August 4, 2009

I think I'm Turning Japanese.... (Maple)

This past year and a half has made me consider and face my own mortality. Due to this lovely economy I've had way too much time on my hands to think about things I'd rather not think about. Fourteen months ago my wonderful friend Mario died after a long battle with cancer. It was by far the saddest thing that's ever happened to me in my life. His death effected me much more than I ever thought or expected it would. One friend commented not long ago "Just get over it". I don't know, this friendship was far too deep and too great to "just get over it". But, maybe it goes back to the issue of having too much time on my hands.
At Sloan Kettering (his hospital) they have this large ICU unit with glass sliding doors that make it possible to peer in on the other patients. It was obviously done for monitoring reasons but I think it's a bit intrusive to those on the inside and disturbing to those on the outside. Besides the doctors, everyone else can see what goes on in those rooms unless they hit a button making the glass opaque, which, from what I witnessed, they don't bother to due very often. Many times I would see people lying in bed for days and then suddenly they wouldn't be there. Were they released? Did they die? Were they transferred to the floors below and taken out of intensive care? One day I was in the small ICU waiting room while they were giving Mario a bath or doing some procedure and a large family was in there with me. They were all very quiet and most were looking down at the floor nervously rubbing their hands together. You could cut the tension with a knife and I just knew that any moment a major shit-storm was about to happen.. And I was right. About a minute later an exhausted looking woman with swollen eyes in her 50s said something terse and an equally fatigued looking man in his 50s responded by flying into a rage, screaming at the top of his lungs about something I can't remember. In any other situation this would have made me incredibly uncomfortable but somehow in such a stressful place as an ICU waiting room it seemed almost normal, or at least expected. These people were obviously going through a horrific ordeal and their emotions were raw. They were both at the brink of a major breakdown. I tried not to listen and eventually the 20 minutes I was told to wait were up and I went back to Mario's room. Later that night I saw the man in the elevator and I said something to break the uncomfortable silence.
"Not a happy place eh?"
"Tell me about it."
"My best friend is in ICU. He has lymphoma."
"My son is there too. Same thing. We've been in and out of this hospital off and on for with him for the past 17 years. He's had 2 stem cell transplants and countless procedures. He's not doing very well this time. It doesn't look very good."
I gave him that "I'm so sorry" look and then looked down.
Thankfully the elevator stopped at the ground floor ending any further conversation and we smiled at each other and exchanged, "Well [very long pause] good luck with everything".
The next day I was with Mario and I glanced into the next room where I saw that same man and woman in a circle along with other people all looking down at someone lying in the bed covered in tubes, machinery and things a person shouldn't be covered with. I didn't mention to Mario the fight nor the conversation in the elevator. The following day I went to visit him again and the room was empty, waiting for whomever was next to occupy it. Even though I knew the answer I asked his nurse.
"Where is the kid that was in there yesterday?"
"He died. He fought a long battle but his organs finally failed from all the years of treatments."
I suddenly felt horribly sad. For the kid, for the family. The only good that will come from this is the end of that overwhelming tension. Finality to that horrible situation. I went back into Mario's room acting all chipper, smiling and joking and acting as if I hadn't seen or heard anything.
So where was I going with this... Oh yeah, I started thinking about death and being alive one day and gone the next. Then I remembered seeing this guy on TV who went to Alaska to study grizzly bears. The ones who stand in the river and catch the salmon as they swim upstream. This scientist walked along the banks of the river strewn with half eaten carcasses of the migrating salmon and he couldn't help but notice how lush the vegetation was. He clipped off some of the leaves and took them back to the lab to analyze. Under a microscope he discovered that the cells of the salmon had actually been absorbed by the roots, traveled up through the trunks and branches and into the leaves. Basically, the salmon had turned into leaves. I pondered this for hours. What a thought. I could be cremated and have my ashes buried under a Japanese maple. Then I too would be absorbed and eventually, in some future fall, become flaming red maple leaves blowing in the wind. I immediately pulled out my will that I had drafted years earlier and rewrote my postmortem wishes. It made me feel much better about dying. Even if there is no afterlife, no heaven or hell, no reincarnation. I could become a Japanese maple. And that actually sounds pretty cool to me.

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