The following is a first hand account of the experience of facing one’s mortality. I find it insightful and it gives me much food for thought. How do we face our mortality?
Mortality and the Gift of Perspective
The first thing I was aware of was my husband George asking frantically, “Can you breathe? Can you breathe?” He had found me in our home unconscious, face down, in a pool of blood. I was absolutely still, he said, and he thought I might be dead. But then he heard a bubbling sound as I tried to find air through my nose. He was afraid to move me, lest I had broken something — my neck, for example. So he very carefully rotated my face out of the blood so I could breathe. I was coming around by that time, so he slowly helped me sit up. Then he got wet towels to clean the blood off my face, which he said was totally red with the stuff. He asked me if I could stand, and I was able to do so, by using him as a bench to push myself up from the floor. He walked me over to the sofa and told me that we should go to the emergency room. This I did not want to do, because even in my very dazed state, I knew I would be sitting there for hours, waiting to be seen, and I just wanted to rest. But when George called the emergency room physician for advice, he said to bring me in right away, that there was not much of a wait.
When we got there, George insisted on putting me in a wheelchair, and wheeled me in. Why all this attention? I’m all right. I had to wait only a few minutes before being called into the intake room, and then my memory fails me again, because the next thing I vaguely recall was the pain at having a catheter inserted. I had become unconscious a second time, and had experienced what the staff was calling “a seizure.” So then comes the neck brace, the oxygen mask, the IV. At this point I was wheeled away for an MRI. Or so George says. I have no memory of any of this. No permanent damage was discovered, so I was released after several hours with the diagnosis of a concussion.
A week or so later, I saw Dr. Ferguson, a seizure specialist. I had had two episodes of grand mal seizures from stress over 40 years ago. Was this a recurrence? I knew that I had all of the indicators that made me vulnerable to stress seizures: a viral infection, exhaustion from a two and a half week tour of speaking engagements, and serious jet lag from the trip back home. Dr. Ferguson said,”If you had seizures this time around, they were atypical. I don’t know what happened. No one can tell you what happened. You had a … brain event.” I appreciated her candor, her honesty. Did I have an atypical seizure, initially, and then another seizure in the emergency room? Did I faint, because of exhaustion and dehydration? Did I, in fact, trip on the rug, the edge of which was upturned, but hit the floor before I had a chance to catch myself? Or did some other physical phenomena occur, some unknown something or other which put me down, which could have killed me, and which I have no knowledge of, and no way to protect myself from? What remains is a lot of fear.
Dr. Ferguson is wise. She said to me, “This was very frightening for you. You have come face-to-face with your mortality.” That would be correct. I am a changed person, in some fundamental ways. I know more about what is important to me. I mean, I know more, not just intellectually, but in my bones, in my blood. I know I love my husband, my husband of less than three years, not just in the way I used to say, “Love you, Honey,” when he leaves in the morning, but I love him in the way I love my own flesh. Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. We are married anew.
When I met George and we fell so suddenly, drastically in love, I was in my late 60s, and he was in his early 70s. I told him, teasing and yet halfway meaning it: “I’ll marry you, if you will give me 30 years.” After all, people live to be more than 100 years old these days, don’t they? One of my congregants when I did an interim ministry in Boca Raton, Fla., was 103 years old. His name was Herb, and he was there every Sunday, third row, chair on the end. Happens all the time nowadays — centenarians breaking through time, challenging the ravages of age. That’s the way I thought, because that’s the way I wanted to think. I wanted our lives together to go on for a very long time.
Was I denying reality? We all do, in order to function. We can’t imagine the automobile accident when we start the car, or the stroke that floored grandmother, the one whose genes for high blood pressure we inherited. We don’t know, any of us, how much longer we have on this earth, but we do know that the older we get, the shorter that time is likely to be. Our bodies are not machines that can be repaired and restored endlessly. They stop healing so quickly, they wear out, they will at some point break down irrevocably, and we will leave this mortal flesh. Existentially, it is impossible for most of us to actually understand that we will one day not exist, although that is what is in store. It is the natural course of things. Part of Buddhist practice is to imagine one’s own death, to further imagine one’s corpse decaying. The Buddhists say, “We are of the nature to become ill. We are of the nature to die.” So it seems.
The great value of coming close to death, by accident or illness, is the gift of perspective. The gestalt of our daily existence becomes distinct, and what is trivial drops away to make room for the essential. And what is the essential? Love in all its forms. We discover that we have no interest in grudges, little patience with gossip, no use for sarcasm. Anger gives way to the deep sadness that is its one true source, and we wonder at the foolishness of hate. We look at others as they go about their daily living, judging and misjudging people, getting in a tiff over a parking ticket, complaining yet again about the weather. And we think, “Stop it! Don’t you understand? We don’t have time.”
So what do we have time for, my darlings? We have time to notice the flight of the smallest sparrow, to imagine and dream, to take pleasure in beauty in all its forms, to relish good food. We have time to live in thankfulness, which is another way of saying to pray without ceasing. We have time to hear a cry for help. We have time to be present and available, to be still and give ourselves to the moment. We have time to be fully alive in the days we have been given, for they are numbered.
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