Posted by: tommybrennan | February 12, 2011

Heart Stories: When Death Becomes Real

It was 3 years ago this month that I was doing a measuring job in Brooklyn, NY.  I was measuring a 1,100,000 square foot medical building with my son John.  I noticed that I was having a difficult time keeping up with him.   We would run across Queens Boulevard in the morning (we were staying at the Pan American Hotel) and go to the McDonalds.   I noticed that I was strangely exhausted at this very small expenditure of energy.  I was also noticing that I was getting bloated.  It was also strange that I couldn’t sleep lying down.  I would awake gasping, and had to sleep with my head propped up with pillows.  I sure was out of shape.  So I thought.

I visited my pulmonary doctor on Monday, who discovered that I was in atrial fibrillation.   A heart arrhythmia that is common, and can potentially lead to a stroke.   An appointment was set up for Friday.   My visit went well.  “Just a little a-fib.  No big deal.  We’ll shock you.  200 joules to the chest.  You’ll be back in rhythm in no time. ”   Until they did an echo cardiogram.     My Trinidad-born cardiologist turned to me with a sober tone:  “This is not a normal heart”.   Very severe cardiac myopathy.   Congestive Heart Failure.  Severely enlarged heart.  Leaking valves.  Eject Fraction of 15%.   Resting heart rate of 140 bpm.  Wild tachycardia with atrial fibrillation.    A very serious diagnosis.   A heart transplant was an option – If my insurance would cover it.   My wonderful Julie and I were devastated.   How could this be?   Why God?  And suddenly it hit me.

I am mortal.   I am going to die.   It isn’t “if” I die.  It is “when” I die.  I had never given my own death much thought.  My perspective was that of Woody Allen.   It’s not that I am afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.   Unfortunately, You will be the star at your own death, and it will be a solo performance.

I couldn’t lay down to sleep that night.  I was having severe angina (chest pain) and I couldn’t breathe when I laid down.  I had to sleep at the kitchen table sitting in a chair with my head resting on about 5 pillows.   My lovely Julie slept at the table with me.  It was then that I realized something very sobering, and very humbling.

I lay there at the table with my head on the pillows.  I could hear my heartbeat through the pillow.   I heard the spastic rhythm, that sounded like a white guy trying to clap at a black church service.   I heard the long pauses, and actually thought that perhaps I had just heard my last heart beat.   It was then that I realized an enormous truth, that was very difficult to wrap my head around:  I can’t make  my heart beat.  I can’t put it into rhythm.   I cannot prolong my life by a second.  I am completely powerless to extend my stay on this earth.   My appointment with eternity may be coming up a whole lot sooner than I had expected.    That night, I got serious about a lot of things.   But I had a strangely strong belief that this was not going to be my end.   Even though the deck was stacked against me, I believed that I would live.

The purpose of this post is to bring you an awareness.   Your life is a gift of the most precious kind.   What can you do to replace it?  Prolong it?   Create it?    Nothing.    It was given to you by the Hands of a Loving God.  You won’t live on this planet forever.   You have a date with the reaper, and so do I .    Make your days memorable.   Do what needs to be done.  Say what needs to be said.   Hope in God.   Don’t hold on to grudges.  Don’t keep the mess going.

You cannot add a second to your life, but you can make all of the seconds you have left, the best that they can be.   Let each heartbeat be a celebration.  It should be, because it is a gift you cannot ask for.  It is simply given for you to enjoy.

This is the first of a series of Heart Stories.



  1. Beautifully written. Gets to the heart of the issue (no pun intended!). Thanks!

  2. oh wow, Dad. Phenomenal.

  3. Another inspiring one, bro!


  4. A poignant reminder, not only of our mortality, but also of the gift of life. I like how the New American Standard translates Ps. 90:12 “So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” Apropos, of your post, I would say.

    For some reason, I am also, as I write this, put in mind of Jacob Marley’s words to his partner Ebenezer Scrooge “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

    Make the most of the moments left to us, indeed, Tom.

  5. Thanks for reading Dorwin. And I love the Marley quote. I always was struck by Marley’s Ghost, as he was recounting those deeds that Christ commanded us to perform. He was haunted by his own lack of compassion on our fellow man. May it not be said of us, brother.

  6. Thanks for sharing that Tom. It is a powerful reminder.

    • You’re welcome Paul! Thanks for reading.

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