What does it take to seize a difficult life in both hands?


This disease, like time and life, dips and dances but tends to go in one direction. As long as it doesn’t outrun my ability to adapt and amuse, I can put up with that. After all, we’re all born with a one-way ticket, and sooner or later we have to get off the ride. Not all of us get a chance to prepare for our exit, or even get much warning as to what it will be like.

In my first nursing job, on an HIV unit in the very early 90’s, I had a Mexican soap opera star as a patient. He was lovely, in every way.

Head shots of Penelope Cruz and William Levy
If you can, picture a cross between these two. That was this guy. And really sweet, too.

This was his first hospitalization with the disease and he hadn’t found his particular polestar, the thought/idea/perspective that would keep him determined and alive for however long he had. He was a lot of work emotionally, needing much encouragement to keep trying new treatments (and they were very new back then) and to keep eating even when he didn’t feel like it and so forth. He had been in for a long time — over a week.

One day, while I was setting out some medications for a complex patient who needed his meds punctually, and didn’t have time or attention to spare, the soap star came mooching up to my med cart in his hospital gowns (one in front, one in back) and huge, lustrous eyes.

With what attention I had to spare, I thought, “go away, come back later” as hard as I could. Didn’t work that time.

He said, as he’d said before, in the same miserable tone as always, “I’m going to die.”

Sysiphus looking miserable as he pushes a rock up hill... with poor body mechanics.
“It’s a big weight.”

Up until this occasion, I’d stop what I was doing and gave him a full minute of attention and cheer him up a bit.

I didn’t have a minute right then. I had maybe two seconds. “Everyone’s going to die,” I said, barely pausing in my dosing and calculations.

girl on a flat beach kicking a ball high
“Maybe it’s only this big.”

Long silence next to me. I kept doing my job. (Keep in mind that nurses are paid to dish meds, not counsel and encourage struggling patients. That’s all that the staffing patterns allow.)

Then, in that delicious accent, a voice like the rising sun announced, “You’re right! Everyone’s going to die!”
Stone angel with hands clasped in prayer, standing on a pillar, sun like a glorious halo
I heard him drift back to his room, muttering in wonderment, “Everyone’s going to die… it’s not just me,” and I smiled to myself. I wasn’t usually rude to patients, but it sounded like it was exactly what he needed.

My other patient got his meds on time. So did the rest. At dinner that evening, my soap star sat up and devoured every bite, beaming and bouyant as we had never seen him. I began to see what all of Mexico had fallen in love with. He was discharged next day, full of fight and life again.

Somehow, that brutal realization — that everyone dies, that being doomed to death isn’t special — was what he needed to break the spell of misery that his diagnosis had put him under. He had staggered in a broken boy, and he walked out a free man.
Man_walking_EMuybridge
I don’t understand it either, but it sure worked for him.

Perhaps I do understand, at least a little. My experience with that revelation goes a bit further back, though.

I had a book of rhymes when I was little. Most were delightful,  but there was an old one about a sick little girl that contained the lines,

“Doctor, doctor, must I die?”
“Yes you must, and so must I.”

old engraving of a doll-like child lying down, a grim-looking woman in robes looking down unfeelingly on it, a child skeleton hanging from a pole. So hokey and grim it's funny.
Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, eh?

I went through a jagged 6 months when I got to grips with the meaning of that (plus, I thought it was a rotten thing to say to a sick little girl.) My mother got tired of assuring me I had never been nearly sick enough to worry about it and, on further questioning, assuring me that she and Dad wouldn’t pop off for a long time yet, and I’d be an adult and able to handle it.

Later, I vaguely remember looking around at a sunlit day, seeing my brothers and friends playing in the sun, the leaves of my favorite tree fluttering in the breeze, and knowing everyone would die one day…
Old Chinese painting of 4 children, in voluminous clothes, kicking a ball around.

…but not yet.

Now, we were all alive and together.

Better grab it! Yes!

A smile pushed up through my whole body, and I went out to play.
glee
I think that’s when I first began to understand the difference between being a spectator of life and being a part of it. That realization was rooted in knowing that it’ll end one day, and I didn’t want to miss out on whatever it had to offer in the meantime.

Perhaps that’s what my remark to my patient did for him; but, being older, he could process it in 6 seconds, rather than 6 months. Everyone dies; but right now, I’m alive!

Cats are masters of pa:ng :)
for lifelong celebrations!

I could be wrong, but I think my insistence on being a part of life is a big piece of my adaptability, not only to this wretched bouquet of stinker diseases, but to everything.

What do you think? I’m curious if there’s a link between knowing death and survival, between a lust for life and adaptability. I’m not talking about Norman Cousins’s ideas of exceptionalism, but of an ordinary, grubby-handed greed to be in this thing called life, warts and all. What does it take to reach that?

This might be the question that shapes our future ideas about adaptation and resiliency.

I’d be fascinated to hear from others on this.

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