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Jul 05-11

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Journal

“Meanwhile’s Far from Nothing”

      Going on hospice amidst national stay-at-home orders is like living in Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, only everybody is in on it. Each morning seems the same. We are stuck in time, together.

      When you’re waiting to die, mind you, feeling stuck is quite all right.

      Entering hospice care meant disconnecting my fancy drugs. Then, stunningly, I dropped 30 pounds in three weeks, stopped taking morphine altogether, and got out of bed. I haven’t felt this good in two years. I should have gone on hospice months ago!

      Remember the café scene in Groundhog Day when Bill Murray says, “I wasn’t just blown up yesterday. I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned. Every morning I wake up without a scratch on me. Not a dent in the fender.” He concludes: “I am immortal.”

      I sort of understand how he feels! I have survived three pulmonary embolisms, nine deep vein thromboses, eight thrombectomies, 17 days in the catheter lab, and five general surgeries. A third of my left foot has been amputated. Throw in two open heart surgeries and three internal bleeds and you can see why hospice seemed a natural choice. After all, “I wasn’t just blown up yesterday!”

      Of course, if you’re going to be on an emotional roller coaster like this one, it’s best to be in the front car. Personally, the ups and downs don’t frighten me anymore. It’s my family and friends, sitting behind me, that I worry about. Poor people, forced onto an unhappy ride they didn’t ask for.

      Just how many times must we tell one another goodbye? I’m almost embarrassed to talk to friends anymore. People have said such kind and gracious things to me, humbling things, remarkable and heartfelt things. Now, after this hospice U-turn, when I talk with them the next time, I will almost overhear their inner dialogue; “Well now, this is uncomfortable. Shouldn’t he be dead by now?”

      I wonder how Lazarus handled the social awkwardness, and he had an advantage over me: an obvious explanation. I don’t. My UT Southwestern case manager says only that I’m “quite a medical mystery” and adds that she knows that God “has a plan.” She admits not knowing when my time will come. “Keep enjoying time with the family while you can!” What great advice, especially appreciated as it comes from a professional who has somehow managed to outrun medicine’s sprint to overconfidence.

      We could all take a cue from Old Lodge Skins, the chief/grandfather in Little Big Man. He crawls upon his funeral pyre to die only to be later awakened by rainfall, still very much alive. He quips, “Well, sometimes the magic works. Sometimes, it doesn't.”

 

      I have always cringed at the old aphorism that if you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans. Oh, I don’t mind being reminded about the illusion of human control. I just hate this view of God – perched on high, waiting, apparently, for us to announce our plans just to mess with us, show us who’s really in charge. God is not some mischievous kid poking the ant hill with a stick.

      Still, I must laugh with delight at entering hospice only to get better. It isn’t what I planned. More to the point, it isn’t what I expected.

      Maybe that’s the deeper reason I’ve cringed at that old aphorism about God laughing at our plans. There’s nothing specifically arrogant or presumptuous about making plans. Dreaming about the future, mapping out one’s hope for family and profession, plotting the purchase of a first home, all of these are healthy and helpful. And for God’s sake buy life insurance; God really shouldn’t have to do everything for us.

      Plans are good. Thinking ahead is a virtue. Managing our future as best we can is a faithful exercise of stewardship.

      The problem comes from expecting our plans to be perfect, or expecting our plans to unfold exactly as we imagine, or expecting other people and situations to behave predictably so that we and our loved ones stick to the plan. Plans are great. Trusting them is the problem. The people I most admire haven’t skipped making plans. They’ve made lots of plans, but they have managed their expectations.

      Our plans are always provisional, graphite scribbles on sticky notes. If we expect our plans to unfold perfectly, we’re likely to miss what God is doing because God is mischievously entangled in the events of our world. You never know when something unexpected will arrive and change your future days, a global pandemic, perhaps, or maybe you prepare yourself emotionally and spiritually to die only you suddenly drop 30 pounds and get out of bed again.

      See what I mean?

      In such bewilderments, the question becomes, What is God doing? And, how will I change my expectations and participate with God?

      As for me, I am attempting to release expectations and simply to enjoy each day as the gift it is. I know that my recent improvement is reprieve, not exoneration. These days are stolen. The outcome will be the same. But only three weeks ago I didn’t expect these days and nonetheless here they are.

      Here I am!

      L’chaim! To life!

      What matters now is what I do with these unexpected days, because “meanwhile, meanwhile’s far from nothing.” [1]



[1] Rachel Wetzsteon, “Sakura Park,” New York: Persea Books, Inc., © 2006.

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