It was 1978. I was living in the foothills in Tucson, Arizona. Our house was situated on a couple acres, and my Saturdays were spent overturning rocks and digging holes to see what kind of critters I could find. This was not the wisest preoccupation, given that most things found under rocks in the Sonoran desert can cause serious harm. But I was 12 and invincible.
On this particular fall day, I raced outside as soon as I was showered and dressed. I had seen several horny toads skittering around when I walked home the day before and I was determined to find them again and catch them. My thin sweater was not much protection from the desert chill, and my wet hair probably didn't help any either.
My sniffles that had begun a few days before, and the longer I was outside, the worse it got. But I didn't care. I had found the prize – a bony lizard who had been making its meal of an ant colony was now in my possession. I sat cross-legged on the rocky ground, cupping it in my sweater between my knees. It passively allowed me to stroke its armored back and crown of horns, until a sneeze frightened it and it scampered off.
One week later, I was bedridden. The cold that began as a runny nose had moved into my chest. As I lay there feverish, my younger sister Sabina sat on her side of the room, watching as my chest rose and fell heavily and listening to the strange rasping sounds coming from deep inside. I gulped the air that now seemed unavailable. I remember seeing Sabina clutch her pillow, her eyes ever widening. My lungs felt heavy, like they were filled with thick soup. I was scared.
I looked at my sister, unable to fully speak or breathe. My panic spurred her into action - MOM! DAD! COME HERE! SOMETHING'S WRONG!
I don't remember the car ride to the hospital. I do remember waking up in an off-white room. Not the off-white that you might describe as ivory or calming cream, but the white you think of when you picture a cold, antiseptic chamber, one that is lonely forever.
There were curtains on either side of the bed. I was hooked up to some sort of machine and I could hear the buzzing and the beeping and the coughing. Lots and lots of coughing, like crackling death deafening me from behind both curtains. I was not in a children's ward. I was, in my 12-year old mind, where they put people just before they were wheeled into the mortuary. I was alone with my fear and my imagination, which was getting wider and deeper by the minute.
Now most 12-year-olds don't think about death as something that could really happen to them. Most go through their childhood blissfully unaware of the possibility. But looking back, I think what that week of fear did for me was give me a deeper passion for the every day – for the now and the not yet. It seared things in my memory that other kids may not ever consider as important. And it gave me a sense that everything is temporal and a gift.
Many years later, I see that experience also had a deeper message. I see now that my fear had a secondary purpose. It helped me see things differently – when you are really sick and flat on your back, you see the world from a whole new perspective. I became capable of a depth of compassion I did not have before. And that compassion became an avenue for healing others years later.
That fear, that journey, that time of wheezing, opened me up to breathe life in deeper.
The bad, the terrible, the frightening - can actually fuel us. If we survive, we can become stronger for the journey – stronger for others. Because really, when you think about it, we are here not to live only for ourselves. We are here to help others. And we are here on borrowed time. And since we only get one chance, as you see the clock tick to its next mark, remember to breathe in – and exhale – love.