July 14, 2008
Today, I am 60 years old. If I were living in a 19th century Dickens or Eliot novel, I would be a crotchety bent-over character providing comic relief, yelling at my assistant to shake me up in my chair. Actually, I am probably older than those elderly characters. Thank God for modern medicine and nutrition.
Although I do not fear death, I realize I am closer to it. I woke up this morning with first thoughts about what would happen to my family if I died around now. We have life insurance, so remaining in my prone position in bed, I quickly moved on to other age-related thoughts. Eventually, I got out of bed. I don’t know what caused me to do that; I was just out of bed all of a sudden.
Over the past few months, I have looked at this 60th birthday as a significant milestone. All of a sudden, I realize that the things on my life’s back burner — books, films, travel, and other things that I have put off over the years with the idea I would have time later to take up — are all not likely to get done with my remaining life now consciously limited in time. My son is 17, soon to leave to start his own life. My life projects are in transition. I wonder what I will be able to do in the years that follow, with financial limitations from the impact of aging on my ability to work, and from physical limitations to come and already upon me.
Fortunately, I do have my faith in God and salvation in the work of Christ on the cross, provided me by grace. It is a comfort when thoughts of death become more frequent with age. This is heartfelt, not a cliche. Around 1988, when I was living in Carmel, California, I was running for exercise through Pebble Beach which borders Carmel, from the Highway One Gate to the Carmel Gate, when my heart rate suddenly increased to about 190. I could not breath easy and I had great pain in my chest.
I have the low heart rate of a distance runner from my years of running long distance in high school and continuing over the years, including the first Los Angeles Marathon on March 9, 1986. I ran a 3:17 in that race, my first run over 15 miles. I have a picture of me crossing the finish line with my arms outstretched like I won. I had to walk the last mile or so, and there is a turn to the finish line where the grandstands are, so I started running again for the finish, and came around the corner full blast to the cheering of the crowd. The winner had a 2:12:59, passing by the stands one hour and five minutes earlier. There were 10,868 runners in that race. The crowd that sat patiently at the finish line must have been relatives or drinking or both. We started off in a big mass, almost tip toeing after the gun, all of us looking up at the elevated platform where Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley stood after starting us. I don’t remember much from the race except when my legs stopped working at about mile 19. I had heard of “hitting the wall” in the marathon, but did not know what it was until it happened, all of my glycogen was gone and my body was out of energy for running.
So, back to my Pebble Beach run, the heart rate of 190 while running through the forest was frighteningly rapid for me; my normal heart rate while running was around 120. My heart beating in a frenzy, and the pain in my chest overwhelming, I sat down on the wooden fence on the bend in the Pebble Beach blacktop road in the forest to die. I thought I was going to die right there. I looked straight out to the forest expecting my visual screen to be replaced by some sort of angelic or heavenly vision. I was very calm and felt at peace.
Instead, my heart rate went back to normal after a few minutes, the pain went away, and I finished my run. I called my friend Frank Stark, an M.D. in Monterey at the time and college classmate. He told me that the heart’s electrical system gets out of whack now and then. Likely, it was paroxysmal atrial tachycardia. I wrote it down and memorized it. I wrote a bad poem about it, “My First PAT.”
The lesson for me was that I am not afraid of death itself because of the gift of faith. I don’t want to die anytime soon because there are things left to learn and to see and do. But it is comforting to have a place to go after death and believe it.
Now, I march on towards age 61, with 60 years and the memories of the joyful and the regretful together behind me. I have a wife and son who I love. I will not have to march alone, though I still tend to walk too fast leaving my family behind scolding me.
For the spiritually-minded or intellectually curious, see also: