During the 12 months following my accident I spent a lot of time confronting my previously dismissive attitude towards question of faith. Suddenly confronted with the tenuousness of my existence, the questions, “Why am I still here?” and “Where do I go next?” became more than just interesting theoretical queries. I didn’t have a real strong foundation from which to start my exploration.
My dad had been raised Catholic and my mom was Jewish. But neither of them actively practiced the faiths of their youth. When I was roughly six years old, they decided to become Episcopalian, and soon thereafter, I was baptized and able to participate in the ceremony of eating cardboard-like wafers and drinking sour-tasting red wine. And I describe it that way because, as far as I was concerned, that’s all being Episcopalian meant.
For the next 6 years, my family attended church on a semi-regular basis. But as I moved into my teens, my ability to articulate arguments against the necessity of the exercise and my general dislike of waking up early on a weekend to participate in a ceremony that I didn’t understand combined to make each week’s journey into the stained-glass sanctuary increasingly painful, probably more so for my parents who had to listen to my unending whingeing than for me. The fact that in my early teens we attended a church in which the feminist leader of the choir insisted on singing, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlepeople” every Christmas gave me an ever-evolving and potent stash of ammo that even my parents couldn’t blame me for firing.
In retrospect, I was probably as obstinate about church as I was about cleaning my room. My mother – a woman who liked a neat house – apparently decided that sacrificing my soul for the possibility of a bedroom not filled with dirty laundry was a good trade. By the time I moved into high school, church attendance was limited pretty much to Easter and Christmas.
Like most left-leaning kids attending liberal arts college, I dismissed religion as a crutch for those who needed to blindly follow something. I had friends who attended services regularly every Sunday, but it wasn’t a subject we ever discussed. I had a better chance of communicating with them in Cantonese than having a meaningful conversation addressing our respective personal belief systems.
My girlfriend and soon-to-be wife was Catholic. I attended church with her sporadically, typically on High Holy Days. Having spent several years attending Episcopal services, most of the Catholic mass was familiar, though I couldn’t understand why Catholics dropped to their knees, then back to their seats, then leapt to a standing position with a regularity that reminded me more of an aerobics class than church. By my estimation, Episcopalians get only one-third the exercise of Catholics in a standard Sunday mass. And so, I drifted through my early and mid-20’s secure in the knowledge that there was nothing more to know and believe in than what I already knew and believed in.
But after getting crushed between two cars and leaving in-patient care only two weeks later without any long-term injury other than my amputation, I had trouble reconciling my decidedly temporary stay on this plane with my previous certainty that none of that religious stuff mattered. A family friend, a devout Catholic, sent me a Bible a few months after my accident. I tried to get through it, reading it like I’d read any piece of fiction. A few hundred pages in I gave up.
After floundering around a bit longer, I eventually bought The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche. I purchased it as a kind of dare to myself, as a way of confronting the only thing that I could truly say terrorized me.
It first hit me during the summer while at my grandfather’s summer cottage in Maine. I might have been 10 or 11. My entire family slept in the loft together – my mother and father in a double bed on one side of the room, my sister in a cot and I in a bed on the other, separated by a large, long dresser that held both clothes and various board games. One night, in the dark and surrounded by my family, I suddenly felt this gaping blackness in my chest and my heart slammed into my throat as I realized that someday I’d be dead – that my existence would end, and with it, my relationships, memories, everything. And that no matter what I did, I couldn’t escape it.
The feeling would return as I grew older, and I dealt with it through avoidance – banishing those thoughts from my mind by turning on a radio or reading a book to distract myself. But I knew that this strategy, though effective enough to allow me to get to sleep, was merely a stopgap. So, at age 27, my leg having gone to the Great Beyond that the rest of my body would soon join, buying a book that professed to explain how to deal with death had a kind of bizarre appeal.
While much of Sogyal Rinpoche’s writing fell into the realm of what I considered, at best, mysticism – glowing rainbow bodies at the moment of death? – one basic concept resonated with me deeply: by embracing the imminence and inevitability of death every second of every day, you learn to live with it, and in so doing, avoid getting caught up in the B.S. that we spend 90% of our lives obsessing about. In Buddhism, this isn’t a morbid practice. Rather, it’s viewed as purely practical, a path that allows you to come to terms with your own mortality and enjoy every second that you continue to breathe. Given the fact that EMT’s at the scene had initially declared me dead, this seemed like a rather good way to adjust my perspective moving forward.
The concept of moment-by-moment awareness is one that I force myself to remember all the time, because the minutiae continually overwhelm my ability to focus on the Big Issue. And, ironically, there’s one simple act that reminds me of this more than any other: walking.
One of my former prosthetists used to say to me that the best amputee walkers are the ones who don’t have to think about it anymore. Having walked with a prosthesis for 15 years, I think he had it backwards on two fronts. First, the moment I stop thinking about my gait, it deteriorates. All the little physical giveaways that clearly identify a person as an above-knee amputee manifest themselves. For someone who cares as much as I do about not looking “disabled”, this can drive me to distraction. Second, and more important, when I stop monitoring every step that I take, I disconnect from the present and lapse into a fog-like state that characterized much of my first three decades on earth.
Stating it affirmatively, my prosthesis has become the anchor that keeps me tethered to a fundamental element of the belief system that I’ve chosen to follow. Every time the heel of my prosthetic foot hits the ground, every time I feel the knee flex to that point just before collapse and the foot rolls over to the toe, magically lifting off the ground and behind me, I’ve lived in acute awareness of that 1-2 seconds to the exclusion of all the garbage that typically floats through my head.
My very first running leg had a Nike tee shirt laminated onto it with the following tagline: “life is just sudden death overtime.” My attorney in my personal injury lawsuit, who at first was intrigued with the thought of showing the running leg to the jury, immediately dropped the idea upon seeing these words on the socket. I think he feared that they would conclude I was so obviously over my trauma psychologically that I didn’t require any monetary compensation for it, which I always found mildly amusing. (If only they really knew.) But in retrospect, it’s now clear to me that even though I wasn’t versed in Eastern religion at the time I selected that particular saying, I already knew it no longer made sense to worry about next year, next month, tomorrow, or even 30 minutes from now.
From time to time, I forget this, but something eventually jolts me back. I was reminded of this most recently when last Monday I saw video of myself walking that was shot earlier this year for my company. As I watched myself stride up a sidewalk talking to a friend, I had two thoughts: (1) man, I was heavy when this was taken, and (2) is that really what I look like when I walk?
A caveat – I react to video of myself like most people react to hearing their voice played back on a recording. It’s painful for me to analyze my own gait because all I see is the imperfection. (This is not, I think, a unique phenomenon. An acquaintance of mine who wears two prosthetics literally broke down and cried when, for the first time in her life, she saw video of herself walking. She had spent 40+ years with a construct in her head of what she looked like. When the video revealed the gap between her life-long vision of herself and her actual gait, it was more than she could handle. This disconnect, I suspect, is common, but that doesn’t make it any less catastrophic when experiencing it.)
Disgusted with what I saw on the screen in front of me, I hastily deleted the email containing the link to the video of the fatter, less fluid me, and vowed that I would never watch it again. But then I had a moment of clarity. What better reminder was there that the act of mindless walking, of ignoring the activity’s intricacies, than this video? I wasn’t focused on my stride length, or how and where my heel hit the ground; I was trying to think of artificial conversation because the videographers wanted two people walking and talking. (The only thing I remember about our forced discussion was my friend saying the word “strawberries” with much gravitas.) Suddenly, I realized, my “Deleted Items” folder contained one of the most important emails I would ever receive.
Relieved that I hadn’t yet emptied my virtual trash, I reclaimed the message, moving it from the electronic junkyard to my “Reference” folder, which contains a handful of critically important items that I need to access on a regular basis. (I romantically consider this the Slumdog Millionaire of emails; not so long ago, it lived in the slums of Mumbai; today, it’s presented an oversized check for $48M+ rupees (at current exchange rates) and finds love in the empty train station that is the “Reference” folder.) Every time I open “Reference” and scan it, I’ll glance through the “subject” line of that email and feel a moment of intense pain as I remember its content. And then I’ll take a deep breath and be thankful for the reminder that every element of every activity is an opportunity to connect to the present moment.
If I didn’t use a prosthesis, I wouldn’t think about any step that I took. Ever. The best amputee walkers aren’t the ones who don’t have to think about what they’re doing; they are the ones who focus intently on what happens from the moment their heel hits the ground until it lifts off only to repeat the cycle again almost immediately. Those people have a unique opportunity to live in the here and now, unburdened for a brief time from thoughts about future successes and failures, family conflicts, and what kind of car they would drive if only they had more money.
Maybe everyone should have a prosthesis of some kind?