Christmas in the Hospital

My wife and I watched the Peanuts Christmas Special on a tiny swiveling hospital monitor on a cold gray mechanical arm beside her bed. Occasionally we would pick up the smiling stuffed abominable snowman purchased on a whim walking through the hospital lobby. The impeccably dressed man hired to play the piano, working his way through gentle Christmas classics was up against the impossible atmosphere of a hospital. Nobody curls up for hot cocoa when someone that they love is suffering. I had driven her to the ER on the 21st and we had both expected to be back home in a couple of hours, but apparently sickness has no regard for schedules or holidays and we were both unaware of how dangerous her sickness had become.

The term affective forecasting applies to the way in which humans  imagine that they might emotionally cope with imaginary future events. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing how to cope with all of the events that will occur in a lifetime and most speculation about how we will feel when shit actually does hit the fan is utter nonsense. It’s strange how unfairly tolerable misery is when it arrives. When life becomes difficult at the wrong time there is a felt need to find a pause button or revert to slow motion as if the lack of motion will make the difficulty more bearable. The strain for slowness becomes the final flickering flame of control before it is completely extinguished.

Fortunately my wife was released on Christmas day and we managed to make the six hour drive to her family’s home outside Philadelphia. I joked that I got my wife back for Christmas. I have spent a good stretch of the vacation building elaborate castles out of blocks with my wife’s little niece only to destroy them and build another. It’s funny how willing children are to invest time in creating something only to either demolish it or move on to the next project. The enthusiasm becomes contagious and my post-wreckage go-to line became, “Hooray! Now we get to build an entirely new castle!”

I was reminded of a story that I read about Buddhists spending weeks creating an enormous sand mandala (elaborate circle-shaped image) on a beach only to erase the work after completion. The practice is intended to be a focus on the act of creating rather than the creation itself. It is a way of integrating mortality into work through the process itself.


On the way back and forth from the hospital I listened to the new Tame Impala album so that I could avoid the Christmas songs that served as an unwanted reminder of the season. Sometimes I think that I have spent the better part of my life trying to minimize pain, or fear, or risk only to discover that in trying to avoid hardship I have made my life a bit smaller in some way. So rather than picking up the pieces to build something new I just let them lay in a heap on the floor and wonder why I bothered in the first place. I’m not sure how rational it is to try show up when life is in the demolition phase. I’m not sure how rational it is to keep participating in relationships when mortality can rip people out of your hands or you could receive divorce papers for your next birthday. However I do know that predicting how you will feel or react when something goes wrong is a useless practice that hinges upon the irrationality of fear. The fear is an effort to control or maintain your life rather than to live. The latter turns out to be surprisingly more complex and rich but fear seems to be the autopilot setting. It leads me to believe that fear is method of actively living out a misunderstanding about how life works and the preciousness of relationships. The effort to mitigate or control disaster is a refusal to accept life on it’s own terms with all of it’s death, shit and leeches.

In trying to escape tragic prophesy King Laius left his son Oedipus on the side of a mountain to die, which ended up setting the tragic prophesy into motion when he survived to murder his father. Sometimes trying to extract or erase difficulty from life becomes the precise method of self sabotage.

My wife’s niece returns to the house early in the new year. I’m planning on building a new castle for her return. To build and then destroy is to openly acknowledge the frustration inherent in being alive. To build then destroy is to participate in what Camus called “Imagining Sisyphus happy”. What if the goal of the work is to reveal the joy that can be present within a brief life surrounded by people who are just as damaged and needy as yourself? Maybe it is the participation or the act of being with another in the wake of a new collapsed castle? Maybe it is a willingness to allow for something to be built in the wake of fallen pieces?

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. – 2 Corinthians 4: 8-12

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