When Death Chucked Me On the Shoulder

The estimated reading time for this post is 5 minutes

Reva Patwardhan and Orlando Reyes called me out yesterday for leaving out the best parts of my China story. I think in particular they wanted to hear about (not quite) dying. I think it’s valuable for me to share this in a little more detail because it wasn’t what most people might expect. First, though, I’ll give a little context.

Sarita Chawla introduced me to the “Island Where It All Works Out”. This is the idea that if we work really hard, stay focused and don’t screw around we’ll wrap up our struggles and arrive, around age 65, at the Island Where it All Works Out, a beautiful place where we hang around swinging a golf club and playing with grandchildren until we die. Sadly, a lot of people don’t live that long, as someone pointed out by telling the story of their hardworking mother who lived for that dream but died in her mid fifties.

The Island Where it All Works OutI never believed in that dream. I threw some money into an IRA and snuck onto the island early to get a peek. It was kind of boring, so then I ran around playing everywhere else. I made bargains along the way, mixing in hard work so that I could stir in an equal portion of joy and adventure during the time of life where I still had strong working legs and a sharp mind.

It cannot be said that I haven’t lived fully. But an interesting thing happened that, in part, lead me to China. I reached a point where I felt like I had done it all. Oh sure, there were still several businesses to start, hang gliding hadn’t worked out yet, and I had five unfinished book ideas. But I looked back and felt satisfied that I’d taken a good big bite of the cookie and shared it with a lot of other humans. I felt like an adult, like I’d made it, not in a way related to status or accomplishments but as a result of being aware and seeing and doing so much.

Before I flew to China I had reached a point in my life that I can only describe as the “bonus round”. I felt like anything else I took on was just for fun. Life had already happened.

By the time I reached Taiwan, the damage the carbon monoxide had done to me (summary) had me shaking, unable to walk in more than a shuffle, and in a deep fog. The world was a distant place that seemed to be slipping further and further away. I had all of the symptoms of advanced Parkinson’s disease and a general confusion. I certainly had moments of fear. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get to the hostel, or to the hospital. I wondered if I would ever be able to speak again. But the overwhelming majority of the time I was… exploring. My old instincts kicked in. I was in wonder at this new experience. The world was strange, which made it new and interesting. I made challenges for myself, like walking a block to the bank. I had to stop repeatedly to remember where I was and what I was doing, but I kept the hospital bill in my hand to remind me. Sometimes it was frustrating. I kept reminding myself to try to stand up straight. I would find myself hunched over, yet again, and snap at myself. Mostly, though, I laughed. I laughed at the absurdity of it all. I laughed at my enjoyment of the strange new experience and the new challenge.

I also felt thankful. Thankful to the many strangers who went out of their way to help me. Thankful for what time I had left.

Mostly, though, I felt thankful that everyone I loved knew I loved them. There were no loose ends. For years I had told my parents and sisters and nephews and niece that I loved them. I had hugged my friends and lovers and told them I loved them. I did my best not to let conflicts sit and grudges take root with my friendships. There was no desperate need to fix anything.

Jade PlantThe only fragment, the one piece that emerged, was that there were still little things that could be done with the gifts I had been given for writing and working with people. Even as I struggled to get my tired, aching brain to focus and my words came out like slow, wet drops from a tightly closed faucet there were people who stayed with me for hours, somehow unable to go where they had planned, staying because they felt like they were learning to see themselves and the world in a new way. I don’t know what I was saying or what I was doing, but somehow my grandfather’s magic was still working through me, through those last thin threads connecting me to the world as they snapped and fell away one by one. I’m working on finding a way to make some use of this now.

I lived. I slept for several months. My brain is still slow. But there is a connection I have with still being here on the planet that has evolved. The idea of the bonus round is even more tangible. Where before every new project was a bonus, now every moment is a bonus. The moment I touch the waxy leaf of a jade plant. The moment I smell fresh basil. The moment I hear a deep, rich note hum from an acoustic bass.

A few months back I was walking in the hot sun, feeling a little cranky about having to go retrieve a car, and suddenly… something happened. I stopped. I straightened. Like suddenly noticing a note left by a lover… a thought appeared. “I’m Alive”. I held up my thumb and second finger and gently, quietly, slowly rubbed them together, immersed in the feeling of their touch. There was nothing else. Everything was in that touch, that moment. Everything that needed to be.

It’s all a bonus. And sometimes I still forget. I get nervous. I get angry. I wonder if I’m “doing it right”. And sometimes, I stop to just touch something near me. One more time. One extra moment. And a smile emerges, and I laugh at the absurd simplicity of it all.

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