I've spent much of the past few weeks in and out of hospitals and doctors' offices. Which are pretty much my least favorite places on earth. The piercing beeping noises, the sour stench of sterility, the blinding artifical lights, the air thick with restlessness and anxiety. Putting me in a clinical setting pretty much guarantees that I'll have a panic attack, even if I'm not the patient.
Which also means I'm a pretty awful caregiver. I hate admitting this, because I love people, and I love caring for people. I think I'm very kind and generous and thoughtful. But physical weakness makes me uncomfortable. Illness makes me uncomfortable. Aging makes me uncomfortable. And yet the universe somehow knows this and is forcing me to confront these fears head on in 2010.
My husband is older than me, by a bit more than a decade. It's rarely an issue, unless we're discussing some random 80's pop culture reference, and we realize that he was in college while I was in elementary school. He's fit, youthful, healthy, strong--in a word, my rock.
Which began to crack late last year, with what turned out to be pretty debilitating kidney stones. I like to pretend I'm independent, strong and tough, but in all honesty, I'm pretty needy. And idealistic. I want to believe that the people I love and depend on will live forever. So, when you look mortality in the face--even if it's just a minor blip on an otherwise healthy, long life--it's sobering. And scary.
As I was in the ER with my husband pondering all of this--and the sad fact that most lives end or at least deteriorate in the very spaces I was haunting--my anxiety started suffocating me, so I jumped at a chance to escape. My husband needed a prescription filled at the pharmacy across the street, and after 22 hours with no sleep, six agonizingly long hours in the emergency room and delirium quickly creeping in, I was happy for the opportunity to DO something.
The pharmacy--a CVS--is one I regularly encounter in an entirely different context. Atlanta runners and Peachtree Road Race regulars will recognize the sign the way I have for many years--a visual cue that one of the city's notorious hills--Cardiac Hill--is almost behind you. For the past ten years that I've called Atlanta home, that CVS sign has been a focal point, a glaring, teasing mirage, taunting me as I power my way up that hill.
If you're not familiar with Atlanta, there's a crosswalk between Piedmont Hospital (where my husband and I were camped out in the emergency room) and that CVS, and it intersects one of the city's busiest roads, Peachtree Street (yes, THE Peachtree Street), not to be confused with Peachtree Battle, Peachtree Walk, Peachtree Industrial, Peachtree Circle or Atlanta's 100 other Peachtree-monikered by-ways. Directly adjacent to Piedmont--and visible from the CVS--is the Shepherd Center, which specializes in the treatment and rehabilitation of patients with spinal cord and brain injuries.
I've always been vauguely aware of the Shepherd Center. I smile and wave at the patients who line the street to cheer for the 55,000 plus Peachree Road Race runners every July 4th, and I've had a few friends who've served on the Junior Committee.
But the Shepherd Center--as do crosswalks in general--has a graver, deeper significance to me now. My friend and running teammate Sarah was in a crosswalk, on a similarly dark morning, going about her daily run, when she was struck by a car. She spent nearly two weeks in a coma and several weeks in the hospital before being transferred to the Shepherd Center for rehabilitation. Re-learning so many of the things we take for granted--like the ability to walk across the street, healthy and unassisted--on a dark and brisk winter morning.
In spite of the frigid temperatures, I stood at that intersection through three or four lights, overwhelmed by the intersection of life and death and strength and fragility and faith and hope and fate. By how many times I didn't feel strong enough not only for that hill, but for the silly, mundane things in life that I allow to consume me. And yet how much strength others have shown in the face of so much more. The courage to look death in the eye and defy it--to fight with it with every thought and breathe and movement.
We all have these crossroads if life. When we're forced to confront our biggest fears and weaknesses. And you have two choices--quit, or keep on trudging up that hill, no matter how painful or difficult it may seem. I choose the latter.