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Hi. I’m Your Mortality

My father died from a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. He was 85 years old. The aneurysm had been discovered years before. But for reasons I’ll never understand or accept, my mother and my older sister opted not to tell my two younger brothers and me. (Note to self: Suspend judgment here.)

At 8 o’clock in the evening, on Saturday, January 4, 2014, my father stood up to tighten his belt. He felt a pain in his back. (I learned later that’s a classic symptom of a ruptured aneurysm.) Accompanied by my mother, he drove himself to a local emergency clinic. Neither my mother nor my father said anything to the physician on duty about his aneurysm. After a physical exam, the physician surmised my father had pulled a muscle. He prescribed a muscle relaxant and sent my father home.

At 3 o’clock the next morning, my father awoke in more significant pain. He told my mother he wanted to move to the family room to sit in his recliner, but he was afraid he’d pass out before he got there. Knowing she wouldn’t be able to support his weight if he blacked out, she called 911.

When the paramedics arrived, again, my parents said nothing about the aneurysm. My father was conscious and conversant when they put him in the ambulance. He remained so all the way to the clinic. And he continued to be responsive to the doctor (a different one this time) in the clinic when they arrived. At about 4:30 that morning, he arrested. The clinic staff spent 45 minutes trying to resuscitate him. At 5:17, he was pronounced dead.

This is Your Wake-Up Call

On January 30 of this year, I turned 65. On April 4, I went for my Welcome to Medicare wellness visit (I love that kind of talk) with my primary care physician, Dr. Wisniewski. In reviewing my family medical history, I told him of my father’s passing and its cause. On June 20, as a precautionary measure, he sent me for an ultrasound to find out if I might have an aneurysm or if I presented any predispositions toward having one. On October 10 of this year, I saw Dr. Wisniewski again. He told me I have an abdominal aortic aneurysm measuring 2.7 centimeters.

My first words were, “Now I feel mortal.”

The news isn’t fatal. It’s sobering. It isn’t cause for over-reaction. Dr. Wisniewski said it won’t even be a cause for concern unless and until it grows to 5.0 to 5.5 centimeters, which may never happen. It isn’t cause for fear. The procedure for repairing an aneurysm can be surprisingly quick and relatively non-invasive. (See EVAR.) It’s not a cause for limiting my activity. Dr. Wisniewski said I can continue to go to the gym and work as hard in there as I do. And it isn’t a reason to be morbid. It’s a source of humility.

Like my depression, my aneurysm (it’s not this aneurysm, it’s mine) is a comforting gift to me. Think that’s nuts? Not so fast.

Bring It With You

In the mid-’90s, I had occasion to visit Old Lyme Congregational Church in Old Lyme, Connecticut. I was in the company of a gentleman named David Good (try to make that up), who was the pastor of the church at the time. As a recovering Catholic, I was struck by the visual austerity of the place — the absence of statuary, the lack of stained glass, and the missing myriad accoutrements of alleged religious piety.

I turned to David: “Where’s all the stuff?”

“What stuff?” he asked in response.

“You know. All the religious stuff.”

He put his hand on his heart. “Right here,” he said. “If you don’t bring it with you, it’s not here.”

I feel the same way about my depression and about my aneurysm. They’re right here. I carry them with me always. They’re humbling, welcome, and necessary reminders of my insignificance, my vulnerability, my fallibility, my humanity, and my mortality. I’m grateful for them. I cherish them. Because they’re part of my experience, they’re sources of comfort, perspective, guidance, and having lived for me.

I’ve never understood people who were afraid of their own insignificance. I know people who are terrified at the prospect of standing aside the ocean, who won’t go out under a clear night sky, cast into contemplation of their own inconsequence by the infinite reaches of the cosmos and the millions of stars it contains, because it compels them to recognize their unimportance.

What could be more liberating than that?

The mere speck I constitute — the anxieties, the troubles, the concerns, and the challenges I presume to possess — can’t possibly be of the slightest significance in the context of the universe’s vastness. Part of the universal order is a scale of significance. I don’t even show up on that thing.

I should worry? About what?

Defined and Dandy

My father died from a ruptured aortic aneurysm. My aneurysm is one of his genetic bequests to me. My depression and my high blood pressure are two of the others. They describe aspects of me. They don’t define me or diminish me any more than my insignificance, my vulnerability, my fallibility, my humanity, or my mortality define or diminish me.

My intelligence defines me. My compassion and my insight define me. The gift of my writing and my determination to share what I write define me. My sincerity and my sense of humor define me. My capacities for loving, listening, understanding, and forgiving define me. My blessings define me.

On October 10 of this year, Dr. Wisniewski told me I have an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Don’t worry. I’m just fine. In fact, I’m more humble, human, and happy than I was before I found out. I fit more comfortably in my place in the universe. I’m more at peace with my imperfections. I’m more patient with and accepting of the imperfections of others. And I’m more grateful for every healthy moment.

On October 10 of this year, I met my mortality.

Turns out he’s not such a bad guy. Who knew?

Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brienhttps://obriencg.com/
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

25 COMMENTS

  1. Mark, I don’t know what to say, other than your story touched me deeply. To turn that news from your doctor into a positive, is so inspiring. Thank you for sharing this. For many reasons, it’s given me a lot to think about.

    • Sherry, I know you know we’re all in this together. I’ve derived much from the stories you’ve shared about your challenges. I know you’re reluctant to take credit for your courage, but if you’ll excuse the military analogy, you’re definitely someone I’d want in the foxhole with me.

      Thank you for your note.

  2. Certainly some change takes place within us when we discover that we have a disease or a defect that can make us think of mortality. But you can manage to deal with the situation by acting on your physical, psychological and emotional resources.
    Once the initial impact of the diagnosis has been overcome, knowing the truth is better than living in uncertainty and fear. While fear can paralyze, knowing what is happening allows us to think about what we can do, and often this already has a positive effect. Accepting the idea that our life has changed but is not over is a delicate and often slow process. But this step forward – from understanding the disease on a rational level to accepting it on an emotional level – can often be done. Yes, once you overcome your initial fears and set yourself new goals, you may be surprised to discover how important it is to continue to live.
    Best wishes, Mark

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me, Aldo. I have a feeling I’ll be considerably more apprehensive as I approach the prospect of a surgical repair. And while I have scheduled a second opinion, I’m remarkably at peace with the diagnosis. I believe that’s because, as you suggested, knowing the truth is better than living in uncertainty and fear. And it’s MUCH better than living in ignorance and facing the consequences.

      I have every intention of continuing to live. And I’ll remain grateful to you and to this remarkable BIZCATALYST360 community for the entire time.

      Thank you.

  3. Certainly some change takes place within us when we discover that we have a disease or a defect that can make us think of mortality. But you can manage to deal with the situation by acting on your physical, psychological and emotional resources.
    Once the initial impact of the diagnosis has been overcome, knowing the truth is better than living in uncertainty and fear. While fear can paralyze, knowing what is happening allows us to think about what we can do, and often this already has a positive effect. Accepting the idea that our life has changed but is not over is a delicate and often slow process. But this step forward – from understanding the disease on a rational level to accepting it on an emotional level – can often be done. Yes, once you overcome your initial fears and set yourself new goals, you may be surprised to discover how important it is to continue to live.
    My best wishes, Mark.

  4. I read your piece twice, Mark. Thank you for sharing such a wholesome introspection with us. It resonates with me on many levels for various reasons. The main one being that I lost my mom on January 20, 2014, so I can relate to the feeling of loss.
    You share such a healthy way of accepting your mortality and leaning into it, instead of letting it saddle you down. You are right, however. Our high blood pressure (which I have), depression, anxiety, or whatever “it” is doesn’t define us. While it is something we have, who we are is what matters.
    I needed to read this today, so thank you for sharing your gift and inspiration with us.

    • Forewarning is another of my Dad’s gifts to me, Laura. And it’s amazing that we lost parents 15 days apart.

      If I got a guarantee that I was going to live forever, I can’t find the damn thing. So, you’re right: Who we are is what matters. What we do with who we are is what matters. How we use our time is what matters. What we do with our gifts is what matters.

      I think often of Jabob Marley’s speech to Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, from which I excerpt this:

      “It is required of every man … that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness! … Business! … Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

      The version of A Christmas Carol in which George C. Scott plays Scrooge and Frank Finlay plays Marley’s ghost was released in 1984. I’ve seen it every year since. And I’ve never gotten through this scene once without crying:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qh_fUMgFomk&t=313s

      It’s a reminder to all of us not to saddle ourselves with a life un-lived. It’s why I value every one of my connections and why I’m so grateful to be connected with you.

      Thank you for that connection. And thank you for your comments.

    • A man I knew once told me in a gym that he and his wife were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. I congratulated him on the accomplishment and asked him how they did it. He said, “We hold hands … especially over the rough spots.”

      We’re part of an amazing community here in BIZCATALYST360. And you have an amazing network of connections on LinkedIn. Every one of those people here and on LinkedIn is holding your hand, just like you’re holding mine. We’re all in this together.

      Thank you for holding my hand.

  5. I feel from you so much gratitude and honour for your life in what and how you write, Mark…You seem like someone to sit down with and share a coffee or tea with would be very enriching. Sending you kind thoughts and appreciations. I appreciate Dennis publishing this piece from you today.

    • Maureen, given your comments, I want to share this with you: I’m not the kind of person who prays when he needs something. Rather, I pray to give thanks when I’m grateful.

      Thank you for your comments. They humble me. And I’m grateful to you for sharing them, for your concern, and for your desire to share coffee or tea with me. We have a little geography in the way. But nothing is impossible. Until that opportunity arises, I’ll remain thankful to you for thoughtfulness.

  6. Mark, big hugs.. I needed this post.. Our mortality does come to the front when we know whats up with our bodies. It is better to know whats happening than to live not knowing. I don’t know why they chose not to tell you but they handled their life as they wanted to and it is good you were around to the end.

    • Donna Luisa, I responded at greater length to your comment on LinkedIn. But for those who didn’t see our correspondence there, I want to thank you here. I’m grateful to you and to be part of this community with you.

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