26 + 1 years

[I feel I have a lot more to add to this, but if I don’t post it, I might never get this out]

The sum in the title will tell you my age. I am 27 years this day. I crossed the quarter-century two years ago. I have 23 more years to reach the half-century.

For twenty six of my years, the concept of Death has been quite abstract, a distant idea. I’ll admit I didn’t think of Death much, except in the sense of danger – for example, taking small precautions to ensure I don’t get hit by a car when I’m crossing the street, or making a conscious decision not to go down a creepy dark alley when there was no one around. I suppose I considered it would happen sometime, and being a generally healthy individual, it was a part of a distant future. I thought I had Time. Cliché, I know. a lot of people talk about Time when pondering Life and Death. And not only in the mathematical sense.

On good days, I barely gave Death a thought; like the song goes, I was pretty sure I could trudge on and sleep when I’m dead. There would always be Time: to sort out whatever I needed to deal with, time to lose and find myself through philosophical diatribe and introspection. Despite this, in my darkest moments, I was haunted by an inexplicable urgency, that the seconds were ticking by and I was wasting them through sitting around and doing nothing. Perhaps I was aware of the story before it was even written.

Of course, being my angsty and self-obsessed, self, when it came to decisions, I did occasionally sit on the precipice of my consciousness (if there was ever a place for me to go and think, that would be it – a high place, with a killer view and wrapped in silence) and ponder whether or not I regretted things. Things I’d done or said, or things I hadn’t. They do say you tend to regret the things you haven’t done, although sometimes they exaggerate exactly how much. [I mean, in retrospect, I could say I regret not having climbed Everest, but that’s not something I ever aspired to do anyhow – that’s just not me]

Alright, let’s talk about Time.

On February 26th 2015, I was diagnosed with severe heart disease and hospitalised. Eleven months later, through the miracle (if you believe in those things) of modern medicine, here I am celebrating my twenty seventh birthday. I guess you could safely say I never thought that would be something of an achievement for me. Sure, I was (and am) aware of the ableism in our society, while I often took my good health for granted, but it never occurred to me I’d reach a birthday with difficulty – especially in my twenties.

I’ve read a lot of books (not this year, but in the past), and seen a lot of films, and most of them insinuate that introducing sex into your life – at any age – involves a certain loss of innocence. I suppose that is true; first sexual encounters tend to be a big deal, most likely because they become a point of no return. When a grand realisation hits, it’s incredibly difficult to undo. How do you unrealise something? It’s so difficult the verb unrealise isn’t even in the dictionary. However, it does exist in the past tense (or past participle): ‘unrealised’, in the context of unrealised dreams – that is, dreams that don’t become real. Then there’s the word unrealistic. “It’s unrealistic to think you can do it all.” Or another favourite: “Be realistic! This is never going to happen.”.

For me, the realisation of my own mortality has become… well, real. It lives and breathes next to me in the form of an extracorporeal artificial heart. I can even record it for you. Admittedly, I could avoid thinking about it – Death, and the fragility of Life – and most of the time, my thoughts are far from it, filled with (seemingly ridiculous) concerns about food, drink, and company. I daresay it’s easier to ignore when you don’t have a machine that echoes your heartbeat for everyone in the room to hear. But why waste the knowledge? And how do you even begin to stamp out such a realisation? Not being dramatic here, but I know that I could die at any moment. Theoretically speaking, I know that anybody could; things just don’t turn out the way you expect.

What makes it worse is that I know that in order for me to live, someone else has to die. I need a heart transplant; that’s how bad the situation is (of course, I’m doing fine at the moment, or else you wouldn’t be reading this, but you get the point). For a heart transplant to happen, another person has to be declared clinically dead (that usually means the brain has ceased to function for some reason, but the rest of the organs are fine – like people who are in a coma and on artificial life support). It’s not fair. I don’t deserve to live any more than another person deserves to die. How do I even begin to justify being given another person’s beating heart? Sure, my heart is sick, but doesn’t that just displace the grief? Instead of my own family grieving, another one would be. I’m not saying I’m suicidal or willing to die for anyone or anything. Not at all. All I know is I will die, someday. That’s a certainty. But knowing someone else has to die for me to live? It feels almost… vampiric.

I’m not sure what this long ramble is about. On my 27th birthday, I just can’t stop thinking about the doctors who saved my life – in the most literal sense possible. Yes, I’m thankful and grateful for my family and friends who helped me get some help and continue to support me, but how do you begin to thank people who pumped another breath into your lungs? I feel like crying; mourning the loss of another kind of innocence: not so much a frivolity of youth, but rather a feeling of being unstoppable and invincible. As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve never really been one for extremely foolish things – no unnecessary speeding when I used to drive, no extreme sports, no drinking till I can’t see straight. I can’t say I regret that; I just wouldn’t be the person I am if I had done all those things.

That feeling is gone now. Not entirely, but it’s not as persistent as it was. I guess spending half a year in hospital, taking more medical drugs than I’ve ever taken during the rest of my life, and having to watch my diet for fear of thrombosis or internal bleeding, can do that to a person. It’s not that I feel old and broken; I just know that some things I do push the boundaries of what I’m now allowed to. My parents and a close friend maintain that I’ve still not fully acknowledged the restrictions this condition has imposed on me. I’m not sure if that’s denial or just plain stubbornness. OK, I need a machine to stay alive at the moment. And yes, I have to be careful in certain situations, but otherwise… Why should that stop me?

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