“Making Every Second Count”

“Making Every Second Count”
By John Marsillo

In the fall of 2014 I checked off a significant bucket list item when I purchased a 1987 Porsche 911 Carrera. The year that car was born I was on vacation in California with my soon to be wife.
At the conclusion of our Pacific Coast highway drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, we decided to visit the LA auto show. While my memory of that show is a little fuzzy, I clearly remember the Porsche exhibit – 3 Guards Red Porsche models arranged in a trinity of automotive beauty.
While I had seen the occasional Porsche on the street prior to attending that show, I had never been up close and personal with one. I especially remember the aggressive stance of the cars and their fat tires. I was smitten. A few years later I purchased a 1987 Zermatt Silver Metallic 944 turbo. That was my first experience behind the wheel of a Porsche and it blew me away. Unfortunately, a new marriage and new home cut short my tenure with the car. Two years after purchasing my 944, I traded it in for a suburban lifestyle and a Ford Explorer. The Porsche was gone, but I vowed I would someday own another one. And this time it would be a 911. Not just any 911, but one from that golden age of the 80’s, specifically the 87-89 series.
After acquiring my vintage 911, getting behind the wheel for the first time made me feel a little nervous and underserving of such an iconic sports car. However, within a few weeks of driving, the nerves settled and the car soon fit like a glove. After a thorough maintenance update and a full re-spray (hat tip to Pino at Milan Auto Painters), I began to enjoy my new fair weather weekend buddy.  I also joined NNJR.
In the summer of 2015, armed with brand new, gleaming black paint, I entered a couple of concours events, receiving a fair amount of compliments but no place on the podium. Taking part in these contests taught me a lot about caring for my car and I witnessed a level of perfection in the top tier cars that reflected the pride Porsche owners take in their vehicles.
Later in the season I decided to try autocross and participated in two late summer events. The first AX in August was an instructional event where I had the opportunity of taking 10 runs, each with a different instructor at my side. Running the car at speed through a maze of candy corn guide posts opened my eyes to the car’s amazing abilities. I could not believe I was driving a car that was almost 30 years old.
Skeptical that the car would hold in tight curves, I had to suspend my natural instincts to hit the brakes and trust my instructors’ advice to put “foot to the floor” during these harrowing turns. I never experienced so much fun in a car! My finishing times improved with each run and at the end of the day I was very proud of myself; I wanted more. I quickly signed up for the September AX and while my times only improved slightly, I felt more confident with my car and understood the addictive nature of this sport. At the end of that day I vowed to come back and dramatically reduce my run times at the next AX in October. However that was to be my last AX for the season. As the proverb goes, “Man plans and God laughs”.
On the evening of October 23, 2015 while watching a movie at home with my daughter Sophie, a life-changing call came … “Mr. Marsillo we have a liver for you”… My long and anxious wait on the liver transplant list had finally come to an end. About 12 hours later I was wheeled into a Mount Sinai operating room not knowing if I would wake up from the surgery in a recovery room or feel the cool grass of Elysium beneath my feet. Gratefully, some 18 hours later my eyes opened to a surreal setting of dimly lit circular overhead lights and soft background music. Strangely calm, I mentally began to recount the notes of the B minor harmonic scale on the fretboard of my guitar. I needed to know immediately if my mind had been impaired under the spell of so many hours of anesthesia. Realizing the firing order of my brain synapses were still intact, I fell back to sleep and began my 10 day recovery in the hospital.
Three days after my surgery, feeling like I had played chicken with a Mack truck and lost, I had no energy or desire to get out of bed. That is when my surgeon said to me, “your new liver is very healthy but you need to stay positive, it’s your single best chance for a full recovery”. That sage advice got me out of bed and I took to the corridors to walk the walk.
One minor side effect of my surgery was that my vocal chords had been roughed up when my breathing tube was extubated and I could barely speak above a whisper. Not being able to say much during my hospital stint, I was left to think a lot.
Resting in the day room after a brief walk, I searched for inspiration. I needed motivation to keep going. That is when the true story of Formula One driver Niki Lauda’s heroic recovery from devastating burns came to mind. I had watched the movie “Rush” many times and was fascinated at Lauda’s tenacity to soldier through excruciating pain and get back to Grand Prix racing only 6 weeks after his near fatal fiery crash. Channeling my inner Walter Mitty, I easily made the connection between Lauda’s will to get back into his Ferrari and my desire to drive my 911 and run it in AX. I set a measurement goal for recovery to be able to drive my car in the first AX of the 2016 season. For the remainder of my hospital stay I walked, thought and outlined a plan to recover my strength and get back to my life.
Once home I tried to visualize driving the car. But with an abdominal incision replicating a giant Mercedes badge, I could not imagine lowering myself into the driver’s seat let alone swiftly wrestling the heavy steering rack through a slalom. But months of exercise, proper nutrition and the loving care of my family and friends got me back on my feet and into my car.
On April 17, one week short of the 6 month anniversary of my liver transplant, I fulfilled my goal and participated in the AX. It was a beautifully calm and unseasonably warm April day at Meadowlands parking Lot J – a perfect day for an autocross. I walked the course several times to memorize the layout and to plot my entry and exit points. Driving in the second run group of the day, the butterflies began as soon as I positioned my car in the staging area to wait for my turn for a start. A few minutes later I got the go ahead and hit the throttle.
If this were a fictional story I would now say that not only did I beat my best time of last season but gained a top spot in my class. Unfortunately neither is true. My times were worse than last season and I felt a little embarrassed at my standings at the end of the day.
That evening I reflected on the day’s experience. I remembered the thrill of being back in my car, dodging cones and trying to get through the course as fast as possible. The sound of the engine, smell of oil and the feeling of being connected to the car made me feel so alive. I realized what was most important that day was not the run time but the experience of driving such a magnificent car. I found the silver lining and realized my slower laps offered me more time to savor each second of every ride. I came to know each run in the car as a metaphor for true living; to be a participant in the event rather than a spectator sitting on the sidelines.
In the whole of one’s life there are usually only a few experiences that make one feel truly alive. Those runs in my car are imprinted in my memory as sensory images of real living that I will draw upon when life gets a little gray.
I owe everything to a 26 year old young man whose tragic death prolonged my life. His family had the courage in the midst of their unbearable grief to make one of the most difficult decisions of their lives – a selfless donation of life. I will always honor him and his family. His soul will remain my passenger as long as I live.
My recovery taught me how the power of positive thinking, goal setting and visualization can achieve tremendous results. In that vein I now see my Porsche not only as a really cool sports car but a symbol for my recovery and renewed life.