March 20, 2013

My Journey with Death. ~ Rick Henderson

“Tomaso Ma Jyotirgamaya.

Lead me from darkness to light.”

~ Upanishads

From Darkness to Light.

We know what’s happening in our life, who we are and where we’re going. We know why we are here and what is coming next. We are really confident about it all.


Yet, no matter how cleverly we arrange the future the nagging insistence of our own mortality remains, that inevitability which heeds no schedule.

Dying is, after all, the one thing that can really mess up our plans.

This is the story of my journey with death, how it feels to come back to tell about it and how everything can shift.


For me, dying was unspectacular. It wasn’t mystical, spiritual, heavenly or even frightening. I was more interested in finding the exit sign than moving toward the light. Imagine a gentle weight of diminishing luminosity, like a veil that enshrouds slowly. What is more fascinating is what you can see when that darkness lifts.

An Unexpected Day

On January 30th, 2009, at 11:03 a.m. I suffered a severe heart attack, the type euphemistically known as “The Widow Maker.” By noontime, I was being prepped for surgery and would soon die three times on the operating table.

Doctors perform amazing gymnastics when this happens, and if you’re tough and resilient they sometimes succeed. The will to live is essential and, for once, being stubborn and defiant was a plus for me.

Failure is an Option

I then entered the phase known as congestive heart failure, not much better than the aforementioned dying. In this oxygen-starved condition I weakened steadily, death again imminent. My cardiologist, nicknamed “Dr. Doom,” basically said there was nothing more he could do.

Throughout this ordeal my loving wife Susan stood by my side. The amazing care she offered selflessly during the next six months kept hope, and me, alive. Her constant attention and the additional support of my family bought me precious time.

My final referral was to the Heart Failure Clinic—very funny. I’m thinking, what’s this about—you only have one appointment and don’t worry about the co-pay?

Frighteningly true unless you are incredibly lucky. In the perfunctory tones of a highly-trained expert, my doctor told me I needed a new heart.

Tragedy and Triumph

Waiting for a heart transplant is a surreal state. There is a macabre vulnerability in knowing  your only hope for life rests on the timely and well-matched availability of someone else’s healthy, living organ. It must be delivered within four hours and from a legal donor. I had approximately one month to live.

Far removed, a tragedy unfolds for a person I have never met. Their family, suffering an immeasurable loss, was about to display a level of courage and humanity that is simple—yet stupefying. They decided to designate their loved-one as a multi-organ donor, forever altering a number of lives.

The heart I received returned so much I had lost.

My wife, my son and my passion for music were mine again, albeit with some changes. It was a humbling blend of tragedy and triumph. There is pervasive guilt for the survivor.

Death is my Guru

I am slowly evolving through my physical, and personal, change of heart. My prognosis is good. A life-long need for medication, certain physical limitations and discomfort are an insignificant price for life.

I understand that soul abides, that the border between spirit and body is insignificant. I’ve begun forgiving myself and others unconditionally, inviting clarity and purpose and expunging guilt and anger. Relinquishing  the past, I move forward lightly without that burden.

Inspiration to be more conscious is the gift I received—a chance to find compassion for others, and the awareness that acceptance can replace judgment.

I witness beauty and grace everywhere, that we are all innately pure, able to inherit the love and joy that is our true nature. We are that, even if our realization and manifestation of it is clumsy and slow.

Most valuable of all is the opportunity to know myself. It’s somewhat easier to contain the oppression of self-importance when life is a gift from someone else—more natural to love unconditionally and share when you’ve received that ultimate gesture.

I’m granted the opportunity to be more discerning about whom and what is really important—when to embrace and when to let go. I try to act in a way that always honors the spirit of my donor. Gratitude is my creed.

I am, it seems, a rather dense and obstinate lump of clay. Surely, one should not have to endure all this simply to learn to love and live more gracefully.

Still, we each receive the lesson we need.

Now, I just need to practice.


Note: The author has refrained from any public comment on his experience until he was able to meet with his donor family and receive their blessings to write about it. He invites everyone to consider the option to become a registered organ donor.


Rick Henderson is a performer, composer and recording artist who has spent a lifetime exploring eastern music, philosophy and religion. A sarodist and singer, he studied Indian classical music with master musician Ali Akbar Khan and his celebrated son, Aashish Khan. Residing in San Antonio, Texas, Rick is the leader of Shantikar, a performance ensemble that offers kirtan and original music as a community service. He continues to study, perform, teach and support the arts of India.

Like elephant I’m not “Spiritual.” I just practice being a good person on Facebook.


Assistant Editor: Sara McKeown

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