Resolved for 2018: Stay Alive (Again!)
This has pretty much been a standing New Year’s resolution now for a decade. Never gets old, fortunately.
On the second day of January there was a Wolf Moon outside the hospital window, where it was a howling minus 20 degrees.
Earbuds in place, the middle-aged woman sitting across from me in the waiting room, double pink sweatpants, a Patriot’s jersey, and mukluks was gyrating to Eye of the Tiger, murmuring, “…And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night.” (Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.)
Smiling at me, her daughter leaned over and reminded her that she was surrounded by other people who didn’t necessarily share her enthusiasm for Survivor, to which she said, “I care?” and adjusted the plastic tube that had slipped from her nose.
She didn’t, and I didn’t. That song got me though my sophomore year in college. Plus it was hard to be annoyed with someone who dressed her oxygen tank in a child’s red and blue Go Pats! woolen hat, complete with a neatly sewn hole in the top to let the valve and tubing through.
It’s the start of a new year and a new chemical cocktail is about to be served with its hoped-for release. It’s called ramucirumab. My wife prefers calling it Rama Lama Ding Dong (from the 1957 Edsel’s tune.)
Humor always helps.
A few years back, there was the -2 degree morning in Iowa City, where a clinical trial had beckoned us. That day, in one of the most genuinely hospitable places we’ve ever been, the memorable dialogue with a fellow bench warmer went like this:
I’m Jim. Stage 4, lung. My x-rays didn’t show anythin’. Now they’re giv’in me another kind of test. But I’m off the interferon, so that’s good. My choice. Made me too sick. Like the moon is makin’ my cows sick on the inside.
How do you know? I asked.
You mean about the cows? You’re kidd’in me, right? You from around here?
I looked it up. Moon cycles do affect bovine sleep and birth cycles.
Then there was another trial morning, in Uppsala, Sweden, where the snow rolls in waves, the mid-winter temperatures seldom rise above single digits, and the sun shines only a few hours a day.
The entrances to the shops on the road up to the hospital on the hill were lit with small candles. This had the effect of drawing us up and into an altered state, which, in fact, the hospital’s isolation ward was, with its lead doors, tiny windows, and pickled herring cart always at the ready. (Disinfectant smell and eau de herring don’t mix well. Try conjuring this just for effect.)
This may all sound a little bleak; it wasn’t — not at all — except for the herring.
I’ve come to welcome the darkness and cold as companions for these medical excursions because they awaken your senses. You learn to appreciate the light and warmth that you find on the other side of the doors you have to quickly run through to escape the elements.
Here’s the cold comfort I’ve found: Infusion units radiate presence (i.e., acute awareness and acceptance without judgment.) Everyone is carrying around an egg in a teaspoon that they don’t want to drop.
The nurses are hypervigilant to make sure the right drugs are being given to the right patients. Everything is double-checked again and again.
The patients are attentive because they’ve come to invest a lot (everything, sometimes) in what they hope to be a cure for their cancer.
Family members are aware (and also wary) because the drugs can kill if not administered properly.
There are few such places and times in our lives when presence is the dominant quality. Surgeons may experience this state when performing a difficult operation or conductors when orchestrating the parts of an especially complex symphony.
But most of us have to hang glide off a cliff to manufacture presence — and, even then, it only last a few moments.
A friend who drives an ambulance in New York City told me she loves the mental stimulation, the immediacy, and the constant rush of adrenaline she gets — despite the awful situations she sometimes encounters.
Clearly presence isn’t always found in pleasant circumstances. Often, it’s found in the direst ones.
But that’s the point. The presence of presence doesn’t depend on whether a situation is pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad.
That’s just one reason why our standing New Year’s resolution to survive another year is easier to keep.
Every few weeks we are immersed in not always pleasant situations where the presence is so pervasive that it wraps itself around you, reminding you that you’re not alone, that we all share a precarious grip on things, and that, stripped of our pretensions and possessions, we are more alike than not.
That compassionate humanity is deeply life affirming and nourishing.