Tuesday, September 11, 2007
"Each thing I do I rush through
so I can do something else.
In such a way do the days pass - "
I can’t remember the first time I read Stephen Dobyn’s poem (from the book Cemetery Nights, Penguin Books, 1987) but I know it resonated with me in a way only an essential truth first recognized can.
That’s me: each thing I do I do rush through – anticipating the next with a focus that reflects such dismissive contempt for that which is happening now, that I’m surprised I even make an impression on the various retinas I flit across on a given day.
It’s like I’m not here at all.
And, yeah – if we were on Oprah we’d all be yammering away about lightbulb moments and other equally obvious nutshellian concepts, but when you get it smack in the face (and from poetry for Gawd’s sake) it goes deeper and sticks deeper, until you find yourself subconsciously asking yourself over and over again: “am I doing it now? am I doing it now?”
Invariably, the answer is yes. Wondering if I’m doing it ‘now’ is the most ‘in the moment’ thing I do.
When I’m reading, even the most enjoyable, engaging page-turner of a book, I’ll notice myself taking sidelong glances at the pile of books by my bedside, taking future inventory of what I plan to be immersed in next; in fact simply making note of what I’ll be gearing up to rush through after this rush as it turns out.
No matter the movie, old favourite (All About Eve) or new thriller (the edge of the seat Children of Men for instance) I’ll constantly be checking my watch – the basis of my love for the brilliant Timex Indiglo technology I suspect – re-checking my grocery list, or mentally dressing for a date later that night, truly only enjoying what unfolds in front of my very eyes in the briefest of fits and starts. Even the later date is only a prelude to what it is I’ll be doing later in the wind-down phase.
(Which is inevitably reading the current book and thinking about the next…)
The concept of “living in the moment” is difficult for most I guess – the skill (talent? ability? facility?) requiring conscious effort and practice. There are any number of guides from the obvious to the esoteric, and a variety of meditations from Transcendental to Zen, but none of it works for me. I’m always looking for the next one…
Total aside – well, slight – when I was 16 my parents signed the three of us up for a course in Transcendental Meditation. The real thing – taught by hippies, living in an open-plan, solar-heated, pyramid/teepee-inspired house, no furniture taller or more structured than the Indian-print cushions we are guided to sink meditatively into, practically drenched in Pacific Northwest patchouli (they’re much Zen-ier out there don’t you find?) Complete with an initiation of burning grasses and the revelation of your own personal, specially-chosen-for-you mantra at a low key “ta da” graduation ceremony tacked on the end, we went for several lesson over the weeks, but I might just as well have stayed home to bug my brother... because at the end, it just didn’t take. I simply hated my mantra. Loathed it. The word – more of a sound really – ended on two jarringly glottal-stopping consonants that made my brain hiccup. (I’d tell you but then I’d have to charge you $100 and set something on fire.) The dreadful focus–sapping mantra made me incapable of meditation (though it did improve my already superbly developed napping skills) and I dropped it all within weeks.
My favourite memory of the whole thing however was the vision of my super-conservative father – suited, tied, all business, all banker… how he ever got the crease back into his pants is a mystery that remains elusive to this day – cross-legged on the floor, earnestly attempting to take it all in. It was my first intuition that this most cube-shaped of squares might have some pretty interesting curvy edges deep down inside. Turned out to be true too.
But (as ever) I digress…
But yesterday I did spend almost half a day completely checked into the current moment at that place it seems I receive all my insights of late, at the Hospital for Sick Children. There before my eyes were the people for whom fate or nature or God (or whatever you believe it is that makes such a destination a necessity for the innocents) were receiving a crash course in the meaning of “living in the moment”. Each moment. By moment.
We began in the CCU with John (not his real name – I’d never directly identify any of the children – not just because it’s the law, but because it’s them) who has lain paralyzed for the past two months after being suddenly and inexplicably stricken with Guillain Barre syndrome in the middle of a family holiday thousands of miles away. (His father told me the whole terrifying heart-stopping, white knuckle adventure of bringing him back to Toronto from a rather quiet backwater paradise, for which even being airlifted in a private emergency Lear jet required seven separate stops and starts…) Guillain Barre is a mysterious condition (a syndrome rather than a disease, as doctors have not been able to discover why the body’s immune system begins to attack the body itself creating symptoms that begin with weakness and tingling in the arms and legs, progressing to a point of complete paralysis where a respirator is necessary) that culminates in a “locked in” situation where the patient’s brain and intellect are completely, blazingly intact – and the body is utterly intractably frozen.
I cannot imagine why John (a teenaged math wiz and serious girl-fancier) would need months (or possibly years – the ultimate prognosis is unknown) of having his respirator regularly detached in order to suction the excess fluid out of his lungs as he lies there completely immobile with only a sophisticated eye blink system developed between he and his father to comunicate, to learn the lesson of ultimate patience. Further tested by a new (also mysterious and so far untreatable) rash which has sprung up all over his body and is deeply, painfully itchy, John can only indicate through eye blinks where it’s at its worst and there his father gently, delicately rubs without scratching.
(Can you imagine? Just think about it for a minute: the most horrible itch – and it’s everywhere: arms, legs, scalp, bottom – and there is nothing you can do to scratch it. There may be more painful tortures available on the market, but for drive-you-out-of-your-mind discomfort on the grand scale, I’d say an allover unscratchable itch would be pretty high on the list.)
There he is – and his focus must be on the minute by minute, experiencing the piercing reality of his traitorous immune system – and while we were there (my volunteer partner and I provide hair cutting and styling, a maybe not so surprisingly successful program for a group of people whose lives are lived in unimaginable routine and boredom, broken up by moments of equally unimaginable sheer agony and/or terror) the suctioning had to take place every five minutes or so. Minute by minute. That’s how John lives – a life measured in breaths and blinks and the immediacy of his body’s needs.
But still we connect. He rolls his eyes at my teases, he blinks his one for yes, two for no choices about how high his sideburns should be shaved, how much more should be taken off the top and sides. We all are there in tight focus and completely locked in to John. The only mind escape I make – and only for a moment – is to recognize: “I’m here. Thank God”, then I pick up the mirror (embarrassingly pink with the word “Princess” scrolled across the top – John just rolls his eyes again) to give him the ultimate control of a bit more off the top and his desire to have the back of his neck shaved straight across – not curved or pointed. (I think my partner lingered over the shaving, feeling instinctively how delicious the razor would feel against his sensitive, itching neck. He closes his eyes and they roll up ever so slightly like a dog having a delicious belly rub. It’s a nice moment.)
But we’re finished – and it’s time for yet another painful suctioning – so we depart, but I’m still there – in the moment – still thinking of John and wondering when we’ll see him next and praying and projecting (okay – I know, but projecting in the moment) that next time he will be off the respirator and his fingers will be able to lock around a pencil so he can work the complicated calculus he loves so much and that must itch inside his mind far worse than the visible rash on the outside of his slender, unnaturally still body.
Outside the room, robes and masks off and I’m surprised by a familiar face – a lovely face – the mother of another of my favourite patients, another of those magical special connections, a toddler with another undiagnosed life-threatening illness that apparently almost took her away forever last Friday.
In the hallway, there we are and it’s none of my business but the doctors are talking to the mother and joy of joys, we are hearing (me “over-hearing”) at the same time she is that the prognosis is good – that a corner has been turned and Juliet (not her beautiful name but in the neighbourhood) is improving. Her mother comes to me and we hug – it’s been 3 months at least since I’ve seen her, though I’ve thought about the two of them often and always with Juliet in some imaginary sunny-afternoon home situation (toppling bricks and masterfully colouring outside the lines and looking up from under her extraordinary eyelashes with a smile that is the very definition of heartbreaking) but apparently I’ve been out of the loop, as after seeing Juliet last time, on the mend, the terrible thing has happened again and the illness has returned.
But today is yet another day – one of the ones with the hope-against-hope joy attached - and I am reveling in every eyeful of her mother’s transformed face with an in-the-moment thrill that’s better than just about anything you could imagine. (I certainly can’t think of anything just at this moment…)
She has to go off to confer with the doctors, but she says to me as she races off: “If you’d like you can go in and see her – she’s on the respirator and not really conscious, but you’re welcome to have a peek.” And I know I am being given a gift as the truth is all over her hospital room door – along with the washing and gowning and masking and gloving instructions is the sign that restricts all entry beyond those deliberately authorized. But the ultimate authority has given me the go-ahead, so I suit up and tentatively tiptoe into the room. There she is (grandfather at her side, absorbed in just looking at that precious face) and she’s grown! She’s only just a little more than two, but I can see subtle differences along with her delicately curling, just slightly auburn hair, longer than ever (girlfriend needs a trim – girlfriend will be getting it…) and I see all this in and around the respirator and IV lines and the dozens of other monitoring and life-giving equipment; but there she most definitely is, pale and small with her startling white eyelashes fanned gently on her round, still-baby cheeks. (One of the mysterious symptoms of Juliet’s condition is that it has turned her unusually long eyelashes snow white. Extraordinary!) I hold my breath as I compare her then to her now and feel that thrill again, as even though the child that lies before me looks as hospitalized and fragile as a child could possibly look, I’ve heard the word - and the word is “better”.
As I stand there, she slowly opens her eyes – those lashes! – and looks straight at me. I lower my mask a little and whisper: “Juliet – do you remember me? It’s Jane…”
And she lifts her tiny little hand and she waves at me.
And now I am out of the moment again. But I am not rushing forward, I can only go back into the past – just 24 hours ago – to live over and over that precise moment.
It is Joy.
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