On the eve of the next time my heart breaks, I wonder if I’ll wake up with a sense of foreboding. I mean, society is relentless, and we are all tumbled up together, in little bundles of smiles and darkness, and sometimes one of us turns the wrong corner, at the exactly right time, and bumps into something, and so be it. One life. We each get one life.
Some say we get many lives. So, perhaps it is that this version of you gets one life. I guarantee you, not one of us knows the answer, though many of us are bomb shelter certain of one truth or another.
You can measure one inch. You can measure one joule. You cannot measure one afterlife.
In the absence of measurement, stand beliefs. You can choose to believe, or to disbelieve. You can choose to suspend judgment, and neither believe, nor disbelieve. You can mull it over, until your mind is totally numb. You can change your mind at any given moment, and you’re still correct.
But you cannot measure what happens next. So, if this life is one seemingly never ending roller coaster of exquisite joys and unbelievable sorrows, and it seems to move faster as we age, then why are we so busy trying to keep others down?
A man told me once, that if everyone was like me, we wouldn’t need politics. It has stuck, like an ultrafine splinter in my sock. I accept that compliment, and I strive to deserve it every day–but what does it mean to you?
I hear a hundred different answers, and these are merely the ones echoing from inside my own mind. I can tell you it does not make me better than the man who said it, nor any of you who are reading this, though isn’t that what it appears to infer?
Let’s pause speculation. I want to share, frankly, about some tangible things that have taken place thus far in my life, which have brought me to the threshold of this compliment. These many grave circumstances have inspired one important character trait (we’ll get to it in a moment), which I believe to be quintessential to my spirited adventures in altruism.
More than once, I’ve almost drowned. One of those times, I was stuck in a debris dam, in a glacial river, in the Alaskan back country, in forceful water up to my neck. I screamed at my husband to take his hands off of me so I could figure out how to get myself out, because I could tell my foot was tangled in debris beneath the water. I didn’t want anyone to move me, because I was terrified I’d be pulled under, and that water was stronger than all of us. I threw my favorite hat to the river bank, freed my footing, and then had him pull me out. I walked away with only mild hypothermia. We finished the trip, and I still cherish the hat.
I’ve been kicked in the face by a horse. Hind foot, full steam windup and kick, direct hit to my face. It resulted in a broken jaw, but no brain injury, no dental emergency, and my eye socket was not affected. I have never been happier in my life, than when I got up off of that pasture, and walked away from that moment.
I’ve been punched in the face, and spit on, by a mentally ill client, because I stepped in for two male African American staff members and sent them on break. She had been insulting and taunting them with racial slurs, and they’d had enough. I’d had enough. And I knew she’d had enough.
I’ve had the blood and spit of a self-injurious teenager all over my body, and in my hair, because my coworker and I wrestled her for her life. I had to go find a clean shirt from the donation boxes, and then sit through the rest of my shift in mild shock. I cried with adult men and women, because this one had been a little too close, and though most of us have not spent even a moment together since that time years ago, these are some of the dearest people in my life. I still wear that shirt.
My husband and I were the third car to stop at a fatal traffic accident, when I was pregnant with my daughter. An ordinary car had collided head-on with a semi truck. It was a sunny spring day, and the young woman driver had slid on an icy patch in the shade. A man was on the phone with 911. Another woman was panicking, and she started screaming. I told her to shut her mouth, and sit down, and I put someone in charge of helping her while I watched the man fumble with shaking hands, attempting to locate a pulse for the dispatcher.
I asked him if I could try, and I explained I was a nurse. I reached into the wreckage, and I checked her carotid artery. I didn’t need to check, but for the sake of everyone there, I did. She did not have a pulse, and there would be no extracting her from the car for CPR. I remember her hair was like chocolate in a smooth ponytail, and that she was wearing a t-shirt over the top of a long sleeved shirt. I thought about her family then, and I think about them now. A scene almost exactly like this one had played out for me, and my college boyfriend, many years earlier. I remember those three kids too, and that it was graduation week.
I’ve served in the worlds of oncology, and palliative care, and bone marrow transplant, for both children and adults. I’ve been the one who pushed the buttons on a pump, starting an infusion of experimental chemotherapy into the body of an infant, while my head reminded me militantly, “It is not your choice, Tanya.” It wasn’t. I remember his name. I remember them all.
There are so many more, and some of them are so beautifully painful that I’m certain you’d never read my blog again. We might already be there, so let’s cut to the chase.
These are the great equalizers. No one gets to choose whether they will become ill. No one gets to make that choice for their children, their friends, or their parents. And while circumstances are fairly predictable, believe me, I didn’t anticipate finding myself locked into a debris dam, in imminent danger of drowning or freezing to death. The young woman with the chocolate hair did not anticipate one slick spot on a sunny day, with otherwise dry roads.
We all have stories, and it is the ups and downs of our stories that shape our character over time. From there, we have the choice to dig into experiences, or to hurdle them. I am cursed/gifted(?) with a preference for digging. I have found myself buried in my own inquiry, dark and nearly suffocating, time and time again, but I have learned something powerful. We are all the same, when that last breath is done.
And the character trait I mentioned earlier? We can call it digging, but I’m actually talking about curiosity; proverbial cautionary tales about cats, be damned. I’ve been a little too close to that fragile line that stands between life and death, too many times, and it’s changed me. I’ve become more inclined to see the soft skin of others, and the blood that’s beneath it, than their accoutrements or eccentricities.
I’ve learned to dig for understanding. I take my time listening to different sides of an issue. I seek arguably excessive counsel. I bear arguably excessive witness. I quietly observe a whole lot. And I jump into dialogue wherever I come across it, because the last thing I fear is looking like a fool. I’d rather be deemed an eager fool, than a perpetuator of regrettable truths.
Through my circumstances and my work, I have unrolled so much of the map of the human psyche, and our sociological entrapments and demarcations, that I can see just about how much of it others have been able to unroll. And while I’ll never fault someone for being inexperienced, I no longer attempt to validate the feelings of those who would willfully exclude any portion of the population. There is no time.
And there is no time for fear, especially not of disapproval, being misunderstood, or being wrong. I don’t fear the bad stories, or bad things that can happen on any otherwise happy Wednesday. But yes, I’m constantly aware of the risks of our society, and I’ve taught my children what to watch out for, and how to respond. I focus on love and support for victims of violence, rather than hyper-focusing on the perpetrators.
Though I’m quite mortal, and a total mess when I can’t find the right lid for a Tupperware, I’m confident in my abilities under pressure. I’ve always seemed disproportionately calm to those observing me in a crisis, and when I was younger, this was a great source of pride. Hearing a certain story over and over, about a girl who’s brave in the face of danger, helps you fall in love with the caricature of her.
But now I understand things in a more mature light. I recall, in each of these circumstances, exactly when I was mentally preparing to sustain physical or emotional injury, die, or see someone else seriously harmed or dying. I have spent my life tumbling through micro and macro traumas, and I speculate we all have. We could stand to ease up a little, with ourselves, and one another.
That being said, it’s complicated. Even with my best efforts to avoid it, I continue to have my heart devastated by people, or circumstances, about two to three times a year. And since I don’t mince words, and am fairly decisive once certain lines are crossed, there are amends to make, here and there. Though I tend to hold others in my heart easily, even when we are at odds, that doesn’t mean they can feel that connection. There is always work to do.
I keep thinking of one specific hike with my family. My Dad kept asking, “How much farther?” I answered him, at least five times, “Just a little further. We’re almost there.” I was a smug little creep, and at first, he didn’t think I was funny. Eventually, we all were laughing about it. Maybe we should think of it that way.
There’s always going to be more trauma, more mending, and more trifling. Maybe we could add in more curiosity, more understanding, and a broader sense of inclusion, too. And then maybe, we can understand that even with our best efforts, we’ll only ever feel like we’re almost there, and then, one day, just like that, it’s done.