This past week, my mother went into the hospital for a minor procedure. Small. Common. Something that caused nothing more than a mental note to check up on her that afternoon to hear, what I had naively assumed, would be filled with verbal green lights and thumbs up.
There’s a famous quote from one of my favorite books, The Art of Racing in the Rain (author Garth Stein):
“People and their rituals. They cling to things so hard sometimes.”
Mom is 78. Deep down, I know any procedure—young or old—is risky. Deep down, are feelings too painful to ponder. So, when I wished her good luck on her procedure and assumed all was well, I clung to my work and the business of life. Work, chores, responsibilities—the Building Blocks of Busy-ness that help stave off thoughts often too daunting to face.
Seconds before her procedure began, my mother went into AFib: an abnormal heart rhythm which can cause a stroke or death.
While we waited for my mother to be stabilized, I spoke with my father. Normally, he is the King of Busy-ness—always in a great hurry to do something and get somewhere. He is also the King of Rituals. Whether it is how he likes to keep track of bills or how he plans his day, there is a long unwritten list of routines he “must” (a word he will often use) do. The rituals and busy-ness have altered through the decades, but the theme remains.
All that changed when his wife, my mother, went into atrial fibrillation.
Several years back, my parents were in a terrible car accident. My father walked away with nothing more than a few scratches. My mom was severely injured and is still in pain as a result of that car wreck, years later.
My father was driving when the other car slammed into them.
Yet, it wasn’t until my mom’s life was in immediate danger that he shared sentiments with me never before expressed:
“Your mom’s in pain because of me. She saw that man coming at 90 miles an hour at us. I didn’t react in time. I see pictures of her from before the accident. She used to smile. I loved seeing her smile. But since the accident, she doesn’t smile anymore. It’s all my fault.”
If life were like a Pac-man video game, where three lives were guaranteed, would my father have expressed such raw emotions? My father’s voice overflowed with yearning to see his wife’s smile. Would such yearning be felt if he knew she would return from the hospital like she looked and felt before the car accident?
This fleeting time between life and death is a gift. It’s life’s brevity that makes each moment matter. Mortality is like caffeine for the soul—a wakeup call to make moments matter.
My father shared more while we waited to hear news from the doctor.
“I keep looking at that picture of us outside all those years ago. Remember that one? You were about 6, your sisters 10 and 3. Oh, and your mom looked so happy. Those were the best days.”
I didn’t tell him what I was thinking. Yes, that snapshot captured a precious memory of our nuclear family in the backyard of our Long Island home. But it didn’t show my father filled with Busy-ness before and after the Kodak camera’s click.
Mom is back home and stable, a prescription of Beta blockers, the latest change in her life. I spoke with her today, and she sounded the happiest I’ve heard in a long time. And my father’s voice beamed through the phone and made me think of George Bailey at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.
“I have my wife back,” he said.
There’s a powerful line in Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library:
“In the face of death, life seemed more attractive.”
Here’s the truth: We are in the face of death (we just forget this or choose to forget this—thank you Busy-ness and Denial). Moments in this Earth School are precious because they are just that—moments. Each of us has a finite number of days on this planet to live! Some of us know or can sense this (Just look at our American Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton and the late and great American Composer, Jonathan Larson). There’s an inner fire ignited when one is cognizant of their mortality.
Consider the ecstasy felt upon eating food after fasting or sitting beside a fire after hours spent in the kind of cold that numbs your extremities. Or how about a petite mort—the French expression for an orgasm (translation: a little death). It’s living on the edge of things that make us feel so alive, that allows us to taste the juice of life with all of our senses.