Last night, when we were lying together in bed for the first time in weeks, now that Brooke is back at South Davis after the pneumonia and back in his familiar wide bed, Peggy asked Brooke a kind of overwhelming question. We’d been reading Walden earlier, the chapter which Thoreau titles “Where I Lived and What I Lived For”, and then there’d been a e-mail in which someone said something about Brooke’s not having anything to live for. So Peggy asked him, “what do you live for?” just like that. Baldly—but out of real curiosity, since after all Brooke is the only person who could even begin to answer it.
Brooke said, well, two things, actually. The first, he said, was more or less Nietzschean, something about the will to live, this strong desire to keep going, not to give up. Something completely elemental, basic, not really intellectually examined much at all, just a basic instinctual desire. It has driven him from the very beginning, he said, even though there have been times it was eclipsed by pain or anguish.
The second, he said, has to do with making other people happy somehow, bringing some kind of gift into other people’s lives—even though the situation he is in would seem to militate against any kind of happiness or capacity to give. Yesterday, even though he’s still on the ventilator again and has a nasogastric feeding tube, he managed to teach the final session for his OSHER class on Walden. Doing the class at all felt like a kind of gift he could give the students, he said, and the students certainly seemed to see it that way. Some of what he sees as bringing gifts to others involves allowing them to see the joy [his term] of just living, expressed in the tone of his voice and the energy—difficult to summon, but real—he brings to something like this. Then there’s writing, the pleasure of collaborative writing, like this, of trying to bring to whoever is out there reading this some sense of what it’s like to live with nearly continuous suffering and still have some sense of joy. Of course, just living isn’t always a joy—it’s sometimes sheer hell—and he’s often out of energy, but just the same these “gifts” are real, something he is sincere in wanting to bring to others. It’s a kind of teaching, he says, not just from books.
The phrase “support system” is something of a cliché, grossly overused in some clinical contexts, but Brooke says he could not have gone through what he has in these now nearly two years since his accident without the support he has had from family and his extraordinary collection of friends. We have heard of people here in this hospital who have absolutely no one, or very few people who ever come to care for them or to love them. We heard last year about a wife who muttered angrily, within her husband’s hearing, why are you taking so long to die? We hear of desertions by husbands, by boyfriends and girlfriends; and while the nurses don’t talk about other patients, thanks to HIPAA, some stories still travel around. Families don’t visit; patients lose their friends; people living here are sometimes consoled only by their television sets. In fact, the staff sometimes serves as virtually the only human connection for some of the residents, including both the adults on this floor and the babies and children on the floor above. But however important these things are, what’s often overlooked is the way “support systems” can work the other way around. Brooke treasures the “support” people give him, but part of what he lives for, he says, is to give something to them. This isn’t sappy; it’s about how meaning in life comes to be. It’s a two-way thing, not just one-way, and it’s the two-way part that underlies much of what he lives for.
Early on we described a meeting with our friend Lama Thupten, which was enormously significant in the course of this journey. One of the things he said right off the bat was “The body is nothing; the mind is everything,” and although this bald statement may seem somewhat hyperbolic, it has turned out to be oddly true in Brooke’s case. Last night, reading the Conclusion of Walden with his class, we talked about Thoreau’s view that physical journeys—to Africa, to Japan, to China, in search of giraffes or whatever--are nothing in comparison to journeys of the mind, exploring the inlets and bays of one’s own inner self. Be a Columbus exploring new continents and worlds within you, Thoreau says, alluding to a late passage in Byron’s Don Juan, opening new channels of thought. Towards the end of the Conclusion, he remarks that if his world were as limited as that of a spider confined to the corner of a garret all his days, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me.
What do I live for? Partly just to live and not give up; partly to engage in the giving and receiving of interaction with people you love and come to love, and partly to explore one’s inner self. At one point in our conversation last night, he said, this may seem outrageous to you, but I think I’m happier than I’ve ever been. But then he quickly said, it isn’t always that way; sometimes it’s really, really hard.