I Thought I was Dying
by David Trembley
One Saturday morning in late March, I awoke at 2:30 in the morning and believed for a moment that I was dying. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me, and I hope my explanation why will be one of the best things that ever happened to you.
In our congregation, we have a joke that is only partly a joke. Its name is “all good.” It’s a difficult notion to get your head around at first, but the pay-off is well worth the effort. All that is, is gift. All gift is good.
Specifically with that pain I was talking about, it looks like this. I awaken from a sound slumber with pain all over the place. Bottom of my jaw, diagonally from right shoulder to midsection; even my legs hurt. They are spasming, and the sweat is pouring off me in little rivers.
If I can just make it downstairs to the recliner, I think, I’ll be OK. I’ll get quiet there and wait upon God and see what there is next for me. Lots of my friends would interrupt at this point screaming, “Call 911. You ought to be in the hospital!” We’ll get to that issue in a minute, but first let’s get to the chair.
By the grace of God, I do [make it to the chair], and the first amusement is that even our cats are avoiding me. Usually when I sit in the recliner, one of them jumps onto my lap, and the other nestles between my ankles. Not this morning. Not a single meow punctuates my distress.
“Agony” might have been the right word for the first few minutes, but by the time I sit down, agony has become distress. Two things happened to effect that change. First was a wonderful bathing of peace. I realize that if I am really dying, it is perfectly OK. Not grimly or sadly OK, but profoundly so. I have had a marvelous life, and these last ten years or so have been utterly filled with gratitude and joy.
The second thing that happened is that I realized I had a fever. It raised the first suspicion that I am not having a heart attack. I get some acetaminophen, and my legs quit twitching and my sweating stops.
Since I am completely without medical expertise, I’ll leave the diagnosis for others. All I want to share is the process of recovery and what it has meant.
The next day, Sunday, I had a milder form of the attack after worship, but it was enough to cause one of the congregants to reach for his cell phone. “Don’t do it,” I said. “I don’t have enough energy to explain right now, but I will when I can.”
For eight months I have been improving. Not in a straight line but, as so often in life, in a recursive spiral. I’ve learned many things in this time; let’s settle for five.
The first I have already said. Dying is OK. My life is precious, and I am not eager to leave it. But when I do, please God, it will be with gratitude and joy. Strange as it might sound, the next four learnings seem to me as important as this one.
Drawing is good. Two weeks after that painful Saturday morning, my wife and I decided to spend Good Friday afternoon in a cemetery with our sketchbooks. The experience was so refreshing we made a standing date for every Friday afternoon. Actually, we have slipped in also two Mondays.
If you knew me better, you would understand how remarkable the preceding paragraph is. You have no doubt heard people say, “I can’t sing. I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket if you paid me. Even in church I just mouth the words.”
For “sing” substitute “draw,” and you have one of the more frustrating truths of my life. But Lo-Ann gave me a series of drawing lessons for my sixty-fifth birthday, and I made an amazing discovery. I am not hopeless. I can slow down, pay attention, look and really see, and the result is a drawing worth looking at.
In the two years between 65 and 67, I had let the drawing slide. No longer. I now believe that one of the most important things I can do every week is take out a couple of hours to draw.
The third thing I learned is that no one really needs me. I have been a helper almost all my life. One of my late mother’s favorite stories is how my kindergarten teacher confessed, “Sometimes I forget David is a child. He is so much help in the classroom that I often find myself thinking of him as a colleague.”
From kindergarten helper to teacher, pastor, surrogate father to fourteen, and now granddad to a multitude, helping is what I do – almost who I am.
No longer. The truth is that I have had my reward many times over, and the second truth is that the entire creation will somehow muddle through whether or not I am here.
No, I have not recklessly broken all my promises. I have simply become a bit more restrained and balanced. Sometimes now when the phone rings, I do not answer; and occasionally I even manage to say no.
The fourth learning is that I deserve good food. For most of my life, my relationship with food was that of a classic fat man. Feeling sad? Here, have some ice cream to feel better. Feeling happy? Good! Six slices of pizza make a perfect celebration. Lonely? Nothing like a chocolate bar for a friend. Scared? A Double Whopper with Cheese will produce all the courage you need. Angry? Blow it off with a chocolate turtle from Kopps.
No longer. I ordered the lo-cal steak with fruit yesterday at El Greco. Tonight’s supper was the third meal I have made from that purchase. I’ve lost fifty pounds or so, and I expect to lose fifty more.
Not, I hasten to add, because I am “on a diet.” I am not. Diets are about deprivation and discipline. I am now doing the same thing with food that I am doing with persons and drawing. We still like each other, but our connection now is appropriate and healthy.
The last thing I learned is that Maria will cut the grass. Indeed, my world is filled with folks who are eager to help and be my friend. Maria is our next-door neighbor. Occasionally over the years she has shoveled our snow and raked our leaves. This spring I decided I could not manage cutting the grass on the hill in our front yard, so I went to ask Maria.
“Of course,” she replied. “I’ll be glad to.” I suggested a figure as compensation, and she replied, “O no, I don’t want a job. I am your neighbor. This is what neighbors do.”
As I write these words, healing continues. I am still dying, of course, but I am now thinking I may have years left rather than minutes. Whichever it is, this I believe. It is all good. It is all gift from God, who knows me and loves me better than I know and love my own self. If you’ve read this far, perhaps you have at least a suspicion that I might be on to something. Why don’t you give the notion a chance and see? If you were to make five changes in your life in order to increase your gratitude and joy, what would they be?
And when will you begin?
To post your five changes, enter them below and post them.