How to learn not to take life for granted


Realizing that I’ve been taking something for granted is never an abstraction. It generally happens by whack and wallop.
A crucial part of the realization process is acknowledgment. Maybe even learning something. So pardon the details I’m about to reveal, but I’m trying to figure out what I may have learned these past few days, even as I call out to the universe: “Enough!” I don’t want any more life lessons for a while. (Come on, I’m only 77.)
My longtime buddy Malcolm — we’ve been best friends since 1967 — came to town last week. Wow, cool. Two long-ago hippies on their own in Chicago. The world felt wide open, and I was host. But the day he arrived, as I lay in bed that morning, my right knee woke me up with a piercing poke in my consciousness. Not again!
I’d seen a doctor for the knee pain, had X-rays taken, gotten a cortisone injection. The pain stopped, my hobbling stopped, I felt in control of my life again. So for it to reappear a few hours before Malcolm’s arrival — not fair! I was determined to remain a functioning host. Things weren’t that bad. Just a little pain. I could still drive. I took us to a restaurant for dinner. Yeah, this’ll pass. We’ll have a great time.
But then things got worse. Next morning, it wasn’t just knee pain. There was something new, out of nowhere: excruciating ankle pain. Both knee and ankle were in the right leg, basically turning me into a one-legged guy. Standing up was an act of desperation. Moving a short distance was even worse. I was no longer the host. I was the guy on the couch — much of the time asleep, just because awakeness was too difficult. What was going on? I’d be lying there, then the ankle would quiver and twitch in pain and I’d lurch, then slowly drift back out of consciousness.

Malcolm took care of everything. He walked to the market, bought some beans, made chili. He got everything I needed. He did the laundry. When he wasn’t working on something — and when I wasn’t asleep — he’d sit next to me on the couch and we’d talk. Oh, life!
This wasn’t the visit either of us had anticipated, but he said — with occasional big smiles — that he was enjoying himself. It was as though we were getting to know each other at a level beyond the ordinary bounds of friendship, even best-friendship. This was something new. He was inside my life.
Two days into the visit, we finally decided that I needed to go to the doctor. It was more Malcolm than me deciding this, because I was determined to transcend the pain, be bigger than it — to defeat it, or magically make it go away.
The plan was that he’d drive me to an immediate-care clinic that I’d been to several months earlier. But I couldn’t get out to the car on my own, or even with his help. He called 911.
Yeah, that was a first. A fire truck showed up, five firemen came to my door with a folding chair, and they ported me down the porch steps — in the rain, no less. And being the liftee, wow, what a strange sense of helplessness.
They got me to my car. Malcolm drove to the clinic and wheeled me in. More X-rays. This was anything but easy, lifting myself out of a wheelchair, flopping onto the x-ray table. God have mercy!
The doc, who was friendly and positive, remembering me from my previous visit, diagnosed both gout, in the ankle, and pseudo-gout, in the knee. She prescribed pain and an anti-arthritic medication, and shortly we were on our way back home.
Malcolm, two years my senior, was my only steadying force in this moment — helping me out of the car, and then helping me walk with a cane and one functioning leg up the steps. This is where the “taking something for granted” part hit with full force. Praise be for walking!
When I got inside and collapsed on the couch, I let my mind comb the world and think about … oh, war, whatever. The stolen ability to walk, to simply be. Other people’s struggles are not an abstraction. I knew this like I had never known it before. Let me never take life, theirs or mine, for granted again.
Malcolm drove to the drugstore and picked up my prescriptions. When he got back, he said, “My treat.”
The next morning, which happened to be my birthday, I couldn’t believe it. Both the knee and ankle pain had vanished. I could walk again. And Malcolm headed off to the airport.
As I watched him leave, I found myself swimming in emotional wonder. We’ve been best friends for 56 years. Suddenly the awe I felt for our friendship — our love — was beyond comprehension.

Robert Koehler (koehlercw@gmail.com), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor. He is the author of “Courage Grows Strong at the Wound.”