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Time and again, people of the cloth love to finger-waggingly remind us (as though we needed reminding) that we enter this world with nothing and we depart this world with nothing. But what about the time and space between the two nothings? What are we to do with a lifetime of accumulating hard assets and harder experience?
Lawyers offer us last wills and testaments; scientists offer theories and statistics; the clergy offer prayer. All to little or no avail. Life continues to be a daily craps game. Man plans and God laughs. Only one thing is certain: Something totally random is bound to occur and, for sure, the dice ain’t gonna come up lucky 7.
In my case the craps game came to an abrupt halt one Sunday in August last year. The cause: a mosquito bite – unseen, unheard, unfelt – that left me with a life-threatening case of West Nile virus.
I survived (no, this piece is not written posthumously). Unfortunately, however, my ability to render a full account of what followed that might be of service to modern medicine is hindered by the fact I was comatose during the crucial first couple of weeks of the three months and two days I spent in hospitals.
Family and friends, knowing this, nevertheless have urged me to write of this experience, arguing that whatever I recall might be instructive because of the rarity, while at the same time helping me make some sense of it for my own benefit. If nothing more, they insist, it may make clear the reasons for my ongoing recovery.
Take, for example, the matter of genes. “You must have inherited good genes,” people tell me. Good genes? Me? My mother died at the age of 34 of what was, back in the mid-1930s, incurable kidney failure. My father, who would have captured gold at the Olympics if smoking were a competitive sport, died of lung cancer at 69. True, my maternal grandfather, a long-time resident of Winnipeg, lived to almost 101, but genes in Manitoba’s capital tend to stay frozen solid year-round. No way could a single one of them have come loose and drifted as far as Sault Ste. Marie at the time of my birth there 85 years ago.
So “good genes” is out.
“You must have been a good fighter,” some people suggest. That’s doubtful. How can a person who is unconscious be a good fighter? Besides, good fighting requires a history of regular physical exercise and athletic activity, all of which I had managed successfully to avoid, as one avoids syphilis and all 500 concertos of Antonio Vivaldi, throughout my life. As for the prospect of mortality, it’s a “given” that I have always faced with unconcealed cowardice. The “courageous battles” newspaper obituaries lie about will never be reported about me.
A good fighter? Not a chance.
Some say I was lucky. All right, let’s consider luck. With apologies to Rick in Casablanca, of all the bodies in all the world, this mosquito had to land on mine. You call that luck? The insect – not I – is the one that played craps and won.
Finally, people tell me that, in order to survive, I must have had faith, an idea I rejected instantly with a dismissive “Yeah, right!” – that is, until I thought about it. Then I decided that, yes, I did have faith after all: faith in a battalion of dedicated nurses, doctors, occupational therapists, speech and cognitive therapists, physiotherapists, dietitians, orderlies and lab technicians. These people taught me how faith works.
Faith is a process of abandoning.
First, you abandon Pride. You quickly accept the idea that your body is really just a hunk of meat with convenient apertures (some natural, some man-made) through which numerous plastic tubes can deliver good stuff or extract bad stuff.
Modesty – or Privacy, if you prefer – is next to go. This became essential when, one morning, I was unable to give myself a shower and was obliged to submit, in a state of complete nudity, to being showered by a comely 19-year-old nursing student. I prayed my body would behave itself. (It did.)
Embarrassment, too, must be stored for the duration. Your body refuses to abide by rules drummed into you in early childhood. Every time you press the button by your bed to summon help, you appreciate something that, as a two-year-old, you couldn’t possibly have understood: The role of a caregiver is as close to messianic as a human being can get.
Say farewell also to Tastebuds, which, without your express consent, have gone on an extended leave of absence. After weeks on a feeding tube, I was deemed ready for my first real meal. This turned out to be spaghetti Bolognese with side orders of squash and mashed broccoli – a combination which, if served in Rome, would bring down the government of Italy (yet again!).
So all these things were jettisoned, thrown overboard to lighten my distress and heighten my faith. And after 53 days at St. Michael’s Hospital, followed by 42 days at Bridgepoint rehabilitation hospital, look at me: I can walk a 40-foot straight line frontwards, sideways and backwards!
I must mention my family and friends again. They are the ones who had faith, the kind the people of the cloth preach about. Thank God!
Morley Torgov lives in Toronto.