Alan Alda
Photo: Jeff Vespa/WireImage.com
Like a long, slow sneeze, my aha! moment happened in two parts—separated by almost 60 years. The "ah" came when I was 8 and my beloved cocker spaniel died. The "ha" finally came two years ago, in Chile, when I nearly died.

My dog, Rhapsody, was my only friend while I lay in bed as a child, recovering from polio. But soon after I was up and around again, he choked to death on some leftover Chinese food. I was devastated. My father, hoping to help, suggested we have the dog stuffed. "That way you'll always keep him," he said. This seemed like a good idea until we got Rhapsody back from the taxidermist's shop—with a hideously ferocious expression on what had previously been my dog's face. Petting his stiff, awkwardly posed body, I started to get it: Death is not something you can fix. Death is a pretty big change.

And that was only the beginning of my trouble with change. When I became an actor, I embarked on a life of constant uncertainty. You change jobs every few weeks, and every few years the kind of part you were once right for is suddenly right only for the generation behind you. That was hard to get used to. Actually, for a long time, any uncertainty was hard. Cocktail parties made me nervous, opening nights made my heart throb with anxiety, and even a ringing telephone meant a question mark I wasn't crazy about facing.

Then, two years ago, an ambulance brought me down from the top of a mountain in Chile, where I was shooting a television show. Luckily, when I got to the hospital in the small town of La Serena, an expert surgeon was waiting. After examining me, he concluded that some of my intestine was blocked: It had lost its blood supply and died and would have to be removed before I died along with it. If I wanted, he told me, we could arrange for a plane to fly me to Santiago, where the hospitals are larger. It was reassuring to know I had options, until he explained that La Serena's airport was fogged in, and if we waited for the fog to clear, I might be dead.

Maybe it was the doctor's quiet confidence; maybe it was the simple fact that I had no time to dawdle. For whatever reason, an odd sense of calm settled over me. "Sure, let's do it here," I said, even as it occurred to me, almost casually, that I might not wake up from the operation. A friend was with me, and I asked him to pass on a few words to my wife and children and grandchildren in case I didn't make it. He seemed uneasy as he wrote down my words, but as I spoke I realized something strange had happened: I wasn't uneasy. I wasn't afraid. Death might have been only an hour or two away, but for now, getting this message out was all I had on my mind.

Since that moment, change has seemed easier. I don't get nervous talking to strangers. Picking up the phone is a cinch, and I face opening nights without skipping a heartbeat. Once the Big Change didn't scare me anymore, I guess the smaller ones fell in line. Aha!