Forty Years

 

“The highest reward for a man’s toil is not what he gets for it but what he becomes by it.”

– John Ruskin

On July 1, 2018, when I drive to work at the emergency department, I will have traveled there for forty years. How is that possible? Where has the time gone? It boggles my mind to think of the events of my life that have passed since then.  Even though I’ve lived in several different locations during that period, my trip to the hospital has remained much the same.  Repeatedly, I passed though the intersection where one morning after a night shift, I was broadsided by an intoxicated airman who ran a stop sign.  Other than being knocked silly and having a mild neck injury, I ended up being as fit as a fiddle.  Oddly enough, adjacent to the site of my accident sits a large, sprawling cemetery, and I’m certainly glad the accident didn’t find me needing a place there.  Closer to the hospital, I drove past the location of a bustling weekend flea market, a now-closed tire shop and a series of convenience stores.  Oftentimes, as I mentally prepared for the intensity of my day, I motored past these nondescript spots without paying the least bit of attention to them, steeling myself for the inevitable traumas that I would soon face in the emergency department.  Someday these places will be distant memories, flashes from the past that have no meaning whatsoever.

But now, as I anticipate my upcoming, four decade anniversary in emergency medicine, my thoughts roll back to 1978, when I first began my career.  I was green, very green, and while I thought I knew a lot about medicine, little did I know at that time how much I still had to learn. Fortunately, not only did I have the support and shared wisdom of my physician colleagues, even more critical was the team of experienced nurses who had my back.  While my fellow doctors were helpful in my developing practice, day-to-day I worked much more closely with the nursing staff and ambulance service personnel. As I think back, my memories of them are as distinct as if they were yesterday.  For those of you unfamiliar with those in my past work environment, please forgive my diversion into the olden days and their associated recollections, vivid memories begging to be shared.

First, I must mention Ann, the nurse manager of the emergency department, whose innate, calm disposition kept the chaos in some modicum of order.  I never saw Ann lose her cool, no matter how dicey the situation, though I suspect on occasion she blew a gasket just like the rest of us. How could I forget Frankie, practiced and direct?  I never had to wonder what was on her mind about patients, because she always told me, whether I liked it or not.  Then, there was Carol, the night shift RN, who was more than just a learned nurse, she was a great friend, and I always appreciated her insights when difficult patients walked through the door.  Pam was Carol’s trusty sidekick during the wee hours, a solid, centered caregiver who held it together when things were going bad. Rick was a terrific nurse, great in times of catastrophe, yet he was also the ultimate cynic.  Countless times, when I asked him how he was doing, he raised his eyebrows and sarcastically responded, “Another day in paradise.”  Even now, I grin as I recall the disgusted look on his face. Barbara was one of our most emotionally collected nurses, and even though everything was going to hell in a handbasket, she remained as cool as a cucumber; she was a tough, hardened emergency nurse.  Over the years, she has moved on to more of an administrative role, and she has become one of my close friends and confidantes. Darrell was an EMT (emergency medical technician) who later became an RN.  As good as a nurse as he was, he was an even better volleyball player, and he was one of the stalwarts of the emergency volleyball team.  Besides those previously mentioned, I have fond memories of many others from 1978, including Donna, Norma, Peggy, Cobehy, Dan, Debbie, Maria, Glenda and Carol C.

At that distant time, the corps of paramedics and EMTs on the ambulance service were the finest that could be found anywhere.  The Grand Master of the paramedics was the knowledgeable and oh so wise Harvey.  He was like a walking encyclopedia, one who knew the fine details of Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) better than most physicians.  When the occasions came for our biennial re-certifications in ACLS, I shuddered when I discovered that Harvey was the one testing me. Under the pressure of his beady-eyed, intense stare, I would break out into a cold sweat, and I prayed to God that I knew the right answers to his incisive questions. Fortunately, after Harvey heard a few correct responses, he usually took it easy on me, for which I was most grateful.  Keith was another one of our superb paramedics, who, after his stint in the ambulance service, later redirected his skills to become the executive vice president of a physician billing service.  I have the highest respect for him and his accomplishments.  Judi was the lone female paramedic at our hospital in those male-dominated years, and she was Ms. Reliable, someone I could always count on to make the right decision in the field.  I want to also give shout-outs to the long-time director, Romeo, also brothers Tony and Jerry, as well as Joe, Sammy and Jeff.  Of course, I could never forget Randy and Andy, players of hot fiddles in a local country and western band. Charlie Daniels was a rank amateur compared to them.

I have chosen in this blog post to honor the memory of two very special nurses. Gail was an RN who I had worked with for a number of years.  She was atypical for an emergency nurse, in that she was generally quiet and soft spoken.  Hidden underneath her gentle manner was a caring and compassionate nurse, one who provided excellent care to those fortunate enough to have her as a provider.  One tragic day, when Gail was forty-nine years old, she contracted flesh-eating bacteria. Despite our heroic efforts, which included surgery and high dose IV antibiotics, she died on July 28, 2003.  In the aftermath, I felt like the wind had been sucked out of my sails, as from the beginning of my emergency career, Gail had always been there, and all of a sudden she wasn’t – an agonizing vacuum had been created. Another who deserves mention is Diana, who I had worked with for some time before she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Diana was one of the most kind and loving persons I have ever met, and whenever she entered, her beautiful smile lit up the room. Her warmhearted attitude never changed, in spite of the ravages of her disease and the side effects of its treatment. While her body gradually failed, her spirit continued to be effervescent, glowing and kind.  She died on October 28, 1996, at thirty-nine years of age.  I’ll never forget her.

In my upcoming book, The Pit: Memoir of an Emergency Physician, I will go into great detail about my thoughts on the field of emergency medicine, its inherent issues, and my feelings as my career gradually comes to a close.  But the primary purpose of this post is not to share my revelations, but rather, to take a walk down memory lane and express my deepest appreciation to  those health care professionals with whom I have worked, not only in the beginning, but also those throughout my career. These include doctors, nurses, paramedics, EMTs, physician associates, respiratory therapists, and x-ray and ultrasound technicians.  Over the years, as part of our job, we have all witnessed and shared in an enormous amount of suffering, mostly in our patients, but also in ourselves as we struggled with the trauma of what we have seen and experienced. From the bottom of my heart: Thank you, everyone!  The personal sacrifices you have made to help others are far greater than the general public could ever know.

So, in response to the quote at the beginning of this blog, how has emergency medicine affected me?  What have I become?  While it’s often hard to examine oneself dispassionately, when I look deeply at my start in emergency medicine, and compare that person to what I am now, I smile. Not only have my clinical skills improved, I am much more mellow and easygoing, and certainly more accepting.  That said, I still have a bit of an edge, something every good emergency physician wears like a badge of honor.  Since I began my practice, I couldn’t be more grateful, not only for what my career has done for me, but also for those who have allowed me to serve as their physician.

Would I do it all again?

Undoubtedly.

As Above, So Below

Just recently, I laid down in the back yard, resting and contemplating. I gazed up at the evening sun as it sank behind the trees, heard the birds excitedly twittering and the rustling of leaves as a gentle breeze wafted through them. In the background, our dogs, Karma and Buddy, gnawed contentedly on their rawhide chews. In that idyllic moment, the realization occurred that the wind is much like my breath, the sun is as my heart, and the chatter of birds is akin to my thoughts. I intimately understood, as is said in Genesis, that God created us in His image, and what a blessing that is.

As above, so below.

Sleeping In as a Spiritual Practice

“The early bird gets the worm.”

– Proverb

“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

– Benjamin Franklin

From the beginning of time, a thick, suffocating layer of guilt has been imposed upon anyone who made the unfortunate decision to sleep in.  No matter that you were up late the night before laboring around the house, or that you had worked your fingers to the bone over the preceding weeks at your stressful, screaming meemies job. The overall societal consensus was that if you didn’t spring into action at the crack of dawn, you were assumed to be a lazy, indolent, good-for-nothing – one who preferred to take it easy rather than put in an honest, hard day’s work.  Yes, in the eyes of Benjamin Franklin and his army of over-achievers, simply because you chose to loll in bed, you were destined for ill health, poverty and poor decision making.

With this in mind, just recently I had a very busy schedule, with lots of difficult shifts in the emergency department, and after this flurry of pressured activity, I went to bed, exhausted. When I woke the next morning, I fought off Ben’s admonition and made a conscious choice to stay in bed and relax. Lying there resting, a kaleidoscope of thoughts began to float across my mind, some from times past, others from the present, and some from an anticipated future.  While a number were enjoyable, some were disturbing, others frightening, and some exhilarating.  Whatever their quality, I smiled at them and let them cycle though my consciousness until they lost their power and dissipated.  I closed my eyes, once again fell into a deep slumber and in moments visited Dreamland.  As opposed to late night dreams that are often forgotten, I clearly remembered these subconscious reflections when I woke a short time later.  After examining these dreams, a totally different, unique set of thoughts greeted me, and once again, I dispassionately let them move in and out of my mind.  Much like the classic Clint Eastwood movie, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” they were what they were, and I did not attempt to control or judge them.  A short time later, though, I once again went to sleep, more dreams occurred, and the continuum of thoughts to dreams and dreams to thoughts went on for hours until, refreshed and relaxed, I stretched, rose from bed and engaged the day. Now, as I think about it, in many ways this process was like a deep meditation, and much spiritual work had been accomplished.

As I ponder my morning of R & R, I believe we are long overdue for a different mindset about sleeping in.  What we sometimes forget, in our driven, goal-oriented Western society, is that a balance is necessary between activity and passivity.  In the East, this is best demonstrated in Taoism, where our dualistic world is represented by the yin and the yang, which together make up an indivisible whole.  Good and bad, light and dark, wisdom and foolishness, day and night, truth and falsehoods, and yes, activity and passivity, all make up the dichotomy that is our Universe.  In other words, you can’t have one aspect without the other.

The long and the short of this is: I vow to let go of the need to be an early bird. No longer will I feel guilty about staying in bed and relaxing, or, in general, taking it easy, for not only will the extra rest do me good, also healthy, sacred healing can take place. I don’t plan to sleep in every day, but when I do so, I will enjoy it to the fullest.  After all, no matter what Benjamin Franklin said, I deserve to sleep in every so often, and have some quiet moments to balance my oftentimes frenzied life.

Sleeping in can be a spiritual practice, don’t you agree?

 

 

Searching for God

I really want to see you
Really want to be with you
Really want to see you, Lord
But it takes so long, my Lord

From “My Sweet Lord,” by George Harrison

Many years ago

I began sitting in meditation

Listening inside

Searching for God

As I focused on my breath

Thoughts danced through my mind

Begging for attention

I slowly inhaled and exhaled

And released these reflections from the past

Yet, unbidden they returned

Over and over again

Unwelcome intruders

Monkey mind

Even now, when I quietly contemplate

Distracting thoughts greet me

Clothed in different garments

Yet sometimes – just sometimes

I am able to gently brush them aside

And move my consciousness deep within myself

To a holy, sacred place

I breathe deeply and abide there

Feeling warm, nurtured and comforted

Much as a baby in his mother’s womb

And I am at peace

Grateful

This morning, I awoke feeling grateful: Grateful to be alive and healthy, for the love of my wife and family, for times I still get to spend with my 88-year-old father, for a cozy home, food in my stomach and dear friends. I feel grateful as I watch our dogs Karma and Buddy chase after balls I throw them, for my work as an author and emergency physician, and for the dedicated nurses, paramedics and EMTs with whom I labor. I’m even appreciative of the day-to-day struggles, ones that help me to learn and grow. While some of these blessings may come and go, life itself is a gift from God,  and I pray I never forget that.

The Leader of the Band

Jerry M. Lavender

The leader of the band is tired and his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument and his song is in my soul
My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man
I’m just a living legacy to the leader of the band

– Dan Fogelberg

In the spring of 1994, I first met Jerry Lavender.  At that difficult time, I was still battered and bruised from a painful divorce that had occurred in the latter part of ’92, and I was in the process of rediscovering myself.  Who am I?  What am I?  Why do I hurt so much?  Intensely introspective, I sought out anything that might make me feel semi-human again, and in the midst of my search, I recalled how much joy I had previously experienced with singing.  I was raised in the Methodist church, and I had sung in the choir from grade school through the summers of my college days.

Several moments stood out to me.  I was but a young boy when my church choir director asked me to sing a solo.  Not one that enjoyed standing up in front of others, at first I resisted, but eventually I came around to her way of thinking.  For some reason, God knows why, I chose not to say a word to my parents and a few weeks later, I stood up in my light blue choir robe and sang “In the Garden” at the Sunday morning church service.  I still remember the shocked looks on my parents’ faces, and how my mother wept throughout the performance.  Another fond memory occurred some years later, when I sang in the adult church choir.  One of my buds in the group was Richard Moody, a white-haired senior who enjoyed singing and laughing at least as much as I did.  A song we particularly liked was the Christian classic, “‘Tis Marvelous and Wonderful,” and one day Richard was over at my home doing handyman work in the garage, and we decided to seize the opportunity.  As I sang tenor, Richard sang bass, and we cut loose with a rousing two-part version of that joyous melody.  After a few stanzas, though, we heard howling, much like that of a wounded, rabid dog, and we discovered my brother Jim had been listening outside and had concluded that he couldn’t take our less-than-melodious rendition anymore.

With this history in mind, I decided to check around and see if I could find a community chorus, and, to my delight, I discovered the Edmond Community Chorale (ECC), a group that met weekly at the campus of the University of Central Oklahoma.  Fighting back my apprehension, I decided to give it a try.

∞∞∞

I’ll never forget the first time I walked into choir practice.  Around fifty to sixty people were in the room, some standing, some sitting as they chatted before the rehearsal began. At the front stood the director, Dr. Lon Dehnert, who warmly greeted me and introduced me to the pianist, Dr. Ron Wallace.  Then Dr. Dehnert led me to the tenor section, where I first met Jerry, a pleasant, balding man in his early sixties with a bright smile and  good-natured way about him.  I liked him immediately, and after a few moments of conversation, the choir began our warm ups and shortly afterward, we were given our music for the semester, the glorious Handel’s Messiah.

And so began our twenty-four year friendship.  Every Tuesday night, during the spring and fall school semesters, we would  meet, converse, and sing our hearts out, with Jerry always seated to my left.  The more I sang with him, the more I realized what a fine tenor he was.  Without fail, he would hit the pitches and rhythms perfectly, and he rarely missed an entrance.  When I was uncertain about how our tenor part went, all I had to do was listen to Jerry, and I was always on solid ground.

∞∞∞

Oh, what glorious music we sang over the years!  Besides Messiah, my personal favorites included Haydn’s Creation, Mozart’s Requiem, Vivaldi’s Gloria and Brahms’ A German Requiem.  With time, my musical skills gradually improved, and my friendship with Jerry deepened. On occasion, he would ask me to join him for a duet at his church, Olivet Baptist, in northwest Oklahoma City.  After a practice or two, we would do a song for his Sunday school class, and while our performances were always well received,  the clear favorite over the years was the bouncy, toe-tapping spiritual by Aaron Copland, “Ching a Ring Chaw.”

Around four years ago, Jerry left ECC, saying that he needed to care for his wife, who had been chronically ill for years.  While I understood his situation, I felt as if my heart had been ripped from my chest, after all, I had heard his voice in my left ear for over two decades.  Last year, when one of our fellow ECC members passed away, Jerry rejoined the choir for a musical tribute at her funeral.  How wonderful it was to be with him again, but little did I know that precious occasion would be the last time I would see him.  My dear friend, Jerry Melvin Lavender, died on February 20, 2018, at eighty-five years of age.

∞∞∞

Now, as I think about Jerry, many warm thoughts come to mind.  While he was a great tenor, he was a better friend.  The Dalai Lama once said, “My religion is kindness,” and Jerry was one of the kindest men I have ever known. Over all those years, I never heard him say a bad word about anyone.  Not only that, in spite of his conservative religious outlook, Jerry often told me how much he enjoyed the spiritually liberal books I had authored. Because he was my friend, not only did he tolerate my perspective, he embraced it, which was a great gift to me.

The world will not be the same without Jerry Lavender.  Once I heard of his death, my eyes welled with tears, yet after a short period of intense grieving, I came to realize how grateful I was that I knew him.  I have no doubt whatsoever that my years spent singing with him helped me to eventually heal from my wounds, and for that, I will forever be indebted to him. Besides, Jerry was a man who loved singing nearly as much as he loved life, so when he left the Chorale to provide for his wife, he made a great personal sacrifice. But that’s the way Jerry was; he always put others before himself.

I oftentimes said that Jerry was the spiritual leader of the tenor section, and no doubt he was also a leader in our ECC “band.” Today, much of what I am musically can be attributed to him, and I am honored to be part of Jerry’s living legacy.

Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”  Jerry was one such giant, a man whose greatness was measured by living in a humble, giving, accepting and loving manner.

I will miss him greatly.

The Chocolate Chip Cookie

“Think what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankets for a nap.”

– Barbara Jordan

No one in the world bakes better chocolate chip cookies than my wife, Sheridan.  No one.  I realize this sounds a bit grandiose, but as the crusty Western actor Walter Brennan used to say in his distinctive manner, “No brag, just fact.” Not only does Sheridan prepare them with the skill of a French pastry chef, at the same time, she infuses her bakery creations with her own special ingredient – love. Not only is the taste fabulous, but also I feel better, inside and out, after sampling them. They’re that good.

Just recently, when I was slugging it out in the emergency department, I received an email from Sheridan informing me that she had prepared a batch.  Any difficulties I was having at the time vaporized into the ethers, because no matter how bad the emergency chaos was – and, as might be expected, it was far worse than bad – in a few short hours I would be experiencing the nirvanic ecstasy of biting into one of her delectable cookies.

When I arrived home that evening, I quickly raced over to the plate of cookies waiting for me on the counter top and gobbled one down.  Amazing! The next morning, as I was preparing to go to the gym for a workout, I grabbed two more and hurriedly chewed and swallowed them as I rushed out the door. Incredible!

Later that same day, though, as I thought about it, I realized that while I had enjoyed the cookies immensely, I had to confess that I had been focusing on other matters while eating them.  I was reminded of the words of my spiritual mentor, the Zen Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh, who once said, “Mindful eating means simply eating or drinking while being aware of each bite or sip.”

When I understood I was not attentively savoring these delicious cookies, I decided to give my full awareness to this sacred, gustatory experience.  First, I picked one up, turned it in my hand and gazed at it. The cookie was light-brown and crispy, sprinkled with chocolate chips and loads of pecans. As I took my first bite and slowly chewed, I breathed in and out and began to think deeply about what the cookie truly consisted of.  First of all, the pecans were native to Oklahoma,  arguably the best in the world, and they were carefully cultivated near the small Oklahoma community of Earlsboro, a loving present from my father, who always gifted bags of them to us at Christmas.  The cocoa and vanilla likely originated in rainy, equatorial countries, as they grew well in humid, tropical climates.  The eggs came from cage-free chickens that were organically fed, literally “Happy Eggs” from fowl that roamed the countryside, scratched the ground and ate bugs and worms.  The butter was also organic, free of potentially dangerous chemicals and hormones. Most of the ingredients of Sheridan’s cookies required timely rainwater for their eventual production, and besides that, the sun, along with the fertile earth, were necessary for the healthy growth of the cocoa and pecan trees, vanilla plants, sugar cane and wheat.

So, what does one of Sheridan’s chocolate chip cookies actually contain?  When I take a bite, in addition to the healthy ingredients, I am absorbing the essence of the warm, comforting sun, billowing rain clouds, the nurturing earth, the vigilance and attentiveness of the farmer, the caring of my father, and – of course – the love of my wife. So much more than just a snack. This chocolate chip cookie, like many foods prepared with love and mindfulness, is a gift from God and is as holy and hallowed as a sacramental wafer at the ritual of communion.

I smile in gratitude, as I humbly accept this blessing.

Thank you, Sheridan.

Aging

“Old age comes on suddenly, and not gradually as is thought.”

– Emily Dickinson

Where did the time go?  It seems only yesterday I was a young lad, fishing for crawdads, playing with our family dogs, Snappy and Mandy, scuffling with my brother Jim, incessantly pestering my little sister Connie, eating as much candy as I could get my hands on, and living the good life.  My only responsibilities were taking a daily bath, brushing my teeth, performing my chores, going to school, and keeping in my parents’ good graces.  These were happy times, the proverbial days of wine and roses, and the farthest thing from my mind was growing old.

Then came junior high and high school, with their associated adolescent difficulties, college at Oklahoma State University, medical school, marriage, working in the emergency department, raising three lovely daughters, divorce, and eventually marriage to Sheridan, the love of my life.  At that point, the writing bug bit me, and I feverishly authored five books, three published, with two more waiting in the wings.

One recent, frosty winter morning, though, as I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror, I saw the beginning of jowls, a bald, shiny head, a sprinkling of white hairs in various, odd locations, and more wrinkles than I remembered – lots more. To my dismay, I suddenly realized:  That’s me – I’m sixty-five years old.

In disbelief, I first looked away, then I glanced again at the aged man staring at me from the mirror. Seemingly overnight, I had morphed from a sprightly, pink-cheeked, innocent youth into a moldering senior citizen.

As much as I hate to admit it, the sad truth is that now I am on Medicare and a lifetime, no-way-out member of the Geritol Generation. How could anyone in their right mind describe these times of inexorable decline as the “Golden Years?”  If I had to take a guess, I might suppose that some out-of-work psychologist thought up this crazy notion while in a drug-induced stupor, just to make us feel better about our situation when we age.

So, now that I’m approaching the sunset of my life, what am I to do?  How do I stay away from eventually living at the Withering Heights nursing home and becoming miserable as I get old and decrepit?  Should I accept my fate as immutable?

As I asked these questions of myself, I thought back to my colleague and friend, Doctor Andrew Weil, who once said that the overall goal of aging was not to stop or reverse the aging process, aspirations simply not attainable, but rather, to achieve what some have called “compression of morbidity.”  In other words, by following a healthy lifestyle, the elderly can have a long and vigorous life, yet when death approaches, a rapid decline occurs, which is far better than lingering in misery.  So, in expectation of achieving “compression of morbidity,” as an integrative physician, here are my recommendations to those ensconced in their senior years:

1. Stay active. Those who become sedentary have a tendency to stay that way.

2. Watch television in moderation.  I used to drive for Mobile Meals and delivered food to the aged and infirm.  I was astounded at how many were watching TV when I knocked on their front door. Too much television is mind-numbing and not conducive to a healthy brain.

3. Eat well.  Diets rich in fresh fruits and vegetables are important, and should be combined with a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, such as wild-caught salmon. Enjoy whole grain products, avoid fried foods, and limit the intake of refined sugar, red meat and white flour.  By all means, though, at least occasionally live on the wild side and enjoy a rich, totally unhealthy meal. More importantly, don’t feel bad about it.

4. Maintain social connections.  To love and be loved is meaningful at any age, but this is especially true in the older population.

5.  Always have something to look forward to, such as travel, trying a new restaurant, or even attending the weekly bingo game.

6.  Keep your mind active.  Crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and any hobby you enjoy are avenues to keep the mind sharp. As the old saying goes, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

7.  Avoid polypharmacy.  You’d be amazed at the cornucopia of medications that elderly patients are prescribed by well-intended physicians.  Remember, every medication has side effects and drug interactions of some kind.  Multiply that by an increasing number of different prescriptions, and you’ve got a potential disaster on your hands.

8.  Consider volunteer work.  It’s important to believe that one still has a purpose in life.

As I have pondered the aging process, the more I have come to realize that with a little time, effort and persistence, the “Golden Years” can be just that.  Granted, aging has it’s issues, but what about the positives?  One usually has more free time to do what one wants, rather than being constrained by parenting children, a busy work schedule or limited vacation time.  More moments are available to spend with loved ones, and retirement can be a time of mellowness and reflection, a chance to learn, grow, and heal from the wounds of earlier years. Besides all that, growing old is an opportunity to deepen one’s relationship with God, whether through spiritual texts, meditation, service to others – wherever your soul leads you.

Someday, as much as I’d like to believe otherwise, I will die.  Granted, at least part of what takes place before that point is beyond my control, but I plan to follow my own advice and do all that I can to have a lifestyle that limits my eventual suffering and disability. After all, I’ve got a number of destinations yet to explore and many more books to write.

Something to look forward to?

Always.

Love Never Dies

                                                                                                          

 

My mother’s death on August 12, 2016, followed years of suffering, mostly due to the arthritic discomfort of polymyalgia rheumatica, an inflammatory disease that caused her to have horrific, ongoing muscular pain. This devastating illness was complicated by multiple falls with subsequent fractures of her pelvis and ankle, and pain management only afforded her some modicum of relief.  For me and the rest of the family, to witness the persistent misery she endured was agonizing beyond words.

As her health continued to deteriorate, we did all we could to let her know we loved her. As mentioned in my previous blog post, we discovered that singing old church songs gave her comfort, such as Amazing Grace, It is Well with My Soul, The Old Rugged Cross, How Great Thou Art, among other Christian classics.  Oftentimes, we would sing songs that she requested, but as she gradually became unresponsive, we sang ones we knew she treasured.  On occasion, we would detect a smile on her face, but, towards the end, she gave no indication whatsoever that she heard anything.  Only hours before Mom died, my sister Connie and I belted out a number of these melodies as we sat at her bedside. Such was our way of communicating with our dear mother, and we both believed that somehow she heard these heartfelt renditions.

The funeral service in the days that followed was well attended and lovely, though I knew the healing process would take a long time. I’m not sure, however, that anyone fully recovers from the death of a parent.  I suffered mightily in the beginning, realizing that my world was now topsy-turvy and had been forever changed.  But, with the healing power of time, I learned to live with the vacuum created by my mother’s death, and life went on, simply because I had no other choice. Feeling a personal need to stay in touch, I made it a habit to occasionally talk with Mom and repeatedly tell her how much I loved her.  While I never heard a response to these seemingly one-sided conversations, little did I know that one day the inexplicable would happen, and she would finally answer me in a way that still leaves me shaking my head in amazement.

∞∞∞

Over a year after mom’s death, I was upstairs in my home office when I heard music coming from below.  Knowing my wife Sheridan was outside warming herself in front of our chiminea, I wandered downstairs to see what was up.  Much to my surprise, the television was on and playing old Christian music.  My eyes welled with tears as I first heard The Old Rugged Cross, followed by It is Well with My Soul, and finally, Amazing Grace. My mother loved all of these tunes, and while I had no idea how Sheridan did it, I was certain that she had somehow programmed the television to broadcast them. I was deeply touched, and when Sheridan came in from outside, I thanked her for setting up the television in that way.  She looked confused at my words and said, “I didn’t do anything.”

“What?” I questioned, surprised.

“Gary,” she compassionately repeated, seeing the baffled look on my face, “I didn’t do anything.  When I went outside, the TV was off.  I never turned it on.”

“But . . . how?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she added, shrugging her shoulders.

I felt the blood drain from my face, and I stared at her in stupefaction.

This can’t be, I thought.

I was so stunned by this surreal event that I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone.  How do I explain the impossible?  After all, somehow the television, along with the cable box and pre-amp, came on spontaneously, and besides that, the songs that sequentially played when I happened to arrive at the foot of the stairs were three of my mother’s favorites.

Being a scientist at heart, I felt this had to be a random, serendipitous cosmic event, following the known rules of the Universe.  But what would be the odds of such a happening without some kind of direction?  While putting an exact number on the likelihood of this event occurring fortuitously would be impossible, certainly it was infinitesimally small.

Over the weeks to come, I finally shared this story with my sister, my father, and one of my friends, feeling overwhelmed by the implausibility of this occurrence. I was reluctant to tell others, concerned that they might believe I had finally gone off the deep end, traipsing into the world of insanity, wanting so badly to communicate with my mother that my mind placed tricks on me.  With time and the chance to think deeply about this episode, though, with no small amount of trepidation, I finally decided to share this remarkable story.

∞∞∞

Now, I am reminded of the words of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who once said, “No birth, no death, only transformation.”  In other words, we have always been and always will be, and birth and death are simply events of transition as we move in and out of manifestation on this Earth.  So, with this in mind, I must ask and answer the following questions:

Does my mother still exist?

Unequivocally, yes.

With death, has the love disappeared that my mother and I shared?

Of course not.

Is death a barrier to communication with those we love?

Yes.

Is it possible for this barrier to be breached?

Yes.  After my experience, how could I answer otherwise?

After much consideration, I have come to the unavoidable conclusion that my mother whispered to me from beyond the grave, albeit in a most unique way.  She let me know not only how much she enjoyed hearing these songs in her dying moments, but also that she lives on, and I am most grateful to have both of these understandings confirmed.

So, thank you, Mom, for reaching out to me.  May your story give a measure of comfort to those who have doubt that their loved ones continue to exist.  I am, and always will be, your son, even though we are separated by the chasm of death.

And that’s a wonderful feeling.

I love you, Mom.

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.  Horatio Spafford was right.
No matter the circumstances, it is well with my soul.