On September 14, 2017, my wife Kate was in a freak accident in the wilds of Northern Wisconsin. She broke her back in two places, broke her femur and suffered a serious concussion that occasionally bares its teeth a year and a half later. She was fortunate, as the results of the accident could have been much more serious, if not fatal. I flew to Green Bay where we spent two weeks in the physical therapy ward (after ICU) of St. Vincent Hospital. With the help of my friend Dave (who I can never repay), we brought Kate back to Cincinnati in a rented RV that was not designed for comfort or medical transport. Several days after returning to Cincinnati, I wrote the following, occasionally rambling, entry into my journal. I had forgotten about it until today when I was flipping through the pages of the now-full notebook. While obviously personal, I’ve decided to share it because it reminded me how our instinct to label life events as “good” or “bad,” “negative” or “positive,” is folly…and short-sighted.
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 3, 2017
Our fleeting existence. How much changes in two weeks, in one hour, in one instant, one breath. A moment of absent-mindedness, caught in the unparalleled beauty of nature, and I am summoned from my comfortable solitude-with nothing more than a daily schedule and benign responsibilities-to karma yoga, to the role of caregiver, of relinquishing the pettiness of self for other. The dance changes to reflect a new melody and suddenly one moves from “leading” the dance to following the other’s lead. To be sure, it is often a complicated dance as each must surrender important aspects of self, aspects that tend to define us in our material, self-centered, individualist world. Yesterday, I was a writer, a father, a bread-winner, a sometimes shallow, cynical smart-ass. Today, I am the guy who empties the bedpan countless times during the day, the guy who is summoned in the middle of the night by agonizing moans of discomfort. You are forced to abandon worldly pursuits, replacing them with a new-found grace, mercy you didn’t know you possessed. After a while, bed-pan duty becomes a gratifying part of the dance, instead of an unpleasant chore. You embrace her helplessness with something, some quality you rarely, if ever, have experienced: selflessness. Not always perfect, to be sure. How suddenly selfishness can appear at your doorstep, grabbing you by the throat, squeezing out a healthy serving of self-pity and resentment as your mind fills with images of what you could be doing if this hadn’t happened “TO YOU.” And then, you lay witness to her pain, her frustration, her helplessness, and you are jettisoned out of self-pity’s orbit, back to earth, to solid ground, to the sacred, the uncompromising love that is made manifest by the bedpan, the nightly injection of medicine to prevent clotting in essentially immobile legs. And you reflect on how it all seemed so ideal a few weeks, all of the pieces in place, tidy, comfortable, serene. Then the accident, followed by the maelstrom, the indignities of sleepless nights in a hospital hideaway bed, the hourly nurse visits ensuring you not a moment of privacy. You somehow yearn for that ideal picture. But then it strikes you, like God or your Higher Power or the Universe, grabbing you by the face, pulling you close enough so that you smell the breath of life. And it says, “Doug, don’t you see this is ALL perfect?” That what we label a freak, unfortunate accident is not an accident at all, but divine intervention, a cosmic disruption to remind you how fragile is this existence of ours, how shallow our attachments and desires and petty resentments, and binge-watching escapism and addictions and same-day delivery and sexual misadventures and 401K balances. You realize, indeed, how perfect it all is because it transforms, it forces you, albeit at “gunpoint,” to exist fully in the moment. It compels you to love through the piss and the vomit and 2 AM cries of agony and the frustration, the sense you can’t magically make it better for her, that it can’t get better than this fucking moment. Only then do you accept the moment, smile sheepishly at God, reach for the bedpan and begin the next moment of Grace anew.