It’s been more than a month since my hospital stay and unexpected bout with pneumonia. Just for the record, I’m feeling caged and claustrophobic. But I’m breathing – and for this gift, I am beyond grateful. In the span of four weeks, I have watched more than a half-dozen friends leave this earth. At night I stare into space thanking my own lucky stars.
I’d be lying though, if I didn’t confess an occasional pity party or moment of despair. I’d like to blame it on new medication, but I suspect it’s coming from somewhere much deeper.
“Where does it hurt,” my physical therapist asks.
“Everywhere,” I answer. We both know the ache transcends broken and bruised bones, ribs.
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“Then it looks like you’re going to have to chill, rest, stay put. Be still. Heal from the inside out.”
He calls it “social fasting.”
It sounded easy at first – almost seductive. Readers and friends who know me might think I’d be relishing the quiet time. That being on house arrest would translate to a veritable “writer’s paradise.” That I’d be happily trying my hand at crafting the next great American novel. Not the case. I’m climbing walls. My storytelling hinges on interplay and connective tissue with others.
I emailed my editor an apologetic note saying I wasn’t sure when the next column might arrive. Full of self-doubt, I wondered if this was working itself into a full-blown existential crisis.
Then I remembered something – my mind drifting back through time to an ancient, lost and almost forgotten memory.
It was the mid-1970s. I had just graduated from Fresno State and landed my first job in the Leon S. Peters Rehabilitation Center at Fresno Community Hospital, as it was called in those days. With diploma in hand (and a degree in psychology), my debut assignment was working with spinal cord injured and stroke patients.
Sadly that summer there had been a disproportionate number of diving accidents – far too many young people paralyzed from the waist (or neck) down. Across the hallway were stroke victims who looked a lot like my grandparents, although now when I think of them many were probably my age – maybe even younger.
Sensing naivete and lack of experience, the floor supervisor urged me to sign up for a weekend workshop titled, “What to do before 40 to prepare for life after 60.” I was nowhere in proximity to either of these numbers, so those next 16 hours felt hugely sacrificial. But that weekend I learned about navigating life with limitations and surviving when immobilized by catastrophe.
Some strategies were simple and enchanting. Like finding beauty in listening to classical music, awakening senses by tasting a mouthwatering slice of ripened Valley fruit, staring at the moon and reminiscing a first love or mad crush.
Others were less romantic, more mundane but practical. Like playing a mean game of Scrabble or solitaire, retracing the rooms of your childhood house and journaling memories. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine having to someday use these exercises for my own rescue and self-return.
A few weeks ago, I came across an article in The New York Times titled “Practicing for a better old age.” Apparently 60 is not the new 40. Fifty isn’t either. Everything is on the decline – lung and heart capacity. Eyesight. Balance. You name it – it’s shrinking and diminishing. In other words – more life behind us than in front.
Before hurling yourself off the balcony, let me get to the good part. The article went on to say that this might be the perfect time to find something new and different, maybe even outrageous, to immerse yourself in and then improve at. It should be challenging, demanding and requiring time, energy, determination and passion (not the usual slam dunk no-brainer activity or Netflix series).
Whether it’s pickle ball, piano or play writing, studies show that when it’s rigorous and a stretch of the imagination, it can add life to your years, years to your life. Let’s face it – one day we’ll all be 50, 60, 70, 80, or even 90 if we’re lucky.
So there’s no time like the present to discover a new pastime – that something you’ve always wanted to do but for whatever reason, left simmering on the back burner.
Here’s why. There is strangeness, a feeling of betrayal when illness or injury invades then takes over your body and life. Dreams – well, nearly everything – are abruptly put on hold. It’s no longer business as usual. Nothing – not even one breath – is taken for granted.
I am a veteran at surviving. I’m also a lifelong learner. Friends promise a silver lining somewhere in all this. What I am learning is that we never know when the next shoe might drop. Life is full of surprises.
It’s probably wise for us to be more gentle and kind with the ones we love (and also the ones we don’t) because most of the time, we haven’t a clue what’s really going on behind the velvet curtain of their lives. And with humans, there are no exemptions – everyone has something.
My something, for now anyway, is following doctor’s orders, and doing some serious “chilling.” Like a good book, I have no idea what happens in the next chapter.
Armen D. Bacon is a writer and co-author of “Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship” and a collection of essays titled “My Name is Armen.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter, @ArmenBacon.