Monday, December 17, 2012

The Gift

It's often said that you should live every day as though it's your last. That always seemed a little impractical to me. But when my brother died, I felt like I had missed my chance. Life could never be the same again. Part of me was already dead. I had always understood death intellectually, but now I felt it at a visceral level, and that's completely different. Death was inside of me now. 

Steve was 33 when he died, and I was 27. Statistically, there does not appear to be much of a genetic component to pancreatic cancer, but still, I worried. How much longer do I have? Could there be a tumor growing inside of me at this very moment? 

These doubts led to an interesting question. What would I do if I had only six year left to live? 

You can live a lot in six years, but you can just as easily waste six years doing things that don't really matter. I wanted to make the most of whatever time I had left. At first I thought that meant pursuing some audacious goal, like curing cancer, but over time I learned that it simply meant being mindful of how I'm living my life. The question evolved. It may not be six years. I could die at any moment.

Is this how I want to spend the rest of my life?

The answers can be surprising. Cleaning the kitchen is relaxing, and it creates a pleasant and healthy space for my family and friends to gather. Not a bad way to live. But sitting in a windowless conference room while people I don't really love debate things that I don't really care about? No, that's not how I want to spend my life. Of course others may find meaning in that. It's very much a personal decision.

Death strips away everything that doesn't matter. It's incredibly painful, but it also brings a kind of clarity. People matter. Everything else is noise. Several months after Steve died, we made a big life decision. It was time to have kids. 

The pregnancy went smoothly. My wife, April, seemed so happy that she glowed. I was almost envious of her. She was experiencing a kind of closeness that I never could. We were taking the opportunity to go on a couple of final vacations before the baby arrived. Then, around midnight, she started to bleed. We were in a small town in northern New Mexico. We went to the local hospital, then waited while they called for a doctor to come in (there weren't any there that night). The doctor immediately saw that she was in labor, and said that if there was any chance of saving the baby, my wife would need to be airlifted to Albuquerque.

The doctor also remarked that I seemed unusually calm. I didn't bother to tell him that I was still processing my brother's death, and that this seemed relatively small in comparison. I had never met the baby. April didn't even look that pregnant. I was a little surprised to hear that survival was even a possibility.

There was no room for me on the helicopter, so I had to drive several hours through the night, alone, not having any idea what I would find when I arrived at the hospital.

The nurses took me in to see the baby. There she was, 1 pound and 10 ounces, on a ventilator, her eyelids still fused, born 100 days early. But I felt her energy. She was a little ball of fire. The attachment came on like I never could have imagined.

The doctors said it was still too early to know if she would survive or not. Every time we saw her, and every time we left, we knew that it may very well be the last time we ever see our daughter alive. I never knew what it meant to live every day as though it's my last, but suddenly I was living every day as though it might be her last.

I finally understood the meaning of unconditional love. This little person couldn't even breathe on her own. She may not survive the day. The future was more terrifying than hopeful. All we had was now. All we could do was to love her, and to expect nothing in return.

A few days after she was born, the doctors did a head ultrasound to make sure everything was ok. The results were not what we had hoped for. There was bleeding in her brain. The doctors said that if she survived, she would most likely be disabled. The next week I noticed a disturbing trend in her charts -- her head was growing too fast. The bleeding in her head caused hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid in the brain. She would need brain surgery. 

The following months were the most terrifying ride I have ever experienced. The complications kept having complications. First she had to be flown to San Francisco, because there are no pediatric neurosurgeons in New Mexico. Then she had surgery. Then more surgery. Eventually she came off the ventilator. Then she got meningitis and stopped breathing. Then more surgery.

The hole was deeper than I ever could have imagined. Sometimes, the fear and darkness were unbearable. It felt like death would have been easier. It was all I could do to breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. The future was too terrifying to imagine. The past was a reminder of all that I had lost, a life of hope and joy. But most moments, on their own, were ok. I could sit in the hospital and hold my baby. I could appreciate every moment with her. I could love her unconditionally. We were together, for now, and we were both breathing. 

Eventually she was well enough to go home. The first year was very difficult, but in time she grew strong, and today she is a healthy, beautiful, and fiery seven year old girl. Every day, her presence is a reminder of what truly matters.

In every tragedy, there is a gift, if we are able to see and accept it. From my brother, I received a personal understanding of death, and a constant reminder to live my life as though it may end at any moment. From my daughter, I learned what it means to love unconditionally, without expecting anything in return, a true gift.

These gifts were delivered at great cost, but still I often struggle to retain them. Life gets busy, and I forget what matters. But the reminders are all around us, if only we can open our eyes.

When our lives are smashed to bits, and it feels like the ground has disappeared from under us, we look for guidance, for our North Star, for a light that can provide meaning and direction to what remains of our life.

For me, this light lies in unconditional love. This is something that I wish to remember not only at an intellectual level, but at a more visceral level as well. I want to feel truth.

So I made a simple story, a fable. Stories are powerful because they engage our imagination, bringing abstract concepts to life inside of us. This one uses the familiar characters of God and the Devil, but you needn't believe in anything supernatural to understand it.

Long ago, the Devil boasted that he could easily gather more followers than God. God's way of gathering followers was simple: give everyone Unconditional Love and Forgiveness, nothing more and nothing less. Naturally the Devil was more devious. He knew that most people would not knowingly follow the Devil, so his plan was to lie and claim that he was the One True God, promise his followers a great reward in the afterlife, and threaten that those who didn't worship him would be sent to hell when they died. God was betting on Love, but the Devil believed that Greed and Fear are stronger than Love, and therefore even good people could be tricked into following him.

The God of Unconditional Love and Forgiveness brings union through love. The false Gods bring division through fear and greed. If a God promises to reward you with 72 virgins in paradise in exchange for flying an airplane into a building, it's a false God (or a false image of God, if you prefer). If a God threatens to send you to hell for loving the wrong person, it's a false God. If a God tells you to coerce people into worshiping him, it's a false God. If a God promises protection in exchange for doing his bidding, it's a false God.

Genuine, unconditional love is a gift that must be freely given and freely accepted, with nothing expected in return. Love can not be delivered at gun point, or with the threat of eternal damnation.

In this winter of fear, suffering, and division, the God of Unconditional Love gives comfort and direction. His spirit is reborn in our hearts when we give the gift of unconditional love and forgiveness to others and, most urgently, to ourselves.