It has been one year since my surgery. Sometimes I feel that I have had a metanoia. Some days I don't seem to be that different at all.
Etymology: Greek, from metanoiein to change one's mind, repent, from meta- + noein to think, from nous mind
: a transformative change of heart ; especially : a spiritual conversion"
In being a college instructor of Homer's The Odyssey I have become studentof my own journey. The lessons of mythology and quest have provided me an opportunity to be introspective about the diverse encounters, challenges, defeats and victories that have made up my voyage. As a refugee who has been in exile it sometimes seems easier to be penitent for my own prodigal wanderings, especially when I look at the lifestyle and attitudes that led me to having "rusty pipes" and necessitate a CABG (that's medical speak for arterial by-pass surgery.)Reflecting on the consumption of steaks, lobsters,pizza, pasta, more pizza, alcohol and cigars accompanied by the well crafted skill of suppressing stress about work and life it is not hard to discern the root cause analysis to my own atherosclerosis disease. There is somewhat little comfort in the scientific analysis that genetics also played a role in the clogging my heart's blood pathways.
Since my surgery on August 4, 2008 a lot of time and spiritual energy has been expended in meditating on my holy longing pilgrimage to date and the choices and adventures that potentially lie ahead. I shared with my friend, a member of the band, that the by-pass surgery was a buoy marker in a channel on the way back to my home port, saying "no wake and slow down"(...the vessel.)But while reflecting on the events and actions that contributed to bringing this vessel to the brink of an earthly demise a sudden spark began to gradually illuminate this wayward darkened heart.
Somewhat like an Odysseus-in-training I have realized that God has been present protecting and guiding me during my self absorbing voyage. It was apparent that I am not the great explorer who had mapped out the navigation of a grand expedition of life and self discovery. Rather, the voyage has been a series of misadventures of a roving lost redemptive seeking accidental pilgrim. If I were to make any progress at all I would surely need the intervention of a loving all-forgiving God.
While maintaining a lifestyle that though not filled with debauchery or over self-indulgence it was none the less not a healthy life, physically or mentally. Of course I should have known better as I had a father who was overweight and forever consuming sticks of butter with chasers of scotch and smoking cigarettes as he worked his way slowly to a sudden heart attack. Then there were the close friends who drank alcohol heavily and smoked like industrial chimneys. They who showed no care for their earthly vessels and who would be dismissed from the race before they could finish. But floundering though this maze of gateways, walls and dead ends it has become apparent that God was laughing as I told him I had a plan (thank you Woody Allen for that image.)
The story of a possible redemptive trek is actually a long one so let I will attempt to highlight a few markers that have left some scar tissue near my heart.
After enduring a surprising quick sharp chest pain in June of 2008 in the company of a good friend Bernie and other companions on a golf course it was clear that this was not one's everyday ogita attack. My prayer was suddenly redirected from enjoying the day and playing a mistake free round of golf to hope for my survival. I finished the round scoring in the high 90's and though feeling physically ok my anxiety had not dissipated. Since I was near Lindsay's apartment I met her and her beau for a fast bite in a Mexican restaurant. When the frozen Margarita felt ragged and rough going down a concerned Linds asked if I wanted to get to a hospital. It was then I decided that maybe she was right and I planned to call my doctor.
First,I contacted and saw my regular doctor who then referred me to a cardiologist who in his panic attack about my condition almost scared me to death thereby eliminating the need for surgery! Check please! I mentioned this to an old business associate and friend, Les, who immediately referred me to his successful and famous cardiologist who saw me the same day of my conversation with Les. Quickly "Doc" scheduled a catheterization and potential stent .I called another friend, Hal, who had recently had the procedure and he told me that there was nothing to worry about, besides he would keep me in his prayers.
My prayers and prayer-time in the pre-dawn hours on my deck would become longer and more focused. I didn't realize then that this meditative experience would also become more peace-filling with every passing day as I got closer to having surgery. Oh, I didn't mention that my cardiologist closed me up after the catheterization and told Ginny and I that I had "rusty pipes" and stents wouldn't do much. Ginny's eyes welled up when the Doc said he called the best surgeon around to come in now for a consult. The Doc gently placed his hand on Ginny to console her. He advised that the potential alternative might of C.O.U.R.A.G.E., and interesting acronym for Clinical Outcomes Utilizing Revascularization and Aggressive Drug Evaluation may not be effective at this point. So I was left to digging down deep within to see how much "courage" I had for a by-pass.
Considering the circumstances the meeting with the surgeon went as well as one could expect I guess. He showed us a digital video of what the Doc saw during the catheterization. Yep, no doubt, two pipes had some serious blockage! He said he's done thousands of these and I asked "How many did you lose?" He quickly responded, "Not many, I can tell you." Though he thought my condition a serious event he counseled that surgery need not be particularly eminent for me it may be prudent to deal with the "devil we know now." Interesting choice of words don't you think? I told him we had a Springsteen concert, my birthday present from and with the family, and a Red Sox game in Boston to be at over the next two weeks. It was agreed and scheduled then as we decided on August 4, 2008 the day after the sox game. At that very instant all perspective on everything; my children, my wife, my dog, my family and friends, my life and my relationship with God all changed forever never to be the same. Some may call it transformation. a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYLNDuGsTEw">
But all the while I was on that meandering pilgrimage there was evidence of God's hand in moving me closer and closer in relationship with God until the point of no return. Just a day or so before I was about to go into surgery Fr. Bill suggested receiving the Sacrament of Healing. The notion scared the heebee gee bees out of Ginny for a moment. Her aged Catholicism recalled this blessing as the Sacrament of Extreme Unction (or anointing one who is near death.) Though I explained that the sacrament has evolved to be one of "healing and forgiveness" I too was afraid that someone might soon dust off Grantland Rice's poem to be read in remembering me.
Game Called. Across the field of play
the dusk has come, the hour is late.
The fight is done and lost or won,
the player files out through the gate.
The tumult dies, the cheer is hushed,
the stands are bare, the park is still.
But through the night there shines the light,
home beyond the silent hill.
Game Called. Where in the golden light
the bugle rolled the reveille.
The shadows creep where night falls deep,
and taps has called the end of play.
The game is done, the score is in,
the final cheer and jeer have passed.
But in the night, beyond the fight,
the player finds his rest at last.
Game Called. Upon the field of life
the darkness gathers far and wide,
the dream is done, the score is spun
that stands forever in the guide.
Nor victory, nor yet defeat
is chalked against the players name.
But down the roll, the final scroll,
shows only how he played the game.
Fr. Gerry was the presiding celebrant on July 31, 2008 the memorial feast of St, Ignatius of Loyola, my favorite saint and founder of the Society of Jesus.Fr. Gerry conferred the sacrament of healing on me. After mass Fr. Tom came up to me hugged me and said "You know John, this sacrament works." I am not sure if it was the consolation of the blessings of Fr. Gerry or the love of Fr. Bill,Fr. Tom and the full house of congregants at mass that day or if was the Holy Ground I walked on...but I didn't want to leave. When I finally left I was "so full of love I could burst apart and start to cry."(Jefferson Airplane,Today)I did leave in a filled with hope and peace.
I feel if I chart the course that brought me to that point, that moment of receiving that sacrament it will be evident how God was navigating a true course for this vessel in spite of my corruptible humanness.
In 1980 as I was preparing to exit my career in higher education I had no idea where to go or what to do. Then that year on Ash Wednesday I saw a priest blessing staff and students with ashes. I thought "Why not? I need all the help I can get." That night I received a mysterious call from a Herb Wendell, head of a consulting firm. It was a strange call. We spoke of life, work, spirituality , business and family. He and his partner Les would soon offer me a job in their firm. Herb would become my big brother mentor in consulting and counselor and book provider in matters of faith. Les became my adviser and coach about the world of business. After a few months on their payroll they made me a project manager and sent me to Lake Charles, Louisiana where I would first meet the man who would become a lifelong friend, Joe. Later when Joe lost his job I helped him and he landed in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In early '84 when Ginny announced the news of her first pregnancy I was completely overwhelmed. Feeling completely impotent in this matter I turned to the spiritual books and prayers that Herb had introduced me to as I sought help and entered the first church with open doors to enter and pray my heart out. Lindsay entered the world healthy and ready to go. Herb came to the hospital and said to Ginny "Great, now when are you going to have a son?"Herb would eventually have a quintuple by-pass and pass fifteen years later on Good Friday. Since Herb was always quoting his "Good friend--Jesus" my girls wondered if he would rise also on Easter Sunday.
Herb and Les would sell me their business and I knew that I was in over my head and my prayer started to become a daily affair. My first consulting assignment was to help close down and provide career help for laid off miners in Copperhill, Tennessee. I had prayed to God that I would never have to go to this forsaken place that was the setting for the movie "Deliverance." God laughed. Upon my arrival I realized that many of the supervisors at the mines were also preachers. Each one seemed to have a church in the valley. Their praying and preaching was not limited to their "Wednesday night prayer meeting services." That's where the whole family would dress up go to the local buffet restaurant and then off to their respective church for bible lessons, preaching and a whole lot of singing. These pastors were not self conscious of their behavior as they shocked me at my first business meeting up on the hill at the general office. Reverend Bob stood up before the VP convened the meeting and in a loud boisterous mountain folk drawl stated."THANK YOU JESUS!"Those in attendance whispered "amen." "THANK YOU JESUS FOR BRINGING JOHN HERE TODAY. BLESS HIS FAMILY WHILE HE IS HERE TO HELP AND SERVE US. FILL HIM WITH WISDOM AND COMPASSION." The group "Amen! Amen!" "HIS TASK IS DIFFICULT BUT DO NOT MAKE THIS A CROSS HE CANNOT BEAR. FILL HIS HEART WITH LOVE AND BLESS THIS DAY AND ALL OUR DAYS AND ALL THE MEN AND WOMEN WHO LIVE AND WORK IN THIS VALLEY! THANK YOU ,JESUS!!!" "Amen, amen, amen, alleluia!" My prayer and work life started to make a slow turn to heaven that day and continued.
Just as things started looking up for the business we received bad news from two clients in one day.A few hundred thousand dollars of revenue evaporated with two phone calls. That same evening at a career support group that I facilitated I shared with the group about the revenue loss that day. Two of the men said they would keep me in their prayers. Later that night I received a phone call from an ole friend and client, Joe, in Tulsa. He had a small project for me. The next morning the two men who had said they would pray for me called to say, independently, that they both had a dream that I had received a phone call and that the revenue loss I reported would be replaced tenfold. Their dreams would eventually come true. Now it was Joe who introduced me to Ban who would meet me in Tulsa and we would go to mass together each day at the local hospital. Ban graduated from Notre Dame and his dad was a major league umpire and his son played some ball for Boston Red Sox.We spoke a lot about God and baseball. Ban introduced me to an investment banker Hal (the man with who had the catheterization and stents.)Hal was once the head of JMJ Consulting (that's Jesus Mary and Joseph for all the non Catholics who might read this.)We still share email prayers and well wishes about the Red Soz.Hal live in New England.
Joe passed a few years ago waiting a liver transplant. The last words he spoke to me when I visited him in the hospital were"Please take care of yourself, my friend."
I am not sure if I fulfiled that request.
So back in 1987 Ginny informed me of a second child on the way in mid ‘88. Leigh would enter the world amidst a new flurry of prayers for her health and happiness. Herb came to the hospital again after Leigh's arrival asking Ginny "So are you two going to have a boy next time?"I think he knew how I felt so undeservedly blessed to have two daughters gracing my life and this world.
A year or so after Leigh's birth the Tulsa business started to grow. I was on a business trip to Tulsa in 1990 and sat on a plane next to a man, Dan S.. After striking up a conversation about business and faith he would invite me to my first Jesuit Ignatian retreat at White House just outside of St.Louis,Mo.. While at that retreat the Director of White House asked why I had never gone to Loyola retreat House in Morristown,NJ near my home. I told him that no one ever invited me. He referred me to the then Director there, Fr. Bill (who almost twenty years later would become my spiritual Director.) But in 1990 Fr. Bill referred me to Fr. Lou who would become my on and off spiritual director me for years. I met another former consultant,Pete,at Loyola. Pete, Herb and I would end up offering a special career workshops and support groups for unemployed adults at the retreat house. Pete, Lou and I would eventually collaborate on putting together a retreat on the "Spirituality of Work."On the night of our first retreat together I heard a knock on my door. I opened the door and Pete collapsed into my arms and I gave him a nitroglycerin tablet. He recovered in my room. I have my own stash now.
Lou moved on to other assignments but I made Loyola my "parish community."Pete had a couple of by-passes and stents and finally passed just a couple of years ago.
It was uncanny on how I discovered the peace of pre-dawn prayers on my deck just a few months before my surgery. I have been praying and writing in a prayer journal in the early morning hours for a few years. Suddenly one day I found myself outside facing a forest, a dark blue heaven gradually becoming brighter while a hoot owl sang his farewell, the cricket chorale faded and the morning birds started with their welcoming song. The peace of god surrounded me and slowly it began to penetrate my being...my heart and my soul. I believe it is this peace that helped me turn everything over to God that fateful morning as Ginny and I silently traveled together to the hospital. There I was checked-in quickly, showered and my body shaved and two kisses of farewell and a half-confident "see you soon" and as the "cocktail drip" began I silently recited the rosary as I had forgotten any other hope-filling prayer. Wheeled in to the operating room moved onto what seemed a stainless steel two by four arms stretched out...and next...a nurse is waking me in recovery.
In a fog due to anesthetics and the pain killers pumped into my body it was easy to recognize Lindsay, Leigh and Ginny when they first visited me but their faces seemed to drift in and out of a fog hanging over my bed. It was hard for me to communicate with them. Over the course of the next few days the pain and the fog diminished slightly but as Lindsay reports now, I was still in a daze and would drift in and out of awareness of their presence. She was worried that I might be that way forever. On the beginning of the third day after my surgery I recognized the crucifix hanging opposite my bed. "I am in a Catholic hospital", I thought and realized that I had not said a prayer since my surgery. I had had no desire to do much of anything. I didn't read, write or converse much with anyone, nor had I received communion from the visiting Eucharistic minister. Then it became quite obvious that the miraculous yet vicious pain killers had not only numbed my pain but had also numbed my spirit and my mind.
"No more pain killers" I commanded to the nurses and doctors! It was about that same moment when I noticed a nun who was distributing communion to patients as she passed by. I waved and she came in. She said I wasn't on her list to receive communion but we changed that and I received. She also mentioned that mass was televised each morning around 1130 on a special channel on TV. Later that day the Doc came in to say that I was recovering faster than normal. It was then that I noticed how things and I began to "change."
So it is on this first anniversary of my by-pass surgery that I am grateful for all the people, places and events that God placed on my journey. I am humbled by the fact how God countermanded all that I had done to myself and brought me to the people and place where my spirit and body would be healed and present me the opportunity for the Second Chance to "put on the new self." I can still feel the overwhelming power of the prayers from the hearts of my girls, my family and my friends for my healing.
If there is anything that I have learned from all this is that regardless of my sense of awareness God is present all-ways and if I doubt God's presence all I have to do is just open my heart.
"Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty,
my memory, my understanding and my whole will.
All that I am and all that I possess You have given me.
I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will.
Give me only Your love and Your grace;
with these I will be rich enough,
and will desire nothing more."
- St. Ignatius of Loyola