Monday, December 31, 2012

Hearts and flannel pajamas

It's New Year's Eve, and I'm lying on my right side on an black exercise mat in a dark room, wide awake, my eyes fixed on the empty space under a small cot about a foot off the floor, my left hand gently resting over a beating heart belonging to a 2-1/2-year-old in red footie Santa print flannel pajamas,  As I lie silently in the quiet night, I'm filled with both overwhelming happiness and deep grief, pondering the meaning of life and birth and death and luck and injustice and awe, with never-ending questions and a troubled, conflicted mind.

Our grandson Joshua is spending the night with us - his very first time for an overnight visit.  After he played with the dog, ate some supper, took a bath, cuddled with his grandpa ("Papa"), and read a book,  I took him to his little cot.  His parents told us to put a blanket off to one side on the floor, just in case he rolled off.  I had just the thing - my cushioned exercise mat, and I rolled it out on the floor right next to the cot.  Josh crawled into the cot, I covered him up, gave him his stuffed animal and blanket, turned to leave, and that is when he glanced over at the mat, asking me what it was.  I told him that was something nice and comfy in case he rolled off the cot.  He pointed at it, looked me straight in the eyes, and said firmly, "You sleep there."  I told him I would stay there for awhile, not all night, but just to help him get to sleep.  That satisfied him, and I lay down with my left hand over his chest to let him know I was nearby.

I had no fear that I would accidentally fall asleep there.  In the first place, the mat is not that comfortable to sleep on, and in the second place, I was in emotional turmoil.  Ed and I had just received a message this afternoon on our answering machine, a message which we listened to only when we arrived home later after having picked up Joshua.  A neighbor, 59 years old, had been out shoveling snow the other day and had a heart attack and died.   Bob had been president of the neighborhood road association, of which I am secretary, and we had enjoyed knowing him along with his wife.  Bob was a year older than I am.  Although I am not privy to his medical details, he seemed in perfect health.  He was a kind gentleman.  The fact that he was suddenly gone was shocking.

As a medical transcriptionist, I transcribe all kinds of medical reports on a daily basis - people trying to kill themselves, old people who want to live and sometimes who want to die, cancer survivors and others who have just been told they have cancer with little time left, teenagers who need appendectomies, women who give birth in planned, happy pregnancies and others who give birth in anxious, unwelcome pregnancies, kids with out-of-control asthma, folks with dementia, patients with strokes, fever or vomiting, people who are withdrawing from alcohol or drugs, and patients who are just normal people living their normal lives getting their mammograms and Pap smears and blood tests and physicals and just going about their earthly existence.  Any MT will tell you that it is not an easy job to be a part of these patients' stories.  We type, we laugh, we cry, we worry, we celebrate, we grieve with every report we transcribe.  But the fact that all day long I hear these medical stories does not mean I get inured to them.  A good MT, just like a good nurse or doctor or other provider, always keeps in mind that these are real people and their lives - not reports, numbers, codes, or folders.

Why is life good to me right now - blessedly, incredibly good to me - and others are so unfortunate?  How does a man my age - a good man, decent man - suddenly die and I'm still here?  I'm not only here; I'm holding onto my dear grandson who is calmly sleeping by my side - and next week, I will welcome my next and final grandchild, Emily, when she is delivered into the world.

It's not fair that I am cuddling my grandson while Bob's family is in mourning.  I grieve with them, curse this unfair, unjust world of death and sorrow, even as my heart overflows with happiness in the presence of my sleeping toddler.

So this is how I find myself pondering life, looking into the darkness, weeping tears of gratitude and sorrow, anger and joy - all at the same time.  I finally quietly get up, take one last glance at my sleeping Joshua, and with a heavy heart, tiptoe out of the room.  My happiness tonight is tempered with grief.  Life is never easy and it's never simple to understand.  Loss is hard to bear, and sometimes the tears of happiness intermix with the tears of sorrow so much that there is no separating them.   And life - for me, for Bob's family, for the patients whose records I transcribe, for those who are celebrating and those who are grieving, those about to give birth and those burying their loved one - goes on.   I understand the circle of life - I just don't like part of it sometimes.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Last Words

I have deliberately postponed writing a blog post about the Sandy Hook school tragedy for a number of reasons, the first being that there are no words to appropriately react to it, and second, that most everything that can be written has been.  Of course, the fallout includes national conversations on gun control, school safety, and mental illness - thousands of articles online and otherwise go into great detail  concerning those subjects, and they are important ones.  But there is one reaction of which I have heard little.  It all reminded me of a letter to Dear Abby or Ann Landers that I read years ago.

A woman wrote to the advice columnist that her husband and she had had an argument one morning and didn't resolve it before he left for work.  Later in the day, she was called by the emergency room and was told that her husband had had a heart attack and died.  She was not only grief-stricken but her guilt was unbearable; if only she had had a chance to make up, she said.  If only their last moments together on this earth had been loving ones.  Now she had to live the rest of her life with "if only."

Mornings are especially difficult for most families with kids, even those without kids.  Maybe someone didn't get a good night's sleep, maybe another had nightmares, maybe someone else was dreading a test at school or overslept or was still carrying a grudge from an argument the night before.  Maybe a kid is dragging her heels about getting ready, maybe mom at the last minute realized there are no clean clothes, maybe someone can't find his keys or cell phone.  There are countless reasons we tend to argue in the morning at the very time our loved ones are leaving, when our family separates for the day ahead until they are gathered back together in the evening.  But sometimes they don't gather back together in the evening.  Then comes the anguish of what had been last moments together - sometimes outright yelling, sometimes just stubborn silence, sometimes just irritated snapping, sometimes just in too much of a hurry to give a goodbye hug.

The letter mentioned above reminds me that there were adults involved in this school massacre, too - wives and girlfriends and parents.  Each adult and each child had no reason to believe that, no matter if their mornings had in fact been hurried or tense or argumentative,  there would be plenty of time to set things right when the family reconvened.  We always assume there is plenty of time.

It doesn't have to be mornings.  Any time our loved one departs and temporary separation exists, there is always the possibility the temporary situation might become permanent.  It's rare that it would happen in this tragic way, but there are heart attacks, car wrecks, and numerous physical ailments and accidents that can snatch us in an instant.  Nothing in life is guaranteed.  Not next year, not tomorrow, not the rest of the present hour.

It is my hope that we all, in the midst of our overwhelming grief and sadness, make a promise to ourselves to take care in our daily separations, to part with love and forgiveness in every instance, realizing it is one more chance we have been given to bring peace to relationships and to leave our loved one with the knowledge that they are unconditionally loved.  What better gift?

We as Americans make it a point to prepare for the just-in-case scenario:  We buy all kinds of insurance we hope we will never have to use, we try to maintain our furnaces and cars and appliances in working order, we may even be successful at saving some money for emergencies.  Yet, we live our lives day in and day out under the false assumption that nothing unusual will ever happen when it comes to relationships, that our loved ones will always be there after a temporary separation - even it's just our significant other running to the store for something - and we treat each other accordingly.  We always assume we can make up another time, or ask forgiveness tomorrow, or give that hug when they get home from school or work, or even when they wake up in the morning.  Sometimes they don't come home from school or work, and sometimes they don't wake up in the morning.

One of the most poignant parts of some church services is when the leader says,  "The Lord be with you."  And the response:  "And also with you."  What a kind greeting or parting!  Or "I love you."  Or a hug and kiss.

For years, Ed used to say, "Be careful!" as the last thing when one of the kids left the house to go somewhere.  One year Rachel had a car accident, and she swears he forgot to say "Be careful" when she had departed.  Whether he had done so or not, it was very important to her.  It meant he loved her very much and was wishing she be spared any harm.  It was the last thing she heard him say every time she went out and it comforted her.

If we take away anything from this horrible time, let it be that we try to treat each other better at all times, and to appreciate our invaluable relationships, but importantly to take special care and acknowledge our bond when we know we will be separated from our loved ones.  There are no guarantees, and, in the event of the unspeakable, we would want each other to have the last words be ones of love and peace.

May the Lord be with you.