Saturday, August 29, 2009

roses, sailboats, and the meaning of life

I recently had a mini health scare. It was just some wonky test results that turned out to be nothing, but it did give me a few days of unease. I'm not a hypochondriac and typically don't borrow trouble (i.e., I'm not fretting about swine flu or Lyme disease; my fears these days tend to veer toward getting clipped by a driving-while-texting nut job who's crossing the double yellow into my lane), but there are a couple of diagnoses that I have a particular fear of, and this was one of them. So when the lab called to tell me I had to come back in for more tests, I immediately tapped into a reservoir of otherwise carefully tamped-down panic and burst into tears on the phone with the poor technician, who tried to talk me down while I gasped about "I knew it, I knew it - I've been afraid this would happen."

For my second round of poking and prodding, I went to the big-deal fancy lab, where they can run tests from here to next Tuesday, guaranteeing that they can find something wrong with you, as my mother puts it. While I was sitting in the waiting area (which was rather spa-like: we were all in robes, listening to New Age music that had lots of chimes and wind noises, sipping ice water and waiting for our names to be called), I could hear the doctor down the hall as he delivered test results to each patient in the various exam rooms. He had a tendency to shout out things like "Everything looks good!" in a big joyful voice as soon as he got the door open, as if certain the patient wouldn't be able to stand the suspense for even the two or three seconds it would take for him to get in the room and shut the door behind him. I imagined he only did this early-warning approach when the news was good and figured that if he came into my exam room quietly and carefully shut the door before saying anything, I'd know I was in deep trouble.

My name was called, I went into an exam room, the tests were done, and then I sat nervously, listening to the doctor's oddly enthusiastic voice as he made his rounds, waiting for my turn. I was pretty sure that, once I got the news, I'd be an emotional wreck again, either because of the terror induced by an imminent death sentence, or thanks to utter relief at a stay of execution, but the doctor managed to pre-empt any display of emotion on my part.

He did his big entrance, booming out, "First of all, you're fine! Completely and absolutely fine!" Then he zoomed right up to me, hand outstretched. "Second of all, do you remember me?"

I was so dazed, I couldn't put two and two together. "I know you?" I said, trying to remember another time when I'd faced a life-threatening disease that brought me into contact with this particular genre of doctor.

"From college!" he boomed again. "Chris [last name withheld]!"

My god, I thought. Chris. Of course. Didn't we sort of date when I was a freshman?

"I saw you sitting in the waiting area and thought, 'Could that be Siobhan?'" he said jovially, clearly ready to kick around some memories and laugh over this bizarre coincidence. Then he must have registered the utter confusion on my face and settled down to give me a bit more detail on the test results, acting the part of a responsible and comforting doctor. Once he got that out of the way, he went straight back to old times, and then asked what I'd been up to in the past 20 years. I couldn't think of one thing, especially when faced with a walking, talking success story: a doctor in a ritzy hospital in Connecticut, married to a lovely classmate, if I recall, with a few bouncing babies to boot. It was all too surreal to me; the scene I'd imagined as a prelude to a Dark Victory story line instead turned out to be part Hail Fellow Well Met, part "Oh my god I'm a failure" freak-out (as if I need any more of those). So much for my big Bette Davis moment - though of course, ultimately I was extremely relieved.

Meanwhile, that very same week, a good friend had a terrifying and completely unexpected heart attack, out of the clear blue sky. He's young, exercises a lot, eats well, doesn't smoke, has a happy and fulfilling life - and yet, he had a very close call and is looking at a long recovery period. It's given him pause, as they say - given many of us pause, in fact. There's a lot of "You never know" being said, especially since he was so healthy up to this point. It reminds me of an old New Yorker cartoon, where a very self-satisfied man is strutting down the sidewalk, thinking proudly, "Less cholesterol! Regular checkups! No nicotine! No alcohol! Low sodium! Moderate exercise! No sugar!", unaware that a giant safe is about to drop on his head.

I bring up these two incidents because, after all, the heart of my blog is about trying to live life in the fullest and truest way that I can, and there's nothing like a close look at mortality to make a girl take a step back for some perspective. In the typical narrative, a brush with death (or even the thought of a brush with death) makes one toss out the junky parts of one's life and stop deferring the dream. However, I've already done a lot of the items on this particular list: quit the dead-end and depressing job (check), travel to wonderful places (check), spend more time with friends and family (check and check), buy a sports car (check! just this month! love it! want to drive across the country!), stop and smell the roses (and listen to the birds, and watch the sunset, and so forth - check), and not let the days just zip by (trying, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not).

It brings to mind a rather odd play I saw a few years back, an absurd (in a good way) monologue by Will Eno called Thom Pain (based on nothing). The character, who viciously skewers everything in sight, at one point says, "What if you only had one day to live? What would you do? That's easy. You'd be brave and true and reckless. You would love life and people with wild and new abandon. If you only had a day. What if you had forty years? What would you do? If you're like me, and - no offense - you probably are, you wouldn't do anything."

It's true, isn't it? We all think we'd scrap our boring old lives and go out and have mad adventures - jump out of planes or gobble down caviar at the Ritz or climb Machu Picchu at dawn or move to Paris or some such - if we knew our time on this planet was limited. But it is limited, isn't it? From the get-go? And yet here we all sit, not swimming with dolphins or blowing it all on red in Vegas.

This could be because we're all cowards, but actually, I think there's another, simpler, less dramatic reason: There's plenty of enjoyment to be had in the day-to-day. I've learned over the past year that I don't need to pack each hour with Experiences and Accomplishments, that there's a lot to be said for reading and hanging out and, even, drifting a bit. So I'm not sure how important the bucket list is, as long as your days bring more happiness than not. (Though you might take a bit of advice from Thom Pain and "love life and people with wild and new abandon" - but in a calm, sustainable way.)

For instance: Ted Kennedy. Here's someone who did get the tap on the shoulder letting him know that his time was almost up, and what did he do? Apparently, he went sailing a lot. Of course, he had a few other things on his plate (like, oh, I don't know, trying to create a system where all his fellow Americans would have decent, affordable health care - you know, little to-do items to cross off the list), but still, he made it a priority to continue with this simple pastime that he loved, something he'd done all his life, in the same waters he'd always known (in, may I point out, a truly gorgeous sailboat). He didn't feel the need to go out in search of new and bigger and more exotic adventures. He knew he had a certain amount of time left, and he just went on doing what had always made him happy.

{Antique botanical prints of "General Jacqueminot" rose, "Baroness Rothschild" rose, "Safrano" tea rose, and "Monthly" rose available from Lyons Ltd; bottom: Ted Kennedy's Mya}


  1. First of all, a hearty congratulations on your clean bill of health. (Delivered by a former classmate, no less, amazing!) And second, what an absolutely beautiful and inspiring post! Lots of wisdom in those words, Siobhan, words I'd do well to live by.
    All the best!

  2. Just...beautiful.
    (And I'm glad you're fine.)

  3. Thanks, guys... I appreciate it! And scribbler, loved your new post too - in fact, I'm on my way back to your blog to comment...

  4. Why go gently into that good night when there is still much to do underfoot? As ol' Hunter S.T. was fond of sayin', "You buy the ticket and you take the ride". I don't know if a cannon shot awaits me at the end of the ride or a slow dissolve into the infinate either. Until then, I enjoy car-pooling along with those whose thoughts are atuned to all the possibilities that we can imagine.

    Thanks for the commute Siobhan.

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