Unconventional Life Advice from A Man Who Has Thrice Escaped Death

Jordan Gross

“On the second try, I flatlined. But I just knew it wasn’t my time.”

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“They’ve cut me open three times. Once I almost bled out. Once I flatlined and came back to life minutes later. Twice they told me I probably wouldn’t make it out alive, and all three times before going into surgery, I kissed my wife and kids, and I told them I loved them.”

Gary lifted up his shirt and showed me the machine currently keeping him alive. It was an object attached to his stomach with a motor in it. That motor had a battery which lasted 16 hours. The motor kept Gary’s heart beating. If the battery went out or if the motor was in any way impaired, Gary’s heart would stop beating. “That’s when you call 911,” he looked at me and smiled. “But fortunately, that’s only happened twice before. And even more fortunately for you, neither of those times were on a golf course.”

I learned all this within the first three minutes of meeting a chipper, round man wearing a teal shirt with white Under Armour underneath, and a thick pair of glasses. Gary was in his 60’s, and he thrived with congestive heart failure. Gary’s words, not mine, he ensured I knew he thrived with congestive heart failure, not suffered from it.

This disease changed Gary’s life for the better. A former dentist going through the motions, he became a motivational speaker and leading expert in the world of congestive heart failure. He now supports and educates the minds of those with a disease that endangers their hearts.

For five hours, eighteen holes, and over 400 golf shots, I learned about life from a man who has thrice escaped death. His lessons may be a bit unconventional, but they reveal how somebody whose life literally flashed before his eyes on three separate occasions believes we should view our time on this earth.

Have One Thing You Do Every Single Day

My friends were on the putting green practicing when I met Gary before the round began. Thus, I was paired up with him and would be sharing a cart with him for the day. This meant I would spend the most time with him. And I’m glad I did. We established a bond right away. He was a warm soul around my dad’s age, and he had children my age, so it was a talking point right from the getgo. When talking about his children, he shared the following with me.

“For 30 years Jordan, ever since my oldest was born, I decided to do the same thing every single day. From the moment his little hand grabbed onto my finger, I decided that I was going to tell him I loved him every single day without fail. At least once a day. Sometimes I’d say it many more times. Sometimes I didn’t want to say it at all. But for the last 30 years, I have told him I loved him every single day. The same goes for my daughter when she was born five years later. The way that I say it changed as they grew up. In person as babies changed to on the phone as teenagers, turned to text messages in college, and now I’m starting to get the hang of FaceTime. But no matter what, I made a commitment to do the same one thing every day, and I will do it for the rest of my life.

“I’ve done some research that supports my claim, Jordan. Studies show it can be helpful to commit to something each and every day. I need willpower and perseverance to do this one thing no matter what. It’s something I can latch onto. It’s a daily habit that I know I need for a day to feel meaningful and complete. When I was on the verge of death, I grabbed onto this more so than ever.”

“Have you ever seen Inception?” He asked me. I nodded. “It was like my totem. The one thing that made me certain I was still alive. Telling those kids I loved them reminded me my heart was still beating. I wasn’t dreaming.”

Satisfy an Audience of One

“Great shot!” I yelled to my friend as he hit a beautiful ball high and far into the air. Then it was Gary’s turn. His ball did the opposite. It rolled on the ground and trickled only a few feet. I didn’t say anything about Gary’s shot, because I wasn’t sure how he felt about it. When we got into the cart, he let me know his thoughts.

“That’s okay,” he grinned. “I play for an audience of one, Jordan. I appreciate you or your buddies telling me I hit a good shot, but I care most about how I feel about it. When I play golf, I am only looking to satisfy one person. Me. When I speak, I focus in on one person, and I make sure they enjoy what I’m saying. That’s usually my wife. I want her to be most proud of my talk. Everything and everyone else is a bonus. This loosens me up. It lowers expectations and takes the stress away. If I were to try to focus on everybody else, I’d be doomed for failure, because I could never control everybody’s else’s reactions. And sure, it’s out of my control as to how the one person I choose reacts as well, but by focusing on just one, I am able to get specific and serve them in the best way possible. Then hopefully other people are like them and they’re affected too.”

I know exactly what Gary means when he says this. A mentor of mine, Peter Shankman, helped me embrace this idea. For the last few months, I’ve been writing for an audience of one. Every Tuesday, my grandma goes to her chemotherapy treatment, and I try to have articles or short stories I created ready for her to read. I write with her and only her in mind, and this helps me escape the pressure of how my article will ultimately perform. So long as it positively impacts her, then I am satisfied.

Give Everyone and Everything a Chance

On one of the holes, Gary found his ball right behind a tree, meaning he’d have to hit a miraculous shot that spun around the tree in order to get it near the hole. “Tough lie, that’s unfortunate.” I said to him. “Could be the best shot of my life though.” Gary smiled back at me. Regardless of the outcome, this was a key learning. And Gary told me more about it.

“I give every person and every experience the benefit of the doubt. After almost dying three times, I choose to see the best in people, and I believe that in any moment, the best of something can happen for anybody. Sure, I could have said, ‘This is terrible! My ball is behind a tree!’ But I choose to see the good in the situation, giving it the chance for greatness. That’s why I said it could have been the best shot of my life. Because it’s true! It could have been!”

“When you talk to somebody, meet somebody new, go to a restaurant, see a show, believe that it can be the best you’ve ever had. The best conversation. The best meal. The best performance. Choose to believe that beforehand, and you’ll always have a good attitude. It’s cool to have high hopes. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

“As I wait for my new heart, each day, I think that it’s going to be the day they give me a call. It keeps me pushing forward. By choosing to believe that it’ll be the day that changes my life, no matter what actually happens, I am okay with the result. This is most important with people though. Most will see the worst in people, but it feels so great to see something different. Choose to see the best, give them a chance, and believe that there is good in everyone.”

Be Slightly Superstitious

I noticed Gary searched rather vehemently for his tee after one of his shots. A tee in golf is similar to a pencil for a student. They’re highly replaceable and it is common to go through a lot of them. But some people are known to have a lucky tee, and Gary, I guess, was one of them. I asked him about it when we got in the cart.

“I believe in being slightly superstitious, Jordan. This tee has provided me with some great shots. So as long as I believe there is a chance to find it, I am going to look until I know it’s gone. Then I’ll create a sort of superstitious connection with the next tee. It’s kind of like prayer. Every night, I pray for my children, my wife, my extended family. I don’t necessarily think that my prayers are the reason why they are living the lives they are, but I do feel like praying for them on a consistent basis makes me feel safe. If I didn’t and something bad happened, I would then think it was because I didn’t pray that the bad thing occurred.”

“I think superstition helps us keep our faith. It establishes our moral boundaries. I am superstitious that my good habits will lead to good outcomes. And bad habits will lead to bad. They may not be directly correlated anywhere outside of my mind, but using that same tee makes me feel safe and comfortable, and that’s important.”

I thought about when I was a young soccer goalie. I was majorly superstitious. I used to line up my socks, shin guards, shorts, and jersey on my bed, and they could not be touching. If they were touching, I thought we were going to lose. If they were not, then we were going to win. It was silly to think that my clothing affected my team’s soccer results, but it gave me peace of mind. That’s all I needed at the time to go into games clear-headed.

Don’t Avoid Eavesdropping

My buddies in the other cart were having a conversation about basketball, and Gary decided to chime in. “I couldn’t help but overhear you two,” he began, “but what do you think about the Knicks next season? I’m a big fan, and I wanted to hear your thoughts.” My friends told him they were fans as well, and they had a great discussion.

“I didn’t mean to bombard your friends with Knicks questions, but I just love to eavesdrop sometimes!” Gary admitted excitedly. “Everybody tells you not to eavesdrop, but I see it as a meaningful way to connect. So long as you do it confidently, nonchalantly, and in good taste, eavesdropping can actually be a really wonderful way to meet new people, have great discussions, and help overcome social anxiety by talking about something you think you can relate to, like I did with the Knicks.”

“In fact, whenever I’m in the hospital, I eavesdrop all the time. The doctors aren’t always the best at keeping the patients informed, so I try my best to listen in. Eavesdropping keeps me informed! I ask questions based on what I hear the nurses and doctors discussing, and they appreciate my curiosity. It’s really helpful for me in understanding my treatment and surgeries.”

Be Unabashedly Content with Wherever You Are

As we came up on the 18th hole, we all shared our scores, and upon hearing his, Gary revealed that he was pleased with where he was. But, I’m pretty sure no matter what he was shooting, he would have had the same answer. He told me one final story before we parted ways.

“I’ve gone into surgery three times to get a new heart. I have come out with a new heart zero times. I have been sliced open every which way, and yet, I still have this disease. But you know what, Jordan. Before each surgery, I feel content. I feel that no matter what happens — new heart or no new heart; life or death — I can say that I am okay. I am pleased with where I’m at.”

“On the second try, I flatlined. But I just knew it wasn’t my time. When I awoke, doctors told me what had happened, and they were shocked to see my calm reaction. I would have really been okay no matter what before that surgery because I told my family I loved them, and I did everything within my power to live according to my principles. I had a feeling it wasn’t my time, and I proved myself right. I have more living to do. But even so, I’d be okay if that would have been it. This mindset keeps me relaxed. It keeps me grounded and free flowing.”

Reflections

I took my clubs out of the cart and I said goodbye and thank you to Gary. I walked away and inserted myself back into the conversation with my friends. “Feels like we didn’t even play with you,” one said to me. “What were you guys talking about all day?” the other asked. I let that question sit in my mind for a minute without saying anything back. I reflected on the day I had with Gary. Then I answered.

“We just talked about golf.” I said. “Holding onto the same tee, thinking every shot will be great, only worrying about your own score, how to play in a group with others. He may not have seemed like a great player, but man, did he know the game.”

“Unconventional swing.” My buddy joked. “Unconventional guy,” I said. “Like you wouldn’t even believe.”

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