The Most Important Thing


The gout was painful enough to make me helpless for two months.  But, I’ve had help from my sons, friends, and an in-home health care worker, so except for that painful two months, I’ve been able to handle it cheerfully, death always keeping hidden in the shadows.

I’m a retired physician, so it’s been easy to understand what’s happening to my body.  I’d worked in hospitals my whole life and had seen it all.  Because of that, I’ve even been able to diagnose some of my conditions, sometimes even sooner and more accurately than my physicians have.

My writing has also helped.  I’m an author of several books and the translator of 44,000 verses of the poetry of Mevlana, a mystic who died in 1273 C.E. and who has provided me with a clear road map for my path to Absence, to Nothingness.  I’ve been on the path of annihiliation [fenâ], trying to get out of this jail we call earth for over 60 years.   The never-ending cycle of life and death is just a perception; I’ve experienced it.  All I pray for is non-dualistic perception.  No good, no bad, no life, no death, no beginning, no end… just Nothingness.

In response to my worsening Parkinson’s, I had an appointment with a new neurologist at Stanford sometime in May.  I had told his office about my newest book, The Sufi Path of Annihilation, so when they called in March to say I could come in “tomorrow,” I thought it was about the book.

I was excited.  A doctor who was interested…  In the waiting room, I held a copy of the book, ready to give it to him and start our discussion.  Instead, he looked in my eyes without examining my body, without talking to me about anything,   He told me I should go to the emergency room; he didn’t want to see a new patient in the emergency room, so maybe after I got out I could make another appointment.

I hardly thought my situation warranted the hospital.  We returned home.

My new story started right away.

The next night, I didn’t feel like eating, so I successfully pushed away all pleas to, “eat, you have to eat.”  I’d fasted so many days over my lifetime, what was missing one lousy dinner?

I don’t remember much about the next morning.  My son told me later that I hadn’t used my sleep apnea mask and that I didn’t get up in the middle of the night as I usually do.  I do remember I was so happy.  That’s all I remember.  I was so happy.

And then in came the police.  Poking me.  Putting me on an I.V.  I overheard them say that my glucose was 26 or 28.  They didn’t talk to me, didn’t ask me, just shook me and poked.  They ignored the fact that there were ulcers on my legs. When I cried out, “my legs,” they didn’t seem to hear me.  Their only concern seemed to be to get me to the hospital. The sirens blared.  I kept telling them that I was happy, I was okay, all this fuss wasn’t necessary.  I told them to call my primary care physician.  Maybe they didn’t hear.  In any case, they didn’t listen.  I was just another pick-up and delivery.

As I lay there, jostled around by the turns and bumps in the road, I wondered, why had my son called the police?  He told me later that he couldn’t get me to wake up and it was the paramedics, not the police he had called.  He had also spoken to several others that morning; they all agreed I belonged in the Emergency Room. After the paramedics had done their assessment, he was relieved he had called them. Otherwise, everyone agreed, a visit from Death would have been inevitable.

My son and my friend got to the emergency room before I did, but the doctors and nurses shooed them away.

It was clear:  I no longer had any control of my life.  None.  I found this bizarre.  Wasn’t I the “captain of my fate?” I kept insisting they call my primary care physician, but, unlike in my working-as-a-physican days, that is no longer done.  I was only to see hospital doctors.  I told them I was a retired physician, an author, a sufi.  They still ignored me.

I was just blood pressure such and such, blood sugar such and such.  A bunch of people kept pressing my chest and hurting my feet.  Doctors kept disappearing, only to be replaced by new ones who also disappeared. They wouldn’t give me any water, not even ice, until I had gone through two IV bags of glucose.

There were no windows in the E.R., but if there had been, I’m sure they would have been covered with bars.

I wanted to go home.  My son told me the doctors had decided I needed to stay overnight to stabilize my blood sugar.  I was too weak to fight my sentence.

And that was only the first day.  At least four times during my stay – which extended almost a week– four times I saw the green light that caused all the commotion.

Each time, the room filled up with nurses and doctors.  Someone put something metal in my mouth, and I noticed something sharp in my throat. Were they doing a tracheotomy?  Almost. Taking my vitals.  I was barely breathing, barely cognizant.  I decided the best way to stop all this was to breathe deeper and deeper.  I decided that once I got my freedom from this place, I would never leave my freedom to another person.  I had been so happy before the green light.  I always thought green light meant go.  Not in here.  Nothing is the way it’s supposed to be in here.

After the first green-light frenzy, a little nurse with a round face and pregnant belly came in for my every-two-hour check.  She suggested that my son, who was staying with me day and night, step outside for 10 minutes of fresh air.

Once we were alone, she smiled down at me, “How are you tonight?”

“I want to go home, I answered. “No one understands.  I was so happy.”

“Happy?  You came so close to leaving us.”

“I’ve been trying to leave this place my whole life.”

“You don’t mean…”

“This world is just our human perception, a splendid lie.  I wrote a book about it.”

She looked at me kindly, still smiling, skeptical.  “But life is for living.”

“The purpose of life is to reach Absence.”

She looked at me blankly.

“There’s a path to Absence.  It’s a long, long road.  I’ve died so many times on that road and every time, I was so happy.  But, every time, I’ve had to start over again. I thought this time would be different.”

She looked at me kindly again.  It was clear she was humoring me, a demented old man.

The next thing I knew, she was gone, my son was back, and a bunch of nurses were taking me back to the ICU Step Down unit, with a catheter and an IV and oxygen and I don’t know what else.

There were a couple of nurses and my son and my friend and my homecare giver who listened.  But my feet and legs hurt all the time.  The catheter hurt.  I managed to pull it out a couple of times, only to have it re-inserted. My head hurt all the time.  I hurt all over all the time.  I was too hot, too cold. I wanted out.  I told them all so.  “Get a wheelchair.  Let’s get out of here.”  Every day, all day.  “Let’s get out of here.”  Each time, there was yet another reason why this couldn’t be so.

Officially, they had assigned me a “permanent” hospital doctor, a pregnant Chinese lady.  She was my jailor.  My life depended on her and her decisions.  Even after she finally decided to let me go home, she made me wait until the nurses professionally bandaged my ulcerated legs and feet – something my home care giver was expert at doing, and he was there.  That led to one of those green-light torture sessions and a whole new list of specialists and tests and a longer, longer stay.

The one bright spot:  A hospital neurologist actually talked with me, straight talk.  He agreed that old age and the hospital system were terrible.  He explained how I had an atypical form of Parkinson’s.  He treated me like I was human.  But, he wasn’t in charge.

I was told I had been taking too many blood pressure medications, which was like committing suicide.  I told them, “It wasn’t the blood pressure that had got me in here.  It was the blood sugar.  And it’s that pregnant lady doctor that’s keeping me here.”

My perception was clear:  Old age is one period of your life when you’re not completely awake, you’re not completely dead.  Life is unpleasant, but you can’t get out of it.  They don’t let you get out.  Jailed, lock and key.

The final insult arrived on day six of my stay. Everything was normal, blood pressure, blood sugar, and my ulcerated legs and feet had been professionally dressed. But, my bowels hadn’t moved, so now the pregnant Chinese lady doctor got all messed up with that. They brought in a commode and put it right smack in the middle of the room and sat me on top of it. I still couldn’t get anything to work, so they brought in a laxative suppository. I wish I could communicate how embarrassed they made me feel. By this point, there was nothing left of my human dignity. Then and only then did they let me go home.

What I took home with me was something that became crystal clear during my ordeal: Life begins with one breath in. It ends with one breath out. You have one breath in to start and one breath out to finish. That’s it. That’s the most important thing. One breath in. One breath out.