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Grateful Survivor

May 9, 2009 | by

A near death experience can heighten our appreciation of the gift of life.

Not too long ago an old friend of mine sent me a baseball cap. Embroidered on the crown in Latin were the words, "Grateful Survivor". When I had last seen Bill he was recovering from a major car accident that happened after competing in an athletic event. His wife was killed in the accident. His children were injured. He himself was pretty mangled up. He moved like an old man and he wore his grief like a heavy overcoat.

Accompanying the gift of the cap was a newsletter with pictures of him returning to his full physical self with his new wife and happy children. The hat was a symbol, a war wound more or less, declaring that he had survived and he was grateful to those who had brought him to this moment.

So why did he send me a cap?

When I was 23 years old I left home at 4 AM the day after Thanksgiving. The intent was to drive to Houston to connect with my father and then travel to a small town in Jackson County to attend my uncle's funeral. As I approached the Galveston-Houston Freeway in my Volkswagen beetle, it skidded and rolled -- over and over. There was a car behind me whose passengers saw the accident. The driver was a medical student from Galveston and his family flagged the next car to get word ahead for the police and an ambulance. They stayed with me, blanketed me and talked with me until I could be rescued.

It was very bad. I was leaking spinal fluid from my nose. I developed pneumonia and an allergy to penicillin at the same time. I reacted to the sulfa treatments as well and it was astonishing that my surgical team got the pneumonia under control in time to do the first of two craniotomies. I lost facial control due to paralysis. My head was shaved for the surgery. (I now have a scar from ear to ear.) I lost vision in my right eye. My olfactory nerve was severed so I also lost my sense of smell.

What does a 23 year old girl know about mortality? I was terrified.

What does a 23 year old girl know about mortality? I was terrified. I begged for pain medications. I worried when I slept whether I'd awaken again. Sometimes I didn't care. But after two craniotomies and subsequent eye surgery and a lot of physical therapy, I am now functional and my appearance is pretty normal. I take medication every day to supply hormones that are no longer secreted from damaged organs. I wear a Medic Alert bracelet listing my allergies and conditions, which include Hepatitis C which was transmitted via a blood transfusion.

I lost almost everything: my job, my marriage, my appearance. For several months I was legally blind and had difficulty with simple things like pouring liquid from one container into another. It took almost 2 years of work to regain my vision. I did find a job. And eventually I met the man to whom I am still happily married. I had to nearly lose my life to find a new way of living.

So you see I have earned my grateful survivor hat. And every morning when I recite the modeh ani prayer of thanks to God, I deeply feel the miracle of being alive and waking to the gift of a new day.

My daughter recently asked rhetorically on her blog if she would ever get past seeing herself primarily as a cancer survivor. (She is four years from her successful treatment for non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.) I would say to her, "No, that identity as a survivor never goes away. And you don't want to get past it." That is the blessing. Because only when you come so close to losing life can you appreciate it so deeply. Every day is doubly sweet.

But you don't have to come so close to death to get focused and learn what's really important in life. During Sukkot you leave most of your material possessions in the house and spend a week in a simple hut, and in Oregon, where I live, it can get pretty rainy and cold. The sukkah is small and the spiritual exercise is to be selective in what you bring. Sukkot is known as a time of joy. Material things can not bring us lasting joy. Experiencing a true connection to God, family, friends and ourselves is what brings us joy

My experience keeps me constantly aware of those connections. However, we can all access a connection to God and tap into true joy through the process of spending a week in the Sukkah.

Now as I enter the Jewish New Year I realize that I have been taking one day at a time for 39 years. There have been 39 years of bonus time. I never expected to live this long, and here I am beginning another year, 354 new days, one day at a time, in which to try to fulfill God's purpose for my life. I think that having come so close to losing my life I can appreciate it all the more.

My prayer is that those of us who have never come so close to losing life, along with those of us who have, can begin each day of this new year with that feeling of gratitude and joy.

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