Student: “Master, what happens when we die?” Master: “I don’t know.” Student: “But you’re a master!” Master: “Yes, but I’m not dead.”
There we were, about seven of us out to dinner on February 4th of this year. For some reason the talk steered into a long foray about broken bones and surgeries. I would be out of the loop on this one. I’ve never had a surgery. I had no idea that three days later I would fall on some ice and tear a quadriceps muscle. (Boy, the things I do to feel included.) I got some help into my apartment and calmly made coffee and prepped myself to call 9-1-1. I chatted with a friend briefly and she said “Call an Uber!” Um, no. First of all I needed some professional help. I knew I would end up with a huge bill but I didn’t want to cause any more damage. So into an ambulance and off to United Hospital in St Paul MN I went.
Everything moved so quickly. I was in a waiting room for only about an hour and was immediately tended to by a surgeon. X-rays happened next, and surgery was scheduled for the next morning. Bam, bam, bam. This may sound a bit odd but the whole process had a rather mystical quality to it. I was feeling a Presence the entire time I was there. As I was escorted to my room for the night, the fun mystical feel for everything began to wane. I was introduced to my roommate for the night, a gentleman named Rick. The first words out of his mouth to me were “I’m an extrovert.” Ducky. I just wanted to “do my time” and get out of there. He seemed like a nice enough guy, but I wanted to rest. I forgot how hospital staff check on surgical patients often. Like waking you up to take a pill so you can sleep. Still feeling pretty good about the whole deal overall, I steeled myself for a night of saying “I just want to sleep” or something along those lines. But as Rick began to chat, I was quite surprised at how interested I became in what he had to say.
I am in recovery. Thirty-four years of sobriety. Rick informed me he had fifteen years. We began to chat about our respective spiritualities and I suddenly realized that an angel had been sent to me to get through what could be a pretty rough ordeal. After our common bond of sobriety, the similarities ended. Rick was there for hip replacement surgery. I remember asking my ninety-one year old AA sponsor a few years ago what it felt like to be his age. He said “Everything hurts. But less of it is mine.” That was in the forefront of my mind as Rick and I continued. I don’t remember all of the surgeries he had, but he did inform me that he had been shot five times in his life. Once while getting off a helicopter. He was once beaten into submission right outside of his own office building and was seriously injured. He also had been stabbed several times. I was either rooming with Indiana Jones or this guy was just plain on a very rocky path. In addition, he needed to get out of the hospital asap so he could care for five grandchildren because their less than sober parents could not. The whole time telling me his plight, I remember Rick smiling often.
In O. Henry’s beautiful short story The Last Leaf, the heroine is convinced that with each leaf that falls off a vine outside her window, she is closer to death. She notices that after a very stormy night, there is one leaf that is still clinging stubbornly to the vine. It doesn’t even blow in the wind. Feeling much more confident, the young lady’s health begins to improve immediately. What she didn’t know, and wouldn’t be told about until years later, was that a colorful local painter had actually climbed up on a ladder and painted a leaf that wouldn’t die. It was the ultimate sacrifice, as he fell to his death right after his mission was accomplished. Gender difference aside, the heroine reminded me very much of Rick. As did the painter.
All of this may seem very ordinary, or romanticized, or maybe I was in fact in a heightened state of awareness. I heard Rick moaning in pain throughout the night yet he remained upbeat, laughed a lot when we talked and generally made me feel like there was indeed an extra Presence in the room. And it was emanating from Rick. Here was a guy in obvious pain and yet his concern was to get home to take care of a bunch of kids not his own. Like the painter determined to restore the young lady’s will to live in The Last Leaf. We traded phone numbers and I told him I would write an essay about him, which I’m finally getting to.
Sometimes heroes come in ordinary clothing, bodies that are held together by stitches and a prayer, and an upbeat tone that permeates the air. I don’t remember if I told him or not, but Rick made that experience go by so quickly I forgot I was even having surgery. In AA one of the many definitions of “coincidence” that I’ve heard is “a miracle in which God chooses to remain anonymous.” Rick struck me as a man who has weathered many storms and repeatedly has clung to that last leaf, the one that not only gives him life, but also passes on aliveness to anyone around him. His being there at the same time as me was no accident. Granted I look for miracles. And if one looks for miracles, sure enough, they’ll show up. This one was easy to spot. May his leaf never fall.