Coming to terms with our mortality gives us a unique perspective. Harry muses on the fact that there are some things he cannot change or fix, as much as he would like to.
“My kids knew me as Mr Fixit. Whether it was something broken or whether it was an issue they or one of their friends was dealing with. It was usually, ‘Dad, this isn’t working, can you have a look at it?’ I was always happy to help, because I find joy in helping people. It became a part of my identity. I would never say, ‘why don’t you try to sort it out yourself?’ I’d always try to find a solution.”
This general caring followed Harry into all parts of his life, including his friendships and his church community. “Anything technical or manual that needed fixing I was the go-to. I still am. But a close friend of mine would counsel me to try to find other options for people.”
It has taken strong advice from this friend for Harry to realise that he can’t say yes to every request. The fact that his friend, a doctor, knows Harry’s medical history, means that he can be quite direct with his advice. “He actively reminds me that I can say no, so I have learned to redirect people when I just can’t help.” For Harry, this is a nice way of saying no.
My conversation with Harry began with the death of his father, some seven years earlier and the sudden overwhelming feeling that he is an orphan. Shortly after his death, his relationship deteriorated with his brother, the only remaining member of his family of origin, “and for some time the feeling of being alone was real”. His mum had died twelve years prior to his father’s death. It is interesting that Harry began with his father’s death as a key marker in his experiences, yet it wasn’t long before he began to unpack the significance of his mother’s death also.
Harry’s mum had collapsed in her home. Thankfully Harry was present. He called an ambulance and administered CPR. Sadly, she was pronounced dead in the hospital. The trauma was the trigger to Harry’s own medical episodes.
“I ended up in hospital a few days later. I was there for about a week over Christmas, only able to come out for mum’s funeral.” Harry had been diagnosed with an aneurysm and a badly regurgitating heart, which would need further attention. It was the beginning of his regular visits to a cardiologist.
Since that time he has experienced heart surgery and two strokes. After the first stroke, he found himself lying in a hospital bed thinking, “This could be it. I had no movement in half of my body. I thought I could be in this position for the rest of my life. Being in that paralysed state for a number of days I thought, ‘if God allows me to pull through this, something has to give.’”
The extent of the first stroke’s damage was significant. The autonomic part of his brain, which controls the involuntary functions such as heart-beat and other vital organs, had been badly affected.
“The doctors thought it was a miracle that I was alive. I could have easily had one of my vital organs shut down. Death was almost certain. The second stroke came three months later with partial blindness to both eyes. The doctors diagnosed a Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO) in my heart, which were the reason for the strokes. After unsuccessful surgery to close the hole in the heart, the stint in hospital caused me to reflect on changes in my life going forward.” (A PFO is a hole between the left and right atria or upper chambers of the heart).
Harry’s recovery took up to eight months.
The death of his parents, his brushes with death and the loss of relationship with his brother have had a sobering effect on Harry and are the backdrop to his reflections on what is most important in his life.
He is particularly reflective of how he has had to distance himself from his brother because of a toxic influence. The signs though of a relational rupture were seen long before they happened.
“I remember asking mum some years ago, what would happen after Dad and she died? She would tell me not to worry.” This was despite regular tensions with his brother, which were usually brushed over by his parents. “My biggest fear came to fruition after Dad passed away. My gut told me it wasn’t going to end well, and it didn’t.” Harry alludes to an endless stream of disputes with his brother, mostly exacerbated over his father’s estate.
“When you are young, you don’t expect fallouts with family. Your family members are the foundational relationships in life. But the cracks were there under the surface for a long time. Dealing with that, plus my deteriorating heart condition forced me to make changes.”
One of those changes has been for Harry to disentangle himself from any formal ties with his brother. The decision to do this, also required a recognition of things that had to change internally.
“I used to be defensive to his passive/aggressive behaviour. I have learned to become reflective instead. That was not easy.”
Harry explains that he grew up in an environment that reinforced a critical and defensive spirit. “I’ve had to step back and actually reflect more on the situations in my life. I see people differently now. Rather than seeing aggressive people, I can sit back and say, ‘I wonder what is happening in their life?’ I am learning not to be critical of people.”
He refers to how Jackie, his wife, would comment on his behaviour after spending time with his family. “Jackie could see that I was harder – more judgmental afterwards. I would simply say, ‘but that’s just the way we speak at home’. Over the years I did change, but visiting my brother would always bring out my critical side, causing Jackie to say, ‘Why are you talking like that?’ I was oblivious. But she would tell me that my mannerisms were different, my words were different. It was almost like I would slip back into that critical mode again. So, lying in my hospital bed I had a lot of time to reflect on the sort of person I needed to be.”
This perspective didn’t come simply as a resolution for Harry. He had to look inwardly at the things closest to his heart, including his fears and anxieties.
“A particular verse in the Bible became very meaningful to me. It comes from the Psalms,
Teach us to number our days,Psalm 90:12
that we may gain a heart of wisdom
I see that every day I have is a blessing, a gift from God.”
While gratitude is essential, Harry also had to come to terms with his almost insurmountable fears for Jackie and his daughters. “The safety of my family was my biggest fear. I would regularly stress about them, making sure that they were safe and that anytime a need arose, I’d fix it for them.” Harry refers to a hyper-vigilance that arose after his initial heart problems – a frenzy of mind to make sure that life was fixed for them in preparation for his inevitable demise.
So, how was Harry able to deal with these deep-seated fears?
“Let go and let God. I used to say that to people, but I never knew what it meant for me. God is in control. I am not invincible. I may not have all the answers, but I have to stop being Mr Fixit. I had to deal with the guilt inside, the guilt that kept nagging me to be doing something. I have had to learn to let it go.”
The change of attitude was not a simple act of a moment, but has required Harry to really work on his feelings of fear – fear for his family and fear of letting people down.
This realisation has been the fuel for his newfound ability to say no to people – nicely of course. But he has had to learn something about his family also. “My family is resilient. They are going to be ok. I am not the sole person to give them the answers. They are strong enough to deal with their problems.”
This “letting go” for Harry has been a particularly important act of faith. It has also been an important act of reflecting on the early messages imprinted on his psyche, that he always has to be doing something. Being busy. Being productive.
Downtime doesn’t mean that you are lazy.
Saying “no” doesn’t mean that you don’t care.
One of Harry’s final words is a reflection that even God rested after he created. We all need fallow time to reflect and renew ourselves. For Harry, this has been a bold step of letting go and resting his faith in someone who will not let him down.