by Ty H Phillips

In 2011, three words changed my life; “Ty, you’re dying.”

I can never unhear them and unlike what you see on TV when someone finds out they are gravely ill, each moment was not more crisp for me, in fact, each passing moment was terrifying. There was no blue sky awakening, there was no vast consciousness shift where I felt the flap of the butterfly’s wings. My life crashed, hard.

Five years later, I work with the elderly, many of whom are in hospice (active death). I see them smile and tell stories and greet me with warmth, humor, and courage each day. Maybe living to a ripe old age offers us more grace, maybe they simply have more courage than I did, maybe inside they are scared and just hide it well. I do not know. What I do know is that watching them, much like hearing those words, changed my life.

After hearing my cardiologist tell me this in his strong English accent, the world around me when numb. I instantly depersonalized everything. I was probably reacting in shock but it was much like watching it all happen but not really being there. The next few weeks were spent in denial (think Kubler Ross-psychiatrist and author who postulated the 5 stages of death and dying).

I searched for reasons they were wrong, ways I could get better, reasons it really wasn’t that bad.

Shoot, two weeks after I heard, I squat a thousand pounds to prove they were wrong.

Eventually, I came to a process of acceptance, (maybe Kubler Ross was really onto something). I can’t say when I calmed down, when I stopped denying or when I wised up so to speak, but I seemed to skip right from denial and grief to acceptance. I made no bargains with gods and angels, I made no death bed conversion just in case Pascal was right, but I did spend hours sitting in graveyards reading Hitchens, Hume, and loads of Buddhist philosophy.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was a constant companion, not because it offered a way out, but because I saw a way to find acceptance and grace in what I was going through. A way to sit with my fears and doubts, my undealt with traumas, my suppressed anger and rage and to let it go in order to see what was here, now, alive and moving in the very moments I had left.

Eventually, the critical six months went by that my doctors were fighting to get me through.

Then a year and I was taken off of the heart transplant list and my defibrillator surgery was even canceled. More time passed and I was showing more and more signs of recovery. I sat in my my doctor’s office, awaiting the results of my latest echo and he sat down, tears in his eyes, and again, my world went numb; “Ty, we made it, you’re going to be okay!”

He shook my hand with hearty delight that broke into a hug, both of us crying. “We made it!” he said again. He must have been shocked at how little I said. “Are you sure?” i asked. “What if they missed something, what if it comes back?” I was in denial all over again. I had just reconciled that it was over, I was okay with it, I had read Mary Roach’s book STIFF for christ sake and was donating my body for science.

I drove home in silence. It was June again, A year later, and while I hadn’t made a full recovery yet, I had recovered enough where all surgeries were canceled (aside from my initial double ablation) and I was no longer hearing the phrase sudden cardiac death every other week. I didn’t turn on the music, my usual metal accompaniment was not welcome. I didn’t even open the windows to the warmth and sun. I think I may have cried but after leaving the office, I remember little else aside from the silence.

It’s now 2016 and just yesterday I squat 605 lbs.

It’s a far cry from my 1000 lb days, but I did it with a heart that made a full recovery and a mind that still struggles with the in between of life and death. I watch a man who is literally being eaten alive by cancer, waste away to nothing, but get up, get dressed and get out each day. He smiles and cracks a joke, he offers comfort and a helping hand to those around him and I find myself realizing, that’s what it is all about.

I think we die as we live. In moments of action and compassion or in fear and denial because of selfishness and self-centeredness. We create the process of heaven and hell in our lives, in our minds, in our actions and we are reborn from moment to moment in the choices we make or choose not to make.

Death is the process not simply of bodily decay but in the moments we chose not to be fully present. The Buddha said those who are aware are truly alive and those who are unaware are truly dead. It’s not a process of escape but a process of being.

Maybe Ram Dass said it best, “Be here now.”


picture: (source)

editor: Dana Gornall