A Miracle By Any Other Name

by rthieme on September 20, 2003

barnaby_thiemeIf any column is about “the human dimension of technology,” it’s this one, inasmuch as last week, my beloved youngest son Barnaby had more tubes in him, more drips dripping, more monitors flashing around him than a cyborg out of Terminator 3.

When I arrived at the ICU and saw, moving among the noisy machinery, his still-pink hand, swollen and slow, as it reached for my hand, I cried like a baby. In such moments the fragility, transitory nature, and absolute value of life, all life, is unmistakable. My son was riding his motorcycle on Highway 101 in California when he came around a curve into stopped traffic. He hit the back of a pick-up truck and flew through the air. When paramedics arrived at the scene, there was no blood pressure and they pumped him full of fluids and kept him as stable as they could until a helicopter flew him to Modesto where they scanned the damage and decided that a torn aorta was the most critical injury.

He went into emergency surgery to repair the aorta. They gave fair warning that ignoring his badly broken leg might mean the loss of the leg, that bleeding from his liver had to wait, that staunching the blood flow to the spine during surgery might mean he wouldn’t walk again. There is nothing to do when they read your rights but nod and sign off and get out of the way.

They repaired the aorta. The liver stopped bleeding. They operated on his shattered leg. They left alone his broken ribs and a crack in his upper back. They removed the ventilator and after a few days stopped the morphine drip. His vital signs are good. There’s a long road ahead but it looks as if he’ll make it.

Anyone who has been in an Intensive Care Unit lately knows that it looks like Ridley Scott designed it. Machines breathe, monitors regulate blood flow and drugs, cuffs flex and contract. It’s like a scene out of Bladerunner, with robotic friends manufactured by canny engineers, friends that keep us alive.

Among the tubes and flashing lights is the reason the technology exists, the human soul in the machinery. Without my son’s beating heart, which continues to beat, thank God, the high-tech devices would have no meaning.

The prognosis according to one of the docs is “fantastic.” A torn aorta is fatal 85% of the time. With the other trauma, he said, there had been perhaps a 1% chance of survival.

My son can move his arms and legs and when he speaks it is obviously still my son with his characteristic genius for insight, understatement and humor. A devout Buddhist who has meditated for long hours at the Zen Center and Tassajara Monastery, he of all people can handle a view of a white wall, watching his mind and its shadows move.

We believe he will be OK and we are afraid to believe he will be OK. The depth and intensity of our own trauma, sourced by those telephone calls from hell, continues to linger.

Most of the doctors and nurses use words like “incredibly lucky” but some speak of a miracle and mean it. I hesitate to use that word lest those who lost loved ones wonder what happened when they could have used a miracle too. I do not pretend to understand how it all hangs together or makes sense. The older I get the more obvious it is that those who think they have a clue do not have a clue and those who know they do not have a clue have a shot at having a clue.

But in and of itself, that my son is alive and himself, that he will walk and talk and live, is a miracle by any name, whatever you want to call it.

Miracles come in many forms and during this hard time they sometimes came as felt realities, palpable touches of the spirit. When many people pray, express concern and love and are aligned in a single direction, their energy is amplified. When our consciousness is stripped of trivial concerns by the bone-deep clarity of a crisis, it enables us to focus with a laser-like intensity. When you feel those forces entering your awareness it feels like thermals during a hang-glide coming up from under. It feels like being lifted in a wave, like being a self-conscious node in a network aware of all the connections, knowing the pattern of the pattern of the web.

Our gratitude is impossible to express in such moments because it is absolute and words make everything relative. The choice of people to be there for us is sheer gift and grace and it is impossible to underestimate the impact of a kind word or a prayer. The extremity of our need may magnify the felt power of this unmerited benevolence but even in normal mundane everyday life compassion and generosity of spirit are the glue of the universe.

Anyone who believes the universe only works bottom up and not top down as well is missing some of the data. It begins and ends with consciousness as surely as a network map includes an image of the Big Picture as well as nodes feeling each other out, knitting themselves together from all sides. When we extend ourselves toward each other’s needs we make a connection, becoming something more for a moment but in fact becoming only what we have always been, a singular being not always fully aware of itself in all its particulars, alive in a universe more like thought than stuff or maybe thought and stuff at the same time. As I said, I really haven’t got a clue, just an inkling, an inkling made as bold as the brush stroke of a Zen master on an empty canvas by a moment of transparent clarity and utter terror.

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