The pitch and loudness of the scream don’t match the diminutive frame of the person who emitted it.
The cuff on her left arm reads small adult, and her build is comparable to that of a 12-year old child, her arms no bigger than my wrists. The nurse and medical assistant do not struggle to move her as the heavy cotton blankets she arrived with probably weigh more than she does.
“This could well kill her,” I tell my husband as we hoof it up the parking garage toward the hospital, hoping to get to the Emergency Room at the same time as the ambulance.
He’s used to my bluntness and does not disagree. After all, it was his mother herself who told me more than once that she now weighs the same as a corpse.
As a retired head nurse who spent her career looking after veterans and their dependents in military hospitals, she would know. The human body holds no secret for her, and yet hers mysteriously keeps failing. As a result, hospital is once again her natural habitat, this time as a patient rather than staff.
We walk past an ambulance with its back doors open, two paramedics unloading someone. It’s my husband’s mom, looking paler and more diminished than I’ve ever seen her yet regal. Ever the nurse, she silently surveys and appraises her surroundings.
“So what happened?” asks the orthopedic surgeon a little louder than is necessary.
My husband’s mom is elderly but her ears work fine. There are two surgeons, two residents, one nurse and one registrar assembled around her ER bed as she recounts this morning’s accident. Plus the two of us.
“I tripped on my rug,” she tells them, matter-of-factly. She has the verbal precision of a sniper, each word she speaks has a purpose otherwise she says nothing. Her face shows pain but her speech doesn’t. Not vocalizing it unless asked is a matter of pride.
A few questions later, the team tells us she’ll likely undergo surgery within the next 24 hours to fix her broken bones, and she tells us to go home. More specifically, she tells me even although my husband is the one who has to come back to the city for work the next day. I suspect I look the worst for wear, visibly cold, more angular and exhausted than usual even though I strive to exude calm and confidence. She knows I was in town for a hospital consult of my own in the morning and worries, ever the nurse.
Besides, she’s aware my head is currently in two places at the same time as my stepmom undergoes treatment for stage IV breast cancer in Paris. And as of this morning, treatment has taken a turn for the most unpleasant. Reading between the lines of Dad’s email, I can tell he’s struggling. His wording is less slapdash than usual, more overly affectionate and protective. Every line is bursting with devotion and love for his wife. He’s scared by the magnitude of this cancer devouring my stepmom; we all are.
Life, these days, is an ongoing tug of war with death everywhere I look.
Every day, they each continue to defy the limitations of their bodies, determined to keep steering their life in the direction of more life.
As I take in my surroundings, I’m reminded of how quickly life can sideswipe any of us.
No one wakes up in the morning thinking they’ll spend the night in hospital being prepped for emergency surgery. No one wakes up in the morning expecting this day will be their last and yet we all take life for granted.
If we were constantly being made aware of our mortality, how would be manage to keep going?
Without the ability to project ourselves into the future, how would we approach each day?
“I’ve made peace with death and it doesn’t scare me,” is what my friend Anthony used to say after he’d been living with incurable cancer for a couple of years. And yet, knowing his illness was a death sentence never stopped him from making plans right up to the day he checked out for good. He wanted to write a memoir and had started an outline, he was setting up a business with his girlfriend. And of course a future trip from the UK to the Pacific Northwest was always on the cards.
My mother-in-law keeps going because she’s hoping to return home to Hawaii, but I’m not sure what keeps my stepmom and dad going besides the habit of life. They’re bon vivants and I know my stepmom tries her hardest to put on a brave face for the kids, her son and me. She and Dad are also overwhelmed.
Life without her is as unfathomable to my father as life without Anthony remains unfathomable to me. And in spite of it all, we’re all hardwired for hope, the hope of more quality time together, the hope of new experiences. The discovery of new landscapes, cultures, and cuisine has always been a strong motivator for my stepmom and my father. They’re both seasoned travelers who love nothing more than going somewhere they haven’t been before.
Curiosity — the capacity to ask “What if?”and willingly embrace the unknown — is a practical form of hope. Rather than an amorphous, nebulous concept that’s hard to grasp for many of us, curiosity is a choice that can be made at any moment of every day. And what is life but a collection of fleeting moments that mesh together to make a whole?
Within everyone’s reach, curiosity is of the hallmarks of a life well-lived.
Routine is comfortable and safe, but it’s also dull, and then you die. Discovery is challenging and scary but it’s also life-affirming, a way to honor and make the most of our precious time on this Earth by enriching our understanding of what it means to be a human in the world.
Right now, which do you choose?
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.