Twenty years ago this morning I awoke in an ICU ward in Fairfax Hospital. The night before I had had two nineteen-inch titanium rods screwed to my back because that afternoon a building I was taking down collapsed– pinning me beneath it. My broken back had to be stabilized, thus the rods.
I remember a little of that morning: Seeing through the fog of morphine a friend who had flown on a red eye from California to see me; The ICU nurse’s long, black, curly hair that fell over my face when she leaned in to ask me a question; My body still carrying the dust and dirt from the collapsed building; My family huddled in fear and worry; But not much more. Snippets in memory that may or may not be accurate run together with what I know to be true. But what I know to be absolute is that that morning and many after it held doubt and fear and dread until I, as Mary Oliver writes, realized.
Like the narrator in her poem, The Journey, I realized one morning or at one moment or with a particular encounter that it was time—time for me to expel all the bad that I had allowed to enter into my life. I realized that at times during those four years, my dark time, I ignored what I knew to be the truth and allowed the voices to continue tugging at “my ankles.” But as Oliver writes, “One day you finally knew/what you had to do, and began,…” And like most beginnings, mine was full of slow progress, but “Little by little” I improved, and I eventually left the “Old man” that Paul writes about behind. But like all journeys, mine was not just me placing a foot in front of another. I had begun journeying, but I was not walking alone.
After I set aside the leeches in my life, I was able to reckon myself and take an honest sounding. This sounds selfish, but when you find yourself so miserable that the only option seems to be to continue your denial or to admit that you have been at the bottom of a dark hole, digging and digging, all the while wondering why you cannot escape and see the sunlight and feel its warmth, it is then that you set aside the shovel those takers had given you and deeply consider where you are. Finally able to lean the shovel against the hole’s side, I began to stop going down and began to move up, ever so slowly. It was on that going upward that I saw my true friends and learned to allow them to help me.
One of the best advantages of any journey is the people you will encounter. You will meet them in unlikely places and in unusual circumstances. Because your journey is one of renewal, you will move slowly, so you will see and hear more. While your journey may not be one of steps, you will still discover that your frantic pace to satisfy others has ceased, and you now see and hear what you had not experienced before. The ground you are travelling over becomes a sharing place for you to hear the stories of others, to smell the air of an autumn day, to feel the sun’s warmth through a window, to hear a child’s laughter, and more. You are alive.
My journey continues because of family and friends. While I could list all of them, there is no need to because they each know what they did to help me as I finally leaned the shovel against the hole’s wall. The hole, by the way, is still there, however, and it will never go away. It is a reminder of life’s danger, but I have learned to accept its existence and walk around it.
When measured in years, twenty is many. But when measured as a journey, it is short. Therefore, wherever you are on your journey, enjoy each step that brings more people to share it. They are the balm for your sore and tired feet.