Some years back I found myself in the month leading up to Christmas a reluctant patient at Burnaby General Hospital. I showed up at emergency in acute discomfort without a toothbrush and subsequently spent 11 days in custody, the first four fasting while various tests were undertaken to determine the seriousness of my condition.
The attending nurses looked after my needs with professionalism and care and the doctors, while at times punctually challenged, inspired confidence in the procedures being undertaken to right my badly listing body.
I did not get to know patients sharing the room, beyond recognizing the timbre and smells of their nightly exhalations and expulsions, as they changed frequently over the course of my stay. Instead I spent considerable waking time ploughing through a less than uplifting novel about a stoic Texas rancher enduring a years-long drought. I found the book by my bed and no longer remember the title but, in any case, would not recommend it as hospital reading.
Beyond the monotony and bland food, the worst moments of my stay came late at night. Emptying the fluids pumping into my system 24/7 required frequently pushing a pole in half-light past sleeping patients to a shared bathroom.
If there is a lonelier place at 3 a.m. than an institutional green hospital bathroom I have not yet encountered it. In those quiet moments with my fate still uncertain, the smudged mirror revealed a pale, frightened man coming to terms with the realization that the fix he was in was beyond the help of his mommy. Nobody would be riding to the rescue and there was nothing to do but suppress the fear and stiffen a quivering upper lip.
The bright spots of my days were the Dame’s after-work visits, on one of which she delivered relief from the West Texas drought with a book on Buddhist philosophy, a subject I had dabbled in over recent months.
When she rescued me on the 12th day she found a newly appreciative husband in a delicate emotional state. As is her practical nature, she immediately delivered me to a White Spot Restaurant where I shed a discreet tear before devouring a pre-Christmas turkey dinner that remains high on my list of memorable meals these many years later.
The purpose of this preamble is not to elicit sympathy from readers. My condition turned out to be treatable and the oft-maligned Canadian medical system served me well. Instead, I share my hospital experience to provide background for the transformation I found myself caught up in upon my release into the frenetic holiday season.
Some readers may recall watching incredulously as the curmudgeon they knew before hospitalization emerged 10 pounds lighter as a remake of Jimmy Stewart in the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, coincidentally the Dame’s favourite movie.
To suppress the anxiety eating away at the edge of my psyche during long hours staring at the bed curtain, I seized upon the simple concept at the core of Buddhist philosophy—live in the moment.
My understanding of Buddhism is at best rudimentary. It should be noted for those with even less knowledge that it is more philosophy than religion in that you can be Buddhist and also Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Jew. Paying attention to life is one of its chief tenets.
Not surprisingly, one appreciates the simplest of home conveniences after 11 days suffering bodily indignities under the control of others, however well-meaning. Walking to the fridge without a pole for a midnight snack becomes a pleasurable journey of spiritual enlightenment. Falling asleep on the couch in front of the fire a rejuvenating luxury.
But the most uplifting post-hospital moments came about through interactions with people, most of them strangers. In my euphoric state I decided that living in the moment meant being aware of the small things.
To that end, I began initiating conversations with people while doing simple transactions, like paying for gas or groceries. Instead of ending the encounter with a shrug or monosyllabic grunt I asked clerks how their Christmas was going, noting sympathetically that the demands of the season put stress on retail workers or some other nicety.
Some appeared momentarily startled, suspicious about a stranger’s concern. But they invariably responded, sharing surprising details of their lives, some joyful, some sad, some inspiring, and I quickly discovered these exchanges were mutually beneficial.
A smile and a kind word transformed clerk and customer from automatons into people.
The Dame greeted my transformation with reservation, having spent too much time with the surly cynic to buy in 100 per cent. Journalism colleagues smiled benevolently while hearing about a jubilant encounter with a mailman or waiter, no doubt noting my wraith-like post-hospital physique as they later clucked among themselves about the fragility of my mental state.
But I was walking too far off the ground to worry about non-believers. Unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, I didn’t care about Christmases past or future. There was only one Christmas on my radar screen and that was unfolding in the here and now.
I lived that holiday season enveloped in a warm glow, connecting with people in myriad ways. I also embraced the Buddhist concept of gratitude and I had a lot to be grateful for—the Dame, friends and family, home and hearth, and especially having won the birth lottery by being born Canadian.
My steps got closer to the ground as the holiday season receded and not long into the New Year I was buying gas and groceries in near silence. Meaningful human interaction, like living in the moment, requires vigilance. Next time you take a trip to the store, try concentrating completely on driving–the feel of the steering wheel, tires connecting with pavement, the road immediately outside your windshield. My bet is you won’t make it to the corner before your thoughts have drifted to an imaginary place, past or future.
Two decades later I’m looking to recapture the warmth and magic of that Christmas epiphany.
Merry Christmas people.