The room is cell-size and not particularly welcoming. It looks like the interior of a space capsule: tubes wires and flashing numbers everywhere, blinking like tinsel on a Christmas tree. It’s all about numbers. The numbers are about my blood, the kind of blood circulating through my body right now. There’s not a lot of the good stuff. I hope to be getting that presently.
I look out the window. In the distance, I can see the Key Bridge spanning the Patapsco River. A single church spire rises in the background just beyond a series of refurbished rowhouses. These houses are the kind that have defined the city’s mystique since the 1800’s. It’s unmistakable, charming, but this is well outside the space capsule.
My privileged view of Baltimore has come at a price. I am here for a six-day venue of chemotherapy at Johns Hopkins Hospital. My literary sabbatical from the Spy began shortly after the discovery that I was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of a cancer, AML. I almost died. My life changed overnight.
I want to share with readers not the drama of the events happening a few weeks ago, but rather to comment on some peripheral and unexpected fallouts from them. Looking back, these events seemed to me like a fireworks display, when the grand starburst of light explodes in darkness and as the darkness returns, it begins filling up with tiny shards of light so small and inconsequential as to seem wholly unrelated to the starburst. That is how I recall vividly the little things in the circumstances that darkness began revealing.
Everyone that I engaged during that week wore a mask. I would imagine it was at least 50 people who served me in some capacity –– professionals like doctors, nurses, other medical workers like EMT’s, nurse practitioners, and specialized technicians among the cadre of service workers. As they came close, I saw only their eyes; their faces were masked. Through their eyes, by the tone of their voices, and by the particular aura they emanated, I grew to know them and be comforted.
I have friends who tell me everyone has an aura and they can see it enveloping an individual’s face, like halos. I cannot do this, but I know I have experienced the heart of intentions, mine and others. I believe that the intent of those who served me was to facilitate as much healing in my life as their skills and presence could promote.
Soon, I caught on to that. The sounds of their voices and sight of their eyes were enough and I’d feel less and less invaded when they woke me at three in the morning with chirpy salutations telling me that they were there to check my vitals. The essential nature of their presence was at work and I knew I had been feeling it deeply. I’d groan as they approached the bed. I’d shoo them away in a mocking manner and then laugh. I still felt like hell, but comforted, nonetheless. The transfer of energy is a remarkable phenomenon in physics, and even greater when healing energy is experienced as we engage each other spiritually.
Caring energy is communicated in thousands of elusive ways.
When I first thought about the diagnosis I thought about dying, the idea of my being dead. It frightened me. Intentionally thinking about it was a pure act of bravado, a psychological ruse to prove to myself that, if I could imagine such a scenario and look the grim reaper square in the eye, I would not fear death anymore.
Try as I would, it didn’t work. I struggled vainly to imagine again and again my total absence in the world but was not able to rid myself of ‘me’ in any way. Wasn’t ‘I’ the one that was declaring my own absence? It was absurd. I could not rid myself of my ego. Like a shadow, my long habit of being seemed to want to follow me wherever I went, even into the depths. Does this mean that my life has continuity? Or is such thinking just egoism? It was a rough night. Mercifully, the dilemma remained unresolved and I fell asleep.
There’s an old saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. Well, yes and no. There are things in my new life that I must do that in my previous life I did without giving a second thought; little things like morning ablutions being a good example.
My previous life, just days ago, I would rise in the morning and automatically perform the mundane rituals of meeting the day. Each act, from brushing teeth to all the other stuff I performed, I did skillfully without giving any of them a thought. Now my new life was as if I was a baby taking first steps; each particular performance required my full attention and concentration, taking what once required four minutes, now, requiring at least ten –– I don’t ever recall living a day so deliberately. A lapse of attention could be embarrassing and quite literally, make a mess. I lived life carefully, slowly and intentionally. It was at first maddening, and I thought I’d go nuts. Something deep within me began surrendering. I got with the program. Go slow.
My wife and I, long before this particular crisis descended, shared a common view of the world. It had to do with how we understood the people whom we met along the way. It seemed to both of us how that in different instances while walking our paths, certain people showed up who were critical to our healing at that particular time in our lives. They gave us something important we needed and then faded from our lives, barely noticed.
We talk about them as angels; they’ll just show up uninvited and help turn dicey moments into ones more tolerable. They bring grace into our lives at times when we can see only downers. They always show up unexpectedly and they can be familiar faces or total strangers.
I’ve met a lot them recently in the most unlikely places – like a cell-size room – that seemed as impersonal and indifferent as a space capsule.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.