January 21, 2019
On Thursday we approached the fortress-like medical office building where my doctor practices to see an ambulance and fire engine parked outside, warning lights flashing. EMTs were hauling one of those reinforced stretchers inside that rabbit’s warren of physicians’ and therapists’ offices. Couldn’t be my doc, I muttered. We rode the elevator to my doctor’s suite. As I thumbed through the years-old magazines in the waiting room, sure enough, the EMT squad came hustling out of my doctor’s treatment room tugging the stretcher with an unconscious man strapped to it.
Make you wonder? Made me nervous. Hope he’s OK.
Why does this past week now seem brighter and happier than the previous one? Day to day, hour to hour, it was nightmarish. Seven days of biting, damp Virginia winter cold. A wretching all-day, all-night chest cough. Concerts of insurance company “hold” music, followed by baffling cross-examinations by reps who always want your date of birth but can’t answer your question.
Yet the weariness falls away, hope and good remains.
Like a nervous tic I can’t stop, the rotten weather draws my mind back to that September night Sandy and I spent at Picacho Peak State Park (yeah, that one) in Picacho, Ariz., (see this blog, Sept. 16). That 100F-plus evening that seemed to drain every trace of moisture from our bodies as we sat gasping in our lawn chairs trying to have fun now seems now like a warm, cozy dream. Me mentioning it still sets her teeth on edge (what, that again?), as if I’m recasting a hellish experience as an exotic summer adventure.
I recall the heat, the creepy, empty campground, the yellowjackets, the scorpion in the shower. But what also rushes back is the star-filled desert sky at midnight, the soft, warm breeze, the silhouettes of the giant Seguaro cacti against the moonlight, the overwhelming sense of isolation of the place that yet conveyed not loneliness, but a strange peace.
And now here we are standing in the cold in front of that ugly medical building. How do we get back to that midnight moment at Picacho? Why on earth would I want to? I’m looking at a big task, the health problem now staring me in the face, sure. But then we’re also stuck with all those mundane challenges that so-called seniors face: managing money, managing time, eating a healthy diet—all hard work.
Meanwhile, outside our little universe of semi-retirement, the fabric of national life is being shredded. Federal employees, treated like slaves, are getting groceries from food banks, selling their kids’ stuff, choosing between medicine and utility bills.
We are in a dark night, the metaphor fought over by novelists and poets to convey a thousand meanings. On the downward scale, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s bleak novel “Tender Is the Night” tracks the self-absorption of the 1920s that descends into depression and tragedy. Downward farther are the bottom-dwellers of culture and literature since, cued by Jean Paul Sartre’s line, “Hell is other people,” the close of his 1943 play, No Exit. What could be darker? Sartre was celebrated as a pop hero by the life-is-a-crapshoot school of thought, which is still with us in America, and now holds high political office.
The dark night I home on is that of the poem, The Dark Night of the Soul by the Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, and his accompanying essay, The Dark Night. The essay is famous on its own, but actually is a continuation of St. John’s Ascent of Mount Carmel, which sets out the purpose of “The Dark Night.”
St. John leads us through a progression of metaphorical “nights” during which man’s senses and soul are purged of sin, as God calls him to perfection. These steps in purgation strengthen the soul for the final Dark Night, during which angels permit the devil to attack the soul thereby to purify it and prepare it for union with God’s love.
The work of the Spanish mystics is spiritually intense, not typically taught in Catholic schools. St. John’s Dark Night may be a hitching post for me, leading me backward to the dreamlike warmth of Picacho, but then forward through my current health-care melodrama to the end of it. That is to say: the darkness of this season will end. We all will get well.