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 head...be 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 problems...trust 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?"

28 comments:

  1. Best picture I ever took ! What a fun day ! Yeah ! :-)

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    1. Chester, I look forward to many more fun days like that! I'm so glad we've become friends :-)

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  2. Wow, the story about your friends NDEs gave me chills. I recently read a great book titled, "Held By The Hand Of God: Why Am I Alive" by Joe Laws http://heldbythehandofgod.com/. The author writes about his near death experience following a severe accident he was in. His story along with others I read about really gives me hope for my soul- It makes me feel more at peace and not afraid of death any longer. Thank you for sharing your friends story.

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    1. Ashley,
      Thanks for stopping by! That book you mentioned sounds interesting. I find the topic of NDE fascinating, too. My friend, Steve, is sort of a curmudgeon, so hearing him talk so openly about what he experienced during his cardiac arrest was really cool. You never really know someone until you begin sharing your deepest secrets and feelings.

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  3. Love this post. Thank you for sharing so much of your life and experiences with others. You are a testament to living life fully in the moment, vulnerable, and somewhat naked :)

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    1. Aw, thanks, Angie. For some reason, this post was very difficult for me to write, probably because of what I wrote about my sons and their illness. It helps to be able to express those feelings openly.

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  4. If you believe what those who've died and come back say, it's better to be dead. But what is dead? Not being on this earth? I don't believe that death is some grand finale and it's all over with. There's too much evidence suggesting otherwise. Have you ever read the book "Embraced by the Light"? Really good stuff. I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Hi Larry,
      Thanks for your comment. I have not read that book, but it sounds intriguing. I'm glad you enjoyed the post...it was a bit of a ramble!

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  6. Another fabulous post, Kris, combining profound insight with personal experience. Our view of reality is pretty much the same. It's the things that actually happen, the practical things we have to deal with every day. When you separate thought and language from lived experience, you get philosophy. Mind games and hot air.,

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    1. Oooh, I love your description of philosophy, Marty. That's probably why I find art, music, and poetry so much more appealing than philosophy...they're reflections of lived experience.

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  7. Kris, a fantastic (and optimist!) post! You are an inspiration, a beautiful example of how to maintain a healthy and positive attitude no matter what life throws at you. I can only imagine the heartbreak of watching your two sons struggle with the cruel disease of CF. Despite the CF, Rory and Nick approach life with the same positive and realistic attitude, the same joie de vive that you do. They approach life with passion and optimism. CF might waylay them for a bit but it does not slow them down for long, they are go-getters always looking forward. Just like their Mom! I am wishing all the best for Rory when he goes for the bronchoscopy. Marty’s wonderful aphorism about morning coming is perfect and so true.

    Tim’s argument seemed less like philosophical thinking and more like lackadaisical thinking to me. He seemed mighty sensitive about it, yes, angry and cynical, for whatever reason. I’d deplore being called “dude” too! Always, it is much better to be alive. Steve’s near death experience gave me chills as well. "Overthinking is what makes reality seem so complicated and unbearable,” well said, Kris! That’s a great quote from Lao-tzu. Love that you and Spartcaus had dinner at a restaurant called “The Optimist” how fitting!

    I adore Chester’s free spirit and he has such a happy face and great smile, the kind of smile that makes you want to smile right back! I saw the photos of his labor of love on FB, wow! What a fascinating life he has had defying the odds. “Confidence is high,“ is a great motto for life. Now that’s an optimist! And Kris, you are a bright light of optimism too! Excellent post and Love all the photos. :)

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    1. Madilyn,
      The boys' CF issues have had me preoccupied of late. Rory's bronchoscopy went OK, but no real news as a result of it. Still awaiting the cultures that were taken. As a family, we've taken matters into our own hands...I've been reading CF blogs and forums, and learning a lot about how other CF adults are managing their disease. We're disappointed that the boys' docs treat them like a diagnosis, instead of individuals. One thing the boys are doing is working on gaining physical fitness. I think it will help improve their lung functions greatly. Because they have trouble getting appointments for lung function testing at the CF clinic here, I've purchased each of them their own testing equipment. I'm anxious to see what will happen next...I am thinking that exercising and being able to track progress in their functions in real time will enhance the quality of their lives.

      Chester is such a delight, and I'm so glad we're neighbors. He has had a fascinating life and lots of adventure, and has the greatest stories. Never a dull moment with him around ;-)

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  8. wonderful post full of life! i think your reasoning that Tim's logic is quite irrational because death is indeed of the end of our life experience, so no way that death can be an experience.

    i agree that except some very exceptional conditions, life is beautiful, worth to live, worth to fight for. for those who experienced challenges, "shitstorms", " stuff that could have left us broken", and still love life, still be able to love, they (or we!) have every reason to be proud of themselves.

    you friend Chester is such a wonderful man, and artist! how did he survive cancer must be a "legendary" tale! i am curious, did he take any medical treatment? i heard many people (not sure how many) cured themselves by not taking any medication. just wondering...

    again, wonderful post! relaxing, entertaining and thoughtful, all together!

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    1. Yun, I am not sure if Chester underwent any treatment...will check with him and let you know. Glad you enjoyed the post and found it relaxing. Sounds like we're on the same page regarding life being beautiful and death being the end of all experience.

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    2. Yun, Chester said he underwent surgery on his upper arm...had major resection of bone and muscle tissue. No chemo or radiation. And, he's alive and well today. I'm guessing that nowadays, someone with the same diagnosis would undergo chemo &/or radiation.

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  9. I am sure the beauty of life and this world belongs to folks like Chester. And they make the world so much more lovable.

    I too have met people living in false-bravado, shooting from the hip about death. It is a bitter-sweet post, Kris. Yet it is so full of life it left a deep smile on my face -that cat on the tin roof!

    The story of Steve is terrifying. What if the dead are watching even as we go around our business?

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    1. It was a difficult post to write, Uma. I do feel every minute of life is precious, regardless of how good or sucky it might seem. Free spirits like Chester definitely enhance life, like a tonic for the soul. I was shocked that Steve volunteered his story to me. I had actually heard about his heart attack through other co-workers, and just decided to ask him what his experience was like. Hearing what he had to say really made an impression on me.

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  10. Love your optimism! And the fact that "Cystic fibrosis is a part of their lives, not the center of their existence." I also admire your persistence on facebook…lol. I really can't dive into debate there. Sounds like Tim is going to have to learn/discover some things on his own.

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    1. I really think that the way we approached CF has made all the difference. The boys never missed out on any opportunities or fun because of it. The great thing was that their friends were supportive, asking them if they'd finished their treatments before going to hang out.

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  11. Tim sounds like an idiot.
    Chester sounds like a cool dude.
    And your sons sound like they are dealing with their lives better than most people could manage.
    All the best.

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  12. I too have been very interested in NDE's. I'm equally interested in 'Life Before Life' (it was a book) and on life between lives, if you are prepared to look at reincarnation evidence. For me it all points in the same direction ie. an expanded reality that is much greater than our reality.
    Really enjoy your posts Kris and your candour. Life is a bit of a lottery and I hope your sons 'beat the odds'.

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    1. Thanks, Neil. I'm hoping they will beat the odds, too.

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  13. As someone who's come close to death, I'd say living is a heck of a lot more fun. I think there are just those who don't get it, or say things without really thinking about it. Death has a certain mystical cache with some folks. Can't say I'm one of them, though. Excellent post. I really enjoyed your perspective and agree. And your boys are awesome. :)

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    1. Thanks, Janene. I've never quite understood some people's mystical obsession with death...guess I'm not emo enough! ;-)

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  14. My son has died many times as have many of his friends. Some stay dead. I was just talking to him about it last week, trying to get him to understand being dead a few minutes might not be the same as forever. Heroin addicts just don't care. This is a great post.

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    1. I have a brother who's addicted to crack and has been in and out of prison, so I know what you mean. Glad you enjoyed the post; thanks for stopping by! :-)

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