What’s Lost and What Lasts

One thing I thought about a lot, as a boy, may have been unusual. It was, “What is lasting?”

It likely occurred because my father struggled through all the grueling training that went into becoming a surgeon of the old school: The college, the graduate school, the medical school, and the grueling internship (wherein doctors were all but zombies due to lack of sleep). It didn’t really phase him. He loved what he was doing, and, while I don’t suppose he went skipping down the hospital’s halls, he didn’t drag about full of self-pity. He became a very good vascular surgeon at a very good hospital, and then, right when he finally had it made, he contracted polio. He got it bad, and the illness progressed until he couldn’t even move his fingers. He could barely breathe, but when they rolled the “iron lung” into the hallway outside his room he told them to get the %#@*&$ thing away. As a trained doctor he knew that once you were put in an “iron lung” your body would atrophy. It was a sort of kiss of death, even though it kept you alive.

“What is lasting?” You do all this work to become a surgeon, and then a stupid virus paralyzes you.

To cut a long story short, yelling and screaming and cussing like blue blazes, when the “iron lung” was rolled outside his hospital room, was the beginning of an amazing come-back. He went down to Warm Springs, Georgia, worked his butt off, and learned to use his fingers again. He never could do many things he loved, like skiing, and he walked like a lumbering bear, but in one of those delicious ironies life holds, (if you know how to look for them,) this man who had lost the use of his own arms was part of a team of surgeons in Boston confronted with a boy in one room and the boy’s arm in another room, and rejoined the arm to the boy’s body. He was the vascular surgeon who sewed micro-stitches, thirty per vein,  that joined first veins, and then the great artery. Then he un-clamped the artery had the sublime joy of seeing the dead and gray arm turn pink again. It was a beautiful example of medical teamwork and a great victory.


However a comeback isn’t forever. Polio made my father like an aging athlete, needing to work far harder to stay the same. It couldn’t last. The great arm-reattachment was in some ways like the great, Boston baseball-player Ted Williams hitting a home run his last time at bat. Within two years my father was finished, as a surgeon. Then I got to watch the anguish a man goes through when all he lives for is taken away.

“What is lasting?”

Even as a boy I had a dread of being made useless by age. I wanted something you didn’t lose, something you could trust.

Money you could lose. Fame could fade. Popularity could turn on you like a rabid dog. Power could make you be the rabid dog, as you snarled to keep it, in vain. A beautiful woman grew old and gray. What the heck lasted?

Of course, as a boy such thought was inarticulate. I lacked words, but believe me, the pondering was there. And very early I came to conclusions I had no words for.

One thing I noticed was that my grandfather and grandmother were very wrinkly, but he was still somehow handsome and she was still somehow beautiful. They had decided to get married in second grade, at age eight, and at age eighty were still in love. How’d they do it? I had no idea, for my parents were divorcing. But in a chaotic home I could sense, when visiting my grandparent’s house, that they knew of peace.

Also in my boyhood I noticed some very wrinkly people playing piano in symphony hall. When President Kennedy was inaugurated, a wrinkly poet named Robert Frost read a poem. This gave me the idea that something in art was ageless.

In any case, even as a boy I was fearful of losing. I am glad most people don’t think like I thought, because if they did we would have no star athletes. All would fear the day they’d get old and retire. Young women would make no effort to be beautiful, if they all despaired about the day they’d be hags. My father wouldn’t have reattached a boy’s arm, if he thought like me. He would have said, “Why bother to do all the work to be a great surgeon? It won’t last.”

While I confess I was a coward and motivated by fear, I also was seeking a great thing worthy of saints and mystics. I was seeking what doesn’t turn to dust in the wind. To my way of seeing, the world was seeking things that were as fleeting as clouds. Unless I joined the madness, and agreed things were worthy of yearning-for even though they didn’t last, all the fuss and bother made no sense. It would be like craving a fashion that had gone out of style; like feeling you could not go out in public without George Washington’s white wig.

For example, just think what sex-attraction looks like, to a boy who hasn’t yet been hit by hormones. Does it make any sense? Because I was skipped ahead in school (and was slow to get hairy in any case) I got to watch my peers become demented before I became demented myself. They appeared senseless. I basically said, “screw this”, and headed off barefoot to go fishing. In order for the absurd antics of my peers to make sense, you needed to be horny.

In like manner, other so-called “adult” behavior makes no sense unless you know what it is like to be greedy. Or hateful. Or vengeful. Or frustrated in other ways. Only when afflicted by the itch of craving do many things gain urgency. Water has little value until you are in a desert and know thirst. Then a glass of water is worth all you have, but once you quench your thirst, a second glass isn’t worth a dime.

What is lasting?

To me what was lasting seemed to be so-called “art”. To sing, to dance, to rhapsodize, to praise the Creation, (if not the Creator). It didn’t cost a penny; old people had it; I saw it could be found in slums and even in Math classes; and even when people sneered and made me miserable, it never completely left, (and then I could have a wonderful time singing the blues.)

Of course, unless you are very good and very lucky (or an excellent con) there is no money in being happy. For many it is something you do after work. I got in all sorts of trouble for having art happen on the job.

In the end it is ironic. I tried so hard to avoid depending on something fleeting, like a strong body, and yet, because art has never paid the bills, I had to fall back on my strong back. For years and years I have been a “grunt”. I am very grateful my mother worked so hard to make certain my boyhood diet included good food and all the right vegetables, for without what she did to strengthen the good body God gave me, I could never have raised five children. But now they are raised. Now I’m sixty-five. Now, even when I try to be a “grunt”, I embarrass myself.

Not that I’m feeble, but I can’t do what I could do. It’s very obvious when I look at my vegetable garden. The weeds have pretty much won, this year. I appreciate the effort it took to weed a lot more now, than when I could actually do it. Before I took it for granted, and it was done for free, but now I’ll have to pay.

In essence, because poetry never paid, I have arrived at the very point I sought to avoid. I am the aged athlete the day the crowd stops cheering. The crowd groans, when I step to the plate with my baseball bat. I hold little potential to be a hero.

But this doesn’t mean I have lost faith in heroic things. How arrogant would that be? To think that, unless I get the glory and I get to be the hero, such glory and heroism cease to exist? It  goes against my actual experience, for I have seen the Light can shine even in Math classes. To be honest, I’m glad I can retire from being the hero, which perhaps demonstrates an understanding of What (or Who), is truly heroic.

All I ask anymore is to be Yours.
What’s the use of making my big-shot plans?
The strength I once had has bled from my pores.
My aspiration’s gone the way of all man’s.
I look at You, standing in perfection,
All power, but innocent and meek.
You control the destiny of each nation
Yet are so pure you do not need to speak.
You challenge all by simply standing.
This world’s a din of loud demanding.
All want control. All are commanding
Their will be done, misunderstanding
You’re the only one who has control
And Your love wants the best for every soul.

In any case, though I confess to feeling a bit feeble in terms of being a “grunt”, I also realize I am nowhere nearly as bad off as my father was at age thirty-four. I can still move my fingers, at least. I can still type. If old men like Rubinstein could move fingers and make amazing music at a piano past the age of ninety, perhaps I can do the same at a word-processor.

If my father could mount a come-back when completely crippled, can’t I do the same?

“Not likely” I hear a snide voice say. “You have written fifty years and no one cares.”

My reply is that I have been a grunt for fifty years. Writing was merely a hobby. Now it will change.

The snide voice laughs, “Change? You’re too old to change. Poets die young. They don’t arise from the ashes of decrepitude. If you haven’t made it by age forty, you’ll never make it.”

I suppose I could dust off my list of artists and writers who never “made it” until over age sixty.  Scarlotti and Darwin come to mind.  Or how about the creation of the innocent, girlish Laura of “Little House On The Prairie”? That was written by a lady over sixty.  When you get to be my age,  you notice examples of people who refused to be “all washed up.” Everyone said Winston Churchill was all washed up, in 1938.

Yet when I think of it, my plot when I was young was not to become rich  and famous when I was old. The script I had for my life was to become rich and famous when I was young, and could enjoy the usual period of debauchery that precedes the tragedy of dying young. That didn’t work out. Poverty was sometimes God’s way of keeping me healthy during a time when it was said “Cocaine is God’s way of telling you that you have too much money.”

Anyway, what I was really after when young was something you could not lose, and the only thing you don’t lose as you depart this veil of tears, as naked as you came,  is the contents of your heart.  If your heart is set on what you are leaving behind, you likely know sadness, but if you are looking ahead it seems likely you are joyous.

I’ve wished I could be a bright channel
Of drenching wisdom, a laughing summer brook
Dancing to a distant sea, with banks full
Of more than bankers dream, of fish no hook
Can hurt, of poetry for small salmon,
Singing of what’s salty, distant, giant,
And painted by a stunning, endless dawn,
And so I yearn to create what I can’t.
I can’t obey God’s gravity like water.
I resist the tugging of the puppet-string.
Obedience has led poor lambs to slaughter.
I fight the rule that leads to suffering.
I’m like a cloud that fills the sky with thanks.
Not all water stays within the banks.