Saturday, June 19, 2010

Trying to Remember Buddhist Principles

A couple of evenings ago, we went for a ride in our new van: a big blue 2002 Ford Econoline, the van our son-on-law discovered in Seattle and drove down to Salt Lake this past weekend. It doesn’t have its registration yet, and it isn’t state-inspected yet, and it doesn’t have its handicap license plates yet, but it is still ready to go. Before we started, the respiratory therapist gave us a little lesson with the portable suction device, ambubagging, etc. Pat was with us. It does take at least two people to operate the lift, steer Brooke in his chair onto it, raise it, fix the tie-down straps and the seatbelt, check all the various safety features, but eventually we put it into drive. We didn’t go very far, maybe ten blocks up the hill, but just the same we made it to a little parking lot at the entrance to the Sessions Mountains trail, right behind the Mormon temple that overlooks Bountiful. We didn’t even get out of the car, but just the same from this vantage point we could see the entire landscape opening out below: this is looking out from the Wasatch mountains toward the basin-and-range country, and on a clear day like that you could see out to the west the huge sweep of open land punctuated by starkly isolated mountain ranges, one every fifty miles or so.

Brooke says that once again he was hit by this sense of unreality: could this really be happening? Could this really be me? It hit me with real force, he says, but it’s a paradox: this van means vastly increased mobility—I can go places now and no longer have to rely on the hospital’s transportation services, limited to one personal trip every three months. But it has also increased the sense of can this be happening now, can this really be the case, is it a dream, is it a nightmare, what is it? Being in the van, which was tiring even for a half-hour spin, was a thrill, but at the same time a source of not exactly terror, but something stranger than that.

It was a great experience to go out, to see things, to be driven by somebody, he says, but there’s something devastatingly wrenching about it too; it once again reminds me of the seriousness of my condition. I’d thought it would be different; I hadn’t realized it would be as much work for others to get me into and out of the van, that it would always be so, that I couldn’t just jump in the van and take off for those west desert mountain ranges; but just the same driving in this van for the first time was also enormously liberating.

How to explain this ambivalent feeling? There are many ways of doing so, but one of them is this. I’ve been trying to remember Buddhist principles. I don’t seem to be able to abide by them, at least not at the moment. For instance, consider the way I fear the future, which is very real to me but in at least some forms of Buddhist thought, doesn’t really exist. For example, one can be anxious about the van. I’ve found it difficult, at least over the last little while, to hold onto a moment-to-moment existence in which, as a Buddhist would put it, I know I live in present moment, and that the present moment is the only moment. After all, I’m not sure when we’ll ever get to use the van; I’m still in the hospital with no specific prospect of going home at any specific date; in fact, we’re all in the dark about the future, which looked so definite at the time of the diaphragm-pacer operation. I’m not sure how I’ll be able to get into the van; will there always be two people who know how to help me do this? These fears are phenomenally real.
Obviously, the pneumonia I had a couple of weeks ago interfered with progress on the pacer, but everybody recognizes that I have to be relatively stable to go home, and that includes things like having the little sore on my butt heal—not a pressure sore, just a skin tear-- though it’s been there for more than half a year. Then there are fears about going home; these too are about the future, something that hasn’t materialized yet, and even if they aren’t based on anything at the moment real, they still interfere with achieving the medical stability necessary for discharge. A more western view might say I need to recover my faith that things will turn out well, and that if I’m ambivalent that’s a symptom that I don’t have adequate faith that a higher power will take care of me. But whether western or Buddhist, the minute you start getting wrapped up in your fears about the future you entangle yourself in these chains, and it’s absolutely necessary to detach yourself from those negative thoughts about who will care for me, how will I drive around in the van, how will we live? You’ve heard me express these fears before; as discharge-to-home gets closer, they get more real. By the same token, I have similar fears about Peggy’s going to a conference in Key West this week, and how my visit with my sister Lisa will be—she’s coming to be with me while Peggy’s away--and how it will be after Peggy’s hernia surgery, now scheduled for June 29, while I should be focused on the moment, just this moment, letting these future events take care of themselves, as they will.

A lot of this is partly due to the fact that I had hoped I’d be home well before now, but of course that hope was a kind of chimera. What did I know? Both kids have helped: recently, Mike made very therapeutic remark, why are you in such a hurry? I once had a dream about Sara—I was climbing up a steep sandhill, sliding down every time, and she appeared. I said, well I couldn’t get to the top, and she said, so what? –and that relieved all the pressure. You can’t do anything to change the future; what you have to have is trust, or faith, that the people around you love you, that they’re doing everything for you, that they’re going to take care of you when you get home, and that although the journey and the adaptation will be very difficult, it will still be okay. Julia’s making a schedule. Peggy’s figuring out the finances. Contractors are working on last-minute remodeling projects, in addition to the ones we’ve already done. And friends are we hope planning visits. We heard somewhere that it takes three years to settle into one’s new life, as it were—we’re over half that time already, but why worry; the present is now.

The morning of the first van ride I was chanting, calming, smiling and for a few moments there I could feel what “this is the only moment” means. It’s about being in the present moment, not regretting the past, not being anxious about the future. I’m talking myself into being optimistic now. It’s a question of faith—it’s going to work out. We’ve already done something wonderful— including survive this long--and we’ll continue to do wonderful things. We’ve written stuff we hope speaks to some of you out there, and we’re in a place that cares, and if there’s more time for home improvements, well that’s all for the better. I really want to be home. But, why hurry? I don’t know what kind of life lies ahead—but it has to be moment to moment.
What about the van? It’s sitting in the hospital parking lot, out behind the building, where they’ll let us keep it as long as we’re here. When will we drive it? I can be sane about this or I can be crazy. Maybe Mike’s remark, “what’s the hurry?” is the sanest of all. What’s the hurry?