Facing death to discover what’s really important in life
Author’s note: I share this story reluctantly. It is very personal, but I believe it sounds some universal themes worth passing along for others to consider. It starts in one direction, but takes a turn in the middle. Be warned.
I was watching my wife die…or at least I was terrified that she might be dying. The fear, for both of us, was palpable. It gripped us to the bone like the cold hand of death itself–unyielding, inescapable, inevitable.
This was just not right. After all, I was the one who was supposed to die first; that was the deal we both had always understood. And, as if to affirm it, she was always the healthier one. So this was not supposed to be. This was wrong. I even made sure God knew about the deal. “Take me first” I had prayed for years. And I was certain he understood. So what was this all this about? And why now?
It began on a Monday afternoon with Donna mentioning ever increasing chest pain, off-the-scale blood pressure, dizziness, and a “strange feeling”. These were the much publicized warning signals that spurred our frantic dash for the closest medical facility three miles away…a small clinic, not a hospital. In the car it was just the two of us, alone together, facing yet another of life’s scary and uncertain twists.
We had been there before, many times, in our forty years of marriage. But this time was different. This time we struggled to keep our wits about us with nervous humor, false bravado, forced calm; each of us trying not to alarm the other. Each compelled to offer up reassuring lies, and all the while hoping they were truth. Me: “It will be OK, don’t worry.” Her: “I’m alright,” We knew each other too well. Something was wrong, we both knew it.
We arrived at the clinic in record time, walking with all deliberation through the lobby to encounter an all business receptionist behind a tall counter. I described Donna’s symptoms, expressing our worry, and concluded by asking if a doctor could “just check her over.”
It never happened.
Instead, the receptionist hit the intercom and two nurses appeared in less than a minute. They escorted us to a small examination room, took Donna’s blood pressure, and noted, with undisguised alarm, that it was dangerously high. Life threatening. Almost instantly more medical personnel appeared. Someone muttered “possible heart attack” and less than four minutes later the following ten steps had been skillfully executed with that explosive emergency room frenzy we often see on television hospital shows like ER:
–Blood pressure cuff reset and digital monitor activated
–Six ECG tabs attached to the chest area, ECG monitor activated with constant read out (storing and printing cardiac results for future review)
–Patient history taken…allergies, medications, lifestyle issues, etc.
–Intravenous solutions started (saline for hydration and blood thinning)
–Venous shunt inserted into the arm for quick cardiac injection if necessary
–Oxygen mask put in place, flow started
–Chest pain evaluation test completed (“On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being child birth and 1 being no pain at all describe how much you hurt.”)
–Nitroglycerin placed under the tongue (“You will have an instant headache; it will pass, don’t worry, your chest will stop hurting, everything is OK, you’re doing fine”)
–911 call made. A nurse says to Donna, “They’re on their way honey…looks like you got the A-Team today.” It was meant to reassure. It didn’t.
Three more hectic minutes passed and Donna’s medical telemetry was transferred to the EMT team’s mobile monitoring equipment. Then she was quickly moved to an ambulance gurney (“Ready? Lift”) for the “load up” and rush through afternoon traffic to a medical center emergency room a few miles farther down the road. Our lives, our world irrevocably transformed in the span of a few brief but intense moments.
I watched her go—draped in blankets, tubes and wires running from her body to the larger equipment that steadily beeped and clicked the vital life signs her EMTs relied on to keep her alive. I knew how afraid she was. I knew. And the helplessness I felt pierced my heart.
I could only stand and watch. The back of her head moving away, her fine brown hair damp now and matted, her amazing blue eyes wet and afraid, her uncharacteristic frailty in this horrific moment, her unfailing love for me.; all moving away, away to disappear into a mobile confined metal box. Doors slamming shut abruptly, with numbing finality.
The ambulance left; a silent run, lights only, pulsing rapidly…like an errant heartbeat. And I was suddenly alone–more alone than I have ever been.
I stood there stunned, surrounded by the random clutter of the now empty examination room turned trauma room. Less than 20 minutes had elapsed since the two of us walked in the door together. It was quiet now, even still, in contrast to the anxious furor only moments earlier. Anger took hold flooding my mind with recrimination. “They would not let me ride with her.”, I thought. “I should have gone with her. I should have gone. I should have insisted”.
And then I cried. Really cried. Someone closed the door to give me privacy, but a minute or two later someone entered and said softly, “You should go now; she needs you.” And I knew she did. Reaching deep into my gut, I pulled myself together and left to catch up with my wife. A single soul-wrenching question began chewing my heart into little pieces. “What if she dies and I’m not with her?” What if…? Hurry said the voice in mind. Hurry.
Perhaps you have it figured out by now. This piece isn’t really about one couple’s medical emergency and their subsequent efforts to survive it. It’s about love. Or more precisely, it’s about those rare, often unexpected, circumstances life sometimes throws our way to remind us, with profound poignancy, that true love runs deep and endures above all else.
You see, in that cramped exam room, as the usually calm, stable lives of two people morphed at warp speed into fear, uncertainty, and despair, something extraordinary happened. Something rooted so deep in two caring hearts that only those of us who have loved long and true could understand it.
From the moment the drama began to unfold Donna and I locked eyes. We established an invisible circuit and secured the link. We desperately needed to talk, to say things in the unspoken language of two souls made one by a lifetime of going it together. Sometimes the most intense communication occurs non-verbally. Sometimes, it’s the only option.
And so it was, amid the fast, furious pace of our unfolding medical crisis that we spoke without speaking. We spoke through tears that brimmed and spilled down our cheeks. We spoke from the unfathomable depths of a love that’s endured almost fifty years of life’s good times and bad (the better and the worse). We spoke…husband to wife, wife to husband. And our eyes transmitted it all, never wavering, never looking away. Not once.
Ask me to describe the quantum nature of the invisible stream of particles carrying that silent conversation and I could not begin to say. Perhaps it was not quantum at all, but dialed up from some indefinable metaphysical realm. Or maybe it simply tapped deep into the closely held spiritual values that bind a man, a woman and the compassionate God in which they so fervently believe. Did God Himself open that line for us? I don’t know. But whatever it was, it worked. We connected…and I do thank God.
I will not replay here all that we shared in the noisy blur of those first frenzied moments when one life lay on the line and the other felt so lost and alone, except to say this. What passed between us was a mix of things private, painful, reassuring, and uplifting. It moved on a massive wave of energy, fueled by the fevered intensity of all the good folks around us who labored to save the life of a complete stranger. And its outcome was nothing short of a miracle for me and Donna. It created an instant “knowing” through which everything each of us most needed from the other, in the chaos of that runaway moment, was exchanged with crystal clarity.
Of course in all of this there is a point, an ultimate, undeniable truth begging to be restored in my own hierarchy of what is important in life. Let me see if I can put it in context:
I look back, and I look around me, and I realize there are so many of us who spend much of our lives in search of things we believe we must have to be fulfilled, things that give meaning to all that we do, all that we are. I am speaking here of experiences, actions, and acquisitions we think we need, indeed must have, to define us and make us interesting and attractive to others—and to ourselves.
It may be the quest for material wealth, money, status, or power. It may be career and the steady rise up the latter of professional success. Perhaps it is the thrill of one grand adventure after another, the trip around the world, the self-imposed adrenalin rush that becomes addictive because ordinary living and ordinary work can seem at times boring, stressful, empty of meaning or purpose.
Or maybe it is simply “keeping up with the Joneses” because we are, by our very nature, social creatures and we need to feel accepted and wanted…we need to belong somewhere. Such notions are often perceived as the antidote to deeply buried insecurities (but seldom if ever are the cure) Still, the compulsion to be “somebody” for fear of being nobody drives many of us, insecurities or not. We need to be “in” not “out”. And if we can be “in” with the “in” crowd—well so much the better.
I have been there; been there for a good part of my life. I have chased thrills and had them, traveled to far off places, walked and talked with U.S. Presidents and corporate CEOs, been in the right clubs, mingled with rich and famous folks, chased the money…had it and lost it. Were these things fulfilling? Yes, I confess they were; after all we learn from every experience life presents us. And to be entirely honest, many of them, for me, were just plain fun and in some cases exhilarating.
But sometimes, in the quest for status, power, things or adventure, we can get lost in the chase and consumed with self. Seduced by the power of our desires and dreams we can casually, even callously, overlook something more; something so essential to meaning in our lives that we are stunned when it suddenly kicks open a door in our hearts, walks in, consumes our entire being, and screams in our brain, “WAKE UP FOOL, YOU’RE MISSING THE OBVIOUS!”.
For me, that door kicked open in a cramped examination room at the Scott and White Clinic near Sun City Texas on July the 24th, 2006. And the pure light passing through it illuminated a single overarching truth I urgently needed to remember, a truth that seared itself, once and for all time, into every particle and molecule that is me. Here it is:
The one ever lasting constant in my life that transcends everything I thought had some meaning, everything I ever wanted, and everything I have ever done or will do, good or bad, was right there before me lying on that exam table—afraid, eyes searching, pleading with me. It was Donna.
It all came home so vividly for me then. She had been my rock. She was the steadfast anchor that made the two us a single entity. Her love for me and our children, her relentless caring for all of us, her womanhood and motherhood, her devotion to family, her kindness, her morals and ethics, her faith, her common sense, her stubbornness…all of this, and more, was the indestructible foundation that supported our marriage and our life together. It made us “us”. So how, in the press of life, how in the face of my own selfish wants and needs, and how, in the passage of our years, could I ever lose sight of that truth or take it for granted at times? It’s what can happen when selfishness trumps selflessness, when “me” surpasses “us”.
As I stood wondering if my wife was dying (and passionately praying she would not), I vowed, then and there, that those lesser things in my life that had always seemed so important at times could never eclipse the one thing that really is. And I desperately wanted Donna to know it too, to hear the promise in it. The commitment. If the worst happened without her ever knowing, how could I forgive myself? She had to know, but how to convey it in the midst of an ongoing, full out cardiac emergency.
Then our eyes locked. And my promise became the first crucial part of that silent messaging we shared eye to eye and heart to heart in those terrifying moments. Did she hear it? A week later, after our crisis had passed, she told me she understood everything we conveyed at the time. I believe her. (Yes, Donna made it through but not without some scary times and some needed medical attention. It looks like she will be fine).
A Postscript: There is no wrong in seeking all the good stuff of life that make it happy and filled with joy. Go for it. But consider this. Among the great blessings God can bestow (fate for you unbelievers) is the simple constant of having someone to love—and who loves you back. Someone standing with you and by you to share this rollercoaster journey we call life.
Nothing comes close to the ultimate fulfillment that kind of relationship provides. Nothing. It eclipses all else that comprises a lifetime. Don’t ruin that. Don’t miss it. Work at it. Seek it. Go through it—the good and bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the up and the down. For the kind of richness it brings is far beyond anything any of us imagine.
I know that now—and will never lose site of it in the dwindling years I have left.