Back From the Dead

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It was a regular morning at the gym -- guys lifting weights, grunting, peddling bikes -- when the news began spreading. Joe, that 80-year-old who showed up every day for 30 minutes on the treadmill, had collapsed. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital. Shocked, we all stopped mid-workout to mill around awkwardly.

Weeks went by, and mornings at the gym went on, with no Joe on his usual treadmill. A couple guys tried to call him, but he lived alone and no one found out anything.

Then, one day, Joe was back. He looked hale and hearty, and his previously shaky jogging on the treadmill was steady and strong. I asked what happened.

"I died," he told me.

He'd been pronounced dead at the hospital, before doctors got his heart started. But for somebody who had just returned from the dead, he looked great.


"What was it like?" I asked, expecting to hear about lights, tunnels, floating above his body.

"Don't remember a thing," he told me. No reunions with lost loved ones, no floating. But, he said, he had noticed something.
"What?" I asked.

He noticed, he told me, all the good things he hadn't noticed before.

"Huh?" I said.

He looked for the good in everybody these days, he explained, and was surprised at what he found, things that were there all along, but he simply never noticed.

And listening, I thought, it may have been his heart that had given out, but it was something more that had come back. Bursting with life, he barely resembled the frail old man he used to be before that heart attack.

"You know what I found out?" he told me. "Every day is a second chance. Not every day is good, but every day has something good in it." And, with that, he resumed his treadmill and I returned to my bench press. But, instead of hitting the weights, I sat and watched him.

Was it the heart medication that had changed him? Or had his new way of seeing the world changed his heart?

At age 80, it took dying for Joe to learn about living.

And, though I didn't finish my training that morning at the gym, I did leave feeling stronger. I'm changing my workout, too, adding a new exercise: noticing all the good things I hadn't noticed before. I'll start light, only a few reps. But eventually I'll develop that muscle. And I'm building a kind of strength no amount of weight lifting can provide.

I still hit the gym every day, but these days I remember: Not every day is good, but every day has something good in it.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.