Matters of Life and Death

Photo courtesy of Alcosphotos

Matters of Life and Death

“Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.”

–Thich Nhat Hanh

It started when Jim jolted me awake at 5 am.

“Something’s not right,” he said. “I have a strange feeling in my chest – pain and tightening all around my heart.”

There is nothing that will wake up a spouse up faster than a statement like this.  My heart jumped into my throat as I said, “Do you want me to call an ambulance?”   A million thoughts leapt into my head and I tried to focus on the immediate.  Where are my glasses?  Who will watch my dogs while I’m at the hospital with Jim?  Keeping my thoughts concrete has always been my way of coping with major trouble.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said and he started pacing up and down the hallway.

I repeated the question for the next 30 minutes until he finally said, “Okay, you can drive me to the emergency room.”

Fast forward 24 hours and Jim has been transferred from our community hospital to the highly regarded heart center at the regional hospital 30 miles away.  Jim’s heart enzymes showed a possible heart attack diagnosis and he was scheduled for a “CATH” test.  His test was delayed again and again as emergencies bumped him to “next” position in the queue.  Jim’s anxiety was palpable and I tried to keep our moods light by provoking his well-known sense of humor.  Politics and observations on our age and infirmities do it every time!  However, when the nurse came in and said, “We’re finally ready for you,” my provocations failed miserably.  I said, “Well, have fun, Babe.  I’m going home to look for the will.”

Yea, I really did say that.  Jim didn’t seem to appreciate it very much.

The final diagnosis was indeed, that ominous label, “heart attack.”  However, the CATH test showed NO heart blockage.  A scary beginning followed by a huge sigh of relief.  How quickly we go from fear of death to appreciation for life.  Jim and I both are committed to a “heart healthy” diet and more regular exercise.

The day after Jim’s heart attack, I was informed that my 95-year-old mother-in-law was put under home hospice care.  Bev is our family’s matriarch and she has had a huge impact on my life.  Up until her recent diagnosis of pneumonia, Bev has led a remarkably healthy, resilient life.  As I’m running around meeting Jim’s needs, my reflections on how Bev has affected my life occupy my thoughts.  She is a true “California girl,” who introduced me to new age spiritual ideas, shared her struggles with being the “perfect mother,” and joyously embraced life with her many friends.  Bev was my “rock” during my late husband’s year-long battle with leukemia, teaching me what forgiveness and compassion really mean.  I love her dearly and refer to her as my “other mother.”  I wish I could be with her in her final days in this world but I know she understands my first priority to Jim during his recovery.

This year I turn 65.  I’ve already gotten my Medicare card and I’ve enrolled in Social Security.  I’m officially old.  When I informed my Facebook friends the news of Jim’s heart attack and Bev’s hospice care, I was flooded with expressions of compassion and encouragement.  However, one comment stands out – “Sickness and death are happening every day now.”  Yes, that’s the depressing realization at this stage in life.

But what’s passed is past, and tomorrow is just a dream. All we ever have is the present moment.  If I feel anxiety for the future or depression about the past, I miss out on the peace and calm that can only be found by focusing entirely on what is happening right now.  This is the essence of Buddhism and the principle of mindfulness. It’s tempting to think I can only be happy during life’s “ups” and that the “downs” are unfair.  What good does that do for me?  At this stage in life, that portends only misery.  What I do have is each breath, each insight, and each experience – at each moment.    Awesome!

If I Should Die

By Emily Dickinsen

If I should die,

And you should live,

And time should gurgle on,

And morn should beam,

And noon should burn,

As it has usual done;

If birds should build as early,

And bees as bustling go, –

One might depart at option

From enterprise below!

Tis sweet to know that stocks will stand

When we with daisies lie,

That commerce will continue,

And trades as briskly fly.

It makes the parting tranquil

And keeps the soul serene,

That gentlemen so sprightly

Conduct the pleasing scene!

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