Yesterday I Had a Heart Attack

The day started out with some fatigue and an uncomfortable feeling I wrote off to something it was not.  After an exhausting ride to the bank, I decided to drive and not ride my bike to the P.O. and Centering Prayer group.  I left the group early for my monthly x-geva injection at Touro Infirmary, followed by a pre-op visit for some planned testing mentioned in an earlier post.  During the pre-op process, the pain in my throat I had written off to allergies was back.  My left elbow was hurting too and I felt some tingling in my left arm.  I asked the technician if the chair I was sitting in could lean back because I felt odd.  She hooked me up to an ekg machine.  The reading was not good.  A quick second opinion – yes, not a good reading.

All I remember next was a “rapid response” alert and sequence of events I cannot accurately reconstruct – but included being placed on a gurney, racing through the halls, looking up and seeing walls and ceilings that looked somewhat familiar from my many visits to Touro since this past August.  An oxygen mask.  The first gurney stop was the emergency room.  Then being asked all of those questions – the necessary name, rank and serial number kind – and the others to show I was still there.  Everyone poking and prodding.  Next stop is the Cath Unit.  “get his shirt and pants off” and a million hands have me stripped in seconds.  “we called your wife and she is on her way here.”  the feeling of razors shaving the hair somewhere on my lower extremities.

Dr. Yount saying “you are having a heart attack.  We are going to put in some stents.” and so on and so forth explaining the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all.  I sign (and would love to see that signature) the form to permit the process.  I know I am powerless and simply surrender to the process.   I become more acutely aware of the pain in my chest and the relief when the stents are in.  Emma told me I had tears in my eyes as I was wheeled out of the Cath Unit.  I am next in the ICU.  The doctors, and lots of them, explain the situation, Emma is there.  A bad’s night sleep.

An eventful 24 hours with visits from many doctors, clergy, and friends. and now a room on the 8th floor of Touro Infirmary with the beautiful view of my hometown today.  I am well cared for and blessed.

I am fortunate to have experienced the past 24 hours with the absolutely fantastic staff of Touro Infirmary.  They have proven exemplary in every aspect of my medical treatment over the past several months.

So, with the requisite rehab I will recover from this event with no increased probability of another heart attack nor is there any permanent damage.

I ask myself what I am supposed to get out of this.  I have posted before about what I learned from my alcoholism and cancer diagnosis.  I don’t think it is necessary to come up with a Pollyannish blessing for every seeming misfortune.  But I could not have picked a better place to have a heart attack.  Had it not been for my pre-op visit to Touro, I likely would have just gone home, taken a nap because of my exhaustion and perhaps died in my sleep.

But of more relevance, I was sitting in my hospital room this afternoon with Emma and my friend Callie Winn Crawford, the retired senior pastor at Rayne Memorial Methodist.  We were talking about the Enneagram book study in which we participate along with a handful of other folks.  Most participants are institutionally retired, but still very active in their fields.  We talked about the insights we now have on our lives and our path to true self, now not constricted by the narrow focus that nine-to-five jobs often entail.  We considered that the insights are not just an academic exercise but entail an application to what we do going forward on that path.  That leads me back to my post last week.  I am called not just to visit places of long ago, but to take active responsibility for the luminous web of humanity that are a part of our universe.  I will take my last 24 hours as a reminder to continue on that road.


A Pilgrimage in Recovery

With my recent cancer diagnosis, I planned some “bucket list” places to visit.  One place on the list is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio as music has always been an important part of my life.  Another place high on the list in nearby Akron, Ohio is the former home of AA co-founder Dr. Bob Smith.  The home is now an AA museum.  As AA is integral to my three decades of sobriety, I imagined that visiting the home of Dr. Bob would be a transformational experience of sorts.

As Cleveland is a 16 to 18-hour drive from our home in New Orleans, Emma suggested that I fly up north and rent a car to visit the area for a couple of days.  Of late, driving long distances wears me out and increases my back pain.  But I also thought about the folks along that route I had not seen in a long while.  To allow me to visit some folks, I came up with an itinerary that divided the driving into manageable 4-6 hour days.

As I pulled out of New Orleans, I envisioned a slow drive up north to Cleveland and Akron – the goals of my pilgrimage.

My first stop was Jackson, Mississippi where I visited an old friend also in recovery.  Our level of contact has ebbed and flowed over the years.  With his recent stomach cancer diagnosis we have had more communication of late.  My visit to their home produced an aura of serenity.  We talked about how our years of sobriety in AA proved the perfect preparation for living one-day-at-a-time with each of our recent cancer diagnoses.  Our visit was a strong confirmation of the 12 Step Program’s value.

My next stop was Memphis, Tennessee where Emma and I lived for 9 years after leaving Jackson and before retiring to New Orleans.  I stayed with our former next door neighbors and enjoyed catching up with them, and sharing our mutual experience, strength, and hope.  I was struck how after being in their home for less than one minute, it seemed we picked up our conversations as though we still lived next door and were talking over the back fence as our dogs barked at each other.

I met with several fellow faculty members, colleagues, and friends with whom I still regularly engage.  The highlight of my Memphis visit was spending time with former students.  It was wonderful to see how they were growing professionally.  I also had the opportunity to meet with a current student who I had only worked with in an online capacity.  She developed a very exciting project that we discussed implementing in Peru this summer.  In seeing how my former students were thriving, I left Memphis with a strong sense of validation for my past decade of work.

After an overnight stay, I arrived in Cincinnati, where I spent my first 20 years of life, and visited with a few family and friends.  On my way out of town I stopped to visit a friend I had worked with and had made recent amends to for incidents that occurred nearly 20 years ago.  We shared a meal and then I was off to Cleveland.

I strategically booked a hotel half-way between Cleveland and Akron.  I was certain to get a good night’s rest as I expected to spend the entire next day at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and fatigue has been my biggest cancer related issue these days.  Then the following day I planned to visit Dr. Bob’s home, the ultimate goal of my pilgrimage.

My visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was less than spectacular.  Here is my yelp review so I won’t rehash that all here.  I ended up leaving the place by noon and decided I might as well head to Dr. Bob’s Museum the same day.  Well . . . it is just a house with lots of ghosts in the walls and stories to tell.  The volunteers there made me feel very welcome and I enjoyed a tour with another couple in recovery visiting from Detroit.  The mystical experience I anticipated at Dr. Bob’s House simply did not occur.

In reflecting, two things struck me:

  • the process was the most important part of the pilgrimage – visiting friends along the way.  The people not the places of my life proved the most meaningful.
  • I recalled an incident that occurred many years ago.  In the late -1990s, I had occasion to drive from Baton Rouge to my then home in Delhi, Louisiana in the late afternoon once each month.  On one trip I was driving north on Highway 15 somewhere between Clayton and Sicily Island, Louisiana when I had a truly a mystical experience in seeing the beauty of the landscape across a flatland of a cotton field.  I pulled off the road to marvel at the place.  On  the next month’s trip, I was struck again by the same landscape.  I called the place Magic Land.  As I prepared for my third monthly trip, I had a camera, notepad, and audio recorder to document the experience.  But that time all I saw was a nondescript cotton field.  The fourth month, no luck again.  I never experienced Magic Land again.  I reflected on Magic Land last week as I drove south from Akron.  I thought about how I have learned to be present for the possibility, and when the time is right, the luminous will happen.  I cannot force the issue.  Two days later as I pulled onto a rain-soaked and chilly Magazine Street in New Orleans, I had a mystical experience of complete wellness and peace . . . of truly being home.  The pilgrimage was complete.

Moving from an Intellectual to Gut Understanding in Recovery

Halloween display on St. Charles Ave & State St., New Orleans.



First we grasp this knowledge intellectually, and then finally we come to believe it in our hearts

Overeaters Anonymous 12 & 12 pp. 6-7

A substantive shift in how I have come to see addiction over the years is the move from an intellectual to a gut understanding.  When I first got sober, I spent a significant amount of time going through library card catalogs and journals in those pre-Google days searching out articles on the genetic predisposition to alcoholism, including twin studies, relapse treatment, and so forth.  One of my favorite books was the hot-of-the-press in 1984, Under the Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcoholism.  Fast forward to 2018, that information is pretty meaningless to me today and has little to do with my recovery.  Rather my understanding has moved from my head to my gut. My recovery has moved from a false self ego that refused to deal with life on life’s terms to one where I strive to move toward my True Self.

As I reflect often in this blog, my experience with an understanding of God similarly moved from the intellectual to the gut.  As a precocious youth, by the time I hit the sixth grade I proclaimed myself an agnostic, and by the eighth grade, an atheist based on my inability to accept a physical heaven, hell, old man with a white beard sitting in judgement, and so forth.  My approach to the spiritual realm has certainly moved from the intellectual to the gut today.

Now that cancer has come along, my intellectual understanding of the disease is of little importance to me beyond how I take care of myself with diet, exercise, maintaining my immune system and so forth.  My oncologist, who always refers to me as Professor Connolly, acknowledging my PhD and profession, is learning that my academic credentials do not reflect my ability to understand the biology of the latest immunotherapy treatments.  In fact, my comprehension level reminds me of being erroneously asked to judge chemistry student projects at Research Fairs on campus.  I could only smile politely, not having a clue at what the students were talking about.

As with alcoholism, I am coming to a gut-level understanding and acceptance of my cancer diagnosis.  I am not really interested in trying to figure out whether my monthly x-geva injections, increased calcium intake, exercise, diet, daily affirmations, weekly centering prayer group and book discussion, service at the Open Table feeding ministry, or any other factor is the primary reason the cancer in my bones is not spreading as rapidly as expected or that I remain reasonably pain free.  Rather, I see it all as a package deal.  I am comfortable leaving the hard science questions to the medical personnel who have proven themselves truly exceptional on those issues.  I am grateful for their expertise and will continue to focus my energies on that path begun many years ago toward true self.


If every (alcoholic, cancer) breath I have ever taken . . .

In April of 2001, I was sitting in a coffee shop on Canal Street in New Orleans while in town to attend a professional conference.  I was in the coffee shop visiting with a former colleague from graduate school days at the University of Illinois.  He spoke of how his career and personal life were not going as he hoped.  After he spoke for a while, I very intentionally chose my words and said “If every breath I have ever taken has gotten me to sitting right here where I am today, I would not change a thing.”  That idea had rolled around in my head for a while, but I never said it aloud until that day.  Today, I affirm the same sentiment – my life has perfectly led me to where I am today.

Let me explain.

Today, through the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, I have a life that exceeds the best of any situation I can imagine.  I married my bride over 19 years ago and she is truly my best friend and confidant.  We have racked up some wonderful adventures together and have more to come.  I retired from a rewarding career with a job description completely aligned with my interests and vision.  Step 3 of AA launched me on a now three-decade long spiritual journey that continues to evolve.  My church home at Rayne Memorial UMC along with activity and friends in the School for Contemplative Living are the bedrock for my spiritual existence.  Today, I also live into a life of service consistent with the embryonic values I held over 45 years ago as an inner-city student teacher.  My life has a greater meaning than ever before.

An old friend from high school commented to me once that he never realized I had such a “rough life” early on in battling my demons and alcoholism.  But today, if I truly would not “change a thing” I am blessed by the lessons of my drunken alcoholic past.  Besides sharing my experience, strength, and hope, particularly with students in my classrooms over the years, I know too that those drunken days and the sobriety that followed provide me with the wisdom of how to live today.

Then, this past August, I received a stage 4 cancer diagnosis with a still unknown primary source.

I participated in a recent discussion where someone commented about the need to look for the silver lining in such adversities.  I think differently.  I don’t need to look for a silver lining for my cancer diagnosis.  In fact, the diagnosis was a wake-up call for me to prioritize those things that are important in my life.  When I retired in 2016, for the first year, I put nearly the same amount of effort into my career, but I was no longer drawing a paycheck.  My wife had retired from her full-time position to take on another full-time position in opening a business that had been her lifelong dream.  We both could have continued our separate retirement careers for years.

My cancer had other plans.  The original prognosis was that I might be dead by last Christmas.  That did  not happen.  I sat with my oncologist a couple of weeks ago and candidly discussed the unknowability of my prognosis, though he is very pleased with how I am doing.

Cancer has allowed Emma and I to focus on what we want to do in our lives.  We are all mortal and we don’t know when that mortality will be called in – as is clear for the 17 in Parkland, Florida.  So, I am not looking for a silver lining in my cancer diagnosis.  It is all silver and gold and is a wake up call for re-ordering my life priorities in the same way the massacre at Douglas school is an opportunity to take steps to end that carnage.  On a personal level, I will not waste the cancer wake-up call, as we must not waste the lives of the 17 in Parkland, and those before, as a national wake up call.

Alcoholism, cancer, mass murder – the only regret I can have is if I do not learn, absorb, and grow from the implications of these life events.  I must take the appropriate actions in living into the understanding that we are all truly made in the image of God and must treat ourselves and all those in our luminous web of life accordingly.  If I can continue moving in that direction of true self, I will be able to continue saying “If every breath I have ever taken has gotten me to sitting right here where I am today, I would not change a thing.”


Bead by Bead by Suzanne Henley – A Review

A couple of months ago I received a package in the mail from an unfamiliar address in Midtown Memphis.  I opened the package to discover a set of prayer beads made by Suzanne Henley.  I met Suzanne once via my wife’s writers group in Memphis.  An enclosed card titled Prayer Beads in Thanksgiving for Robert describe the beads from Ethiopia, the Afgan Silk Road, Brazil, China, the Dead Sea, and more.  I was blown away by both the beauty and the significance of the creation.  Now, I carry the beads in my backpack and they go everywhere with me.  They are a regular part of my centering prayer and other contemplative exercises.

Suzanne has now published a book Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New (Paraclete Press, 2018).  The book is composed of three parts: an historical discussion of prayer beads followed by a set of prayer activities, and a final section where readers are “encouraged to draw their own set of prayer beads and, with discernment and prayer, label each bead. They then can keep and literally hold their life in their hands in prayer, gratitude, and awe.”

The book is all of that and much more.

In the introductory comments Suzanne notes “I have no idea whether prayer produces any external results. I have come to believe, though, if nothing else, it is where I most squarely meet myself.”  As an artisan who creates prayer beads, the Prologue to the volume lays out the intent and perspective in her creation.  The beads Suzanne uses in her creations include “handmade Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic prayer beads as well as rare Hebron beads of Dead Sea salt . . . replicas of third-century Ethiopian Coptic crosses and Stars of David, hand-carved Chinese jade pendants, or river rocks collected from my fishing sites.”  The anthropologist in me delights in her noting that when handling the beads “I am the latest in a long line to add the imprint of my hands’ oils to the human and earth-marked patina of all those who have come before me. I feel the weight of their histories in my palm.”

The abundant illustrations in the volume attest to the 800 individualized sets of prayer beads she has created, some commissioned for the likes of The Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, along with the holy, secular, and terminally ill across the globe.  (Suzanne’s gift to me was prompted by my recent cancer diagnosis.)  She observes that while formal worship in churches is on the decline, the increased popularity of prayer beads means people are “simply carrying their altars with them in their pockets” as they go through life.

After the introductory material there is a solid 20-page section of prayer bead history beginning with their several thousand year-old Hindu origins in Vietnam and continuing to the present day.  The comprehensive summary highlights prayer bead development, particularly for the Abrahamic faiths.  Suzanne highlights the 4th Century Desert Fathers who used pebbles to count the number of times they said a prayer, through to the familiar Roman Catholic Rosary and Islamic prayer beads that hold the 99 names of Allah, to the more recent evolution of  Protestant or Episcopal prayer beads.  The history section has many historical notes of interests, such as that the earliest recorded Roman Catholic rosary belonged to Lady Godiva of horse-riding fame.

My Prayer Beads Gift Created by Suzanne Henley

The next section considers the range of prayer types both with and without beads, drawing on the works of modern contemplatives such as Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, and Richard Rohr and the more ancient traditions such as the Celts.  Suzanne also discusses prayer bead use with chants, hymns and in silence.  Drawing on her personal practice, she broadens the tactile experience of prayer beads to include handling fruit in the grocery store.

The book could have ended at this point and been a worthwhile read.  However, Suzanne’s final sections of the volume are of immense value for the novice and experienced user of prayer beads.  With a good bit of autobiographical material she tells her story including recovery from extreme depression and a heart attack to a chance encounter exploring how the Holy Spirit is like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  These life changing experiences resonated with me as a recovering alcoholic.

As “homework” she invites the reader to construct a prayer bead activity based on their life experiences.  Suzanne provides ample guidance in the form of writing exercises and meditations to achieve this goal.   I found this invitation to be the punch line of the book.  The earlier sections on the history, tradition, and contemporary contemplative use of beads were interesting, informative, and certainly directing in terms of practice.  As well, reading Suzanne’s story provided grist for further considering personal use.  However, the homework allows the reader to completely contextualize and apply prayer bead practice to their experience.

The 20 color illustrations of prayer beads created by Suzanne are a welcome addition to the volume.  At under 100 pages of text, the volume is readily accessible to all.  The 9 chapters can readily be adapted to a group study where participants create their own set of prayer beads.  I look forward to working through the exercises included in Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New  to enhance my use of Ms. Henley’s gift to me.

A Valentine Gift

Today, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, I had my regularly scheduled oncology visit and all the news was good as follows:

  • my CAT scan this past Monday revealed no appreciable, if any, spread of the cancer in my bones.
  • The scan showed a minor increase in a lymph node.  Under normal circumstances, the increase would not be a cause of concern.  However, given that the primary source of my cancer remains unknown, exploratory surgery will be ordered.  Dr. Sonnier, my oncologist noted that the procedure is done via laparoscopy and might require one or two days in the hospital.  Noteworthy is that this will be the first time in my life since being born that I will spend the night in a hospital.
  • Dr. Sonnier remains pleased with my continued health, physical activity, and that the alkaline phosphatase level in my blood dropped from over 1300 in August to 160 today which is just a bit higher than normal.  I asked if we could be sitting here one year from now, with me basically in the same physical condition, still looking for a cancer source, and he responded in the affirmative.
  • I got my monthly x-geva shot at the Infusion Center and had great conversations with my RN friends there including about Erin’s recent trip to Chile, growing okra, what the January hard freeze killed in our yards, and other important things.

Today in New Orleans it is 79 degrees and partly sunny.  I cleaned up around the shop from all the Mardi Gras festivities, turned soil in our garden and planted an early spring crop of kale and collards.

Life is good and I am blessed.

Healing in Alcohol and Cancer

Healing – My favorite painting by my wife Emma Connolly

This past Sunday, Marissa Sue Teauseau, our Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church preached a message that profoundly affected my understanding of healing as a recovering alcoholic with a cancer diagnosis.  She spoke of her experience ministering to a terminally ill young man and family and his healing.  Marissa then linked that healing to the scripture reading for the day in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus healed Andrew’s mother-in-law, she got up and served him.   (I note that our Senior Pastor, Jay Hogewood, asked me to be the lector for the reading that day at church, the significance of which just dawned on me.)

Marissa’s message kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire sermon as she deftly wove a web of healing and service.  As I walked home from church and over the next few days, the seeds her words planted grew to give me a more complete understanding of healing over my last 30 years.

I never viewed my recovery as an alcoholic as a healing, but I see now that is very much the case.  Marissa also spoke of her limited experience with the “miraculous” end of healing.  That statement resonated with me too.  I have long asked the question “Why Me?” in my remaining sober for over 30 years when relapse is a common experience for addicts. In recovery, I live into the Twelfth Step service mandate to “carry the message to others” about the gift of sobriety.  Being of service is important to my existence.

Since my initial diagnosis this past August, I tried to define my existence with cancer.  I am not a cancer victim, as I refuse to be a victim of anything.  I am not certain a cancer survivor is an accurate term as my oncologist has never backed off from saying my stage 4 cancer is incurable.

I listen to taped affirmations around cancer on a pretty regular basis.  My favorite time is when walking to and from church on Sunday morning.  When I first began listening to the affirmations, I tended to gloss over the ones that spoke of white cells and medications attacking and destroying the cancer cells as I am not on chemo drugs or radiation therapy.  However, all tests show that the cancer is not expanding. I am in less pain today than two years ago and more physically active than one year ago.  More importantly, I am mentally, spiritually, and emotionally more alive than in many years.

Marissa’s sermon from this past week showed me how my cancer diagnosis is the opportunity to focus on healing and being of service.  There is much to do in our world today, and I am pleased that my understanding of healing allows me to take part.

And here is where Marissa’s words touched me with my current cancer diagnosis.  I have cited before affirmations from the  Health Journey Guided Imagery by Bellruth Naparstek.  Since Marissa’s sermon, an affirmation that has taken on new meaning, with some qualification on the self-reliance implication is:

More and More I can understand that I can heal myself and live or I can heal myself and die, my physical condition is not an indication of my wholeness.

In a couple of hours, I will have another CAT Scan to see the physical status of my cancer.  Tomorrow is Mardi Gras.  Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, and the date for the next appointment with my oncologist.  I am pleased to know now that my healing today is not dependent on the CAT Scan results.