September is a time for looking back and looking forward. I am excellent at the rear view mirror part – less so at seeing into the future.
Recent Septembers (2010, 2011, 2012) have not been kind to me or to my family. It’s been the month where we find ourselves in hospitals, and not wearing badges that say “visitor.” Luckily, so far this September 2015 neither I nor any one in my family has had a close up view of that big neon sign that blares “EMERGENCY ROOM”.
(Note that we are only half-way through the month so there is still time for unfortunate things to happen.)
My daughter “fondly” calls me – “Negative Nancy” – for my uncanny ability to latch onto bad news, to be in the know with the latest gloomy international headline or have an update on a friend’s poor health. She would likely shake her head in dismay if she knew how avidly I read obituaries in the newspaper every day.
Nothing like a well-written obituary to get you motivated in the morning.
Which is why in synagogue earlier today for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (happy 5776!), I took a small census of those around me. We sat in the sanctuary near friends and friends of friends. I take cheer in seeing all of them fully dressed, sitting upright (a/k/a alive) and thus not in the obituary pages.
Will they be sitting near us next September?
One of the prayers we read on this holiday talks about who will live in the coming year – and who will die – describing possible means of death in the most graphic, biblically-specific fashion.
I like to look around me during that prayer and say a little one of my own hoping that those close to me will thrive this coming year. Not that thriving is under my control which is what the rabbi discussed in part – that control over our own lives is the biggest illusion of all.
And yet we make plans – for that is what we do each September.
To go football games, take college visits and travel for Thanksgiving. For weddings – three of my friends have adult kids who are getting married in 2016 and I am already looking forward to their celebrations. All confident that everything we plan will come to pass.
Which of course it will not.
Which is also why my prior September ill-health experiences caused me revert to two-year-old behavior – to try to exert control over the smallest of matter as some toddlers do.
When our son was two, his favorite phrase was “I don’t haf’ta if I don’t want to.” I was the opposite as a child, teen and adult. The ultimate, dutiful, Susie-Student-Council-Type who always did as I was told.
Three years ago – from September 2012 through December, 2012 – I tried out for the “best patient award” – – ever compliant, dutiful and trusting during multiple hospitalizations and two open heart surgeries. The human pin cushion, that was me, the “Horizontal” ( a/k/a the patient), always smiling, polite and friendly, ready to be poked, prodded by any “Vertical” (a/k/a doctor, nurse, aide) wearing a badge who entered my hospital room.
Very little is under your control as a hospital patient.
You get told what to do and when to do it. Many times I lay flat on a stretcher under a thin blanket in the busy big hospital hallway waiting for an MRI or an MRA or an EKG or an Echocardiogram or a Nuclear Imaging Test. Hospital staff scurrying by me en route to their next task. My sole task was waiting. For a long time. Until my name was read off a clipboard and I was wheeled into a “procedure” room where I was told by another set of Verticals what to do and when to do it. You get the idea.
When I emerged in late December, 2012, with complications and uncertainties, but most definitely alive, I made an internal vow to leave my always dutiful persona behind me.
During Rosh Hashanah services yesterday the rabbi reminded us that while the big picture of things is not under our control, like whether we live or die, we do get to choose how we live while we do so. His message was to live life as positive person who shuns hatred.
The message of lack of control resonates with me the most. If we can’t control the big things then the tiniest of things that are actually under our control matter even more.
I try wherever possible to be a kind and caring person. But ever since my lengthy experience as a hospital “Horizontal”, I am no longer an unfailingly dutiful person.
Not that I have turned into someone who disobeys all authority. I drive within the speed limit, I get my teeth cleaned regularly, I pay bills on time.
But whenever I have a chance to say, “no”, I do so – if I feel like it, I will skip a meeting, skim through the chosen book club book or sleep way past the alarm. Or even more daring, I refuse to set the alarm! I have become a master of minor resistance.
For this coming year – 5776 or 2016, however you define it – I will continue to exercise my right to disobey in the tiny ways that show I remain in control of at least some minor aspects of my life.
Some time soon I may even decide to skip flossing my teeth before bed. Just for one night. Just because I can. Just because I’m “Vertical.”