I could not

Hacklermark
10 min readOct 12, 2020

I had a bad morning, and in this long post I air some grievances, all personal. I work through bad mornings and even whole days by writing and meditation, but meditation wasn’t working for me this morning, so I wrote.

(If confessional essays aren’t your cup of tea, you may want to skip this one.)

The story included below came from Marie Schwab Miller, who writes a daily must-read Facebook post with updates on COVID-19’s spread, treatment, and vaccines, along with a discussion of our evolving understanding of the coronavirus. Dr. Miller usually ends her update with an inspiring story to leaven the unremitting horror of the pandemic. This story is about a young man named Brady, whose life was dramatically and forever altered by an accident.

Bear with me, we’ll get to his story.

I have COPD. I’m on oxygen 24/7 and, although I can walk short distances while pulling an oxygen tank behind me, I’m far from mobile. Much of ordinary day-to-day stuff is beyond me. It’s a struggle to cook, so I mostly don’t, relying on my wife and daughters. Taking a shower is a challenge, and I can’t talk on the phone for more than three or four minutes without running out of breath.

Getting up in the morning is a particular challenge. Lying on my side at night seems to compress my lungs, so they don’t function very well when I first get up (I can’t breathe properly if I sleep on my back, even though I have a bed that elevates my head and torso). So, when I first wake up, I can’t breathe, I’m cold (no body fat), and I need to go to the bathroom — each one an urgent need.

I have various stratagems to deal with these issues. I move my nebulizer machine (for breathing treatment) and vial of medication onto a table next to my bed. I also have a plastic urinal, the kind you get at the hospital, within reach. I would need to connect to a portable oxygen tank to walk to the bathroom, but my lungs won’t allow me to do that first thing in the morning. My clothes are on a chair at my bedside, so I don’t have to walk anywhere, or bend over (a real killer for me), to get dressed.

This morning I psyched myself up a bit, then swung my legs over the side of the bed to sit up. After a few deep breaths, I started my breathing treatment. But after a minute or two, I needed the urinal, so I stopped and took care of that. I resumed the breathing treatment for a few more minutes (each treatment requires about 15 minutes). By then, though, I was really cold, so I paused the breathing treatment again to get dressed. After a few deep breaths to slow my breathing from the exertion, I resumed nebulizing until the treatment was over. My mouth was dry, so I drank some of the tea I saved from the night before (I don’t like water).

Once I accomplished all of that, I stood up and moved my equipment and tea cup to the table beside the easy chair where I spend most of my days, then I walked two feet and sat down. Next to the chair are three small tables with my breathing equipment, some nonperishable breakfast foods, my other medications, and my laptop.

Once I catch my breath, I usually mediate for 20 minutes, but today I could not, at least not immediately.

The Buddha teaches us to practice living in the present moment, to let go of yesterday’s troubles because we can’t do anything about yesterday. We shouldn’t worry about tomorrow’s problems either, because tomorrow has not yet arrived — and may never arrive. This is not to say that we can’t plan future events, but that we shouldn’t overwhelm ourselves with incapacitating fears of what might be — because they might not be. Tomorrow’s worries will come soon enough, so it’s not useful to weigh down our present with them.

That leaves me in a bind, because what I do in the present in my big easy chair is review the past to create posts about history, which I schedule the day before for a group site, and then add to my own Facebook page first thing in the morning. Then I look at tomorrow’s history to make posts for the next day. After that, I plunge into a barrage of daily news and analysis pieces, which sometimes spawn essays of my own.

But the history has been rather grim over the past several days — the Holocaust, wars, nuclear weapons, environmental catastrophe, and dishonored treaties. So in my present I’m dealing with past sorrows and future sorrows (future history posts), along with the immediate sorrows of today that gush through my news feed: COVID-19 deaths, war in the Balkans, starvation in Yemen, and reckless, dangerous behavior by the president. I live two blocks from a Level II trauma center, and I heard the Flight for Life helicopter land this morning. Another tragedy that might or might not be ameliorated by skilled doctors and nurses.

I sat in my chair with all of this whirling in my mind. My lungs hurt and my respiration rate was higher than normal. What is the point of all this? The republic is failing, and I can’t be in the streets actively resisting; I can’t march with a sign around the White House. I voted by absentee ballot from my big easy chair, I help moderate a history group, and I post articles on Facebook and Medium. So what?

And I hurt.

“They also serve who only stand and wait” wrote John Milton in Sonnet 19, frustrated that he went blind before he created the poem that he thought he was meant to write. What now? he must have been thinking. What now? Well, with a lot of help (some of it grudgingly given) he did find the discipline to write that poem and more. We know them as Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes (a favorite of mine). Samson, the once-mighty warrior, complained bitterly as a blinded prisoner of the Philistines that he was “eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves.” What now?

I can sympathize with John Milton and Samson. I know their feelings. But Mr. Milton wrote his poetry and Samson, exerting superhuman strength, took his revenge on the Philistine elite. I’m in an easy chair posting articles.

I know that some people appreciate what I post, and I’m grateful for that, but compared to the effort required over the next few months to save our republic, I’m offering pretty small beer.

So this morning I wasn’t content or living in the present; I was awash in tragic history and news reports. I was feeling less than useful, because even my day-to-day existence requires the assistance of others (who, I’ll note, help me with complaint). My lungs hurt and breathing was less than easy. My day would revolve around breathing treatments and a mostly unsuccessful attempt to eat a large number of calories (I even fail at eating!), then breathless and sometimes painful preparations for bed. Every day like the one before and the one to come.

I could not meditate. I could not.

Then I read the story of Brady Sprik, as recounted by Marie Schwab Miller.

***

“Senior Brady Sprik of Platte-Geddes High School was clearly destined for sports achievement from an early age. A gifted athlete, he played wherever his baseball team needed him — catcher, pitcher, third base. Like many small-town kids, he played more than one sport, also appearing on the football roster; so it doesn’t seem like a big deal when he carried the ball a couple of yards across the goal line last night in a 42–6 victory over the Gregory Gorillas. Except that it was. A really big deal.

“You see, Brady hasn’t put on the pads since his freshman year. Or stepped on the baseball field. Or actually done much stepping at all, not since the vehicle accident in 2017 that left him paralyzed from the mid-chest down. But he was on his feet last night, and he did, with some assistance from two teammates, carry the ball two whole yards into the end zone where he was greeted and cheered by his teammates — and by their very classy opponents. The coaching staffs had discussed the play beforehand, and so Brady had his touchdown.

“There’s a lot to like about this story. After his accident, while Sprik was in a rehabilitation hospital in Denver for a 30-day stay, all his insurance company would reimburse, his parents faced the need to make their home wheelchair- accessible before the 30 days was over. The doctors were saying movement could come back after six months or maybe a year. Or maybe never. When his parents told his physical therapist they were having construction updates done on their two-car garage to meet his needs, the therapist said, ‘There is no way they can do that much work in the time frame that you will be with us. Maybe you should come up with some alternative plans.’ Clearly, the therapist had no idea who she was dealing with. Brady’s mom said as much. ‘I looked at her and said you don’t know where we live, and our community proved that statement true in everything that they did for us.’

“The town of Platte went to work fixing the problem. Brady and his brother had worked summer jobs for construction companies in town and the local lumberyard, so folks who knew them set to work drawing up plans and putting together a team of workers. The community donated materials, money, labor; and they made things happen. The garage became a bedroom for Brady, a bedroom for his parents so they could be close by, and a living room. And just to top things off, they built a one-car garage to replace the old one. The heating and air-conditioning, the plumbing, the construction and finishing, were all donated by community members. At one point there were between eight and ten people working all at once to have things ready for Brady’s return home. And they got it done.

“Meanwhile, he’s been formidable in rehabilitation. He shies away from nothing, spending countless hours sweating and straining to stand ten seconds longer, to push himself over the next obstacle. And so, on a Friday night in October of his senior year, Brady Sprik wheeled himself out onto the football field during a timeout, raised himself from the chair, accepted a hand-off from his quarterback, and carried the ball two yards for a touchdown. Turns out that short yardage can be the most hard-fought of all. A great sports achievement, indeed. The kid fulfilled all that early promise.”

***

I know without pondering at all that Brady Sprik faces more challenges than I do. First, because he’s young and will live with his injuries and frustrations far longer than I have or will. Second, he is disabled more profoundly than I am. I can walk and only rarely use a wheelchair. I can sit down and stand up and get dressed without assistance. I can, if absolutely required, slowly and in stages, cook a simple meal. I’m grateful for that.

Brady will have to recalibrate his life and dream new dreams. Everything he thought he was going to do is gone. Yet, he is recalibrating, willingly and with immense physical effort.

So what? Well, there are in fact a few things I’d still like to do, all involving reading and writing. I can continue to be a “voice crying in the wilderness” (which is how I view many of my posts) and work on these other projects. And if my posts have motivated even one person to consider marching in the streets, I’ll consider that a job well done.

And Brady’s story reminds me that the world isn’t all about me. There will be people who step up, as the people in the town of Platte did for Brady. Mr. Trump will be confronted and stymied without my body in the street. I’m immensely grateful to the nameless people who, en masse, will save the republic.

Simone Weil once wrote that “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” I have a small community that I’m rooted in, and for now that’s enough to get me out of bed every morning. It is enough because it’s the reality of what I have left to me. No striving, no attachment, just acceptance.

And Buddhism offers examples of meditation as action. Tārā, a female bodhisattva of compassion, who lived in another time and on another planet, meditated for 10 million years. The power of her practice released tens of millions of beings from suffering. I’m not that powerful, and I certainly won’t last 10 million years, but I can meditate with compassion in the hope of the easing the suffering of others.

I thought of a poem that Jane Hirshfield wrote, The Weighing, that captured some of what I was feeling, so I looked it up.

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.

As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

I took a few centering breaths, and then I was able to meditate in the spirit of the Buddha.

A famous story from the life of the Buddha.

(From The Buddha: His Life and Teaching, by Piyadassi Thera ).

“In the evening after Sujata’s lovely meal, Gotama went to Gaya and looked for a suitable place to sit down and meditate. He found a banyan tree and sat on its east side, the side that was believed to be stable and free from trembles and quakes. After sitting cross-legged with his back towards the tree, he made this resolution: ‘Though my skin, my nerves and my bones shall waste away and my life blood go dry, I will not leave this seat until I have attained the highest wisdom, called supreme enlightenment, that leads to everlasting happiness.’

“He meditated on his breathing in and breathing out. It was the eve of the full moon. During the first part of the night many evil thoughts, described as being like the evil god Mara and his army, crept into his mind. Thoughts of desire, craving, fear and attachment arose, yet Gotama did not allow these thoughts to disturb his concentration. He sat more firm than ever. He began to feel calm and brave as he let these thoughts go and so, in the first part of the night, he found the power of seeing his own past lives.

“In the second part of the night Gotama realised the impermanence of life and how living beings die only to be reborn again. In the third part of the night he realised the cause of all evil and suffering and how to be released from it. He understood how to end sorrow, unhappiness, suffering, old age and death.”

Namasté, I bow to the divine in you.

And with Francis of Assisi, I wish you Pace e bene, Peace and All Good.

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