It had been a stressful day, and it was getting late. I knew I should try to get some sleep, but I had that sort of tired-but-wired feeling that stressful days sometimes bring on. Should I close the drapes? No. Privacy be damned; it might be nice to gaze out into that meter-square patch of rich, dark emptiness – should I ending up lying awake, that is. And maybe I’ll see the moon pass by! That would be nice.
It was still Sunday. Just a few days prior I’d felt an uncharacteristic anxiety wash over me, prompting me to reach for my wife’s blood pressure monitor. Yes, it was high enough to be concerning. I’ll call for an appointment on Monday, I thought. In the meantime, I would dial way back on the caffeine, eat healthy food, and stay away from any salt. It worked, for a time. The next couple of days saw my numbers move solidly in the right direction. Then came Sunday morning, Easter Sunday, when my first reading of the day fell into “Get thee to an emergency room now!” range. So that’s where my wife and I went.
Darla stayed with me all afternoon as the doctors and nurses swirled around me – checking me for a stroke, asking questions, drawing blood, and wheeling me away for x-rays and scans. But then I was alone, save for the nurses who randomly popped in to check on me. It was then that it began to dawn on me that I’d entered a sort of bardo realm – that place in between death and rebirth spoken of in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
I had been a healthy person. But what was I now? I’d been an athlete. But what was I now? I’d enjoyed my sense of physical agency. But would I again? Would they be able to stabilize my blood pressure? How long would that take? Might there be some more dire underlying cause that tests had not yet revealed? And what if I ended up having a stroke even now?
There were ruminations and reevaluations of the past as well. Apparently that malaise that I’d been feeling, which I’d thought must be what everyone was feeling after being stuck in a bardo realm of pandemic stress, was actually the onset of this hypertensive state. Those mild headaches were probably not dehydration after all. And apparently that increased need for sleep was not simply due to fatigue from the increased level of concentration required of remote work.
I was strangely calm, though, as these questions and thoughts just kind of meandered through my consciousness. Even the possibility of death seemed rather ordinary. Yes, this could be exactly what it looks like. Why would I think it should happen with so much fanfare? And so the minutes of the clock hanging right in front of my face clicked past. I slept a bit. I greeted the nurses who came in to check on me, trying to remember to put on my mask when they did. I made small talk. It was all even more ordinary for them.
Around 5:00 a.m. the next morning, I watched the moon peek over the roofline across the way. Its waning crescent floated slowly up into my meter-square window, and on up into the sky. I was reminded of Ryokan’s famous poem, inspired after discovering that a thief had ransacked his meager hermitage:
The thief left it behind –
At the window.
Everything can be taken from us – our possessions, our loved ones, our way of life, our health. As long as we’re alive, though, we can still know wonder, beauty, love, and gratitude. And as we say our last goodbyes, that too will be ordinary – as ordinary as the moon rising up past the window of our room.
Postcript: Please take care of yourselves. Please see a doctor if you are privileged, as I am, to be able to do so. Please don’t think yourself too strong and robust to be harboring a potential time bomb of a health issue. Please take care of your loved ones. And please enjoy every ordinary moment. Enjoy every sandwich, as Warren Zevon said. So much of life is so very ordinary. And death is ordinary too.
Translation of Ryokan poem by John Stevens as it appears in One Road, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan
Photo of waning crescent moon courtesy of Jérôme Salez via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lune_du_19_12_2011.jpg
Copyright 2021 by Mark Robert Frank