Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here. Saul's Reflections column, in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.
In this, the season of miracles, let me confess I have never believed in the big ones: the virgin birth, death and resurrection of the carpenter from Galilee or the lamp with oil for one day that somehow burned for eight days. I might as well have believed in Santa Claus.
But this did not mean I had no faith in the mysterious or the unexplainable. That would have meant having no room in one’s intellect for, say, beauty, love or music so lovely, like a Chopin etude, that it makes one cry. Here’s Artur Rubenstein playing one Chopin’s miracles.
In short, if you’ll indulge me for leaving, for a moment, my usual senior subjects, I truly believe in the smaller, more life-touching miracles. I am walking proof of such miracles.
A few years ago, when I was recovering from a stroke that partially paralyzed my right side, I worried that it might have affected my ability to hear and be moved by good music. Someone brought me a Sony Walkman (remember those?) and I cried with joy in my wheelchair when I discovered I could hear and even sing melodies.
My sound of music was not impaired. And I wheeled myself crazily down the hospital halls, singing (badly) a favorite opera aria.
Later, as I worked with a physical therapist, I watched in wonder as she coaxed from my stiff right hand some movement in my little finger. It was a small miracle, happening somewhere inside my brain, that marked my journey of recovery. And I did recover.
One dictionary says a miracle is an amazing, wonder-filled occurrence that cannot be explained by the laws of nature. Maybe, but I do not believe that the same unmoved mover that paralyzed my hand also moved my little finger. My faith in that patient and caring therapist brought us that miracle.
The esophageal cancer, discovered by accident because of the stroke, was the next big crisis - from years of smoking, competitive journalism, maddening editors and chewing Tums.
And the miracle worker was a young Chinese surgeon who specialized in dealing with older patients because, in his culture, old age is to be venerated as a kind of miracle. He once operated on and cured a 90-year-old woman of lung cancer because, he told me, reaching that age with lung cancer was, by itself, miraculous.
Most people don’t survive cancer of the esophagus because it’s discovered too late. The anti-acid remedies sold to millions of unsuspecting indigestion and acid reflux sufferers, relieve the discomfort but mask the dangers of cancer.
I was a victim and survivor of such dangers. I know of too many who have not been as lucky as I was - like the wonderful essayist and professional atheist, Christopher Hitchens, who says he’s dying.
So are we all. Both of us owe our cancers and/or the cures not to divine intervention, but to the miracles of illness and health. They are life affirming.
Life, illness, happiness, good fortune and bad, even good and bad presidents (I have covered) are all part of what the 11th Century Persian poet Omar Khayyam had in mind when he wrote, “Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” And,
That inverted bowl they call the sky,
Where under crawling, cooped we live and die.
Lift not your hands to it for help,
For it impotently moves as you or I.”
Too much of modern popular music and words that we don’t understand; the noise and screaming get in the way. Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee were my kind of singers.
But not long ago, I listened carefully, above the hype, to a modern, miraculous piece by the late John Lennon, which voiced as well as Omar what life is and ought to be about. Pay attention to the miracle of these simple words:
The esophageal cancer was cured and I celebrated those five cancer-free years. But alas, earlier this year – again by accident – a new cancer was discovered in the lining of my stomach.
It has a fancy name – linitus plastica – and it’s unique in that there is no mass, only a few cells that don’t show up on a CT scan. And it is very slow-growing, if it grows at all, and it is without pain or symptoms.
So I live with it, as I’ve mentioned, under the care of the Hospice of the Chesapeake. And when an interviewer for a local paper asked how I live with such uncertainty, I told him, that there is no life without uncertainty.
But as Camus told us, we live and struggle and work and play and love, even in the face the inevitability of our own end. I am still lucky. I have my work, which seems to touch and help some people.
Each morning and afternoon, when the weather is moderate, I sit on my deck on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, where I sailed for many years and still have a (power) boat. And smoke one of my indulgences, a fine and expensive cigar.
The bay is ever changing and the prevailing winds from the south can be fierce, but she’s even more beautiful in a dark and clattering summer storm which I can watch as it passes over my house and heads east.
My daughters visit me often, although one is in California, and when the grandchildren are over to help me pick crabs, they understand about living with uncertainty without letting on. So we treasure those times, and we shrug off the future. And they believe me when tell them how lucky we are.
Now that the cold has closed in, my wife drives me to the nearby cigar lounge where Mike, the proprietor, picks me out a couple of good ones from his humidor. I can watch a game on the giant HDTV or simply chat with other patrons, who defer to me because of my age and experiences as a reporter.
Most of them have been in the military or they’re spooks, more conservative than I am.
One guy came in to smoke and clean his target weapons, a pistol and an elaborate 30.08 rifle with a scope. He is building a special hideaway in the woods outside Washington for the day “they” come to take away his freedoms. He was described by Mike as a RWNJ, a “right-wing nut job.”
Another smoker, between covert assignments for the Drug Enforcement Agency, is trying to develop a retirement community in Nicaragua.
The VA psychiatrist, watching a guest cigar roller at work, tells us about treating too many returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan for the shocks inevitable in war.
Mike’s wife, Connie, a nurse at Walter Reed recalls the hollow sadness in the eyes of loved ones when they come to visit their legless or armless kinfolk. Most of these testosterone-heavy cigar enthusiasts, isolationists in the best sense, don’t see why the hell we’re still in Afghanistan.
The point of all this, in a season made for reflection, is to tell the story of how it feels to become and stay old for one very lucky older American for most of us, despite and because of illness, embrace life more fully than ever.
I still order fresh cigars, as if trying to guarantee me the time to smoke them. If things go well, my wife and I will go on a cruise to the Mediterranean next month so Evelyn can see the Nile and the pyramids that I saw as a reporter. Too bad we can't visit Omar's country.
Before I leave, I came across another of these small miracles of beauty, combining great art with fine music, to rediscover words I have not understood – until now.