hospital waiting room by the time the doctor returned with the news that the insertion of the stent had gone well. She continued that Steve would likely be ready to go home in twenty-four hours. “You can go in to see him in about fifteen minutes,” she added. “And one more thing. When he gets home, he’ll need to go on a vegan diet.”
My daughter protested. “I don’t get it. He’s always eaten so healthily. He doesn’t eat meat. He eats primarily vegan, with the occasional piece of fish.” The doctor didn’t know Steve and understandably assumed that he ate a standard American diet of meat, eggs, dairy, and so on, when that was far from the case. Steve and I were both very aware of the research done by Dr. Dean Ornish and others about the importance of a plant-based diet, especially in preventing and reversing heart disease.
I could feel that something wasn’t right, but I let it pass, not wanting to dwell on worst-case scenarios. I was sensitive to a gnawing feeling in my gut, but I didn’t want to even consider that something terrible might happen.
We sat there for a long time, waiting to be told we could visit Steve. Finally, the doctor returned—with a pained look on her face. “I don’t know how to say this, but your husband vomited and then aspirated. He almost died. We had to bring him back. He’s on life support now, and there’s a chance he won’t make it through the night.” I was too tired, or too much in shock, to absorb what she was saying. “What do you mean he may not make it through the night? What happened? He was just fine.”
Steve did make it through the night. Nine weeks later, he died of heart- and hospital-related complications.
The sudden loss of my husband was a devastating blow—and a profound wake-up call. To this day, I believe Steve’s death could have been avoided. If he had paid attention to the signals his body had apparently been giving him for months. If I hadn’t been so jet-lagged and had been more alert to his health crisis. If I had demanded we go straight to the ER and not detour to his office. If the doctors had properly done their job and paid more attention to his situation. If I had taken steps right away to get him medical help. If any of these things had happened, maybe he’d still be alive today.
And yet this totally human temptation to go over and over what is already done with traps us in the past, and that’s not what being awake is all about. The wake-up call is not about figuring out how we could have done this or that, but about the fact that we can do everything “right” and still not always control outcomes. That’s life. It is fragile and impermanent; if we want to live meaningfully and with joy, we have to accept that fact and be as present as we can be for ourselves and one another. To break a well-worn pattern, to wake up to the messages life is sending us and avoid crisis, we have to be tuned in to what’s happening right in front of us and not numb out. That said, sometimes just sitting with our stuck feelings is what we need to do—but to observe them without getting too entangled with them. We can also learn to bring compassion to ourselves when we realize we may be suffering with very difficult emotions.
Waking up takes practice. It involves the body, the mind, and the spirit. It involves paying attention to ourselves, attending to each other with care and focus, and reaching outside ourselves to connect with the wider world that needs our gifts and talents (and that shifts our attention from our own suffering).
So many of us feel as though we’re going through the motions in life. We feel stuck and unexcited or anxious and depressed. We’re cemented in routines. Some of us have become ill and only realized after the fact that our bodies had been giving us clues that something was wrong but we ignored the warnings. It’s easy to do that. Life puts so many demands on us that we can become masterful at pushing aside our own needs and rationalizing why we’re doing so. Or pushing of the calls of those around us. But who wants to sleepwalk through life like that?
Granted, the morning Steve was so insistent about our finances, I was depleted, physically and mentally. Even so, my body was giving me signals, and I knew it. That pinprick or nudge of minor annoyance was telling me to pay attention. Something was happening that was not right.
Sure, not every missed hunch or ignored intuitive nudge is fatal. We have hunches about people, politics, real estate, news, and sporting events all the time, and no real harm comes from overlooking them. And that’s part of why we tend to get lazy about answering the call. It’s hard to sort out the important messages from the everyday ones. Sometimes our hunches are off the mark. Waking up is not about acting every time a lightbulb turns on.
It’s about developing our capacity for discernment. It’s about paying attention, respecting our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations and the messages they are sending us.
Excerpted from Wake Up Before Your Wake-Up Call: The Five Pillars for Deeper Love, Joy, and Connection in Midlife. Reprinted with permission: Page Two Books, Inc. Copyright © 2019 by Toni Parker.
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