I make a lot of plans and try to do a lot, but having a heart attack in my 40s was not part of any plan.
With terrible family cardiac history and my own weight problem, I can’t say I never foresaw the possibility – even, perhaps, the probability – but it was the last thing on my mind on a crisp October Friday in 2010 when I drove into Boston for meetings.
I never made it to lunch, and almost didn’t make it home.
But I did make it to Boston University Medical Center, which may be the best place to be in the United States if you’re being treated for an emergency like a gunshot wound or heart attack.
In the surreal moments when I tried to keep my mind off chest pains and the struggle to breathe — wide-awake as the doctors inserted two stents to remove the artery blockage that was killing me — my plans were changing.
Not just for that day or weekend, but for the rest of my life.
My internal monologue didn’t include promises I couldn’t keep or deals with The Almighty, but I took inventory and reviewed life choices in a harsh light.
I came up with three key lists that day: Things I had to start, behaviors it was essential to stop, and stuff I needed to finish.
Many of the items on those lists were related in some way to personal finances.
Now a decade later, it’s time to revisit those lists and decisions, the hopes that were fulfilled and those left undone.
I believe others can learn from my situation; I keep learning from it.
First, however, a reminder: No matter the personal event that makes you feel frozen in time, life goes on.
Lying on the table that Oct. 22, I could look forward and foresee that someday my parents would die, my children would launch and my health could raise further issues.
I did not foresee a surprise divorce after 30 years of marriage, job losses, dramatic income changes, hip and back problems more debilitating than my cardiac situation, and more (including a pandemic).
I’m not complaining, just reminding you that life is what happens while you work on other plans.
That’s why I don’t believe I was given a “second chance,” so much as a signal that every day is a “new chance.”
I haven’t taken advantage of all of those opportunities in the last decade, but I’ve tried to make the most of them, while also recognizing that life is too short to punish myself for times when good intentions lead me on some detour through hell.
Here’s how my start, stop and finish lists have turned out, and how they will help me get through the next decade and beyond.
In my plans, I needed to start:
Taking proper care of myself
This long has been my biggest struggle because focusing on diet and exercise has been a struggle amid 3-plus years of physical issues that limited my ability to walk, play, exercise and more.
My fitness is a work in progress and it’s not too late; finally recovering from back/hip/neck struggles, I’m getting there.
That said, for most people – and me, too – this is less about the gym than about what is necessary to feel good, whether that’s taking time to read a good book, taking a day off or a vacation or doing any of the little things that can make any time more enjoyable.
There’s no prize for being the most unpleasant, overworked, stingiest, miserable cuss in the cemetery, but there’s a big reward for making sure that adjectives like those don’t suit you.
Working toward the “best outcome”
We all have reasons to work, save and fight the daily battle, but our true goals aren’t always in focus; we’re not pursuing what we really want.
We all can do “lifestyle planning,” deciding what we want to do for the rest of our lives and working to realize that ideal as soon as possible.
Yes, life events like divorce, job loss and more get in the way — so, too, does falling in love again — but taking concrete steps to achieve goals makes it easier to stay focused on what’s important.
Days are long, but years are short; if you’re not making progress toward your goals, you’re most likely moving further away from them. Don’t make standing still your life choice.
I needed to stop:
Lying to myself
For me, this was about my health, but in many households it’s about finances and debts. My big lie was “If I’m in shape enough to play lacrosse, my health’s just fine.” The heart attack proved otherwise.
With money, many people lie to themselves about savings and spending. “If I can cover an emergency, I’m fine” is a big lie. So is: “I have enough in bank or investment accounts to pay off my debts, so I don’t have a credit problem.”
These days, the many people dealing with lost income — who have tapped savings and mounting problems — need to face those issues head on.
Fooling yourself might make you feel better today, but the distress of a significant crisis – like my heart attack – is different and worse than you can imagine; don’t get there because you couldn’t handle the truth.
I can still be a champion procrastinator and time waster, but I try every day to prioritize the things that are important, then those that are urgent and at least make progress toward them.
Time is more than money. It’s valuable and precious; it represents freedom, especially from our burdens. Don’t undervalue it because you can never get it back.
I needed to finish:
The little details
The wrong time to wonder if your affairs are in order is when the doctors are telling you what they’re about to do to your heart. In my case, knowing that my family was insured — that my will, beneficiary forms and other key papers were in order — created peace of mind in a moment of chaos.
Today, a file in my office labeled “In the highly likely event of my death” contains the things my daughters need from me when that time comes,
Doing that wasn’t fun or easy, but it’s way better than worrying whether your loved ones will struggle because you ran out of time to get it done.
The important things I had started
Whatever your personal chores — cleaning up, decluttering, organizing, updating key paperwork, etc. — don’t leave them to others unless you’re OK with the outcome.
None of us have unlimited time; our good intentions in starting a project require having the drive to see it through to the end.
Saying what needed to be said
I still haven’t written an “ethical will” — I’m saving that for when I have grandchildren someday — but my file includes a letter to my girls only to be opened when I’m gone.
If you feel blessed to be here, share that feeling. Joy is priceless and rare, but if you can find some every day and pass it along, you’ll be blessed in ways that money can’t buy.