Life & Death Questions
Warning: The following is work!
Sitting at a surprisingly-full Le Cafetier Restaurant in the heart of Sutton, Quebec, at two o’clock on a snowy late-March Saturday afternoon, the Intensive Care Unit of the Montreal Heart Institute (MHI), where I recuperated following heart surgery, seems very, very far away.
It wouldn’t take much to bring back, however, vivid visual and sensory memories of my stay at the Institute. The smell of the alcohol that the nurses use to disinfect your arm before taking some blood; the continual feel of the catheter in one of your arms; the sweat and clamminess in your feet that never seem to go away; the constant chatter of nurses in their unique nurse-talk. Of course, there are none of those stimuli present here now.
The chatter of the people around me is quite dissimilar to the chatter found in a hospital ward. Well, no, there was one night at the ICU, during a change in the nurses’ shift, when it did feel a little like a party. Such chatter! Were they talking about anything except the state of their patients? Other stuff perhaps? I don’t know; I was too far away to pick up the thread of the various conversations, but the nurses seemed quite animated as they talked, reminding me a little of tiny birds twittering away in the wee hours of the morning. As I lay on my hospital bed, weak and helpless, I wanted to shout out, “Keep it down, will you?”
But, thankfully, the conversation around me today does not trigger any concrete re-experiencing of my stay at the hospital. Err, or should I say hospitals. OK, to bring you, dear reader, up to speed: Since being first, what’s the word? released? dispatched? from the MHI, I have had to return there and to another local hospital near my home in Dunham, Quebec, a total of four times due to complications, for a total of six more days than the original eight I stayed following surgery.
I won’t get into the reasons here. Let’s just say that if there are any triggers in Le Cafetier to remind me of the first 20 days of March, 2014, they will be reminding me of much more than just a short stay at the ICU.
But, luckily, there are none here. I won’t have to endure an immediate reaction of pain, perhaps tears, and painful and tangible memories.
It doesn’t take much to set me off. The pain is just under the surface and can spring outward at the slightest provocation. Such is the healing process.
While even objectively you might say that I went through a lot (for one thing, I lost close to 10 lbs. in about two weeks and experienced an irregular heartbeat, atrial fibrillation, on two separate occasions and lost 2.1 litres of blood in internal bleeding in the hours following the operation), you might also say that it wasn’t that bad. And you would be right. It’s just that I’m the sensitive type.
Being sensitive does have its advantages. Well, the only one that I can think of is, once you’re feeling OK, you will heal quickly, perhaps quicker than a person of more coarse makeup. The disadvantage is that pain experienced is felt much more acutely; the suffering can seem quite intense even when objectively your life is not really threatened. It might feel that way, but it’s not. I mean, no one dies of cold feet or a few nights’ insomnia, heart monitor cables attached to your body, painful scars as they heal, mental and physical and spiritual exhaustion, do you?
But that’s my makeup, as I see it, and it’s who I am. I am proud of my sharp observational mind and intense curiosity and my openness to learning, which I sometimes brought into play at the hospital, when I was comfortable enough to do so. I am not proud of the crazy eccentricities and intuitions that my sensitive nature sometimes leads me in the quest for comfort.
At different times in the various hospital wards where I ended up, at the darkest times, I found myself face-to-face with the thought of death, of dying, and other existential questions. I often felt as if I was in a wrestling match with the devil and he was on me, knee pressed deeply into my throat, and that there was no escape. None. For those moments, there we were, the devil clearly winning the contest. Thought do go to extremes at times like this, if the thought of dying can be considered an extreme. I became intensely aware of the fact that one day, if not today, I will die. This thought was, and is, very painful to me. The thought of death can bring me into a cold sweat-inducing panic. People often talk about how being surrounded by loved ones is important when you’re dying. During one of many conversations that I had, in the endless hours of the night with Geneviève, a loquacious and friendly nurse who I had in the first week following surgery, she told me that a certain other nurse whom she hugely admired, was the best person you’d want to have beside you if you were dying. All I could think hearing this was: it doesn’t matter who you’re with – you always die alone. If you’re conscious, you must realize: in a little while the I that I know, the I that I’ve lived with for so many years, will exist no more; the life that I know, everything that I know, is going to be drastically different and that I will never see this life again.
I find this terribly sad as well as terrifying. The people around you, by your bedside, they’re among the living. Their lives will continue after yours stops.
These are not pretty thoughts to have. The tangible feeling of panic, um, it’s not much fun to experience. You want it to end. But “just-call-me-Jen” (her English was perfect), when I told her about man’s ultimate lonely end, said: “How do you know they’re alone? They can’t actually come back and tell you.”
I started thinking about this and it consoled me. Maybe the famous “white light” that people are supposed to experience at their death, maybe some of that light creeps into the darkness of the dying person’s mind. Maybe your loved ones who are supposed to greet you on “the other side”, maybe some of them reach into your heart before your final demise to make your last moment on Earth more comfortable, even peaceful. I certainly hope so. It’s not that you can be strong at a time when the life force is in your body is seeping away.
But I did experience a flash, during a moment of deep exhaustion, weakness and pain when I felt that I might die at that moment, where I mentally offered myself up to the possibility of dying right then and there. I don’t want to die, I thought, but if it’s to happen in this moment, I accept my fate and let go. I’m not giving up on life but if God really wants me to die now he’ll have to do the deed in a strong, conscious and wilful act. And I allow Him to, if that’s what’s fated.
It didn’t happen, obviously. I didn’t die. Some of the intense melodrama and intensity of those moments are fading away. What has stayed with me has stayed. What will be forgotten will be forgotten. What has been learned is learned.
The biggest takeaway from the whole experience is that I now feel that I deserve to speak one-on-one with God, to make any and all requests of God, the highest power in the Universe, no matter how small or inconsequential. As I did on my bed many, many times. I zeroed in on Jesus, Rama or the invisible Jewish God and made my request, and felt good about it. It felt good to concentrate on my needs and desires and make the request. I have never felt that way before, have always felt too insignificant or small to deserve God’s ear. I feel that way no longer.
And that’s a good thing.