Author Jay Cradeur shares the five searing lessons he learned when he faced death.
Seven months ago, I was in the peak of health.
At 56 years of age, I had lost 45 pounds, dropping from 235 lbs. to 190 lbs. I had never spent even one night in a hospital. I had no major illnesses nor broken bones. I was working out each and every day for one hour at the Duangtawan Hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Then I slowly began to have challenges urinating. I could pee, but I had to really work hard at it. I visited the doctor at the clinic on Loi Kroh Road and he conducted some tests and determined I had BPH (benign prostate hypertension) aka Enlarged Prostate. This is a condition that affects 50% of all men over 60 years of age. As the prostate grows, it tightens on the urethra, which is the vessel through which urine flows. Little did I know that the next seven months would take me to the darkest and deepest grief, pain, suffering, and depression. I will forever recall saying to myself with crystalline clarity and sanity, “Death would be better than this!”
I was put on a gurney, stripped down to my blue Bob Dylan T shirt, had a catheter inserted into me while two Thai nurses worked on my stomach to get every drop of urine out of my bladder.
The Thai doctor prescribed a medication similar to Flowmax. I took it each night and for three months, everything was great. I was peeing normally and everything seemed right with the world. Then, towards the end of August, the lights just went out. I was not able to pee. For two long days, I tried hard. Think about the time you really had to pee, but you had to wait. Perhaps you were driving, and you had 10 minutes until the next gas station. Imagine that feeling for 48 hours. I pushed with everything I had to squeeze out a few drops. I doubled the dose of my medication. I took a shower every hour to loosen up my muscles, and relieve the incredible pain I felt. Then I would sleep for 15 minutes until the pain returned. Then I went back into the shower. I began to feel my bladder, tight as a drum, protruding from my stomach. After two days of sheer misery, I jumped into a tuk tuk (Thai taxi) and said “Hospital.” I felt very alone in a foreign country and deep into a crisis for which I could see no end.
Upon arriving at the hospital, I urgently and with great desperation asked for some kind of drug to take the edge off. Instead, after a short interview, I was put on a gurney, stripped down to my blue Bob Dylan T shirt, had a catheter inserted into me while two Thai nurses worked on my stomach to get every drop of urine out of my bladder. At last I felt relief. The nurses were both quite animated for they had never seen anyone have such a large quantity of urine in his or her body. They squeezed out 2000 mls, about two and half times the normal quantity for a bladder. As I began to feel the relief of pressure, I did take note of this rather unique situation in my life, lying naked as a jay bird with two petite Thai nurses up on the gurney with me, kneading my stomach with great enthusiasm like it was a wad of dough. I live for those unforgettable moments.
In the face of pain, despair and depression, what is it that a man most desires?
Over the next three months, I was in the hospital five times. I had approximately 30 catheter insertions, three different UTIs (Urinary Tract Infections), a 60 minute dose of Morphine (awesome), one green light laser procedure to repair my prostate, two ultra sounds, one CT scan, one less kidney (I learned I was born with just one kidney), a 36 hour flight back to San Francisco with a 17 hour overnight stay in the Taiwan airport, and a few other medical issues (bladder distention, enlarged ureter, etc.) which further complicated my bladder and prostate condition. I could have died there in Thailand. Had my bladder burst I would most likely have died. There were moments, sitting in the shower with water falling on me, at times crying and others shrieking, when I would have chosen death. I learned it is difficult to remain positive and life affirming in the face of constant and severe physical pain.
That is the back-story. What interests me now that I appear to be on the other side of the trauma is this: what did I learn? What does one learn in the process of accepting that death in a quick moment is a legitimate possibility? It is a rare opportunity that most of us don’t get. In the face of pain, despair and depression, what is it that a man most desires? Does a near death experience make any kind of lasting impact that results in changed behavior? Here is what this man learned:
One: An appalling amount of my life is lived in reaction to fear.
“It is such a waste. How much have I missed?” Just after a moment of despair, I experienced the pain of a life lived sloppily and lazily. While I have done much examination of self, I clearly saw how still, after all these years, and after all the weekend events and daily meditation, and all the talk and writing and engaging, a still significant segment of my life is dictated by fear. Instead of recognizing the fear, and taking action in spite of the fear, I turned and took the easier, more comfortable and predictable path. I particularly saw this in my work choices and pursuits. Had I died, I would have known I could have done so much more with my gifts.
Two: My work does not have to be my passion.
Piggy backing on number one above, I have spent so much time pursuing my passion, that I have taken my eyes off the prize. The prize is time and money to spend when I have time to do the things I want to do. Rather than passionate work, I need work that fully engages me, keeps me interested, has value, and very importantly and in my case, until now undervalued, it pays me well for my time. I am not going to be Bruce Springsteen no matter how much I love guitar, great lyrics and rock n roll. But I bet I could have been a great agent. I don’t have a passion to be an agent, but I would have been fully engaged, used my gifts, and been handsomely compensated. The bottom line for me is this: it is time to get to work and generate significant revenue and then spend the money with the people I love, eat the food I want to eat, and see the places I want to see. It is time to stop dicking around.
Three: If I had one last month on the planet, what would I want?
This one surprised me. I would have thought I would want to be with my family, or my children, but that is not what I felt in that moment. Yes, of course, I would want to say good bye to my loved ones and my friends and give them a chance to say their good byes, but once that was complete, I would get on a plane, pick up my favorite travel partner, and go to my chosen destinations to see sights, eat great food, get massages, share laughter and intimacy, drink a bit, and thoroughly relish the most wonderful parts of a life well lived. I would then die happy.
Four: Life is short and I truly don’t know when it will end.
It seems like this would go without saying, but each time I dance with death, I get to a deeper understanding of this truth. Nothing is secure. We are all specks on a rock hurtling through space. At any moment, it can end. At some moment, it will all end. Every relationship, every activity, every love, every moment will cease to exist. We don’t know. I don’t know. Security is an illusion, and security mutes my desire to be fully alive. The message to me is this: Grab life by the tail and don’t let go until I have to.
Five: Regretting anything from my past is an insult and a slap in the face of life.
How much time have I wasted thinking about how I wished my life turned out this way, or that way? “Why did I pass on the job? Why didn’t I fight harder for that woman? Why, why, why?” What a freaken waste of time! This hit me hard in those savage moments of pain and suffering. I realized my life is what it is. I am here because of everything that came before me. My judgments are plainly irrelevant in the face of the facts. I am here now. So be it.
I am not out of the woods. However, I am on the road to recovery. As I put it to my guy friends, I am now peeing like a Viking. The first time I peed after the surgery, I felt like I was holding onto a fire hose. I haven’t peed like this since I was a young boy. I may need one more procedure to repair my distended bladder, injured during my traumatic 48 hours in Thailand. But I am confident all will be well. My energy is returning. Here, today, I am writing for the first time in several months. I am at a crossroads with choices to make, and it feels good. I have and continue to experience a transformation. My life will never be the same, and I am excited to take action on what I learned. The pain of the lessons has made an indelible impression. Let’s see who I am now.
The article originally appeared on the Good Men Project Website.