Healing Melodies

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul
It is well
With my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
– Horatio Spafford
Just recently, while I was laboring in the emergency department, I discovered an old, familiar church song reverberating through my consciousness. Delighted to recall this moving tune, I softly sang “It is Well with My Soul” throughout the shift, somewhat ameliorating the maddening chaos.
This remembrance shouldn’t have come as a surprise, as I was raised in the Methodist Church, and every so often on Wednesday services, the congregation would happily put aside the modern hymnbook and break out the weathered, brown Cokesbury Worship Hymnal.  Ah, what glorious music was printed on those venerable pages!  Not only was “It is Well with My Soul” among the songs listed, but also “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Nearer, My God to Thee,” “In the Garden,” among many other memorable Christian classics.  After years of singing them repeatedly, the words and melodies became indelibly etched in my mind, and, without fail, their rendition bestowed on me a warm, tranquil feeling, connecting me with a heartfelt, sacred time and space.
With this in mind, in the months prior to my mother’s death, knowing how much she loved these precious songs, often I would sing a handful of them to her as she lay in her hospital bed.  When she was conscious, I would sing ones that she requested, invariably bringing a smile to her face. But, as death insidiously approached, she gradually became comatose, yet still I would repeatedly sing her favorites at the bedside, tears flowing from my eyes, feeling that somehow, someway, she could hear them. In this way, my mother and I were still able to communicate up to the moment of her death, giving me no small measure of comfort through those challenging times.
So, the next time I feel pressured or out of sorts, for whatever reason, I will try to recall songs of meaning from my past.  In spite of the pain of the moment, the discomfort can be soothed and made bearable by healing melodies.  Clearly, Horatio Spafford was right.
No matter the circumstances, it is well with my soul.

The Son I Never Knew

Sometimes, I wonder

What my son would look like now

If he had survived

The devastating tragedy of February 12, 1979

The day of his childbirth

The day he died

Sometimes, flashes cross my mind from that fateful time

Moments magnified, agonizing, gut-wrenching

Ones that take my breath away

Yet, in the midst of the chaos

I see his newborn face

He is so beautiful

Sometimes, I miss the moments we should have had together

Changing his diapers

Watching him take his first steps

Wiping his tears

Seeing him off to school

Little joys, never shared

Time heals all wounds – or so they say . . .

Yet, year after year, on Memorial Day

I tearfully stand before his lonely grave

And gaze down at the cold, rose granite marker

I look at his name etched upon it

Aware that dusty, cremated remains lie below

Remnants of a baby that once lived and breathed

My baby . . .

I feel an odd mixture of sadness, anger and remorse

And I wonder what might have been

I breathe deeply, in and out, and I try to understand

And yet . . . I never do

Texting

While you were texting,

you never saw the smile on your loved one’s face,

the twinkle in her eyes,

her arms as she reached out to you,

or heard her caring words.

While you were texting,

precious moments passed by,

ones that could have been shared with others,

ones that could have been filled with meaning.

Instead, you chose to focus your attention on a device,

picking out letters on a sterile, unfeeling keyboard,

ignoring the world around you,

a world that begs you to embrace it,

in all its beauty and complexity.

The glories of technology

can never replace the sparkle of a dewdrop,

the glowing corona of the sun,

the hummingbird as it darts about,

the juicy taste of a ripened peach,

or the smell of freshly-turned earth.

There is an opposite to mindfulness,

and that is:

Texting

Someday

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Someday, I may be cold.

But now, I have warm clothes and a comfortable home.

Someday, my vision may blur.

But now, I see the azure blue of the sky, blades of lush green grass and the soft glow of the morning sun.

Someday, I may be hungry.

But now, I enjoy the taste of good food and the feeling of a full stomach.

Someday, I may lose my sense of smell.

But now, I delight in the aroma of flowers and the fresh scent of air after a rain.

Someday, I may be alone.

But now, I treasure the softness of my wife’s body as we sleep together.

Someday, my hearing may leave me.

But now, I listen to the twitter of birds dancing outside my window.

Someday, the pets I love will no longer be at my side.

But now, I value rubbing their furry heads and seeing the love in their eyes.

Someday, my health will fail.

But now, I appreciate my wellness.

Someday, those I love will die.

But now, I hold each second with them as sacred.

Someday, no one of this earth will be aware that I existed.

But now, many know me.

Someday, when I die, I will leave everything of the Earth behind.

But now, I embrace my life.

In the present moment, someday does not exist.

Only the here and now.

And for that, I am grateful.

An Ocean of Wildflowers

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One might guess, after sixty-four years of life, that I would know when I needed to go to the wilderness to experience her healing caress. But older is not necessarily wiser . . .

The turmoil started around two weeks ago, when I noticed that I was getting grumpy and argumentative.  Besides that, events that would not normally have affected me became blown out of proportion and assumed an exaggerated sense of importance.  As my fuse became shorter, the pressure inside me ratcheted up, and I felt like a time bomb waiting to explode.  In all fairness, I had recently been working more emergency department shifts than usual, and the difficulty of the patients had been extraordinarily high. Life and death decisions are never easy, and when I came home on such days, I was tired, irritable and depleted.

After waiting far too long, I finally realized I was at my wit’s end, and decided I needed to get away to the wilderness. Knowing I had the day free, I packed my trusty backpack, hopped in my 2004 Honda CR-V and headed for the Wichitas, a hiking Mecca in southwest Oklahoma, an area that oozed with the energy of the Native American.  I took the hour and a half drive in silence and focused on the road, while letting my consciousness randomly move in whatever direction needed.  I breathed deep, in and out, saying a silent prayer that I might find peace and healing.

When I drove into the Wichitas, I was delighted to discover that recent rainfalls had sprung the usually dry mountains to life, and they were green, verdant, and full of expectant energy.  After parking, I trekked through the rocky entrance of the Charon’s Garden Wilderness, and I began to time my breathing with my measured steps.  A short time later, I added my favorite mantra, given by the Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, repeating silently with my in- and out breaths, calming, smiling, present moment, wonderful moment.  Farther down the trail, I stopped my internal chanting and began softly singing “My Sweet Lord,” by George Harrison, and later I switched to the old Christian classic, “Nearer, My God to Thee.” I felt my consciousness expanding, and as I topped the plateau that led to Crab Eyes, a pair of boulders that rests on top of a nearby mountain, I was blessed by the grandeur of an ocean of beautiful wildflowers.  I caught my breath as blossoms of many varied colors,  mostly yellows and reds, smiled at me.  It was as if they were saying:   Troubled?  Weary?  Stay here and linger with us, and you will find comfort. As I gazed at their magnificence, I was reminded of the words of Jesus, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Indeed . . .

I walked across the grassy plateau, and, after hiking a bit longer, chose a rocky outcrop hidden away from the trail, a place where I had a panoramic view of Crab Eyes. I fondly looked up at the formation, and, in my way of thinking, they represented the caring, comforting eyes of God, always aware of me and what I was going through, whatever the situation. I felt reassured and closed my eyes. Once again, I focused on my breath, and I quietly listened inside and let the soothing peace of the wilderness flow into me. With time, I roused from my meditation, feeling refreshed and released from a good part of the heaviness that had previously pressed down on me. With Crab Eyes benevolently looking down at me, I opened my backpack and enjoyed a wilderness meal of a mandarin orange, native Oklahoma pecans, chocolate and a granola bar.  Once again, all felt right with the world. I sighed in contentment.

Lunch finished, I stood, shouldered my backpack and trekked back down the path toward the trailhead.  Once again, I experienced the beaming, joyful faces of the delicate, colorful wildflowers, and I wondered why I had waited so long to experience the healing of the wilderness.  As I considered that thought, I realized that a healthy diet, exercise, and a regular meditation practice are simply not enough to sustain me through the trials and tribulations of working in the emergency department.  Every so often, no matter how sound my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual practices, I need the benevolent nurturing of Mother Nature.

Next time, I promise that I will go to the wilderness before the situation gets out of hand.  And maybe, just maybe, my wildflower friends will again be there to greet me.

A Good Man

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An emergency department is a stress pit, a lake of exhaustion washing over all who work there.  The demanding environment smothers physicians, nurses, paramedics, EMTs, and anyone else who dares enter the battle zone in the war to save lives.  For over thirty-eight years, I have worked as an emergency physician.  I know the terms of engagement.

For physicians, in particular, one of our most difficult duties comes with informing family members that their loved one has died.  How I wish the Grim Reaper, with his frightening black robe and scythe, was a less familiar figure in emergency medicine, but he’s not. He’s always lurking in dark, secluded corners, hoping to collect his prey, and to his delight, the targets continue to arrive.  Hardly a week goes by that I don’t see a patient who presents in cardiac arrest and dies, despite our efforts.

Some families, recognizing the deteriorating condition of their loved ones, prepare for death by having DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) papers signed, and perhaps have arranged Hospice care. With these measures in place, the terminally ill one is given the chance to die peacefully at home.

But sometimes there are those, in seemingly good health, whose heart unexpectedly stops, and they come to me strapped to a stretcher in the back of a speeding, careening ambulance with lights flashing and sirens blaring.  Soon afterward, terrified family members show up at the emergency department, clinging to the hope that somehow, someway, their loved one was pulled from the bank of the River Styx, back into the land of the living.

I understand why families cling to such belief. Nearly every medical show on television has amazingly high resuscitation rates, which creates the expectation that health and recovery wait in the emergency department. The assumption leaves the physician with a difficult problem in explaining emergency death to families who do not realize that, in the real world, in spite of our technological advances, the overall chance of survival after cardiac arrest is abysmally low.

In reflection, I admit that, as medical students, we were never given a course on how to tell family members about the death of their beloved one.  Rather, by observing our attending and resident physicians, we formulated our own way of handling this most challenging task.  Perhaps, in this day and age, with medical humanism coming more and more to the forefront, this important skill is taught.

As an emergency physician, when someone dies, I do the very best I can to inform families of their loved one’s death in a caring and professional manner.  In spite of my years of experience in performing this demanding task, it has not become easier, and I don’t expect it to.

When a patient has passed away, usually, the process goes something like this.  Shortly after I have pronounced the patient dead, I enter the family room with the deceased’s chart in hand and introduce myself.  After sitting down and facing the family, I don’t delay in telling the bad news.  People don’t want to hear a long, drawn-out story before I announce the dreaded truth.  As quickly and gently as possible, I let them know their loved one has died. After they’ve had some moments to grieve, I ask to hear the story of the events surrounding the death so I can tell their family doctor, and later the medical examiner, the details of what happened. Empathy and expression of my sorrow for their loss are important to provide, for at this critical moment they are likely as vulnerable as they have ever been; the world they live in has been changed forever.

Most of the time, the members of the family are too stunned to have much to say, but on one particular occasion, I remember a very different ending to the conversation, one that will be forever imprinted in my mind.

 

One chilly winter day, I was scurrying around the emergency department, trying to keep up with crowds of sick people, when one of the nurses approached me, scratching some notes on a yellow pad.

“Doctor Conrad, the ambulance is bringing in a seventy-eight year old male in cardiac arrest. Their ETA is ten minutes.”

“Was it witnessed?” I asked, knowing that those who are by themselves when their heart stops—and don’t receive immediate CPR—are very unlikely to be resuscitated.

“No. He was last seen two hours before.”

“What was his initial rhythm?”

“Asystole.”

No heartbeat at all.  Not good, I thought.

“What is it now?”

“Still asystole.”

“How long have they been working the patient?”

“Thirty minutes.”

I shook my head, thinking: This patient doesn’t have a prayer, but we’ll do what we can. 

Promptly ten minutes later, I was waiting in the Code Room with several emergency nurses, when I heard the sound of an opening door and smelled the exhaust of an ambulance.  In seconds, the paramedic and EMT hurriedly rolled the patient into the room, IVs hanging from both arms. A fireman was performing chest compressions on him, while another was giving oxygen by ventilating him through an endotracheal tube, a hollow plastic tube the paramedic had placed in the patient’s airway.

They moved the patient from their stretcher to ours, where I performed a quick examination while CPR was in progress. The patient looked older than seventy-eight.  Must have been sick for a while, I thought. My initial inspection revealed his pupils were fixed and dilated. No cardiac sounds. No voluntary respirations. Good breath sounds with bagging. Abdomen mildly distended.

I asked the paramedic, “Update me.”

Her shirt was soaked in sweat as she quickly and concisely spoke. “Mr. Evans has a long history of hypertension, non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus and had a coronary artery bypass graft some years ago. He’s on multiple cardiac meds. You’ve heard the report I gave to the nurse?”

“Yes.”

She added, “He’s still in asystole.”

“How long has he been down?” I asked.

“About fifty minutes have passed since the call.  Who knows how long he’s actually been in arrest, though.  We’ve been working him for around forty minutes.”

“Meds?”

“Seven rounds of epinephrine, two amps of bicarb.”

“When was his last does of epi?”

“Three minutes ago.”

By then, the nurses had transferred the emergency department cardiac monitor to the patient.

“Stop compressions,” I said to the fireman.

When he paused, I felt for a pulse and looked carefully at the rhythm on the monitor.  No pulse.

Flatline.

I directed, “Confirm asystole in two leads and check for a pulse with a Doppler.”

The results were as I expected; asystole was verified on the monitor, and no pulse was heard with the sensitive Doppler probe.

He’s dead, I thought. I wish there was something more I could do for him, but there’s not.

I grimly told those in attendance, “This patient is DOA. Time pronounced is 1330. Let me know when the family arrives. Good job, everyone.”

 

Minutes later, as I worked on his chart, one of the nurses walked up and said, “The wife of the patient in the Code Room is here. She’s in the family room.”

“Anyone with her?” I asked.

“No.”

I felt sad that the wife had to deal with the death of her husband by herself, yet I grabbed the chart and fought my way down the cold, institutional hall through a thick barrier of questions, screams and unpleasant odors.  I knocked on the door of the family room, entered and discovered a slender, gray-haired woman who appeared to be in her mid seventies.

“I’m Doctor Gary Conrad,” I said. “Are you Mrs. Evans?”

She nodded.

I pulled up a chair and sat in front of her.  “I have some bad news for you.  Your husband has passed away. He’s dead.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “I knew he was gone,” she said softly.

I took a deep breath and asked, “What happened?”

“Charlie had not been in the best of health,” she explained. “He went to the bedroom to take a nap this morning because he wasn’t feeling well. When I went to check on him, he didn’t respond and wasn’t breathing.”  She repressed a soft sob and put her hand to her mouth. She took a few moments to regain her composure before she continued, “I then called 911 and did CPR, but I felt sure I had lost him.”

“I’m so sorry,” I sympathetically said. “I’ve already talked to the paramedic, and with Mr. Evan’s past medical history, I’m certain his death will be confirmed as natural by the medical examiner. Once that’s done, we’ll take out all the tubes and you can see your husband.  Do you have any other family coming in?”

“Yes, I do, but I want to see him as soon as possible.  I don’t care if the tubes are removed.”

“I understand. Once we’ve finished speaking, his nurse will come for you and lead you back to his room.”  I stood to leave and asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Yes, Doctor Conrad, let me tell you about my husband.”

Surprised, I sat back down.

She smiled through the tears. “Many years ago, when I was a young woman, my first husband died and left me with three small children. Then I met Charlie Evans, my second husband-to-be, and we fell in love.  And you know what he did?”

“No.”

Tears now streamed freely down her cheeks and her voice began to break. “After we were married, he adopted my children . . . and raised them as his own.  He was a wonderful father . . . and a good man. I will miss him terribly.”

I felt my face begin to flush, and my eyes welled with tears.

She looked at me with probing brown eyes and whispered, “I thought you should know that.”

“I’m glad you told me . . . thank you.” I stood and gently squeezed her shoulder. “His nurse will be with you shortly.”

I left the room and walked back to my desk, grabbing some tissue to wipe away the tears. As I thought about what just happened, I realized that in emergency medicine we have a tendency to dehumanize our patients, for if we know them as fathers, mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers or any role in life where they loved and loved deeply, then it’s just too painful.

Mr. Evans was more than just a body—one we tried to revive that day.

He was a good man.

Smartphones, Tools or Traps?

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The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Distractions to giving our full attention to others have existed since time immemorial.  In the prehistoric era, I can picture a cavewoman having an engaging conversation with her caveman husband.  The discussion was going well until he became entranced by the sight of a saber-tooth tiger having a fight with a woolly mammoth outside their cave. Frustrated by his lack of attentiveness, she booted him out of the cave, only to discover the next morning that the saber-tooth tiger had decided her husband was a much tastier meal than the woolly mammoth  Or, picture in ancient Egypt, when Mark Antony wanted to chat with Cleopatra about their problem-child daughter, Cleopatra Selene, who had been flirting with the next door neighbor’s son.  While Mark was tearfully baring his heart and soul, he abruptly realized that Cleopatra was staring through the open window at an attractive slave boy working in the garden. Angry, and seriously thinking about strangling his Egyptian lover, he yells “Stercore!” – Latin for “Shit!”- threw his goblet of wine against the wall and stalked out of the room. In more recent times, while not nearly as dramatic as the scenes described above, the television has captivated many a man, who preferred to watch football games on their big-screen TVs rather than listen to the demands of wives or children.

The latest in our longstanding history of compelling distractions is not the saber-tooth tiger, the woolly mammoth, the sensuous slave boy or a football game, rather, it’s the smartphone.  One seems to be in everyone’s hands, and when I was in India last year, even among the poorest of the poor, many were chit-chatting on them nonstop.  Why is that?, one might  ask.  I believe that never has such a intoxicating and powerful technological instrument been so readily available to John Q. Public.  In the not-so-distant past, access to the wisdom of the universe was limited to astrophysicists, nuclear scientists and highbrow, ivory tower intellectuals, who were willing to spend long hours digging through dusty tomes in the hidden recesses of a library. Now, anyone with a smartphone can search worldwide for information at a moment’s notice.

Besides the Internet, another fringe benefit is that a person can communicate with anyone, anytime.  Need to say hi to a friend?  Knock out a text.  Want to wish happy birthday to a sister who lives in Albania?  Make a quick call. There are no limits, no boundaries; the world is at one’s fingertips. Also, with a smartphone, the public has the rather amazing capability to keep in touch with all the latest happenings. A notification beep goes off whenever an email, tweet, or news flash is received.

And what about gaming and apps?  When someone is between appointments, what better way to kill time than to enjoy a comforting game of Solitaire or perhaps snoop around the local environs in search of a rare Pokemon?  Depending on one’s mood and inclination, maybe download some new apps and explore other games or programs?

One problem with this immediacy of information, communication and entertainment is its incredible allure.  When I hear that mesmerizing beep, it draws me to my smartphone much like a mythological Greek siren, and it takes all the will power I can muster to resist its magnetic call.  Most of us will drop whatever we are doing to discover what the meaning is of the captivating signal. What could the beep represent? Did I win the lottery?  Did the Oklahoma City Thunder win their last basketball game?  Did a tornado alert get issued for my area?  

What is the solution to this all-consuming madness?  I believe Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh would patiently inform us that the answer lies in mindfulness, and one should give full attention to whatever is happening in the present moment. While certainly there are times when multitasking is important, in most instances it’s best to keep the mind one-pointed.  To give few examples:  Driving a car?  Try to ignore the beep from the smartphone, especially if motoring on the interstate going seventy miles-per-hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Even a quick glance to discover the source of the beep could be risky business. Having lunch with friends? Unless one needs to be available for life-or-death emergencies, leave the smartphone in the car.  Close companions deserve one’s complete attention and nothing less. Taking a stroll outside?  Try putting the smartphone on silent, slip it into a pocket and quietly, introspectively, observe the surroundings.  One might hear a bird singing a lilting melody, see an ant scurrying by on the grass, enjoy a nod and wave from a stranger, and – one can only hope –  view an orange and black monarch butterfly majestically soaring into a deep, blue cloudless sky. One might be surprised at the beauty and interconnections that can be discovered, if only willing to observe them.

In my way of thinking, the goal should be for us to own our smartphones, and not let our smartphones own us.  While technology is an important aspect of our society and is to be valued, far more meaningful is our connectedness to humanity and nature. If Buddha walked among us, he would recommend the Middle Path, not being extreme in any one direction. As I ponder his wisdom, I realize that could also include the appropriate, measured use of smartphones.

So, if you had to pick one over the other, would you choose to see a smile or hear the latest events?

For me, it’s an easy call . . . I mean choice.

India

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Is this love of mine blind sentiment
That sees not the pathways of reason?
Ah, no! I love India,
For there I learned first to love God
and all things beautiful.
Some teach to seize the fickle dewdrop, life,
Sliding down the lotus leaf of time;
Stubborn hopes are built
Around the gilded, brittle body-bubble.
But India taught me to love

– Paramahansa Yogananda, from “My India”

In March of this year, my wife, Sheridan, and I set out on a exploratory journey to India and Sri Lanka, in hope of gathering information for a sequel to my first book, “The Lhasa Trilogy.”  As far as India is concerned, though, planned events are never as they seem to be.  I had gone there in 1992 to seek out miracle workers, formerly described in my book, “Oklahoma Is Where I Live.”  As I suggested in that writing, spiritual saints were few and far between, but a true miracle occurred on my return home, when my rose-colored glasses were abruptly ripped from my face, and the illusions I had previously swallowed – hook, line, and sinker – disintegrated into the ethers, revealing the stark, shocking truth.  While extremely painful at the time, this newfound wisdom eventually transported me into a far better existence, and I will be forever grateful to India for being the catalyst that set the wheels in motion. But that was then, and I couldn’t help but wonder, What now?

Everything started innocently enough. After painstaking research and pondering carefully what I wanted to write about, we set our travel plans. First, we were to depart from Oklahoma City, eventually arriving in New Delhi.  From there, we would fly to Goa, where we would take a four hour drive over the mountains to Hubli. Then we would motor to Mundgod and visit my longtime friend, Gen Tsesum Tashi, an eighty-eight year old Tibetan monk. Next we would travel to the ancient Badami caves, followed by a flight to Agra to view the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal, and afterward to Aurangabad, to walk through the mystical Ellora and Ajanta caves.  Our last day in India would be in Mumbai, from where we would fly to Sri Lanka for the final leg of our tour.

While I could write a tome about our varied experiences in India, one precious, sacred event stands out in my mind, and that was the time spent with Gen Tsesum Tashi.  I began sponsoring him over twenty years ago when I attended a Tibetan fundraiser in Norman, Oklahoma, and picked his picture out from a stack of photographs of monks who needed patrons.  He was much older than the others, yet his gentle, kind features drew my attention to him. Since that time, I have supported him with a small, monthly donation, one that has provided for part of his basic needs. We have been pen pals over the years, and he contributed a great deal of information as I penned “The Lhasa Trilogy.” While I was looking forward to seeing him, I must confess I was a bit anxious about the meeting and wondered how things would go.

After leaving from Hubli that fateful morning, our driver zigzagged on a confusing route through the middle of nowhere in rural India, yet his efforts were rewarded as we finally found the residence of Gen Tsesum Tashi in the Tibetan colony, situated just outside of Mundgod. As we entered his small, cozy quarters, the first thing that struck me was his smile, radiant with love, reminding me much of the Dalai Lama. After introducing ourselves, I asked him, through the assistance of a translator, to tell us the story of his travels from Tibet.  He related that shortly after the Dalai Lama left Tibet, he exited his beloved country along with a small group of Tibetans. They traversed through the mountain passes into Bhutan, and en route they were bombed by Chinese planes. After many travails, they arrived at a refuge camp in northeast India, and eventually they relocated to Mundgod in the southern part, where he has lived since.

After presenting Gen Tsesum Tashi with some small gifts, I asked if we could meditate with him, and we agreed to sit for fifteen minutes.  I closed my eyes, focused on my breath, and after a bit glanced down at my watch. The prescribed time had passed, but my monk friend was still deep in meditation, eyes closed, fingers rhythmically moving his prayer beads, his head slowly rocking back and forth.  I went back into meditation, and fifteen more minutes passed, yet he remained immersed in his contemplation.  Once again I closed my eyes, and after a total of forty-five minutes, Gen Tsesum Tashi continued to be oblivious to the world. At that point, I glanced over at one of the other monks in attendance, who stood and walked over to gently arouse him.  When Gen Tsesum Tashi became conscious of his environment, once again there was that smile – that beaming, beautiful smile.  A short time later, as Sheridan and I were preparing to leave, he said to me, “I know I am an old man, but I hope that before I die, I will see you again.”  I replied, “Of course, I’d like to see you as well.”  We smiled, clasped hands, and as we bowed to each other, we accidentally bumped heads, bringing a chuckle to us both.  When Sheridan and I walked out of the door, tears formed in my eyes as I realized I was leaving the presence of an old, dear friend.  I wondered, Will I ever see him again? God only knows . . .

Now, as I look back, I realize that Gen Tsesum Tashi had spent much of his life devoted to his meditation practice, and his technique had become so finely tuned, he was effortlessly able to go into samadhi, a one-pointed state of consciousness where the stimuli of the world fade away. Samadhi is a state of mind all meditators aspire to – certainly I do – and to witness that ecstatic state firsthand was a blessing beyond measure.  For me, meeting Gen Tsesum Tashi was the unexpected and delightful What now? of my trip to India. While spiritual growth can oftentimes be painful, it doesn’t have to be.

So, what is India?   The best way I can describe it is a steamy, sweaty blend of poverty, spirituality, filth, beauty and challenges. India is a place of self-exploration, certainly not for for the faint of heart or those seeking a light, easy adventure.  As I ponder India, a land of mystery and diversity, a kaleidoscope of images roll through my mind: Cattle wandering through busy city streets, acting as if they own the place – women adorned with beautiful saris, no matter the destitute conditions – copious, foul-smelling diarrhea – bright, loving, curious smiles – women slapping their laundry on rocks in polluted, murky green lakes – cell phones in nearly everyone’s hands – sweltering, penetrating heat – men urinating by the roadside – the stunning beauty of the Taj Mahal – wild monkeys pilfering handbags from terrified tourists – snorting black pigs rooting around through ubiquitous piles of rotting trash – pleading beggars holding their hands out – bathrooms without toilet paper or sinks – tasty, spicy food that is guaranteed to make steam come out of your ears – friendly, loving, peaceful people – and so on. India is an enigma beyond description, a milieu unlike anywhere else in the world. Yet, underlying all the sticky, odorous morass is an inherent, ancient spirituality, bathed in glowing love, just waiting to be discovered.

The next time I’m ready to be tested, reconfigured and raised to the next level, I’d like to return. Like Paramahansa Yogananda, I love India, with all of the intensity and growth opportunities she offers.

Besides, I’ve got a Tibetan friend I’d like to see again.

 

A Flood of Memories

img_20161006_144253                                                    scan0002-2

With the recent passing of my mother, at least once a week I take my eighty-seven year old father out for lunch.  It’s a warm, happy time, as I get to spend one-on-one moments with him, something that rarely happened when my mother was alive. But times have changed, and while I greatly miss my mother, now is the time to focus on my dad, and I’m glad to spend moments with him, a man I admire more than any other.

Recently, as we were returning to his home after eating, I realized we were passing by my old stomping grounds, the area where I lived from second grade until my graduation from high school in 1970. Eleven years I resided there, and when the time for college came, I left my beloved home in southwest Oklahoma City for Stillwater and the orange and black of Oklahoma State University.  As hard as it is to comprehend, over forty-six years have passed since then. Where has the time gone?

Dad was agreeable for a little sashay into the past, much like Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future,” so we made a right turn into the neighborhood and after driving ten blocks, we arrived at 64th Street.  Another right turn and four houses later, our old digs came into view.  I was astonished to discover how small the red-brick home appeared. When I was a lad, it seemed much larger.  How did our family of five fit into such a tiny place?

When I stepped out of the car to take a picture, shown above, I was flooded with a kaleidoscope of memories, a collection of odd snippets that I couldn’t believe I still remembered.  I recalled when the neighbor to our east planted a mimosa tree, which grew into an overshadowing, lurking giant, and how my father and mother hated cleaning up the debris that it shed on our lawn. Through the chain link fence, I could see the infamous storm shelter, mentioned in “Oklahoma Is Where I Live,” the one constructed by my father, with the assistance of my uncle Dale, which leaked an ocean of murky water onto its floor. I remembered when my father planted multicolored ornamental pepper plants in the front flower beds, ones we were just supposed to admire, but we tried to eat them anyway, much to our fiery dismay.  And who could forget the time Dad lovingly bought a train set for us, which, when not in use, was kept raised up on pulleys in the garage?  I also looked back on the moments my brother and I were coerced into going to my sister Connie’s dance recitals and trying not to squirm in our seats. I recalled the ping pong matches my brother and I used to have, bitter games of high intensity that often led to angry disagreements, and the times my amazingly tolerant parents allowed us to invite our friends over on Friday nights for penny-ante poker, many of us smoking Swisher Sweets Cigars and trying to act like professional gamblers.

Of course, how could I not recall puppies – lots of them.  We had two fox terrier mixes, Snappy, the male – my first dog, and Mandy, the female – my brother’s dog – and they produced litter after litter of cute, wiggly puppies. One such litter is seen above, with me to the left of the photo, and my brother, Jim, to the right. Nothing in the known Universe is better than snuggling up to an adorable puppy, one that is bound and determined to lick you in the face.

Dad and I then decided to drive around and check out the old neighborhood. Again, powerful unbidden memories swept through my consciousness, wanting once again to be remembered. Across the street from our home was the residence of Charlie and Michael Babb, neighborhood chums my brother and I wrestled and played games of football and baseball with, occasionally breaking out windows when we were lucky enough to hit long fly balls.  My bud Marvin Turner’s home was just around the corner, and a block north was the home of Lisa Forrester, a young lady I had a longstanding, unrequited crush on. We drove past the houses of old friends George Hargraves, Patty Keller, Adena Shepherd, Sarah Thompson, Phil Calame, well, the list goes on and on, all bringing up warm feelings of bygone times.

After I returned Dad back to his home, more recollections flooded my mind, and this process went on for days, pulsing in and out of my awareness. As I basked in their glow, I realized that the feeling of love and connection that bathed and protected me as a young boy continued to surround me, even as an adult.  As I look deep inside myself, I realize how important it was that I felt safe, a blessing not every child had.  Not that I wasn’t exposed to neighborhood bullies and occasional cringe-worthy moments – I was – but overriding all of this was a feeling of security, love and the opportunity to morph into the person I would become.  As the twig is bent . . .

So, thank you, Mom and Dad, for finding a house in such a tightly-knit neighborhood and providing a loving home environment for me to grow up in. You gave me a firm foundation upon which I was able to eventually go to college, become a physician, raise three daughters and, finally, evolve into an author. Also, thank you, all my old friends, wherever you may be, for contributing memories I will cherish forever. And, most of all, thank you, God, for giving me the opportunity to live and breathe, and allowing me to appreciate the simple pleasures in life.

Such as being licked by a tail-wagging puppy.

Damn the Torpedoes

IMG_20160822_114544  “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’.”  – Erma Bombeck

Do you recall the days when you were young, and the world was at your fingertips?  Nothing, no nothing could get in your way, and any setbacks were only temporary.  Death was a distant reality, too far away to even think about. You effortlessly cavorted around your difficulties, much like a ballet dancer in perfect form. Nothing could stop you; you were Superboy or Supergirl, the strongest of the strong. You were untouchable and invincible, at least, that’s how it seemed in the Pollyanna days.

Then, with time, inevitable chinks began to appear in your shining, perfect armor. You might find yourself in a job that is less than satisfying. Your Cinderella marriage, one you planned to stay in for life, perhaps had significant problems or even failed. Health issues may start to appear, ones with no ready solutions.  Loved ones fall away – no maybe about this one – death claiming those most dear to you, and the grim specter of your upcoming death begins to look you directly in the eyes.  The stark realization occurs that, unless you are Elijah of biblical fame, there is no escaping your demise, and the only question is:  How bad will it be?  The “Golden Years” becomes a hollow jest, and with a start you realize the joke’s on you.  Pretty heavy, isn’t it?

With all this in mind, just recently I had my sixty-fourth birthday, and as I approach the Medicare and Social Security years, more than occasionally I think about the idealism of my youth, the hard lessons – growth experiences – that life provided me, and the inevitability of death.  It’s amazing, though not surprising, how your perspective changes as you grow older. That said, unlike many in Western society who prefer to avoid the whole idea of dying and moldering in the grave, I choose not to get too overly concerned about my eventual demise. Not that I wouldn’t profoundly miss the day-to-day relationships with those I love and the joys that life offers, certainly I would. But I don’t think of dying in a dark, morbid way, rather, I view it as a transition, a movement from one phase of existence into another.

When that fated time comes,  I don’t want to be as a bright-eyed, cherubic youth, untouched by the experiences of life. Rather, I prefer to be like the gnarled, dead tree pictured at the beginning of this article, one I discovered lying on the ground in the Wichita Mountains. As the tree, the scars inflicted on me would show that I tried to engage life and live it as fully as possible, perhaps frightened at times, and maybe even scared out of my mind, but overall, willing to take chances.

Chief Tecumseh once wisely said, “When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”

If you live your life fully – not perfectly, of course, no one can do that – your death can be peaceful.  You didn’t stand to the side while conflict swirled all around you.  You dove in headfirst, doing all you could to keep your head above the rising water, and to paraphrase Admiral David Farragut, you “damned the torpedoes and went full speed ahead.” You may have been badly wounded as a result of your involvement, but whether you win or lose the struggles of life isn’t as important as the fact that you engaged them as completely as possible.

Embrace your scars; you’ve earned them. And if you do just that, when the time comes for you to make The Great Transition, you can sing your death song proudly.

After all, you have every right to do so.