01 Jan Seize the Moment, Life Is Full of Surprises
As I raced to the hospital to see my wife Holly, all I could think was, Please don’t die. When Holly and I started dating, neither of us thought we would ever get married. We were both in our 50s and had no idea that we would end up in a passionate and enlivening love affair. Now happily married for more than five years, we are on a great adventure together.
This past January, Holly went to California to handle some family business. I was very surprised when she called me from the hospital.
“Hi Honey, I’m in the emergency room. You know those headaches I’ve been getting? Well, I have a really bad one and now I can’t see out of my left eye.”
I’ve heard the expression, “It was like a bucket of ice water poured over my head.” But in that moment I actually experienced the sensation. It’s an understatement to say I was terrified by the news.
“The doctors say that I have a brain bleed.”
A brain bleed – Oh my God!
My mind went into hyper-drive, filling in with largely inaccurate details from television shows and movies.
I immediately thought, A brain bleed must mean a stroke! Will she be paralyzed? Will she die?
Reflexively, I panicked. But, even in the midst of receiving this horrifying news, I knew that panicking wasn’t going to help Holly. So I listened. I told her I loved her and I would get there as soon as I could.
What happened next was a whirlwind of all the things that needed to be handled to get me from one coast to the other so I could be with her; schedules, airline tickets, calling friends for support, a hastily packed bag.
Later that day, in the car to the airport, when I was no longer distracted by things that needed to be done, my mind automatically started to run its list of worst-case scenarios of what was going to happen. But fortunately for me (and for Holly) I’ve been practicing being here. It has been such a simple practice that I had no idea how well the “muscle” of being present would withstand the stress of potentially losing my beloved wife.
I took a breath and looked out the window. I noticed a light green Prius, a dark grey Mercedes and the clouds in the sky. I watched a motorist’s face as he drove past and noticed the street signs.
From time-to-time my eyes would lose focus and I would be seeing the beginnings of a horror movie in my mind, one where I had lost Holly, one where she died before I got there. But whenever that happened, I simply drew my attention outward to see the world outside my window.
It’s a six-hour flight from New York to San Francisco. The airline offered “private viewing” services where I could use my iPad to stream a movie they provided. I soon realized that the alternative was torturing myself with a different kind of private viewing – watching my mind’s repetitive, increasingly disturbing films about what might happen to Holly and what would happen to me if I lost her. So I put on my headset, fired up my
iPad and chose an action film. A comedy was next and I welcomed the distraction.
When I arrived in San Francisco, I was met by Holly’s cousins and immediately rushed to the hospital. As I entered her room in the Neuro Intensive Care Unit, I was shocked to see Holly looking so gravely ill. It seemed to me that she was hooked up to every conceivable medical machine and device possible and I started to cry. We locked eyes and I went to her and hugged her as tightly as I dared. She looked happy to see me and surprisingly calm. Standing by the bed I held her hand. I was so grateful she was still alive, her hand warm in mine.
“Honey, I’ve gotten back more results.” She said. “The bleeding in my brain has been caused by something else. I have a brain tumor.”
I did my best to keep the room from spinning and to keep myself there with her. Her hand in mine anchored me as I digested the news that no one wants to hear. I pulled up a chair and sat. We had a brief discussion and decided that, whatever happened, we were going to live as fully as possible in this moment and, despite all temptations, would not travel down a black hole to a tragic future that hadn’t happened yet.
It’s one thing to make that decision. It’s quite another to live it. Luckily, Holly and I had tools. We’d learned skills for being present and honed them over the many years of attending seminars on Instantaneous Transformation. In fact, throughout her month-long stay in the hospital, I was repeatedly surprised that “scary” things were actually delightful moments when seen through a different lens.
For example, after Holly’s first brain surgery (she’s had three) they brought her back into the Intensive Care Unit where I was with her as the anesthesia wore off. As she awoke, her eyes fluttered open and she looked at me. Then Holly mumbled, “kiss me” in French. Oh how sweet she was. I kissed her face and then she spoke even more French to me.
While Holly is American and English is her first language, she lived in France for a time, and speaks French fluently. But the nurse nearby didn’t realize that Holly was talking to me in a foreign language and thought her speech was badly garbled. I could tell the nurse was alarmed, afraid that this new disability was an unwanted result of the surgery.
“Oh, no, it’s not garbled.” I said. “It’s French!”
I turned back to my wife and did my best to reply in my terrible, broken version of that language.
Suddenly, I was afraid. I thought that the surgery had somehow broken her ability to speak English. As I was smiling at her and kissing her face, I was also frantically trying to figure out how quickly I could learn French so we could communicate.
Then the nurse did something brilliant. She said, “Holly, I don’t speak French. Speak English.” Holly said, “Okay.” And to my great relief, my French studies were put off indefinitely.
During Holly’s recovery from each brain surgery, it was crucial that she have as little sensory input as possible. This meant the room she was in needed to be dark and quiet.
As I was determined to spend every waking moment with her, that meant I was not provided with any of the usual distractions from my mind’s machinations. Television and conversation were not options. Fortunately, I had my laptop computer with me and, as an attorney with my own law firm, I could work remotely.
As Holly slept, I dove into my work. Emails were read and responded to. Legal research was done and briefs were drafted and filed. I was able to serve my clients and give my mind constructive work to do to keep it from going down painful fantasy paths. I was able to respond via text and email in a timely way to all of the wonderful caring friends and family who were, figuratively speaking, there at our side. Of course I’m human and occasionally I would get side tracked and start to despair, but when this happened, I realized that being upset wasn’t helpful – not to me and certainly not to Holly. So it wasn’t too difficult to come back to the moment and get back to work.
Our mutual decision to get interested in what was happening around us, especially the people we were meeting, was incredibly valuable. We engaged with everyone we met: doctors, nurses, and cleaning staff. Because it was the Neuro Intensive Care Unit, Holly was frequently examined, questioned, medicated, and having blood drawn. Each interaction was an opportunity to not just exchange meaningless pleasantries but a chance to be with someone and really listen to him or her. Each moment was a chance to operate as if we were exactly where we wanted to be rather than dream of the day when we could get out of there.
As a result, Holly and I could hear the experts tell us how things were without editing in our heads to make it better or worse than it was. This allowed us to make fully informed choices based on facts, not decisions driven by our fears. This was crucial when Holly’s surgeon told us that the first surgery, while helpful in removing fluid that was causing pressure on her brain, was not completely successful.
“I was not able to get enough material in the biopsy for the pathology lab. I need to go back in. Without the material, we won’t know the genetic makeup of the tumor and won’t be able to properly treat it. I understand if you want to go back to New York to have this done.”
Holly didn’t want to wait. She also intuitively trusted this man.
“You’re part of my team. I trust you to go back in and get it done,” she said with a smile. And within a week the second surgery resulted in a successful biopsy, and the material was sent to the lab.
As a result of our training in being here, Holly and I actually enjoyed engaging with people. Whether they were changing a bedpan or part of the surgical team, they were all highly qualified professionals and fascinating beings. We got interested in their lives and included them in ours. We didn’t let the circumstances of Holly’s illness narrowly define us as only a patient and the patient’s husband. We were still whole beings with many interests and unlimited possibilities.
After Holly underwent numerous tests, scans and two brain surgeries, she was cleared for travel, and we returned to New York where we met with a new team of doctors. They hoped Holly could start treatment for her tumor right away. Unfortunately, due to complications, she required yet another surgery. They told us we could do it soon or wait a short time. Holly turned to me and said, “Carpe diem, baby.” (That’s Latin for “seize the day”.)
Holly is currently recovering and doing very well. The experts now believe that Holly’s tumor is something she can live with over time, a chronic condition rather than a life threatening one. Our relationship remains strong and we remain committed to seizing the day. For fun, we even got matching “carpe diem” tattoos, and have planned several trips together. I’m not certain what will come next but then, none of us are. In this moment, there is love, happiness, and the adventure continues as we seize the moment and encounter our next series of life’s surprises.