Elders' Technology
ELDER MUSIC: Christmas in Oz (continued from last year)

GRAY MATTERS: Small Miracles

SaulFriedman75x75 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.

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Saul, you are a treasure. Enjoy your cigar & keep on keeping us educated! Dee

Great post, I appreciate it a lot. Thanks for the Van Gogh video too.

As a composer/musician, I understand these musical miracles from the inside out. Having survived 10 manic episodes before finishing my first CD qualifies, IMO, as a miracle also. Your calm acceptance and positive attitude is a joy to read, and hopefully emulate.

Thanks for a special post, Saul. "Starry, Starry Night" has always been one of my favorites!

I wanted to give you an update on the new federal pre-existing medical insurance. You may not recall, but in the comments after one of your columns on health care reform, I ranted about the exorbitant premiums of this new program. But I'm glad to say there's been some improvements - for my state (Alabama) there are now 3 choices of premiums and one I can afford.

I applied and got approved; my coverage begins Jan 1st. So while I still have criticisms of health care reform, I can thank Obama and the democrats for the medical insurance that will perhaps save my life and prevent medical banruptcy. Or at least until 2014, when this program ends.

Merry Christmas to you and yours!

This is just what we need today. Have a special bit of magic from us to you this season in thanks. Thanks for being you.

Your kind of miracles are the ones I also believe in! Thanks for saying it so well.

Saul, you always seem to say what I would like to voice if I had your ability to write so beautifully.

I was not fortunate when I had my cochlear implant. The sound of music was badly impaired. I am now beginning to hear it as music rather than just noise, but I still have a way to go before hearing it as it really sounds. Fortunately, the sound of music is retained in my memory and I was able to hear the lovely Chopin nocturne.

The lyrics to John Lennon's 'Imagine' are touching.

The best part was the 'Vincent' video. I sent it to my daughter who loves Vincent Van Gogh and has several of his prints on her wall, including the Starry Night.

My wish for you for the New Year is that those terrible cells lodged in your stomach refuse to grow. Stay well so we can continue reading your insightful columns.

Beautifully written.
I am a believer in the big ones, too, and the faith that goes with that. Just loved your reflections on the small ones and your love of music. Thank you.

Saul thank you for this essay about life and love and loving your life.

Thanks Saul. Love the images of your smoking friends, such a reminder that we're all just people, doing our best within our impermanence. I always appreciate your insights here and feel very lucky to have "met" you.

I believe in small miracles, too, because I'm one, too. I am also a stroke survivor, and I beat all the prognostications that if I lived I would be in a wheelchair the rest of my life. That was over 30 years ago and I walk quite well. Yeah, I have some residual effects but I'm a fighter by nature and I've learned to live with them reasonably well.

I love the music you chose.

Your mention of the many disabled soldiers from these awful wars reminded me how I thankful that my brother again survived (as well as his soldiers) another tour in Iraq and pray that he doesn't have to go back.

You are a kind and loving man and I am thrilled to be able to read your wise observations here.

This, maybe, is the heart of what it means to *grow* old: to look mortality in the face and nonetheless pick crabs with children.

Thank you, Saul. I've always loved John Lennon's music; Imagine is especially touching.

I think the miracle is that we are here at all. And that we love and are loved.

You're so right, we are all "term-limited," and it is in our power to enjoy what we have while we're here.

Have fun on your cruise!

Meanwhile, have a Merry Christmas and a good New Year.

Thanks Saul, for the window into your life. Health issues can clarify our view of ourselves. My rambunctious grandgirls helped me pick a tree yesterday and decorate it. They are my miracles and treasure. Peace to you, brother.

Many thanks for your thoughts and word.
Peace and joy to you and yours.

I live on the other side of that Bay and it IS very cold and gray today. Your post has warmed me nicely.

Saul, I love the simple guitar accompaniment of Starry, Starry Night! It inspired me to go play my guitar again, it's been sitting in the corner too long!

Thanks, Saul. Your column is a wonderful gift. I have always loved Omar Khayyam and appreciate the quote. I wish for you and yours a peaceful holiday season and much joy in the new year!

Thanks, Saul, and have a joyous new year!

For reasons big and small, you are my hero. I love you, Pop.

The following program may be of interest:-
“Chopin’s illness” 12 minutes
hold down Ctrl key and double click:
after program opens, select “Full Screen” from the “View” menu
Alternatively, the internet address may be copied and then pasted in “open” in your browser.

"A little help from my friends" is my favorite at the moment. My wife had a cerebral aneurism rupture four days ago. They admitted her to a local hospital on Tuesday night and she spent a few hours of the early morning in the OR while they did an MRI of her brain and managed to stop the internal bleeding by filling the aneurism with platinum wire.
One of the operating neurosurgeons summed things up like this (two days after the procedure)" If you had told me two days ago, when your wife was admitted that she'd be showing real cognitive activity so soon after such a serious trauma I'd have thought you were crazy"

Now, today she talks and is starting to eat real food and knows where she is and what happened to her.
She won't be playing a lot of tennis this week but she's definitely come a long way in a short time.

I am not a religious man but I firmly believe that the outpouring of love and compassion from dozens of friends and relatives and they're prayers and meditations have created a positive aura that is helping her recovery.
As they say "One door closes and another opens" The open door is concentrated love and compassion and that's "A lot of help from our friends"

Touching piece, Saul. Perhaps I should say "peace" instead, as that seems to be where you have arrived after many years of stress.

May you have many more peaceful joys in your future.

Oh Saul. I thank you with all my heart. I am only 54, but I went to my father's 80th birthday last night and I knew more strongly that some day I will die and this helped me feel, for a minute, that death doesn't render life a mere bone, all the fat joy dripped smoking on the hearth.

I share your view of the big things, and you have expressed so beautifully how I feel, but could never put into words of my own. You have a gift for observation which probably contributed to your career as a journalist.

Have a wonderful cruise!

Thank you Saul...you are one of those miracles we should all celebrate.

Saul, thank you for the gift of this piece which I will share with many others and read again and again myself. You are a blessing.

Enjoy your insights, historical references, thoughtful commentary, and humor. Especially appreciate the sentiments you express here,

Saul, My dear friend and neighbor these many years. I stopped by to see you today. You were sleeping peacefully so I set with Evelyn and we spoke of the years you two have spent together. I realize now that even though I thought I knew you, I have discovered from reading your columns that you were so much more then I had imagined. You brought so much to so many people. You truly are one of the small miracles you spoke about in your column last Saturday. I will miss you and your cigar. You have truly lived and have given yourself to all who were willing to listen and read your articles.

I love you Gampoo. You've given me the world and the eyes to see it for what it is. I'm proud to call you my Grandfather.

I sit here crying as the memories come flooding in. You impacted me more than any adult in my formative years. Thank you for being there, and for being that person. Your living room chats complete with wine and cigs and great music are hardwired into my memory banks. How lucky I was to have known you, even for such a short time. You will be so sorely missed.

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