I spent the past week at home attempting to get through a bout of influenza. It began on Saturday night with a heavy headache and by Sunday mid morning I was on my way to the ER with a fever and the stomach turning effects of taking two types of cold medications too close to one another.
There is something to be said about the calming effect that a hospital brings. No, seriously! When you have been in the ER as many times as I have, the plastic crunch of a hospital mattress, the sterile smells, and the incessant beeping of various machines is comforting. You know, for the most part, that you are safe now. You know that you are in capable hands that will make you get better and if things get worse, at least you won’t die alone at home in the bathroom in that raggy robe covered in cat hair.
My first stint in the ER was at the age of 3 when my dad suffered a massive heart attack. Mom put me in an umbrella stroller and rolled me up and down the halls, not so much for my entertainment but to calm her own nerves. I remember the smells of bleach cleaner, hot food that had no flavor, and a slightly metallic smell that I have never been able to place. So fascinated was I by this world of people moving briskly and importantly down shiny halls wearing snow white jackets and speaking in tongues about charts and MRIs, that I failed to realize the seriousness of my dad’s condition; I thought that giant of a man was merely sleeping. Halfway through my dad’s recovery a nurse shot him up with 3 times the amount of morphine he was supposed to have and Dad went up to knock on heaven’s door for the second time that week. The nurse was later caught after a number of patients were killed as a result of her “mercy” Killings. Dad survived and after a bout of pneumonia he was released to go home.
Things changed ever so slightly after Dad came home. The shiny packs of Marlboros disappeared, Mom was cooking out of a book entitled “Don’t Eat Your Heart Out”and Dad seemed humbled in a way. He spent more time playing with me. I was able to convince him to turn a giant box from our new microwave into a boat in which we had many high sea adventures. I am sure that in that hospital bed my dad, like every one else who has ever looked death in the eye, made a bargain with God that he would change his ways if only he was given more time on this earth.
I have been on the sending end of many such prayers in my own life. At age 5 laying on the operating table before tonsil surgery as the doctor asked me if I wanted grape or bubble gum scented knock out gas I remember promising God that I would never get in trouble at school again and that I would not ask for another matchbox car as long as I lived. Then the grape scented gas filled my nostrils like that first whiff of a Mr Sketch purple marker. Oh how I coveted a set of those markers but my Mom viewed fruit scented markers as a gateway drug of sorts so I had to get my fix at friend’s houses and in the waiting room of the dentist office. Waking up from surgery I was an instant celebrity. The doctors and nurses could not stop exclaiming over how large my tonsils had been. They made it sound like I had been born out of nuclear run off and was able to produce monster sized useless organs that wowed the medical world. My hospital bed was covered in new toys, balloons hung from the tray table, and there was a never- ending supply of popsicles and ice cream. I had died inside a Mr Sketch marker and woke up in heaven!!
My subsequent hospital visits were never as lucrative as the day my tonsils were removed but in a way they mirrored each other. There were the prayers, the promises, the feeling of being safe and the belief that when I woke up everything was going to be better. Isn’t that what we all experience when faced with a serious illness or medical event? Laying on that lumpy bed as a haggard nurse attempts to poke us with a dull needle we are blatantly reminded of our mortality. We bargain with God and make promises to be better people and to never ever take our health for granted again. We lay there in a fit of self-pity and illness induced misery cursing all the days we wasted while we were healthy. We frantically write bucket lists in our heads of all the things we are going to do once we bust out of the hospital.
But, as is true almost every time, we arrive home, saved from the brink of death, go to work the next day and forget completely all the plans and promises we made to improve our lives. As with New Year’s resolutions, promises made on one’s near death-bed are quickly forgotten once life kicks in again. Like a bloodthirsty landlord, life is demanding to the point that we feel selfish when we try to work on ourselves and insignificant when we try to make a difference for others.
I too have failed miserably at following through with my grand plans but found other ways to make things happen. So many times I vowed to join a fitness club then look through the windows of a 24 hour fitness facility to see all those other women in their synchronized Fabletics outfits and I turn around, put on my boots and start hiking the hills and woods of my home. I plan to volunteer then run across a child whose family home burned down and I buy her a replacement for the beloved toy she lost in the fire. I take food to those who don’t have family, I help out the instant I see someone in need. Yes volunteer organizations are wonderful and necessary but sometimes you can’t wait for a group to find an area of need to work on. Sometimes you just need to go out into the world and help on your own with no coordinator or committee. Afterall, didn’t those who have made the most difference in this world throughout history start out with a single act of kindness?
The problem with life is we make things too complicated for ourselves so that the simplest of things turn in to major undertakings that require too much of our already depleted energy. We fail to get started and so we set aside our plans all together only to write them down again when some disaster befalls our lives. Hospital beds are a comfort but also that place where we are allowed too much time in which our lives flash before our eyes and we depress ourselves when we see how little we have accomplished. By what measure do we gauge the success of our efforts? A very inaccurate one I would suspect.
The point of all of this is that sometimes life gives us wakeup calls. Sometimes we are thrown against the wall and reminded of our mortality for a moment and then we are returned to our everyday routines. The choice is ours what to do with the extra time we have been blessed with because we all know that it could go either way. Our lives can be snuffed out in an instant with no second chance to make our mark on this world. I was reminded of this recently when someone very dear to me passed away suddenly. He was diagnosed with leukemia and within two weeks we had lost him. For a year he had battled pneumonia and diabetes then the leukemia. I watched him go from making plans to do more in the years he thought he had left to just saying “I cannot fight anymore.”
My plea to all of you is to do everything. Put nothing off until later or tomorrow or next month. Do not wait for a catastrophic event to wake you up to the reality that there is no tomorrow there is just right here and right now. Open that door for the lady with her arms full of groceries, pay for the order of the person in line behind you, make a child smile, cook something and share it with a neighbor who has no one to share a meal with. You do not have to be Mother Teresa to make a difference. Just shut off your mind and all its voices telling you to stay out of it or that you don’t have time or that you won’t make a difference. Wake up and let your heart do what it was designed to do, just love.