Aging and Raging

. . .put some Willie in my ear that I might hear, yet again, Mommas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.

Today the federal government certified me as officially “old”. My medicare card arrived. And, as if that were not enough, my new AARP membership turned up as well. Lucky me…a double dose of “the end is near”. Little wonder then that I have spent this gloomy day considering options.

On the one hand, I have this strange desire to go to the JC Penny’s store and buy plaid Bermuda shorts and long black knee-high socks to wear with my new sandals. Accessories will include a golf hat, new clubs and one of those little electric carts that glide silently up and down long grassy fairways in pursuit of a tiny white ball. And after the golfing, while the shadows grow long, I will eat very early…at a cafeteria somewhere…and go to bed at 8:00 pm…right after the news and weather on cable.

On the other hand, I cannot quit thinking about the poet Dylan Thomas and his now famous exhortations to his aging father:

“Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Thomas’ poem (read all of it below) has become an enduring metaphor for transcending infirmities, resisting death, and milking life for all we can get out of it. That sure as hell sounds better to me than golf and mashed potatoes. Besides, I have always been good at raging—against or for all kinds of causes and things. I’m a good rager (not a word, but you get it) and a good milker too. So I lean naturally toward the Dylan Thomas approach

But there’s another factor that comes into play. You see I don’t really feel old. OK, that’s a white lie. Let me just say I don’t feel old in my mind. But any number of niggling things on or in my body hurt most of the time now. Some joints are stiff. I don’t sleep well. And I take pills for high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Moreover, my short term memory is…what was I going to say here? I had it just moment ago.

Well never mind. Just consider this: The body ages, but the intellect and the spirit can remain young, curious, and adventurous. It is just a matter of personal will, mental exercise and deep resolve. Dig for it.

For all of us who are crossing the threshold into what is universally and euphemistically called the “autumn of our years”, there are choices. What will yours be? Mine will be, in the words of the poet, to “burn and rave at the close of day”until the “dying light” fades to black. I will not dwell on the aches, pains and infirmities sure to besiege me, but will stoically ignore them that I might do the following until my last breath is breathed:

Savor and drink in the amazing majesty of the earth and all its teaming, vibrant life. My God, the beauty.

Fight to restore our republic and protect liberty, justice, and the rule of law.

Love family and friends with unfaltering commitment.

Help others in need.

Pursue adventures, music, art, knowledge.

Indulge my boundless epicurean appetite for good food and drink, the good life.

Sing, dance and make music.

And what if that moment comes when I am bedridden with only a finger to wag, one ear that hears, and a still working nose. I will rage on by wagging the one working finger as if to say come here. And someone’s job will be to let me smell a rose with my nose and put some Willie in my ear that I might hear, yet again, “Mommas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.”

Parting shot. We’re not really old at all; we’re just getting ready to move on to what’s next…if you get my drift.

Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night by Dylan Thomas

“Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Old and Dead Warriors

Memorial Day 2007: Are we still a grateful nation?

This Memorial Day the living, as well as the dead, have weighted my soul and torn at my heart. Those who fell in past wars–that the rest of us could live free–and those who now fight in distant, dangerous Iraq, for the same reason, were on my mind constantly and in my prayers every moment of this solemn day. And never more so than during a quietly poignant ceremony held this morning in a small park in the center of a Texas retirement community called Sun City.

I am certain passersby would have noticed only a small gathering of elderly men and women clustered near a white stone wall formally inscribed to remind us of those who paid the ultimate price. As for me, I saw them as old warriors, soft now with paunches and besieged with aches, pains, and bad eyes. But eyes filled with tears as a moment of prayer gave way to the plaintiff notes of Taps played on a lone bugle. “Go to sleep, Go to sleep”.

The sad refrain echoed across the Texas hills and faded quickly to leave only a murmuring breeze and a light drizzle as the few who had gathered stood silent and straight, eyes gazing back to another time, another era. The moment was about remembering. And I found myself wondering who or what they saw; what they heard reaching through the long past years to touch them so profoundly and freeze them in place like so many brittle statues. Oh the stories they must have lived and the tales of valor and selflessness they can tell.

It must be the self-oriented times we live in now that so many Americans will causally ignore a day honoring those extraordinary men and women who gave their lives in defense of our nation. It’s hardly on the people’s minds, if it’s given a thought at all between grilling in the backyard, the lake, or the mall. Unless of course, you were there in places like Iwo Jima (WWII), The Chosin Reservoir (Korea), Khe Sanh (South Vietnam), and most recently, the deserts of Iraq and the terror of Baghdad. Then you know. You know because you walked the walk as well as talked the talk. You went, you did your duty, and you came back burdened with memories almost sacred in that they were so good and at once so bad.

But the rest of us? We can only guess at the nature of war, our conceptions (or misconceptions) shaped and amplified by movies like “Band of Brothers”, “A Bridge to Far”, or “Twelve O clock High”. Or maybe we gained a sense of it from our own fathers who never liked to talk about it, but did so on rare occasions. Still, we will never come close to knowing and understanding the nature of the glue that deeply and irrevocably binds men of arms.

Author William Manchester (best known for his three volumes on President John F. Kennedy) fully understood it. He served with the Marine Corps during WWII and participated in the battle for Okinawa in one of the most pivotal battles of the war: the 10 day non-stop fighting to wrest control of Sugar Loaf Hill from an entrenched Japanese force of thousands.

Much later in life he would characterize those fierce days of battle as the “central experience of my youth” and the singular moment that defined the balance of his life. Here is how Manchester described the battlefield experience of a lifetime. It is a graphic, account, but comes as close as anything I have read that may help the rest of us comprehend what warriors do that we may live free. In his own words….

All greenery had vanished; as far as one could see, heavy shell fire had denuded the scene of shrubbery. What was left resembled a cratered moonscape. But the craters were vanishing, because the rain had transformed the earth into a thin porridge—too thin even to dig foxholes. At night you lay on a poncho as a precaution against drowning during the barrages.

All night, every night, shells erupted close to shake the mud beneath you at the rate of five or six a minute. You could hear the cries of the dying but could do nothing. Japanese infiltration was always imminent, so the order of the day was to stay put. Any man who stood up was cut in half by machine guns manned by fellow marines.

By day the mud was hip deep; no vehicles could reach us. As you moved up the slope of the hill, artillery and mortar shells were bursting all around you, and if you were fortunate enough to reach the top, you encountered Japanese defenders, almost face to face, a few feet away. To me, they looked like badly wrapped brown paper parcels someone had soaked in a tub. Their eyes seemed glazed. So, I suppose did ours.

Japanese bayonets were fixed, ours weren’t. We used the knives, or, in my case, a .45 caliber revolver and M1 carbine. The mud beneath our feet was deeply veined with blood. I was slippery. Blood is very slippery. So you skidded around, in deep shock, fighting as best you could until one side outnumbered the other. The outnumbered side would withdraw for reinforcements and then counter attack.

During those ten days I ate half a candy bar. I couldn’t keep anything down. Everyone had dysentery, and this brings up an aspect of war even Robert Graves, Siegfried Sasson, Edmund Blunden, and Ernest Hemingway avoided. If you put more than a quarter million men in a line for three weeks, with no facilities for the disposal of human waste, you are going to confront a disgusting problem. We were fighting and sleeping in one vast cesspool. Mingled with that stench was another—the corrupt and corrupting odor of rotting human flesh.

Manchester left the war a few weeks after Sugar Loaf due to wounds received when a Japanese six inch rocket dropped on his position. A Marine buddy blocked the explosion with his body saving Manchester and leaving him with the indelible image of his friend’s viscera coating his own wounded body with slime and blood. He carried that image along with his friend’s bone slivers and Japanese shrapnel embedded near his heart until his death in 2004. It was the battlefield surgeon’s decision to leave in the bone and steel. Those bone fragments meant more to William Manchester than his medals.

From now on, I may have fun during the first two days of the Memorial Day weekend, but on Memorial Day itself I will always make time to participate in ceremonies remembering the men and women who fought and died in the service of our nation for each and every one of us. I will honor and remember, with somber appreciation, their gallantry while keeping in my torn heart those they left behind. Shouldn’t we all do that?

The Donna Lisa

Donna Lisa, Donna Lisa…you’re so like the Lady with the mystic smile.

By now many of you have seen the famous (infamous) photo I took of my wife Donna. The look on her face as she glares at me not only says, “don’t you dare take a picture of me like this”; it also expresses her style of dealing with me for 40 years…namely, “I will brook no nonsense from you buddy…or you will pay”. She has her ways…believe me.

So, being me, I took the picture.

Now, I have taken it one step further and created a painting based on the photo. The look on her face is anything but enigmatic, but I still could not help thinking of Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa as I worked on it. So for your viewing pleasure (and to further torment the woman I love more than anything), I present “The Donna Lisa” by Michael Watson.

By the way, if something bad happens to me…well just remember the expression on the face of the subject below.

the-donna-lisa-2-web.jpg

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Saving Nazanin

If Iran will callously disregard it’s internationally binding commitments not to kill, maim, and brutalize its own young women and children, how can other nations, by any sane reasoning, believe it can trusted on any matter.

Ateqeh Rajabi, a 16 year old girl, was publicly executed by hanging, August 2004, in the town square at Neka, Mazandaran Province, Republic of Iran. Her crime? “Acts deemed incompatible with chastity”.

The “incompatibility” in this case was sexual intercourse with an older man. During her trial (Ateqeh was not allowed a defense attorney and was left to defend herself), Judge Haji Rezail became outraged when the young girl removed her hijab (headscarf worn for modesty in Arabic cultures) He was further angered by her tendency to speak with a “sharp tongue”, presumably in her own defense.

Incensed by these unforgivable actions in his courtroom, Judge Rezail rushed to Tehran to urge the conservative mullahs comprising the Iranian Supreme Court to uphold, then and there, the death sentence he had pronounced on Ateqeh. They did; and upon his return to Neka, Judge Rezail personally carried out Ateqeh’s sentence by performing the execution himself.

Her corpse was left hanging for days as a deterent to other young girls who might stray. Though it was well known around Neka, the Iranian judge ignored the fact that 16 year old Ateqeh Rajabi was not only young, but mentally incompetent as well.

In an earlier Iranian case, May 2004, 19 year old Leyla Mafi was sentenced to 99 lashes to be followed by “stoning until dead”. Her story is a long and sad chronicle of abuse, lashes, cruelty and injustice. Layla had been forced into prostitution at the age of eight by her mother. At nine she conceived a child which led to her being whipped publicly on prostitution charges. At fourteen she had twins out of wedlock for which she was also brutally whipped under Iranian law

Leyla’s more recent infraction, the one earning her 99 lashes and a death by stoning sentence, involved her being charged with having another child out wedlock as well as being associated with a brothel. Amnesty International, which followed the case closely, reported that Leyla Mafa possessed the mental skills of an eight year old. Under pressure from several human rights organizations, the Iranian Supreme Court lifted the young girl’s death sentence in March of 2005, but upheld the 99 lashes which was duly meted out in February, 2006. After her punishment, Leyla was committed to an Iranian Institution for Women.

To our modern and civilized world these cases are extraordinarily crude, unjust, and excessive. But they occur all to often in the ancient, theocratic, male dominated culture of Iran. In fact, under current Iranian law, girls over the age of nine and boys aged 16 can face a death penalty for crimes such as rape and murder. Capital punishment is imposed in certain cases of illegal sexual relationships as well. At least 18 child offenders have been executed in Iran in recent years–eight of them in 2005.

If Iranian laws and judicial practices are heartless and unfeeling toward its women and children, the issue is made worse by a sick cultural bias in cases of rape. Observers of Iranian legal proceedings, many educated Iranian women among them, well know that victims of rape in Iran’s male dominated system can be and are, in a sordid twist of law, charged with the crime of having extra-marital sex. In an instant, the system that should assure them justice transforms them from victim to defendant. While their rapists are exonerated and go free, these women, some of them teenagers, face a penalty of 100 lashes–and even death.

This brings us to the case of 17 year old Nazanin Mahabad–uneducated and dirt poor–who, in a moment of profound courage during an attempted rape, took a bold stand for all of Iran’s women, children and young people. For her desperate action she earned a death by hanging sentence in 2006 at the hands of an Iranian court. Here is her story:

Nazanin and her niece, Samieh, had gone with their boyfriends to a park west of Tehran. It was to be a pleasant day in the sun and a needed respite from the poverty and endless menial labor that helped Nazanin and her five siblings subsist in a ruined home on the dusty outskirts of the city. It was a rare moment of girlish laughter and peace soon to be shattered. When three men approached the group they began harassing the girls and threatened the boys who fled in fear. It only took a moment then for the men to move on the girls throwing them to the ground and tearing at their cloths.

What stirred Nazanin to do what followed is a matter for speculation. Certainly it was a natural reaction rooted in a primal need to defend. But it may have been more. Nazanin had lived long enough in a society where rape was common and rapist were freed. Perhaps she saw the tragic irony in her situation. Be raped and face possible stoning or even death for extra-marital sex, or fight back for herself and her niece and face charges of attacking her male attackers. She chose to fight, pulling a knife she carried concealed because she knew well the dangers she and other girls routinely faced in around the poorer suburbs of Tehran.

Nazanin would take it no more. She stabbed one of her attackers in the hand, but when a second man suddenly attacked her with vicious and clear intent, she plunged the knife into his chest. He died from his wound. Charged with murder under the Iranian system, her story of rape called into question, Nazanin must have known that yet another Iranian court would leave her male attackers free and put another young girl to death by hanging. Her less than competent court appointed attorney seemed not to care, and Nazanin’s own simple plea had no influence in the court: “I wanted to defend myself and my niece. I did not want to kill that boy…no one came to our help.”

As the trial continued, Nazanin also asserted that she was acting to defend her honor and chastity. The Judge in the case rejected that argument out of hand, however, because a court ordered medical exam had shown Nazanin not to be a virgin. It was true. Little more than a year earlier, Nazanin, then 15, had been raped. Forensic physicians verified the scarring from that brutal attack as consistent with rape and the loss of virginity. This, and the fact that she had reported that rape as well to local police who ignored it, had no bearing in her Iranian court. In the end, she found herself facing a death sentence.

At that time, all hope must have abandoned Nazanin Mahabad. Alone in a prison, facing death, her fear became all consuming. But not all was lost. Word began to spread among caring factions in and beyond Iran. Pressure began to mount. Letters were written, thousands of them. Bloggers weighed in. Media picked up on the case and flashed Nazanin’s story to the world community of activists and organizations who wasted no time weighing in with Iranian officials. Petitions were created and sent with hundreds of thousands of names. By May of 2006, when Nazanin’s case came before the Iranian Supreme Court, the world was watching. And the Court knew it. In a not-so-surprising ruling by that time, it turned over Nazanin’s death penalty and sent the case back to lower court for a new ruling.

Today (Jan 14, 2007), with the assistance of new lawyers and the under the watchful eyes of a deeply concerned world, Nazanin Mahabad was exonerated of murder by the local court, her death sentence lifted. Thousands of anxious followers of this case breathed a collective sigh of relief. The court could have sent her to prison or even awarded the death penalty again, but the prayers, pressure and intervention of caring people won the day.

But Nazanin will not be set free yet. The court held that her self defense during the incident was an act of disproportionate force. A girl of 17 (at the time) defending herself and her niece against three men trying to rape them. Still, the court ordered that she pay blood money to the family of her deceased attacker in order to receive a full pardon. Until then she will remain in prison. Her lawyers are appealing the blood money ruling and seeking bail to free Nazanin at last.

The caring world still has some work to do in order to finally free Nazanin. I have little doubt it will happen. In the meantime we are left with Iran and its crude and warped system of justice for women and children. Its barbaric practices are even more disturbing in that Iran is among the nations of the world signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). As such they agreed with the rest of the world not to execute anyone for any offense committed when they were under the age of 18. These treaties also prohibit the use of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishments.

If Iran will callously disregard it’s international commitments not to kill, mame, and brutalize its own young women and children, how can other nations, by any sane reasoning, believe it can trusted on any matter. I include in this line of thought their continuing assertion that they will only use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Authors Note: Want to help in Nazanin’s case? Go here: http://save.nazanin.googlepages.com/

Hey! I’m a Time Magazine Person of the Year!

As many of you know, Time Magazine chose ME and millions of other “citizens of the new digital democracy” (their term for internet users and content creators) as their Person of the Year 2006 . I would be remiss if I did not respond to such an honor.

First, let me thank the editorial staff at Time Magazine for even considering me. I particularly want to single out Richard Stengel, Managing Editor at Time, for even giving me a shot at this profoundly moving accolade. I wept uncontrollably when the news reached me…to be so honored was almost more than I could bear.

The only award I had ever received previously was 4th runner up in a Chili Dog eating contest in Toad Suck Arkansas (yes it’s a real place). I still have the trophy, a bronze weenie, sitting on top of my eight track tape player which I have cleverly rigged to play through my IBM 386. (How often have I wished for an Apple!). My custom framed Time Magazine cover will now share space with the weenie. I could not be more proud.

For the record, you should all realize that Mr. Stengel faced a tough decision in making his final choice. It seems that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a finalist as well. (it’s true, read the news accounts). In the end, Mr. Stengel told the press, ” It just felt to me a little off selecting him.” Only a fair and considerate man would struggle with such a decision. It must have been hell for him. I’m not sure how I beat out such a distinguished world leader, but am never-the-less very pleased and gratified.

I have sent a conciliatory note to Mahmoud because I know how much his feelings must be hurt. I did, by the way, add a PS suggesting to him that his World Conference disavowing the Jewish holocaust of WWII might have been a little ill-timed if he truly hoped to win Time’s Person of the Year 2006. Timing is everything Mahmoud, live and learn.

There were 26 runners up for the prestigious award, “People who Mattered” as Time described them. Included on that list were such notables as North Korea’s Kim Jong ll, Vice-president Dick Cheney, President Bush, and out-going Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Oh…and the Pope. A pretty lightweight group when you think about it. No wonder we won.

Finally, I want to say to my millions of co-recipients that it is a deep privilege to share this award with each and all of you…well almost all of you. If you surf porn all the time or prowl teen chat rooms, I’m not wild about sharing it with you. Oh and all you guys in Nigeria..forget it, no way. Every mortgage refinance group is also off my share list (really guys, give it a break).

And finally, this is for every Democrat and Republican candidate who wrote and asked for money during the last campaign. If I had known we were on a first name basis, I would have been in touch sooner that we might talk personally about such issues as internet taxation and regulation. Hit me with another personal note and we can set up a call.

The rest of you, however, are good to go. And I was thinking: Maybe we ought to plan a casual get together one of these days…a kind of “after the award party” like the Hollywood celebs do. Hey, maybe Time will host it.

I’ll call them tomorrow and get back to you. Ciao.


Thirteen Moons

Reviewing a book I’ve yet to read.

“The belief I’ve acquired over a generous and nevertheless inadequate time on earth is that we arrive in the afterlife as broken as when we departed from the world. But, on the other hand, I’ve always enjoyed a journey.

Will Cooper in Thirteen Moons

I’m going to do something here that may seem ludicrous at first blush. I’m going to review and recommend a book without ever having read it. Give me the benefit of the doubt and read on—please.

Random House paid Charles Frazier $8 million dollars in advance for his 2nd novel Thirteen Moons. Frazier is quickly establishing himself in the pantheon of great contemporary American writers. His first book, Cold Mountain won the prestigious National Book Award in 1997—not bad for a first time out-of–the-chute author.

The almost inevitable follow-on movie, Cold Mountain, also did well earning seven Academy Award nominations and four wins including best cinematography, best leading actor (Jude Law) and best supporting actress (Rene Zelweger).

If you never saw Cold Mountain the movie, it deserves a look. But, as always seems the case, the book is better. Far better. Frazier’s writing embodies a lyrical style that flows much like free verse. In a word it is poetic. And when skillfully applied to the dangerous and lonely odyssey of an escaped confederate soldier trekking hundred of miles back to his Cold Mountain home and the woman he loves—it reveals a master storyteller with a knack for riveting readers. It got me in the first paragraph.

Now Comes Frazier’s next book, Thirteen Moons, given to me by my wife Donna as a birthday gift. I have yet to read it.

Instead, the book sits on my nightstand while I finish up another tale. Still, the anticipation of reading the works of a great writer like Frazier makes it irresistible. I find myself picking it up, thumbing through it, and hoping for some advance revelation to help satiate my curiosity and satisfy my constant need for a great story from a gifted writer. I am rewarded simply by touching, perusing the dust cover–and allowing myself a few peeks inside.

The physical qualities of the book—and all the ancillary notes and information—already speak to me. These are the things we often overlook in our zeal to get quickly into the story. On the cover, the title is set small in an italicized lower case non-serif font with a black raised bevel look. The words “A Novel” appear just under it in a formal flourish of black script. Frazier’s name is wrought large in all caps (serifed) near the bottom. It is white and beveled and fairly screams, as I am sure the publisher intended, “Look. Great Writer. National Book Award”. Publishers know what sells.

The “dust jacket” art features a muted color rendering of forested mountains and misty sky taken from a photograph, but made to resemble an old and textured painting. It depicts the Appalachians of North Carolina (Frazier’s home state and a first hint that the Cherokee Nation may figure in the story). The cover was designed, elegantly I might say, by a Mr. Thomas Beck Stvan. However, he was not the book’s designer. That honor goes to Ms. Barabara M. Bachman. I learn this on the inside fly sheets where copyright information and other required facts, disclaimers, and legalities are offered up.

I suppose I have known books have designers, but I never really thought much about it until now. Ms. Bachman chose Mr. Svan for the cover art, but she also chose the paper on which the story is printed—a premium cotton acetate made in America—as well as the font in which the story is set. It’s called Fournier, a serifed font named for Pierre Simon Fornier. A prolific French designer of fonts in the mid 1700s, Mr. Simon is said to have created 146 fonts during his life. His legacy seems to have endured in the modern font that bears his name. Would he be honored to have it used in a book by such a notable new writer? I suspect so.

Further hints: The inside covers and their fly leafs appear to be a kind of aged paper containing an unrecognizable form of faded rust colored handwriting. The copyright page sheds more light on these scribblings. They are from the Cherokee syllabary, an excerpt, in fact, from the Cherokee myth of Kanati and Selu dealing with the origins of corn and grain circa 1888.

And finally, there is the teaser copy on the inside front panel of the dust jacket. I am drawn to it, not only by the promise it holds, but by the fresh smell of new ink and paper that greets me when I open the book. The teaser copy does its job well, giving me a sense of what lies ahead in the story. Heres a sample:

“In a distinct voice filled with both humor and yearning, Will [the main character] tells of a lifelong search for home, the hunger for fortune and adventure, the rebuilding of a trampled culture, and above all an enduring pursuit of passion. As he comes to realize, When all else is lost and gone forever, there is yearning. One of the few welcome lessons age teaches is that only desire trumps time.”

For an old man who just turned 61 I instantly knew the truth in these words. And I was filled with a longing to know this Will character–to hear his story.

If all of this intricate examination of a new book created a certain allure serving to heighten my own anticipation of a good read (and it did) then I am left only with having to apply that final test I always turn to when evaluating a book’s potential—a reading of the first paragraph. Read it and judge for yourself:

“There is no scatheless rapture. Love and time put me in this condition. I am leaving soon for the Nightland, where all the ghosts of men and animals yearn to travel. We’re called to it. I feel it pulling at me, same as everyone else. It is the last unmapped country, and a dark way getting there. A sorrowful path. And maybe not exactly Paradise at the other end. The belief I’ve acquired over a generous and nevertheless inadequate time on earth is that we arrive in the afterlife as broken as when we departed from the world. But, on the other hand, I’ve always enjoyed a journey.”

Again, true words that tear at the soul of this old man—broken in some ways to be sure, but still in the journey and still enjoying it from the perspective of that long view back over years and experiences.

Thirteen Moons is gonna be good. Get it and read it. And as for my wife; once again she gives the perfect gift at the perfect time. Love and marital longevity have a way of providing for that kind of insight, but I still find myself asking, “How does she always know just the right thing at the right time? And so it is that books reward even beyond their literary intent. I can’t wait to read this one.

 

 

Love in the Emergency Room

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)
–Temperature taken
–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.