The Most Important Thing in Life
By Nevit O. Ergin
Death will knock on everyone’s door sooner or later, a fact most people don’t want to talk about. Science and religion do give us various kinds of answers. But, those answers are all incomplete. It’s simpler if death and the whole idea of death are avoided.
I’m not so far away from death. In fact, I’m an old man, fighting with death every day. I’ve thought I was losing the battle on several occasions during my downward slide these past three years. Parkinson’s, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, diabetes, ulcerated feet and legs, gout, arthritis, falls, you name it.
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, able to keep death pushed back in the shadows.
In response to my worsening Parkinson’s, I had an appointment with a new neurologist in May. I had told his office about a new book, 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 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 final 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-physician days, that is no longer done. I was only to see hospital doctors. I told them I was a retired physician, an author. Most of them ignored me; one lady doctor dismissed me: “Don’t cause trouble,” she said.
I realized that with that, I had big trouble, really big trouble. A hospital doctor is paid by the hospital, and they’re all about nothing but hospital business, the hospital’s choices. It wasn’t like having a family physician, the one that you choose. I was so happy before I got to the hospital, dying the way I wanted to die, and these hospital people were having nothing to do with it.
No one I encountered knew anything real about the death issue. None of their “informed” decisions were based on real facts. None of them had experienced death; they simply didn’t know what they were talking about. They were the ones deciding for me about my death, making one-way decisions – with me having no say at all. It wasn’t a proper condition, especially since I have been with death every day, have been fighting with death every day. Who were they to decide?
I knew my situation was a result of having no connection with anybody. This is very important. No connection with anybody.
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.
With each green light, the room filled up with nurses and doctors. As they took my vitals, someone put something metal in my mouth, and I noticed something sharp in my throat. Were they doing a tracheotomy? Almost. 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 I told them, “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. 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.
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 got me in here. It was the blood sugar. And it’s that pregnant lady doctor that’s keeping me here.”
My perception at that point 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. Things change, and you lose all control. They don’t let you get out. You’re 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.