|An exposed human skull in Baltimore's|
historic Mount Auburn Cemetery
It got worse and worse. Coughing. Hacking. Tremendous shortness of breath. Weakness. Inability to sleep. Waking up in the middle of the night literally choking on mucus. And let's not forget a myriad of weird and dangerous side effects from the self-prescribed mixture of over-the-counter drugs I was using to combat the symptoms.
In August I decided to see my GP. He listened to my back. Sounded like pneumonia. That was a relief! I didn't want to be the kind of guy who'd be waylaid by some stupid cold or flu. The Doc prescribed some antibiotics and told me to get an X-Ray.
The X-Ray came back. No pneumonia. Time for the specialists. Time for the MRI.
The result: Swollen lymph nodes. Sadly, I have learned the hard way that the adjective swollen is only positive when applied to one organ. And the lymph nodes are not that organ. I was told not to jump to conclusions, but everyone was thinking the same thing: The Big-C. Lymphoma.
They needed to do a biopsy. Not a needle one. They needed to make an incision down below my throat and yank out enough of a lymph node to see what was going on. It was a routine operation. Out-patient. I would come in around 7am on Tuesday, August 10th, and I would be home in time for lunch.
It didn't quite work out that way.
After they lifted me onto the operating table, I remember the anesthesiologist saying, "I'm going to give you a little of this." The next thing I remember was waking up in the Intensive Care Ward with a tube down my throat. I immediately reached to get it out, but discovered that my hands and legs were secured. Fortunately, the nurse came in and immediately removed the tube. Before she left, I asked her if she could untie my limbs and she did. Glancing around the room, I saw a calender on the wall but since I wasn't wearing my glasses, I couldn't quite make it out. But it looked like the 11th. I asked the nurse, "What day is it?"
She said, "Wednesday, the 11th."
"AM or PM?"
I couldn't believe it. I had lost an entire day. Half-joking, I asked her while she was walking out if I had died or something. She started with a slow, "Well...."
(That's never the response you want to hear when you ask someone if you had died.)
She continued: "You didn't quite flat-line on everything."
Oh. That's a relief.
Here's what happened.
Apparently the operation was a complete success. They brought me back out of the general. I was conscious. The surgeon informed me that I didn't have cancer, but instead a serious though much more easily treated disease. I was talking. I was happy. Then, as they were waiting to move me to post-op, I fell into a deep sleep.
A really deep sleep.
The kind of deep sleep that your vet puts your dog into when he's very old and sick.
The kind of sleep you don't wake up from.
I have never gotten the whole story of what happened and I doubt I ever will. Apparently my blood pressure suddenly shot up, and when they brought it down, they brought it down way too far. All the way down. I stopped breathing completely. I've received conflicting reports about the status of my brain waves. In other words, I don't know whether I was really dead, or, as they would say in "The Princess Bride," only mostly dead. I have no memory of any of that -- or of viciously fighting off the staff of the Intensive Care Ward when they tried to put the breathing tube down my throat later. (I know it was bad because four members of the staff came and apologized to me the next day for how roughly they treated me. I just laughed and said, "Don't worry, I don't remember anything!")
I didn't realize the significance of what I experienced until the following Tuesday when I went into the audio studio at Clean Cuts to record a temporary narration track for my nearly completed documentary feature "Sacred Ground: The Battle For Mount Auburn." The film is about community activists and family members battling a Methodist church for control of Mount Auburn Cemetery -- which, for years, had been the only cemetery in the Baltimore area where African-Americans could be buried. It is a registered historic landmark that has fallen into such horrifying condition that bones litter the ground and weeds cover all but the highest monuments. It is a tale of grave robbing, grave recycling and every other awful thing that could happen in a cemetery.
I will leave it to another blog to tell how that the documentary came into being, but, as I was recording my narration over the grim images, it suddenly became very real to me how, if things had gone a just a hair differently, not only would I be dead, I would already be buried. And gone forever.
It was very sobering.
It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Talk about putting things in perspective! Not only did it make me appreciate what was really important, it taught how little of what I do is ultimately important at all! I didn't come away wanting to rearrange my priorities. I came away wanting to dump most of them!
Prior to the operation, while my health was rapidly declining, Netflix helpfully placed "Flight From Death: The Quest For Immortality" in my recommended queue. The theme of the film is that human beings are the only creatures that comprehend that we are going to cease to exist and that all culture and civilization was born out of death-defying myths we created to give ourselves immortality. This profound death anxiety at the core of our being is the cause of war and conflict between people of different cultures, religions and philosophies. When confronted with a death-defying myth that contradicts our own, we must destroy it before it calls into question our own accepted concept of immortality.
I had long ago accepted Christianity as my own brand of death-defying mythology -- to use the filmmakers' terminology. Frankly, I find no mythology necessary to believe in God. No faith either for that matter. Faith is needed to believe and trust in God's promises, and what brand of God is most accurate, but I find God's existence inherently obvious and logical. Others may disagree. I could spend a great deal of time on that subject, but that's not really the purpose of this blog. Ask me about it sometime later if you'd like. The two thoughts -- they are ultimately too mundane to be called revelations -- that struck me as a result of my near death incident involve immortality and control. I believe what I have come to realize is true whether you believe in God or an afterlife or not.
If I am right and there is a God, and I have chosen the proper brand, then my consciousness will survive this earthly existence in another plane of existence. I will have immortality. But not here. Not in this material world as it exists now.
In this material world immortality is impossible. Whether you be Christian, Hindu or Atheist.
How can it be achieved? By accomplishment? What kind?
Let's look at Alexander The Great. They didn't call him "The Great" for nothing. Few human beings have done as much to shape Western Civilization as we know it. He was a giant military and political figure whose deeds and reputation has survived for over two-thousand-and-three-hundred-years.
Good for him.
But, of the millions of other people who lived in his time, how many others do we know by name? One thousand? Two thousand? Probably less. And, of those we know, what do we know of them? Their personalities. Their lives.
And what of the Great Alexander? Will they still be talking about him in another twenty-three-hundred years? How about fifty-thousand-years? How about a million years? I don't think so. Even Alexander will be lost in wash of time.
Others seek immortality through their families. They take pride in the fact their genes will survive in the children of their children for as long as men walk the earth.
But how satisfying is that immortality? You may provide a microscopic splash of chemicals to a strand of DNA but nothing of your personality or consciousness will survive. These descendants of yours might end up with gall bladders consistent in size and color with your own, but, trust me, they will not know you.
Can you name all eight of your great-grandparents? I can. I know what they looked like. I know what they did for a living and quite a bit about their characters and personalities. Can you name all sixteen of your 2nd-great-grandparents? I can, but I don't have pictures of all of them. And the details of their lives are vaguer. Can you name all thirty-two of your 3rd-great-grandparents? I can't, despite a great deal of effort. Trust me. There is no personal immortality even in family. Your descendants will forget you. They will not think you had any bearing whatsoever on their existence.
I must admit that when I first dreamed of becoming a writer I hoped to write an immortal work. I foolishly thought that books lasted forever. Most won't see a third printing. There are books I read and loved as a child that are gone now. Will people still be reading Stephen King two thousand years from now? Hard to say, but my guess is no. Of the tens of thousands of books written by the ancient Greeks and Romans, how many are we still reading today? A hundred? Two hundred? Even the Bible makes direct references to earlier texts which no longer exist.
Then again, I'm a filmmaker. My prospects for immortality in my work is even more hopeless. I have written quite a few films and hope to do more, but I am not so certain people will be watching them one hundred let alone one thousand years from now. Think about it. When was the last time you sat down and watched a film from 1911? I have probably watched more silent films than the average bear and I can't remember the last time I did. But, you may say, those films were silent. If they had sound, we'd still watch them. Really? If they were shooting films five hundred years ago, do you think people would still be watching them for enjoyment? They would seem so primitive to us and, chances are, the dialect would sound so foreign to our ears that the average viewer wouldn't be able to stand them. Only archaeologists and historians would find them interesting.
So what do I say? Screw earthly immortality. It is unattainable. Every moment spent in its pursuit, knowingly or unknowlingly, is wasted. There are more important things to do. What are those things? You decide for yourself, but they're not going to grant you immortality, and, in any real sense, they will not survive once you and people who knew you die. And they will die. So will you.
My only hope for immortality is spiritual.
The other lesson I learned was about control: That we have none.
Christians will be among the first to tell you that they believe that "God Is In Control." They'll even put it in quotes like I did. However, when you talk to them about their plans, you'll discover what they really mean is that "God And I Are In Control." At least that's the way it was with me.
Control is man's most cherished illusion. How many couples get divorced because their spouses were trying to control them? How many dictators have seized power to control their people? How many nations have gone to war to control other nations?
Everybody wants to believe they are in control, but, trust me, you're not. It's an illusion, but a very strong one. I think it is easier to surrender immortality than control.
One Saturday night, about two weeks before my ill-fated but illuminating operation, I was given a very important lesson on control. My lovely wife and I decided to stay home and play some 500 rummy and watch some stand-up comedians on Netflix. My breathing was shallow to begin with, however, as the night progressed, it became increasingly shallow. That was disconcerting because I was not exerting myself in any matter that would warrant such a reaction. I was simply playing cards and watching TV. I had no control over it whatsoever. Since nothing I was consciously doing was causing the change, there was nothing I could consciously do to stop the process short of going to the hospital. It's hard to abstractly measure such things, but I would have to say between 6pm and 11pm that night, I probably lost sixty percent of my already diminished breathing capacity. Part of me was genuinely frightened that this downward breathing trend would continue until I simply couldn't breathe anymore, which would be very bad since I have really grown accustomed to breathing over the years. However, part of me was watching myself react to this utter loss of control. I was wondering what I was going to do. How long would I wait before I told my wife and asked to go to the hospital. Fortunately, around 11pm my breathing stabilized. In the morning, it had returned to normal.
This brings me to my routine biopsy that nearly cost me my life. Obviously, when you let yourself be drugged, you are no longer in control. You have surrendered it to others. However, you hope they are in control.
My younger brother, who works in a hospital, says I am making too much of this incident. That my life was never really in danger. That the doctors were in control. Really? I don't think so. If they were truly in control they would have never let me stop breathing in the first place. The fact that, thankfully, they had the skill and training necessary to bring me back in no way means they were in control.
What do we control? What we do for a living? Sure, until you get fired. Who we marry? Sure, until your spouse decides they don't love you anymore. Where you live? Until your house burns down. Think about it. Do you have habits or vices you've been trying unsuccessfully to quit? Why can't you do it if you are truly in control? But let's go even deeper. Do you even really control your own thoughts? Don't you have thoughts you prefer not to think? If so, why do you think them?
Control is an illusion. You are not in control. Neither am I.
In a sense, professionally, I have given up on control decades ago. As a film editor, I have always viewed myself more a craftsman than a creator. I have a strong sense of what is right and appropriate at a given moment in a sequence. However, I know the ultimate decision-making power belongs to the person who hired me. It's their film. And, in the end, even if it is wrong, I will do it their way or they will simply fire me and get someone else to do it.
As a writer, I find it harder to yield my so-called control. A screenwriter, in a sense, becomes a god over a fictional new world. We create the environment. We create the people. We want our people to do what we want them to do. It is hard to give them to another bigger god who may want them to do things differently. However, if I want to take my little people from a piece of paper and put them on the screen, I need the producer. Or at least his money. And, you know what, sometimes a producer can actually change things for the better.
So where do I stand now? Screw control. I will still try to follow my conscience and do what I believe is right in given circumstances, but I will not waste any effort battling for control for controls' sake. It is an illusion. For example, although I fully plan not only to recover my previous state of health but rather improve upon it, I do not believe that will make me live one minute longer. I do not believe I have any control over how long I will live. I will endeavor to become healthier simply to enjoy a higher quality of life while I do live.
Jesus once asked, "Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?"
In case you're wondering, the question was rhetorical. The answer was, and remains, no.
I can live with that.
BTW, here is an old test trailer for the Mount Auburn documentary:
PS. I am feeling much better now.
Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God. It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.