Tomorrow, March 13, I turn 55. Not a huge milestone, but it makes me eligible for a number of ‘senior’ discounts, and to move into the trailer park down the hill. It also means that likely I’m pretty well into the second half of my life. The coming birthday has also led to reflective moments in the middle of the night.
Last night I had one of those episodes. I came to the realization I’m living on borrowed time. Not in the sense that some grave illness has struck me, or that I sense a fatal accident in the near future. Rather, I recognize that I’m lucky to be here, now. I’m already in the bonus round, getting the gravy, insert the metaphor of your choosing here. I suspect that’s true for most of us by the time we get to, say, forty at the latest.
My childhood was filled with health challenges, and some exposure to mortality. I had a classmate die of appendicitis in second grade. That same year, I nearly died from a misdiagnosed staph infection in my nose. The infection devoured the cartilage in my nose before my mother and father realized the doc treating me was incompetent in this instance, and went around him to an outstanding Ear, Nose and Throat doc. Dr. L. Ashby Adams insisted I be admitted immediately to the hospital, and within hours he lanced the boil, preventing the infection from spreading to the brain. (I was far from Dr. Adams’ most famous case, though. Having just recalled his name, I Googled him; he gets credit in the 1964 update of Thayer’s “Life Of Beethoven,” for providing medical analysis of the likelihood of a typhus infection as the cause of the great composer’s deafness.) Years later, here in Bellingham, Dr. Emil Hecht did a great job of reconstruction.
In third grade, we moved to the house in which my mother still resides. Our first full day in the house, my siblings and I were already making friends with neighbor kids, and the whole gang headed across the street on bikes to a lemonade stand. Having to tie my shoes, I trailed the others by 30 seconds or so. Without looking, I rode straight into the street, and was struck by a car. I came to in the back seat of the automobile, a middle-aged black man looking very worried, and asking if I was okay. This was 1965, in lily white New Jersey suburbia. My parents got our home cheap, because the white shoe salesman who had previously owned it was offended when a black Ph.D research chemist bought the house next door. The driver who struck me probably felt like he used one of his lives that day, too. Fortunately, my mom knew where the blame lay. On a positive note, it also allowed her to expedite meeting the neighbors. A trip to the hospital produced x-rays confirming I had a hard head, and was okay, though the bike was destroyed. Later that year, I had a week-plus bout of pneumonia.
I’ve had other close calls in the ensuing years. I had all my hair–which was more plentiful and longer than it is today–stand on end on Mount Baker’s Heliotrope Ridge, as a charge built up in advance of a lightning storm. I glissaded down close to 1,000 feet in maybe 90 seconds, barely beating the storm. Fishing in Alaska brought many close calls, more, I am certain, than I am aware of. These close encounters are not unique to me. All of us can see instances where we cheated death.
Now, looking back, I am grateful to be here today. Listening to the radio today, I heard an NPR/BBC story about Senad Hadzic, a Bosnian Muslim walking to this year’s hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. In a vision from God, he came to understand that he needed to walk the distance, some 3600 miles. He expects the journey to take ten months; he’s made it 600 miles, to Istanbul, thus far. While I disagree on some points of theology with Mr. Hadzic, in listening to the interview, he shared some wisdom that resonated.
“The point, my friend, is learning the meaning of ‘thank you’,” Hadzic tells the interviewer. He has found charity and generosity throughout his journey to date, from Christians and Muslims alike. When he gets to Mecca, he simply wants to offer a prayer for everyone.
Time is the most democratic of institutions. All of us have a limited time to act; to make this beautiful planet richer or poorer for our efforts; to be grateful for all that we have been given–and to share our wealth with others. The good news is, so much critical work is needed, each of us can find ways we can pitch in. What are you grateful for, and how are you going to help?