Illness leads to increased appreciation of precious life
Dec. 25, 2001, is a Christmas Day I shall always remember, for I was on my way home from the hospital, and I was alive! A few days earlier I had sustained a heart attack, been transported by ambulance to Sacramento’s Mercy Hospital, and undergone open heart surgery – a five-way bypass. As we sped along after being released from the hospital, I breathed deeply of the fresh air; I looked at the trees, the sky and the clouds with an intenseness and wide-eyed admiration, as though fully appreciating them for the first time.
Before the operation, my daughters told me that I was too tough, too full of fight to let a little thing like a heart attack get the best of me. “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” exhorted Dylan Thomas at his father’s sickbed.
But as hard as I tried, I could not evoke rage or even fear. A quiet sense of resignation fell over me – whatever would be, would be. I certainly did not want to die, but my mind was full, not of fighting spirit, but of questions. Is this all there is to be of me? Has the entirety of my life made one whit of a difference in the world? Have I lived a good life – have I been a good man? Will my wife and children be all right? There is nothing like a brush with death to rearrange one’s priorities. The vicissitudes of Natural Heritage 2020 certainly seemed inconsequential.
Through the grace of God and the miracles of modern medicine, I have been given the gift of life for several more years. But, taking a page from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” now that I have been visited by the spirit of Christmas past, what lessons have I learned that will make me a better man in Christmas future? How do I answer those questions that plagued me so when I thought I might die? Perhaps the ultimate question is by what standard shall I, or any man, be judged so that it may be said that he was a good man, that he lived a worthy life?
One lesson I have had to come to grips with is that it does no good to set those standards impossibly high. The Lord makes only so many Mother Teresas, John F. Kennedys, Bill Gateses, and Jonas Salks. In mankind’s bell curve of innate capabilities, if those of us in the central bulge of that curve must constantly strive for, and never be satisfied unless we achieve the standards of the exceptionally gifted, then we are doomed to a lifetime of constant frustration. That’s no fun.
I shared my dilemma with my youngest son, Adam. “Are you kidding, Dad?” he replied. “You and Mom have seven kids and 14 grandkids. None of us would be here without you. All of us are hard-working, honest and caring people. We are who we are because of the lessons you and Mom taught us. Yours is the original rags-to-riches story. And think of the thousands of people, your former clients, you have helped during your lifetime.”
Is it as simple as that? Perhaps I should stop worrying so much and just listen to my children. Yet, a man cannot go through an experience like this and come out unchanged. I do not have answers to all of my questions, but I am firmly committed to a set of New Year’s (or new life’s) resolutions. I do hereby resolve:
1. To take no day for granted. Each new day is a gift from God, to be lived and enjoyed to the fullest.
2. To take time out from a life of constantly doing, doing, doing. To take time to simply be. It’s time to listen more and talk less. It’s time to take the time (and it does take time and effort) to nurture friendships too long taken for granted. It’s time, not to forever be seeking more, but to begin to truly enjoy all the bounties I already have. It’s time to manifest the love I have for those I love.
3. To never stop reading, searching, learning. The quest for truth, knowledge and wisdom started the day I was born, and shall not end until the day I die.
4. To live a life by way of example, and not just words, for my children. To at all times deal honestly, fairly and compassionately with my fellow man and with the ideas they espouse.
5. To be able to honestly say, when my life is over, that in some small way I have contributed to making this world a better place than I found it.
6. And as to those sourpusses who care only about their property rights, and only the tenets of their political party and their religion – the ones who constantly carp, criticize and demean anyone who does not agree with them – I vow to never again allow them to cast their pall of gloom and negativity over my world of openness, curiosity, acceptance and joy.
I end my tale of reviviscence with the same words of good cheer that Dickens ended his, “God Bless Us, Every One!”
Hank Starr, a divorce lawyer who lives and practices in Nevada City, writes a monthly column.
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“There is a cult of ignorance in this country … nurtured by the false notion that ‘my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov, 1980.