Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Optimist

Brothers from other mothers (L-->R) Willie, Nick, Chad, Rory
Last week, I had an odd exchange on FB with a friend of a friend, a young guy named Tim in his early 20s. Our mutual friend, Willie, had posted this blurb: "So someone OD'd in the Jack's parking lot yesterday morning .... Again smh I'm about to eat [an] orange and ride my bike on that one." Willie and his brother, Chad, happen to be my sons' best friends. They're my sons from another mother. Willie is the lead singer for their band, BearKnuckle, and Chad works at Jack's. I guess Chad told Willie about the OD. Anyhow, the rest of the conversation went like this:

Brittanie: "OMG!"
Me: "Did the person survive?"
Fred: "Surviving an OD is pretty terrible."
Me: "It's better than being dead, though."
Tim: "If you haven't died then how do you know if anything else is better? And the word better is so subjective."
Me: "Tim, if you think being dead is better than being alive, you've got some serious living to do. Just sayin'."
Tim: "But you've never been dead. Don't try and get philosophical on me. I just asked a question. Geez (reattaching my head after it has been bitten off)."

Tim had a valid point about the word "better" being subjective. Some people believe they're better off dead. And some people consider other people's lives to be a waste. I guess it all depends on your outlook. My outlook is heavily influenced by text messages like this one that I'd just received from my son, Rory, who along with his identical twin brother, Nick, suffers from cystic fibrosis.

For me, motherhood's been tainted by the cruelty of this terrible disease. There's nothing subjective or philosophical about the painful awareness that I am watching my children die or the fear that I may outlive them. There's nothing subjective or philosophical about the helplessness I feel. I can't fix them. I can't make their cystic fibrosis go away.

Rory (L) & his yellow-gowned hospital visitors, Chad & Nick
Rory spent a week in the hospital back in January for a course of intravenous antibiotics, followed by a couple more weeks of home infusion therapy and a burst of steroids to reduce the inflammation raging inside his lungs. His pulmonary functions didn't improve at all. Now, he's going to have a fiberoptic scope shoved down his windpipe to examine deep inside his lung passages, a procedure that requires sedation. Believe it or not, Rory was hoping to go to work after his bronchoscopy. For him and Nick, life goes on. To quote my aphorist-writing friend, Marty Rubin (aka nothingprofound): "Morning will come, it has no choice." Cystic fibrosis is a part of their lives, not the center of their existence. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that my boys have a pretty good idea of what life-threatening physical decline feels like. Yet, I don't know two people more fully alive than they are.

If death is the end of all experience, then Tim's argument that you'd have to experience being dead to confidently assert that it's better to be alive was pretty lame. And, he was the one getting philosophical, presumptive, and touchy. I knew responding to him any further was a waste of time and energy, but I decided to play along anyway. Yeah, sometimes, I can be an asshole.

Me: "No one's bitten your head off. Why so sensitive?"
Tim: "Can't talk now! Reattaching my back after these messages. Sensitive? I don't give a shit, dude! lol"

Me, Walt Whitman, and Chet the Jet
Ugh. I deplore being called "dude." In my book,  "dude" is about as unisex as the word "broad." It was pretty clear that this guy wasn't up for any sort of meaningful exchange. He seemed...angry. And cynical. But, I was curious and a bit bored. I was waiting to meet up for lunch with Chester, my fellow free spirit, and I had some time to kill, so I continued.

Me: "Have you ever spoken to someone who's had a near-death experience? I have, and though they say death isn't scary, they all agree it's much better to be alive. It's a matter of one's attitude toward dealing with reality. After you reattach your head, consider brushing away that chip on your shoulder :-D"

I'm sure a few eyes are rolling heavenward right about now. Near-death experience? LOL. Well, considering the fact that I give anesthesia for a living, and that general anesthesia is basically a controlled near-death experience, my response isn't so far-fetched.

And yes, I've interviewed a number of patients who've reported near death experiences following traumatic injury or cardiac arrest. One of my former partners, Steve, a middle-aged heavy smoker, had such an experience at work. We had a super stressful call schedule that involved at least 24 full hours of little or no sleep, e.g. once things quieted down in the operating room, you were up all night placing epidurals on labor and delivery.

In anesthesia, we welcome dull moments like having lunch together!
After finishing his 24 hour shift, Steve decided to enjoy a little breakfast with our colleagues in the anesthesia lounge before driving home. A few bites into his sausage biscuit, he developed severe, crushing chest pain. As our colleagues watched in disbelief and horror, Steve collapsed on the sofa, having sustained a massive myocardial infarction. One of the scrub techs, a huge muscle-bound guy, scooped lifeless, clinically dead Steve up into his arms, threw him onto a stretcher, and rushed him into the recovery room for resuscitation, flanked by a number of anesthesiologists, anesthetists, and surgeons.

What Steve told me about that experience still gives me chills. He says he remembers being in the recovery room, standing off to the side, watching our colleagues diligently gathered around a stretcher, frantically giving CPR to someone. He didn't know who they were working on, and no one was paying any attention to him. Despite all the adrenaline-fueled commotion surrounding him, he felt a sense of absolute calm and peace, accompanied by a complete lack of fear. It wasn't religious or spiritual, just a profound sense of well-being. Instantaneously, he was hovering over himself, looking down at himself on that stretcher, and apparently, that's the moment his heart started spontaneously beating again. He then underwent emergent cardiac catheterization and stenting of his occluded coronary artery. He even quit smoking for awhile. After that experience, one thing Steve's sure of is that death no longer frightens him.

Tim: "Chips are great! Who doesn't like dip and chips!! Your not living life. Buddy!!!"
Tim: "And just to be real. If there is another side to our reality, who is to say it is good or bad or any human emotion. Just thinking further than planet earth and all us humans man."
Me: "Well, that's why we have the arts, poetry, philosophy, and practical common sense

My new favorite restaurant!
Reality isn't all that complicated. It's less a matter of perception or conceptualization than lived experience and applied common sense.* We're born and we die. What goes up (usually) comes back down. Cut yourself, and you will bleed. Stand in the rain, and you'll get wet. If you drop your glass onto a concrete floor, it will shatter. Those are examples of realityOverthinking it is what makes reality seem so complicated and unbearable.

Lao-tzu wrote: "See the world as your self. Have faith in the way things are. Love the world as your self; then you can care for all things." His writings are imbued with a sense of optimism: "Stop thinking and end your your natural responses and everything will fall into place."

My conversation with Tim stopped there. My 21 year old nephew, Evan, "liked" my last comment, and that was pretty much that. Maybe I'll run into Tim someday...he buses tables at one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants. Small world, huh?

My thoughts were with Rory the rest of that day, wishing that I could somehow relieve his burden. But, I don't think either of us spends too much time wishing away his disease. In fact, it's acceptance of it that brings both relief and life-enhancing innovation. The things we can't change don't negate the abundance of what we've got to work with. They give rise to creative solutions. Maybe it's no coincidence that Spartacus and I ended up having dinner Friday night at a joint called "The Optimist."

"Confidence is high!"
I spent the afternoon with Chester, celebrating life in the moment. When Chester was a teenager, he was diagnosed with bone cancer. His doctors actually told him not to plan on starting a family because he wouldn't be around to enjoy them. Chester said, "Fuck it. I'm gonna hitchhike around the country then." He regales me with stories of his pan-American travels, living in hippie communes, picking coffee in Belize, and defying the odds that were prescribed for him. Not only did he survive to father his own children and become a kickass ultimate Frisbee player and bearded wizard of electricity, he's now a grandparent. No wonder Chester's favorite saying is "Confidence is high."

Cat on a hot tin roof. Meow!
After lunch, we walked down to see the magnificent labor of love that he and his brother have been working on for nearly 40 years. It's an amazing cathedral-like structure sitting atop a hill in the Virginia Highland area, built with hand cut marble bricks, intricately designed wooden beamwork and ceilings, and even a round moon door. It was such a beautiful day outside, sunny and warm enough for a T-shirt and flip flops. We ended up spending most of our time on the roof, perched amidst the budding treetops of live oaks and pink tulip magnolias, cracking each other up and talking about life. Here's what we concluded. Both of us have endured some major shitstorms in our lives, stuff that could have left us broken, disillusioned, and cynical. But, we just rolled with it, and now, here we are, chilling out on a rooftop, fully present and drinking it all in with nary a drop of wine between us. No, there ain't no doubt about it. Life. Is. Good.

*A loosely paraphrased summation of a discussion on BlogCatalog by Marty Rubin aka nothingprofound): "Do you think it's possible to live without illusions?"