The TMV article posted today “What happens to Our Consciousness when we Die” got me thinking about my own experiences being with people who die and what meanings I take out of that experience. As we go about our daily lives, grumbling about traffic or some slight we received from a coworker, it is important to keep things in perspective. To start putting our daily lives in proper perspective, I give you this: Nick’s video. It tells the story of a boy named Nick. He was born without arms or legs and faced a very difficult childhood. It is a story that affects me profoundly since I identify so strongly with his life.
Nick faced odds that made my personal struggles with disability seem puny. Like Nick, I faced bullies and people who ignored or avoided me because I was different. Even though I spent a little over 3,000 days in a hospital as a youth, I was able to eventually learn to walk and even throw a baseball, activities beyond Nick’s physical abilities. Yet we are all born with Gifts and how we use those gifts will determine how our lives turn out.
Like Nick I blamed G-d for making me disabled and different. I wanted to be “normal” in the worst way. As a child I did not understand what I did wrong so that G-d gave me polio. I was not alone in this feeling since I grew up surrounded by other polio kids who felt the same way, because I essentially lived in a polio hospital. Yet even as a child I sensed a spark in my inner being that I began to nurture. As a child living in a polio hospital during the worst of the polio epidemics, I was surrounded by children who were either learning to live or coming to peace with their dying by giving up the struggle. As the video illustrates, Nick tried to commit suicide at age 10 because the future looked so bleak. In the polio epidemics, many kids did the same thing by giving up the will to live.
The inner spark that was given to me led me, even at age 9, to try to talk kids into believing in their future – in effect to “Hold On” it will get better. As I held on to a dying boy’s hand, the words I always used were “hold on”. Years later there was a song, by REM, that captures the essence of what became my mantra in nocturnal visits to dying children. Deaths in the daytime were rare because there was always activity and noise that keep one’s attention. But at night, when all is quiet, the mind can take you places that should be avoided.
The greatest single piece of advice I ever got in my life was from my piano teacher. I was 12 years old and at a piano lesson playing some piece of music and I suddenly burst into heaping sobs of tears yelling “G-d damn G-d”. Joan, my piano teacher grabbed me by the shoulders and said “look at me, look at me”. She then told me to stop wasting my time and my life thinking about the things I could not do, but concentrate and build on the things I could do”. In that very moment, my Life made more sense.
There is a niche in life for everyone who is born and each of us is provided with the Gifts that are important to that niche. We all can’t be famous and we all can’t be incredibly wealthy but everyone’s life is important. Our world is one huge mass of interconnections and each of us performs an important function of being at the right place at the right time so the interconnections of life function properly. A life might be starting and building a solid and enriching family. Such a life might appear to be simple and insignificant on the surface. But as a result of a positive family life perhaps a child or a grandchild might be the one to discover a cure for cancer or the first to build a quantum computer. As you sit back and examine your life, remember your Gifts, because what you do and how you did it is very important. We as individuals may never know or ever understand that our role is an important piece in ensuring that this grand experience G-d gave us called Life on Earth works well.
What those polio kids could have accomplished in Life is something no one will ever know. Some were severely disabled and could not survive away from a ventilator. Most of them I did not know, or even know their names. But one thing I do know from holding their hands as they died, at the very moment of death I sensed an absolutely profound sense of loss. Not a personal loss but an important loss to future. Some part of future life will not work as it should because this one life is gone. The sensing of death is so strong, it’s like getting hit in the face by the Life force just leaving. Death in an older person is entirely different than a life lost early. When my 94 year mother died it felt not only okay but absolutely right in the greater concept of Life.
Like many of you I will never know if I used my Gifts properly, but at least I am aware that it is something worth attending to every day of my life. Like Nick, I have given motivational speeches around the country but most of my energy is spent with my students – helping them to grow up strong and steady – which is much more important than the music we are making. The old adage “In Life what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” is absolutely true and should always be kept in mind. This is the subject of a book I am writing, titled “The Gift”, passing along some of the secrets of a life lived well, all due to the Gift from G-d.