Not for sissies
By Bill Lewellis
[Published in The Morning Call, March 20, 2009]
Bellied up to the bar at Dunkin’ Donuts some 15 years ago (MacArthur Road, Whitehall, south of Route 22), I was enjoying a morning coffee and a French cruller on my way to work. A glass-shattering crash and a rush of air signaled my half turn. From my stool, I placed my right hand on the hood of a car that had entered through the plate glass, an eerie kind of drive-through.
No coffee drinkers were hurt, not even the elderly driver who had accidentally stepped on the accelerator rather than the brake. After helping the driver out from behind the wheel, in fact, most of us continued to sip and snack until the police ushered us out.
Might that qualify as a nearly fatal experience, even though the only bone eventually affected was my funny bone?
When I began to relate the story at Diocesan House in Bethlehem, however, my eyes widened. I discovered in my jacket pocket a handful of tempered glass pebbles.
By 72, one might expect to have had a few almost fatal experiences, or episodes perceived as such. Taking a minute to browse through my life, I count five, including last week’s.
As a teenage passenger in a priest-driven van, along an embanked two-lane road, I survived a rollover after the van crossed twice from one embankment to the other.
Then there was that esophageal spasm that mimicked a painful heart attack for some 45 minutes in the ER. The oxygen that was administered made for some clear thinking.
At another time, a life-threatening reaction to an antibiotic sent me to the ER where a near death was made distant.
Then, March 10.
While at Diocesan House in Bethlehem, I began experiencing frightening "shockwaves" radiating from my right eye across the top of the right side of my head, provoked by touch or as little as a squint or even a blink. Thinking this might be the beginnings of a stroke, I drove (not so smart) to the ER (smart) at Lehigh Valley Hospital Cedar Crest. At least 30 jolts by the time I arrived. After a few hours there, some bloodwork, online recourse to an MRI administered last May and the feeling of being cared for, the shock became awe. The ER doc diagnosed my condition as trigeminal neuralgia (Tic Douloureaux, for you French) that "comes and goes like the wind." His diagnosis was confirmed during a follow-up visit with my neurologist.
Actually, my symptoms dissipated after my wife, Monica, met me in the ER. Chalk another one up for marriage.
Though some emotional exhaustion lingers, I'm feeling much better, trying my best to relax, not poke myself in the eye, and recognize that, compared with others in the ER that day whose pain reached near the ten threshold, I might have been a four.
Getting old isn’t for sissies. Betty Davis supposedly said that. Or something like it. Getting old is for all of us lucky enough to do so. I’ve caught myself complaining about the number of my doctors. I’m lucky to have them. I don’t want to be a sissy.
There’s nothing like an almost fatal experience to guide one’s reflection on the important, though not always urgent, aspects of life, on life’s meaning and delicate balance. I want never to forget those experiences.
If I’m sufficiently attentive when I pass a hospital or a Dunkin’ Donuts, I think thanksgiving.
How many near fatal experiences have you had? Any that take more than 60 seconds to recall don’t count. Count them. Then, think thanksgiving.
[Canon Bill Lewellis has been communication missioner for the Diocese of Bethlehem, the Episcopal Church in 14 counties of northeastern Pennsylvania, since 1986, and canon theologian since 1998. Newspapers have published more than 100 of his columns. A book he coauthored, Your Faith Your Life: An Invitation to the Episcopal Church (Morehouse), will be available in April. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]