Walking into her room in the Intensive Care Unit of a Gainesville, Florida hospital last Friday, I did what I always do in situations that promise to bring me to my knees with a cold dose of reality – I play the part of the court jester. It’s “Put on a happy face” and try for a smile from those around me.
My sister was stricken with a disease a year ago that left her partially paralyzed from the waist down. And in the midst of her heroic efforts in rehab, she pushed forward with a heart that had been damaged by radiation 20 years ago in her victorious battle with Hodgkin’s Disease (cancer).
And that’s what brought her to this hospital. She had open-heart surgery there last month – replacing damaged heart valves, but leaving unaddressed the damage to her heart itself. After the surgery, as they were wheeling her out of the operating room, she “coded” – essentially her heart stopped beating for 5 minutes while they tried to revive her with a defibrillator and finally succeeded. Since then, she is surrounded with a team of doctors, nurses, specialists…and a roomful of machines, tubes, wires, and thankfully, Mom.
So I got dressed up in the hallway – stethoscope, mask, etc, and came through the door and with a booming, southern drawl bellowed “G’mornin’ sunshine! Time to check them vitals! Them HDLs, them LDLs, them Hemogoblins…” But while I’m going through with this, another part of me is frozen in slo-mo – seeing my sister so frail, and sick with 10 tubes and wires coming in and out of her, surrounded by beeping, gurgling, and blinking machines. If I had just walked in there normally, I would have lost it.
But the good and humbling feeling that followed was unforgettable. I was able to spend the day with her – she can’t talk because of a tracheotomy, but I seem to be pretty good with lip reading, and although her hands (and feet) shake terribly she writes the words I couldn’t understand. So I spent the day telling her stories, showing pictures, singing her a song, massaging her feet, watching the dozens of rituals she goes through with a dozen different nurses, doctors and therapists.
And I listened to her silently try to convey what it feels like to be her right now. Such a strength she has. And we shared a couple of good meals together.
spending that day with her, hearing her stories, and telling her mine, a change
came over me. So subtle that it’s not until the day after, heading home on an
airplane flying over the ..Grand
Canyon.., that I realize it. A renewed sense of hear-and-now-ness,
reminded that this is all I’ve got – this laptop, these words, this drink, and
those cotton-ball clouds outside my window below. Right now. Tossing aside
‘theory’ and an embracing ‘experience.’ Of life. Why?
Because I touched death. Because for a day, I touched, experienced, listened to, and got inside my sister, who for 5 minutes, was dead. And who continually for the past 6 weeks has cheated death, and will continue to elude its embrace. ..B..ut just being around her, being around that, was all it took to completely shift my perspective, a mini-paradigm shift. That’s why I go to the Pescado cemetery every New Year’s Day. Because by touching death, I re-affirm life.
What does that mean? I have less grandiose visions of making the world a better place, and more of a desire to just be good to the person in front of me. Less inclination to hide in the shadows of the world of work and lofty and noble causes, in favor of jumping in head first, and swimming in the cool currents of the river of life. It means “plugging in” to life. And it wasn’t until the day afterwards that I recognized the metaphor with all those machines she’s plugged in to.
While telling sis about my recent trip to Japan, what my days are like, the tales of woe about my love life, she silently speaks two words. I can’t understand what she’s trying to say. So with great effort, she spells them out on her clipboard and hands it to me - “good life”
Why am I always the last one to realize that?