Quality Time

I could easily write “The Idiot’s Guide to Emergency Rooms,” I’ve found myself in so many over the past 20 years.

There was the ER in Cusco, Peru, where I was delivered by helicopter after falling off of the Inca Trail at Machu Pichu, breaking my right ankle and spraining my left.

I was carried out of the jungle on a makeshift stretcher (heavy blankets tossed over what seemed to be a short ladder) by four Peruvian jungle rangers armed with rifles. Peruvians are, in general, short and built close to the ground. The five-foot long stretcher reflected the difference between my 6’1” height and that of the Peruvians. I was unable to stretch out on the stretcher—either my head would fall off of one end or my injured ankles would dangle precariously off the other. I sat erect on the stretcher as I emerged from the jungle and was borne across the ruins. Fellow travelers took pictures of me as I exited from the wilderness; I could think of nothing else to do than to wave at them in the manner of Queen Elizabeth II. A few people formed a ragtag procession and followed the jungle rangers as we made our way to the infirmary. I was, of course, in shock, so I can’t swear to the fact that a weeping Caroline Myss rushed toward me much like St. Veronica encountering Jesus on the road to Calvary. That said, the memory, hallucinatory or not, remains vivid all these years later.

A description of the infirmary is in order. It was small, no more than 10 feet by 12 feet. On the wall to my right was a poster-sized reproduction of a painting of Jesus being scourged at the pillar; the image was bloody enough to make Mel Gibson feel queasy. On the opposite wall was another poster; this one featured a super-macho Hispanic man smiling and holding a box of Viagra. “The agony and the ecstasy,” I thought, and burst out laughing, leaving my companions to wonder if I were delirious. I may well have been—but it put things in perspective for me.

The clinic in Cusco was equally strange. The operating room was on the second floor (no elevator) and I discovered that one of the gentlemen carrying my stretcher was also the surgeon who was going to set my ankle. (Shouldn’t he be more protective of his hands?) Once I was settled on the operating table, the doctor asked me a question which I didn’t understand. A translator was brought in and, after conferring with the doctor, asked me to wiggle my fingers. It seemed like an odd request, but I complied.  I then discovered that the doctor meant for me to wiggle my toes, but that he had used a noun that translates as “digits” which apparently covers both fingers and toes.

Then there was the time my appendix burst as I was being wheeled into an ER in Paso Robles, CA. It was at the beginning of what was supposed to be a romantic weekend; my friend and I had planned to drive up Highway One to Big Sur. Oh, well. As I was being rushed toward surgery, I asked if anyone needed my insurance information which, in spite of the excruciating pain, I was trying to retrieve from my wallet. When they said, “It wasn’t necessary,” I assumed that, if the hospital didn’t want proof that I could pay, I was as good as dead.

Another time I had planned a week-end trip to Oakland to visit my incomparable, almost indescribable, friend, Joseph Kramer. (He deserves an essay of his own.) To save time I drove up Interstate Highway Five, the most efficient but least scenic route from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. When I have the time, I prefer to drive north on the 101 to Paso Robles, stay the night in a modest motel, then early in the morning drive west on Highway 46 to the coast, stop for breakfast in Cambria and head north on Highway 1, stopping for an hour or so at the Camaldolese Monastery in Lucia, south of Big Sur (perhaps my favorite place on earth), before grabbing a meal in Carmel or Monterey and then re-connecting with the 101 North. (This had been the planned itinerary for my appendicitis-interrupted romantic weekend.)

I wasn’t expecting any scenic delights on Highway 5; then, somewhere between Kettleman and Santa Nella a gentle rain began to fall. As I followed the curves around the hills on the east side of the highway, I noticed a rainbow off to the northeast. It would appear and then disappear from my line of sight as I rounded a curve, only to appear again as if it were playing hide-and-seek with me. I have not seen a rainbow this beautiful before or since. The further north I drove, the more vivid the rainbow’s colors became and the thicker and more solid it seemed to become, as if, were you to get close enough, you could touch it. Spontaneously I said aloud, an informal prayer of gratitude, “I think that’s the best one you’ve ever done. Thank you for letting me see it.”

Not the actual rainbow.

A few hours later I was in the emergency room of Alta Bates Medical Center in Oakland. Joseph had rushed me there shortly after I arrived at his home. What I had thought was an upset stomach turned out to be some serious internal bleeding. The ER doctors managed to stabilize me. They told me later that it was touch and go. As I lay on the gurney, my thoughts kept returning to the gorgeous rainbow; I thought to myself, “If I never leave the hospital, if I die tonight, the rainbow is a perfect going away present.” I was completely at peace.

Several years ago I was having an enjoyable Monday morning breakfast in an Oak Brook, IL hotel restaurant with a few students from the weekend’s seminar. The last thing I remember speaking some gibberish about mermaids. I woke up waking up in the emergency room of the Adventist Hinsdale hospital with absolutely no recollection of how I got there. Once again, Caroline Myss was hovering over me, calmer, however, than at Machu Pichu; she was accompanied by her mother, Dolores, and our dear friend Ellen Gunter. It turned out I had suffered a trans-ischemic attack (TIA) in the hotel restaurant and been taken by ambulance to the hospital. Other than double vision which lasted just a couple of hours, there were, happily, no lasting effects. The hospital staff told me how fortunate I was that the best neurosurgeon in the area was on call. Later, when he came by to check on me, I asked him what caused the TIA. “You’re old,” he replied matter-of-factly, “Shit happens.” He then told me I’d be free to fly back to Los Angeles in 48 hours. Caroline insisted that Ellen accompany me on my flight home “in case something happened.” I tried to convince Caroline that if I dropped dead on the plane there was nothing Ellen could do to help and that the experience would likely leave her traumatized. In my life I have encountered three people it is useless to argue with: my mother; my high-school algebra teacher, Father Krieger (Satan in a cassock); and Caroline Myss. Ellen flew home with me.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, I noticed symptoms of internal bleeding and called a taxi to take me to the nearest ER. When I told the ER doctor that these incidents seemed always to happen when I was out of town, he recommended that I stop traveling.

The emergency gall bladder surgery in Burbank, CA and the pneumonia scare in Oak Park. IL were so uneventful as to be barely worth mentioning.

On all of these occasions, there are others, I called on the company of God to be with me for the duration.

The surgeon who had performed the appendectomy told me it was best that I didn’t drive for three-to-four weeks, except in an emergency. About three weeks after the surgery, my friend, Terry, and I had made a date to go to the movies. If I go too long without seeing a movie, I develop withdrawal symptoms; I require the cinematic equivalent of methadone. When Terry called, about an hour before the movie was to begin, and told me he wasn’t feeling well, I thought to myself, this is exactly the kind of emergency my surgeon was talking about. (Aging hasn’t matured my judgment all that much.) I drove to the nearest Arclight, hobbled to the auditorium and, unable to climb stairs, planted myself in one of the seats reserved for the disabled.

As the film began (Yes I remember what it was— the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, directed by Jonathan Demme, and starring Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, and Meryl Streep!—not as good as the John Frankenheimer original with Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Angela Lansbury, but that didn’t matter—a movie is a movie.) As the lights dimmed, I thought to myself, I am so grateful to be alive and well and at the movies, even if I’m at the movies alone.

Then it occurred to me that I always ask God to hang out with me in the emergency room, at the oncologist’s office, at the tax-preparer’s, but I never think to invite God to join me for a good time at the theatre or the movies, or for a nice dinner when I’m on the road and dining alone. Now I do. Sometimes, if I am in a particularly nice restaurant—table cloth, linen napkins, etc., I’ll ask the server to leave the place setting opposite me, including the wine glass. I raise my wine glass—the one that actually has wine in it—and toast God and all of the times, good and not so good, that we have had together.

This may, or may not, seem weird to some people but it works for me. It’s a different kind of prayer that reminds me to include God in all of my life.

I recommend this wonderfully rich and playful spiritual practice—it may not be for everyone, but it certainly works for a Seven on the Enneagram.

Quote: “I, God, am your playmate! I will lead the child in you in wonderful ways for I have chosen you.” Mechtild of Magdeburg

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