It was just another night at just another bar, one of hundreds of nights just like it in my twenties. I don’t remember the bar we were at in Philadelphia, or everyone I was with that night. I can’t even remember the emergency room my friends rushed me to that evening. What I’ll never forget is my sudden, paralyzing, terrifying inability to breathe.
At the time, I was sure this must be how it felt to die. I might have only been 26 years old but I had not taken good care of myself. I was overweight, I drank too much, and I smoked regularly. Throw in a terrifying family history of heart disease, and I had every reason to be fearful.
One minute I was ordering a Yuengling and lighting up a Marlboro Light. The next minute, one challenging, labored breath arrived, and then another. The usual calming comfort of a deep, cleansing breath was inaccessible. It felt like my lungs were collapsing on themselves, constricting my chest like a vice.
My friends took me to that hospital and waited with me as a doctor did an EKG and other tests.The result was a clean bill of health. What I’d suffered was the first and only panic attack of my life.
I wish I could say this was an inflection point in my life after which I committed myself to clean and healthy living. Perhaps the best I can say is that from this moment of my life the arc of my history was long but eventually bent towards fitness.
That night in 2002 was the first time I truly confronted my own mortality. This year, for the first time since that scary moment in time, I have been hyper aware of my breathing. Unlike that night, the awareness has been perpetual throughout this awful year.
Help, I Have Done It Again
I got the voicemail that my mother had passed away at 3:44 a.m. on April 2. We were just weeks into the pandemic here in the United States but death was everywhere. For some reason, in the silence and stillness of that early morning, I was drawn to queue up the closing sequence of one of my favorite old HBO shows, “Six Feet Under.” In these last few minutes of the show’s final episode, we see Claire, one of the lead characters, leaving her home behind, and as she begins the road trip that will truly launch her adult life, Sia’s “Breathe Me” plays in the background and we are led 50 years into the future and witness the lives and deaths of all of her loved ones, and finally her own.
This scene is just so beautifully done. Claire is such a perfect mix of scared and hopeful. The deaths we witness are sad but they are so spiritually nourishing. Family usually surrounds the characters as they say goodbye, characters that you’ve seen struggle and fight and love and hate each other over the past several years. Then, in the end, after we see the old Claire pass on, the last scene is of a young Claire driving on an open road in the desert, nothing but open road ahead.
In April, my road still felt pretty open. I’d lost both my parents and was well aware of Bojack Horseman’s warning that I was next, but next also seemed like a long time from now. My parents had lived to 87 and 89, and so the unskilled actuary in my mind felt that at 44 I was just about halfway through my journey.
2020 then happened. A high school classmate died of COVID early in the pandemic. All around us, men and women were dying. Then, in the fall, any sense of some certainty of a long time ahead was shattered when one of my closest friends, Gerard Maglio, died suddenly.
A Friend Forever
When his ex and my dear friend called to share the news, I was in shock, and immediately went into problem-solving mode. I would call all the people who needed to know. I would do what needed to be done. I would rise to the occasion. But inside, I was broken in a way that even those closest to me could never comprehend.
I wrote about the man that Gerard was in my eulogy for him, but that remembrance didn’t focus acutely on what Gerard meant to me. After a challenging start, we became unlikely friends. During sophomore year, we were consistent partners in crime on “Wednesday Night at Winstons,” a dive bar on M Street with a relaxed approach to ID enforcement. One of the perfect moments in my life was one night at that bar as a remix of “Oh What a Night” blasted at last call. There was Gerard, and so many other Hoyas, singing at the top of our lungs. The isolated loser who never dated in high school who I had been was no more. I belonged, and I loved it.
The fun continued over the next few years, on softball fields and basketball courts, on tattered couches in off campus houses, and of course at the Tombs. We celebrated the first World Series championship for the Yankees during our sentient lives. After Charlie Hayes clutched the final out of the 96 Series, I hugged Gerard and then called my father from the pay phone near the bathroom.
Just after college, one of those nights that we all rate as one of the ten greatest of our lives occurred in and around Gerard’s house at the Jersey Shore. You could write a novel about all the shenanigans that occurred that night, and we all continued our oral history of the evening at lunch after Gerard’s memorial service. I’ll leave all the stories for another day.
Gerard and I remained close in DC after college, and then we each moved back to New York City at the same time. When I moved to the Atlantic City area for my first job in journalism, Gerard would visit me weekly. He was there when I met the woman who would be part of one of the most meaningful relationships of my life.
He preceded me back to DC, but my law school years there were a time of continued great friendship. When another relationship ended very badly, Gerard was one of three people I called, and he sat with me at the Fox and Hounds for many, many hours, consoling me in my darkest hour. He would have a few darkest hours of his own, and I always tried to be there for him in those. We shared season tickets to the Hoyas. So many amazing Saturday afternoons. He was by my side at both of my weddings and at my father’s funeral, the only person on the planet who was there for all three.
There is no denying his struggles. I’m not going to go into them because they are what they are. I worry that I didn’t do enough. But I also know how much that everyone did, and I don’t think anything would have been enough.
Over the past decade, even before we left DC, I saw less of him. He moved full-time to the Delaware shore. What had once been weekly or monthly encounters sadly became annual meetings. We still texted regularly. I delighted in the fact that Gerard truly cared about me and my life. He loved my family, and he celebrated my joys and my successes.
In late summer, Gerard texted one morning, and we started chatting. He then called me- it must have been 8 or 9 in the morning. This was unusual, and it struck me that he was reaching out in need. I steered the conversation towards a potential visit. After a long and challenging year of work, I finally had a full week off in late August. I planned to visit Gerard during that week. It was my first time leaving New Jersey since the day Tom Hanks announced he had COVID (the night I sat in Madison Square Garden for the Big East Tournament). We had lunch, we went to the beach, we watched the Yankees lose painfully, and then we had dinner with Gerard’s parents.
When we got back to Gerard’s condo, we talked about the future. Gerard opened up about his feelings more than he ever did before. We talked about how he would deal with the gap in his resume when he started looking for jobs again. We discussed the need to allow himself to grieve the losses he had experienced. I felt like we were connecting in a way that was truly next level, and I sensed hope and promise for the future.
It was only four weeks later that I got the call. I would make my second trip out of New Jersey since the pandemic for his memorial service. It was the weekend when Trump got COVID and the world seemed particularly insane and changing by the minute, even for 2020. Nonetheless, I was surrounded by people that I loved in a place that I loved. As scared as I was to deliver that eulogy- as hard as it was to catch my breath given the anxiety and the mask over my face- I made it through.
Faded Pictures in an Old Scrapbook
It was back to work and running out the clock on 2020, certain that this was the final gut punch that 2020 could possibly deliver. Until three weeks later, I got an unexpected call on Facebook Messenger from an old high school friend. I assumed it was an errant call since we hadn’t talked in a long time, but he quickly messaged and I called him back. The sad news was shocking, in some ways even more so than Gerard. My friend Rob had died of a heart attack, also at 45, leaving behind a young daughter.
Rob was seemingly in good health. He had faced COVID in the spring but had recovered.
Following the loss of my parents and aunt, aside from my sister and her family, Rob was the person who had known me longer than anyone. He remembered the awkward kid from Manville starting third grade in a parochial school in a neighboring town. He had watched me grow and regress. Rob was undoubtedly one of the smartest people I’d ever met, and he consistently challenged me. He made me strive to be better.
We stayed in close contact in college. He was there in Camden Yards on my 21st birthday. And we planned to live together after college. But then we had a falling out that led to us being completely unconnected for some time and then unfortunately distant for the remainder of his life.
We shared the same values, and we shared a background, but we were never able to have a frank and deep conversation to work through our issues. And I will always regret that, and now I’ll never get the chance to fix it. In fact, I learned that in the months before his untimely passing, Rob had been right here in Mendham hiking. I wish I’d known. I wish he’d known that he could have knocked on the door anytime and I would have met him.
So I’m left with many fond memories but a ton of regrets. It’s easy to choose to let someone go when they’ve wronged you. It’s straightforward to understand what you should do to fix things when you’ve wronged someone else. But how do you cure the resulting mess when all of the shared grievances and resentments that a lifelong relationship will produce once boil over? Could I have done something? Would my own experiences with managing my heart health have provided him any value, or a path to protecting himself? I will never know, but I know that I’ll frequently regret that I didn’t put aside my own frustrations and try to make things right.
But maybe our paths went the way that they needed to go. I’ve talked in the past about the complicated process of letting people go, how people can come into your life for a certain period of time, serve a meaningful purpose, and then be gone, and it isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s just the process of growing and changing. Perhaps that is what happened to Rob and me.
A Long December
My feelings about Rob’s death were more complicated than those about Gerard’s death. With Gerard, it was heartbreak. With Rob, there was a good deal of regret. Add that to the mix of guilt and sadness that accompanied my mother’s death, and my feelings have been on overload. Last month, I was looking through an old picture album and found the one attached here of my mom, Rob, and Gerard. It was certainly the only time that these three were in the same room together. The image took my breath away.
Beyond those feelings, Rob’s passing also hit me more directly on a selfish level. Rob was my age, and he was lost to a heart attack. I had a family history of heart disease, my father had a heart attack at 50 and his brother died of a heart attack in his early fifties.
In the weeks that followed, I felt tightness in my chest on occasion. My brain understood that this was likely psychosomatic, but it didn’t make it any less terrifying. I schedule an appointment with a cardiologist, who scheduled the usual battery of tests: blood-work, a calcium deposit scan, and a stress test.
I learned three important things from those tests. First, I am at a very low risk of an imminent heart event. The stress test results were perfect. However, as expected, I do have some plaque buildup that is higher than most men my age. Finally, my blood tests showed that I have two significant genetic predispositions toward bad cholesterol affecting my risk of heart disease more than other people with similar cholesterol numbers. So there is moderate risk for the future, but also an opportunity to set my own course if I take care of myself.
Self care hasn’t been easy for any of us this year. I usually lard up my end of year reflections with a series of resolutions. They usually encompass the professional, the interpersonal, and the financial. In all candor, those areas are going fine. I have a great job, and I’m finally on a path to financial stability. But this year I’m focused on just one resolution, and it’s only about me. I’m going to do everything in my power to set myself on a path to better health.
That starts with the stronger pharmaceuticals- easy enough. My doctor put me on a stronger statin. I’m going to continue exercising vigorously. I’m going to eat better. I’m going to limit drinking.
As my cardiologist noted, none of these steps would have been easily achieved in 2020. This year was one of survival. If you were fortunate enough to be alive at the end of it, you were simply thankful for that. Food, drink, whatever else- if they got you through it, that was what we needed to cope with this devastating year.
I used to take breathing for granted. But as COVID rampaged across our world, I became much more conscious of every breath, in a way I hadn’t been since that emergency room in Philadelphia all those years ago. To breathe was an act of defiance against the death that surrounded us. And I’m more certain than ever that I want to fight to defy death.
My vision is to be like Claire from “Six Feet Under,” there for all those magical moments with family and friends. Even as personal losses crushed and global losses saddened me, even as I find myself sadder than I’ve ever been in my life, my will to live has never been stronger.
When this is all over, I want to breathe deeply, and I want to live for a long time. For now, I’m Claire back on that open road, the future in the distance, how far it stretches never clear.
“Flock of angels lift me somehow
Somewhere high and hard and loud
Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd
I’m the last man standing now.”