I’d never been in the hospital before my five day stay Thanksgiving week. Francis Ford Coppola said “life is an experience that I learned from.” Wise man. Looking out at the frustration and anxiety outside my window somehow made dealing with the unnerving frustration and pain inside more bearable. In a weird way it was easier to slide from four to one on the well-being scale than if I had to skid down from eight or nine. Bearing whatever storm, the COVID crisis or more personal health issues, it’s the slivers of hope that protect our well-being and pull us through.

I can’t sugarcoat how anonymous and dependent I felt the moment I took off my clothes. I think the discomfort might even have rivaled the pain and the bit-less-than-stellar surgical result. Then like a stranger in a foreign land, I slowly learned the rules of the game. I made sure I wrote down the names of each of the nurses who I repeated my name and birthdate to ten times a day during their twelve-hour shift. I wondered how many errors precipitated such caution. The fact that everything is computerized somehow didn’t cut down on a crazy amount of paperwork… my file was six inches thick. These incredible masked women were my North Star, answering each request with, “No problem. Do you need anything else?” Even when I meant to turn on the TV and summoned them (ugh…three times) by mistake.

At 10:00 on the night before Thanksgiving, two nurses walked into my room to say, without a trace of panic, that the ninth floor had to be evacuated to prepare for an influx of COVID patients. All seventeen of us were immediately to be transported to the fourth floor. Calmly and efficiently it took them ten minutes to maneuver my bed, my IV, and all my belongings thrown on top of the blanket, through silent hallways and down two elevators to my new room. They found out they would have to do this when they came on duty a few hours before. They never handled a situation quite like this before. Their confidence and inner strength were contagious. Brilliant.

Frank Bruni called a smile “a life raft” to help slog through these hard times. And so it was. I smiled every time someone entered the room…sort of like they train telemarketers to smile through their spiel…do it before reason tells you nah… it kind of works. I smiled as I repeated my almost forgotten middle name so many times…Paula…and wondered if my mother’s unknown second cousin appreciated the very delayed recognition.

And now that I’m home I’m concentrating on answering what Sharon Salzberg, a mindfulness teacher quoted in the Times, asks, “What is still true? If you can find something intact, whole, unbroken, it will give you hope.” My grandson Matthew learning to play the saxophone remotely…all hard work without the reward of playing in unison with his friends… How do you do that? Or my granddaughter Hannah rehearsing her masked lead in an all-out performance of Rent…again without the rewards of an audience. I can still fall down the rabbit hole of gossip (not exactly true but still…) on my computer. I love l-o-n-g showers. And when I’m not quite ready for long walks in the park, I’m blessed to be able to light a fire, replacing one wonder with another.

It’s never been possible to predict the future, the uncertainty is just more in our faces 24/7 now. These anxiety-tinged short days, spent cheated out of celebrations and hugs, are so hard. Yet for the first time in my life, I’ve managed to keep orchids alive for four months. To bear the crushing hole dug in my soul caused by not being able to see my friends, I put calling one of them for a lengthy catch up on my to-do list each day, overcoming the fact that all my life I’ve been a terrible phone call initiator. We chat about spring and vaccines and easier times and each time one of them says, “You got this,” my mood improves. It’s like lately I’m wearing a stronger pair of glasses. While I know this might sound sappy or hokey, (I never found those to be dirty words… I cried at the end of The Prom), after a lifetime of defining my greatest accomplishments by how much my inner strength and sacrifice improved the lives of those I love, I am learning the beauty of receiving. Without the cancer part, I wish for you the opportunity to really feel the rewards of your nurturing.

Looking at the year ahead, I can’t see the downside of being an optimist. I always get melancholy hearing the yearning in all the best classic Christmas songs. Listen to the lyrics of any of them and you’ll see they’re all about missing and dreaming about what probably never existed that perfectly in real life. But I still sigh. And this year more than most, I find myself humming one line from my favorite, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. “Next year all our troubles will be miles away.” Amen.

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