Dear me at 13,
The news you got yesterday was tough, to say the least. I know that you are probably feeling a thousand different emotions right now. Shock, anger, frustration, betrayal, and, of course, fear. I know that you felt like your walls came tumbling down as the doctor gave you the news that you’d be going back into the operating room. I also know that you didn’t show that you were feeling any of this. You put on a strong façade, hoping and praying that it would keep mom from crying.
You’re probably going over it all in your head. It was obvious that you needed that first surgery - you were born with Tetralogy of Fallot. That required immediate action to save your life. Then there was the surgery from a couple of years ago, the one that served as an update to the first. How long did they tell you those two cadaver valves would last? For 10 to 15 years, right? If that’s the case, then why the hell did one fail in only two?
All of these questions flood through your mind. With each answer, another slamming door, another dream wasted. You will never play football like your best friend. You will never join the army like your grandfather. You will never be a cop like your father. As you reflect on all of the things that never will be, you curse the world underneath your breath. In an instant, all of that sadness and disappointment turns into rage, and you look to God asking, “How could you do this to me?”
You can’t show it. You have to bury it deep down and get used to that mask of indifference. You need to be strong for your mom, your dad, your sister, and all of those who love you. This is just as scary for them as it is for you, if not more so. You owe it to them to keep a positive demeanor, to look this obstacle in the eye and smile. Radiate strength, so that others around you might feel strong.
For all those times that you find yourself feeling angry, I have some tough love for you, old friend. The world doesn’t owe you shit. That’s right, not a damn thing. It doesn’t owe you fame, fortune, love, or time. It didn’t owe you yesterday, it doesn’t owe you today, and it sure as hell doesn’t owe you tomorrow. With that in mind, I also want you to take some time to accept the fact that many others have it way worse than you.
Think about all of those little kids at St. Jude’s right now. Can you really imagine what that must be like? Knowing you’re ill, and that there may or may not be a way to cure it? Many of those kids have spent most of their childhoods in that hospital. Compare a childhood like that to the one you were given: playing neighborhood wide games of manhunt, going to school, fishing the Roanoke at dawn, and having sleepovers with your best friends. Go ahead, compare thirteen years of that to thirteen years of living in a hospital, and tell me that the world owes you more.
Look, I’m not saying what you’re feeling right now isn’t justified. It is. But I think it’s good to put it into perspective. Right now, you are standing at the bottom of a mountain, and can clearly see the summit. That summit is this surgery, and that replacement mechanical aortic heart valve? That will last a lifetime. The summit isn’t what scares you, it’s the hike. You’re afraid of looking ahead to that day, June 17th, and wondering if you’re going to get the days after it. You dread the days in which the extended family comes down; seeing the worry and concern on their faces. You’re worried that you aren’t going to be able to keep up that façade of strength for long.
Take a deep breath. As you inhale, I want you to allow that fear to take over. I want you to imagine that June 17th is the last day that you have here. I want you to think about how much time you have between now and then. How will people remember you? If you aren’t satisfied with that answer, then figure out how that can change between now and then. I want you to feel your failing heart beat beneath your chest, and come to terms with the fact that this could be it.
Now exhale. As the air flows out, your fear should fade away. Every bit of it should fade away like water cupped in your hands. As that fear fades away, I want you to replace it with something different: determination. Looking ahead to what is going to happen; everything from the catheterization, to the pre-op appointments, all the way to June 17th, and feel that determination course through your veins.
Turn that anger that you’ve been feeling into something different. These surgeries - the scars on your chest - they won’t define you. You are going to walk into that hospital, and you are going to walk out.
As this determination burns through you like a raging wildfire, you will start to feel indestructible. Eventually, it won’t be hard to radiate strength because you aren’t faking it anymore. The smile on your face is no longer a mask. It is who you are. You’re going to look up and notice that the town seems to have its eyes on you. All of those who love and believe in you, their individual flames will contribute to the wildfire.
If that isn’t enough, I am here writing to you now to tell you that you’re going to make it. It’s going to be a long, hard, uphill battle, but you will survive. You are going survive June 17th, and the days that come after. You will walk into that hospital, and you will walk out. The time spent inside will be just as much a part of you as that scar that splits your chest.
The mechanical heart valve is going to cause your heartbeat to sound different. It will be this quiet, but relentlessly audible ticking that never stops. It’s going to take some getting used to, at first. I mean, being able to hear your own heartbeat is a strange phenomenon. Eventually, it will become one of the most relieving sounds that you can hear as each tick is a reminder that you’re still alive.
As time goes by, you’ll remember this moment. It will reverberate through your mind every day from here on out. The day that you accepted fear and allowed it to motivate you. One day, in the not so distant future, you’ll see just how different you are because you made that decision. Looking back on this moment, you’ll come to realize just how truthful Lincoln was when he said, “A man is only as happy or as sad as he chooses to be”.
I know the future is foggier than ever before, but you have to believe in it. Believing in tomorrow makes today far more enjoyable. You don’t get to choose how your story begins or how it ends, but you do have some say in what happens in the middle. This surgery is just a chapter in the grand story that is your life. It is going to be lined up with the other chapters that have yet to come.
You’re going to join the marching band and love it so much that you’re going to forget about all of those other things that you wanted to do, but couldn’t. You’re going to continue with your career in scouting, and learn what it means to be a real leader. You’re going to fall in love for the first time, feeling your heart ride that roller coaster of emotion. That love is going to forever be a part of you. With that, you’re going to get to know love’s bastard brother, heartbreak.
There will be days where you seem to rule the world, and days where your walls come tumbling down. Each crippling failure will further cement what I told you earlier into your brain: the world doesn’t owe you shit. Each time you taste the sweet flavor of victory in life, it’s going to be all the sweeter because of what you had to go through to get it. You’re going to get stronger, too. By the end of high school, you will be able to do more pull-ups and bench press more weight than some of those football player friends of yours.
My friend, know that the road ahead is long and shrouded in darkness. It is a path that you did not choose, but was chosen for you. Take one last look around before you step out into the light, and look at those who love you. You’re going to make it for them. You’re going to survive for them. You’re going to be a symbol of hope for them. For even if we have nothing, we have hope.
Now go, take that first grand stride to greatness with reckless abandon.
-Ryan Carswell, June 17th, 2018