Friday, September 30, 2011

Afraid of the Dark, Part 2:

Part one, which explains why I was afraid in the first place, is here.
So once I realized I couldn't go back to sleep I picked up my rosary and started saying it. I keep a loaded pistol with a tac-light on the floor by the head of my bed (there are no women or children in the apartment) and a large, razor sharp kukri knife strapped to the head board (no, it’s not paranoia. It’s just a convenient place to keep these things.) And I always have my rosary hanging from the handle of the knife. I say it to fall asleep, or if I wake up and can’t go back to sleep. If I’m awake I may as well be doing something useful, right? Ten decades later (this went on for a bit) I’m feeling a little better. I’ve thought it through pretty well. It’s kind of fun to think about fear as an intellectual exercise while you’re in the middle of. I’ve done that an awful lot and I was doing it this morning. I knew, of course, that this was not a fear with an object. There was no dangerous thing presented to my senses. It was just a fear of the diabolical. I presented the scenario to myself, “What would I do if I did open my eyes and the demon lady was standing there?” Well, honestly I think that would have been less frightening. Sort of a, “Finally. I wondered when you were going to do something,” sort of feeling. It’s always easier when you finally look your enemy in the face and dare him (or her) to do the worst.

I would have reached for the knife probably. I wouldn’t have used the pistol as a first option, because first, it probably wouldn’t accomplish anything, and second, I would be firing in the direction of my roommate’s room. Even with hollow points, I wouldn’t want to bet on the wall stopping my hollow points. On the other hand a knife stirs up a fierce warrior spirit which lessens fear. I realized that if some sort of incorporeal visitor did show up, the primary threat is simply fear. If I can’t hurt it physically, it probably can’t hurt me physically. All it can do is terrorize (this seemed crystal clear to me at the time.) Fear is a painful emotion. It feels toxic, like a burning in my throat, a jittery, unsettled feeling. I control it by long habit, but it is not pleasant. Even jumping out of an airplane is exactly the same. The fear is the primary threat, not the jump. I am consciously aware of this, especially when I am in the middle of some frightening situation, and it allows me to shove the fear off to the side and evaluate it objectively. Eventually I can force my nerves and muscles to respond to my will, despite their reluctance to do so. Breaking out of that freeze is the hard part, after that doing nearly anything can’t be worse than doing nothing at all.

After about an hour of this I finally decided to go and turn on the AC. I did stick the pistol in the back waistband of my shorts. Not that I thought it would do any good, but it is primarily a “just in case” thing anyway. Once I had a clear line of fire, i.e. with no roommate’s room in the background, if something had appeared I probably would have put a couple of rounds right in the center of where it would have had mass, if it were a mass-having type of creature. Purely on the principle of the matter, you understand.

It’s remarkable, though, how much difference it makes having the temperature right. Once the AC was going and the temp started getting down into the sixties, I was able to get comfortable and fall asleep in about one more decade.

I don’t mind not sleeping that much. When I woke up at 0345 I knew that it was likely I wouldn’t get back to sleep again, but I had already gotten about five hours and that would be more than enough to get me through the day. A night or two of poor or no sleep is not something I worry about. Eventually I will get tired and go to sleep. I don’t even really mind the fear. It isn’t so much something I feel as something I look at. It is an inconvenience that will go away eventually.

What I really mind is people who make movies like that and stick previews of them in front of quite a different kind of movie. I don’t like horror movies like that, the supernatural evil type films. I take supernatural evil quite seriously. There really is a devil, he really does hate you and he really can terrorize people. I know some people who have experienced minor levels of it in real life. I know he exists, and that he is stronger than I am, and that if he could he would like nothing better than to terrorize every living person until they went mad from fear. This is not funny. It is not a joking matter.

It does not worry me. He may be stronger than I am, but God is stronger than he is, and I am confident that God will never allow me any trial I cannot bear. To put it another way, no matter what trial He allows me, He will also give me the strength to bear it. That’s what the rosary is about in situations like that, reminding yourself of His faithfulness and trying to pass that on to whoever you’re praying for. But I have to ask, why would you think that’s a good thing to make a movie about? It’s not like jumping out of an airplane or off a bridge into a river for a thrill. This is something evil and ugly you are deliberately exposing your mind to. Why would you want to watch it or encourage those who make it? When it comes right down to it, why would you want to feel afraid? I expect I’ve done my share of frightening things, and when it comes right down to it I’m usually able to gut through it, by the grace of God. Why anyone would want to feel it for its own sake is a mystery to me. Fear sucks. Live without it when you can, face it when you have to. Filling your mind with artificial, pointless human suffering, fictional as it may be, and dosing up on the real fear it produces is a toxic, soul numbing, stupid thing to do.

That’s just my opinion. Does anyone reading this like horror movies? What is your experience of them? Why do you like them?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Afraid of the Dark

I had a very unpleasant experience this morning. Back track, though, to what started it. Yesterday afternoon I went to see a movie. It was an action film, and not a particularly great one, but good enough for a matinee. One of the previews, however, was kind of a shocker. At first it was just a home video of two little girls playing in the backyard of a ordinary American home, one jumping on the trampoline, the other hanging around the edge of it. The dad who was taking the video was trying to get the girl on the ground to smile when suddenly the picture changed. It was a brief flash, not enough for me to see what the new picture was. It went right back to the home video footage, but it was fast, dark and disturbing. It turned the back yard and the home video and everything else sinister. Then the dark disturbing music began and rapid flashes of sinister images. I covered my ears and closed my eyes, but there were two things I remember from the rest of the preview. First was the quote, “I don’t remember. We didn’t know what it was, we just knew it thrived on fear. The more we paid attention to it, the stronger it got.”

The second was a long scene of the two little girls playing around in the bathroom. They had a camera set up to look in the mirror, and they turned the lights off so all you could see was the power indicator light from the camera. Then they said the phrase, “Bloody Mary” three times together, and waited to see what would happen. It turned out the older one had set it up as a prank on the younger one because she had a flashlight and after a couple of seconds she turned it on so it lit just the lower part of her face and yelled. Of course the younger girl screamed and then laughed, but as the flashlight swung around the bathroom, and they chased each other out the door, for a split second you could just make out a tall female figure standing in the dark behind them. It was nothing more than a silhouette with long, tousled hair hanging all around its head, but when I saw it (I had opened my eyes) three thoughts immediately crossed my mind. First was, “Saw that coming.” Then I thought, “That’s a really cheap, simple, and powerful movie effect.” Then I said ruefully to myself, “Well, that’s going to keep me awake tonight.” Apparently it was the trailer for Paranormal Activity 3. I haven’t seen the first two, and what do you know? Looks like I’m going to plan on never seeing the third one either.

Fast forward through to about 3:45 this morning. Thus far I hadn’t even thought about the movie. Then I woke up, hot and thirsty and with two hours before the alarm went out. Usually I just use the bathroom, drink some water, and go back to sleep. Unfortunately, as I lay back down something kicked that scene, with the tall lady standing in the background, into the front of my mind. It was not a pleasant thought. The window was a little open, but the air outside was humid and still. The air conditioning was turned way up, and I always have trouble sleeping when it’s hot. Ideally I like it to be in the sixties or I just can’t get comfortable. I’ve slept outside in sub-freezing weather, and in 90+ weather. I would pick sub-freezing for sleeping any day.

So there I was, trying to sleep and being unable to. Every time I opened my eyes I was scanning the room for a tall, ragged female shape, and every time there was a noise outside the window I keyed in on it like a cat. Now, I don’t usually have night fears. I operate in the dark all the time, and usually it gives me a feeling of being at an advantage. But every once in a while I’ll have a night like that, where for some reason it just feels like there is disembodied fear in the air. Nothing to do about it, but just endure it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Scope of Practice

One night the EMS brought in a girl who was found unresponsive in her home. By the time she arrived at the ER she was answering questions, mostly appropriately, albeit with a significant delay. We were able to get a complete but contradictory history from her. She denied remembering anything, although she said she had had one drink and some marijuana with her friends that morning. We told her this looked like a drug overdose but she didn’t respond to that. She was a very pretty 21 year old, but she was far too thin for her body type and her forearms were crisscrossed by dozens of fine white scars. Physical exam was mostly unremarkable, except for a general lethargy and delayed/weakened motor responses in her extremities, and her pupils which were pinpointed, no focused and sluggishly reactive to light. She did not have the ability to follow a light with her eyes. All ocular movement was erratic and saltatory.

We did a urinalysis (UA) tox screen on her and it came back hot for barbiturates. Looking back in her file I found that this was her fourth time in the ER for prescription drug use. To top it all off, she was a pharmacy tech.

We had a long discussion with the ER doc about what we could do. We were all agreed that she shouldn’t be working in a pharmacy, but he said there was nothing we could do without violating patient doctor privilege. I argued that the laws contain a clause that states that if the patient is in imminent danger of causing harm to herself or others we not only have a right but a responsibility to report it to the appropriate authorities. In my view if a druggy is handing out drugs, her dipping into her own stock is the least of my worries. My worry is that she’ll be high at work and she’ll mislabel a bottle or put the wrong pills in it, or the wrong dose, or give it to the wrong patient and that could literally kill someone. Has it happened yet? No. I don’t think waiting for it to happen is a good plan. She needs to get fired for everyone else’s safety.

And what about her? Why the drugs and the alcohol and the cutting? Her mother showed up at the ER and wanted to take her home against her will. The charge nurse explained to her that we could not release her into anyone’s custody because she was not a minor. We could not keep her if she didn’t want to leave, we could not sign her over to her mother if she didn’t want to go. Her mother argued back, unable to see the plain facts of the situation through her grief and frustration. Didn’t we see that if she went back to her own house she would just get stuck with her friends again, and these friends were really bad. It was all their fault her daughter was doing drugs. If the patient could come home with her she (the mother) would keep the bad influences out of her life and she would turn around. Why couldn’t we just see that?

I couldn’t help but wonder, if that parental love hasn’t been sufficient thus far, what makes her think it’s going to become magically effective now? Regardless, legally there was nothing we could do. Like it or not, she was 21 years old. She was legally responsible for her own decisions and we could no more remand her into her mother’s custody than we could detox her. She was not in danger of her life. She was not overdosed, she was just stoned. That’s what those drugs are supposed to do. Even if she had been in danger the only treatment is to stick a tube in her stomach and pump out any pills that haven’t been absorbed, dilute with activated charcoal and support heart rate and respirations until the effects wear off.

What was up with her? The problem was far beyond emergency room scope of practice. Did her parents not love her? Had she been abused as a child? Had she not been able to find any good friends? Whatever the myriad single elements that made it up, they all came to one thing. The problem was that she had a deep, throbbing, aching, abysmal hole in the depths of her soul. That is beyond my scope of practice.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pineland Bivouac

Pineland Bivouac

Light on the cheekbones

Strong fingers of airy gold

Bright, blazing, baked smell

Of soft, sharp, sunkissed pine straw.

Carpet thick like thatch

Fallen on forest floor.

Dusty, drifted, dry

Burning, bright blanket

Myriad acupuncture needles

Under bare, bruised, battered, butchered feet:

Glorious after the march.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Spiritual Stomachs: Rambo Style

I came up with a theory of spirituality this weekend, based on a quote from Rambo: First Blood. I think I made a real stride forward in spiritual understanding.
We all know some people who just can't seem to thrive spiritually. Whether it's in our church or our family or a larger circle of acquaintances, they just can't seem to draw any nourishment. A sermon or homily that inspires and ennobles me leaves them cold and somewhat put off. A book that I think is wise and profound seems to them harsh and uncaring. C.S.Lewis is too stuffy, JPII is too learned, the parish priest is not understanding enough, the deacon is too pre-vatican II, the youth group leader is too post-vatican II, etc.

I am not talking about the people who simply live to find fault with whatever they are hearing or reading. That is a different problem. I am talking about people with real emotional or intellectual hangups that make them unable to draw nourishment from something. Maybe the person preaching is reminding them of the emotionally abusive preaching they heard as children. Maybe the book is echoing overly rigid parental moralizing, or duplicating guilt trips taken as a teenager.

See, when you are a teacher (and we are all teachers at one time or another) there is more to teaching than the truth you are saying. There is also the intent with which you say it, which is sometimes very hard to come to terms with. Nothing makes a more effective battering ram than the truth, precisely because the one using it as a weapon can quiet his conscience with the fact that what he is saying is true. Or mostly true. Or based on the truth. Or very likely true.

Even more important is the person receiving what you are saying. Not everyone can receive everything right now. Some people simply aren't ready yet. This requires the teacher to listen, really listen, far more than he speaks. It is only by listening, not just with ears but with mind and heart and whatever intuition you are gifted with, that you can begin to understand how your listeners are hearing you and whether you are helping or hindering them.

It's like cooking a meal for someone. Some people are allergic to wheat, or dairy, or peanuts, or yeast. Some unfortunate people are allergic to everything except white rice and water. No matter how delicious the food you buy, it can be ruined if you don't cook it well. Even if the food is good and you have cooked it perfectly, it is worse than useless if your guest dies of anaphylaxis after the first bite.

In the same way it isn't enough to ensure that what you are saying is true. That's the necessary starting point, since no one can cook make mud nourishing, no matter how good a cook you are. But also you must learn to present it in a pleasing manner, and makes sure that you are cooking it so that your recipients can eat it.

I have been singularly blessed in this matter. My spiritual stomach is almost as solid as my physical stomach, which is all but unshakeable. I have eaten worms from a pit that a hundred men had been rolling around in for days. I have eaten road kill. I have eaten raw meat, grass and bugs, drunk creek water, and eaten food off street shops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea. Nothing upsets my stomach (except too much caffeine, weirdly enough). It's like cast iron. I have almost no food hangups either. There is only one food I have ever come across that makes me gag trying to swallow it and that is soggy bread. For some reason I still can't eat that.

Spiritually my digestion is very similar. I can read any book and draw something from it, including, but not limited to, the Leveyan Satanic Bible, Fight Club, and Once and Future King, (words cannot describe how much I loathe that book. Given the choice I would re-read "Fight Club" before I resubjected myself to Once and Future King.) There have only been a few books in my life that I've thrown out without finishing. I once ordered all the works of DeSaad and threw them away without even opening them because I read a summary of his life before they arrived. There are limits to what I can and will imbibe and I am getting pickier, especially when it comes to movies. But when it comes to people, I can't remember the last time I was unable to stomach something someone said. There is always something useful, even in the most abusive, or angry, or foolish, or pigheaded opinions, even if the benefit comes simply from suffering them gladly and praying for them.

I can eat things that would make a billy goat puke.

When we share the faith we are serving a banquet for our brother or sister. Let the food we serve be nourishing, let us cook it to the limit of our skill, doing justice to the greatness of the substance by presenting it well. And let's not douse it in hot sauce if our guests don't like spicy food. That's only courtesy.

I know what you're thinking, "What does this have to do with Rambo?" To answer that I embed the following clip from what is pretty much the most awesome cheesetastic movie ever:

Friday, September 16, 2011

Naked Under Your Skin

Let’s take the idea of nakedness a little bit further, by taking a look at the history of clothing.

The first garment ever modeled by humans was a fig leaf, or several fig leaves, sewn together by Adam and Eve to cover themselves after they ate the apple. Shortly after that, God made them clothes out of animal hides to cover them better. You don’t get a lot of wear out of fig leaves, apparently.

At the same time they were stitching their fig leaves together they were also listening for God coming to them in the garden, and when they heard him come, they hid themselves.

What changed? Before they ate the apple they were naked together without shame, and they conversed with God face to face without fear. What changed? How did they suddenly become ashamed of themselves? To answer that, we follow the two trends, for they continue to this day. We are still making clothes to hide from each other, and we are still trying to hide from God. The reason for both is the same.

Nakedness is an expression of vulnerability. This may seem self evident, but take a moment to think it over. When you were an infant people changed your diaper, bathed you and dressed you without your consent, but as you grew older you learned to do all these things (except, perhaps, change your diaper) for yourself. “I can do it myself, Mommy,” is an expression of both maturity and of control. It is now possible for you to set boundaries. Privacy is introduced. Some children have more trouble learning this than others do, but eventually most people develop a sense of modesty, which is the ability to say to the world, “This is private, none of your business.”

Why do we teach this, and why is the instinct learned so readily? Because on some level we all learn fear. The nakedness of the human body was designed for a purpose, the purpose of affecting a union. The union is to be a union of free choice, and total self-surrender, which is why it is so beautiful and powerful. It is a gift. The essential ingredient of a gift is freedom, both freedom to receive and freedom to give. What Adam and Eve did was to reach out and attempt to seize a gift (“you will be like God, knowing good from evil”) that was not given them. They violated the freedom. As soon as they did that their “eyes were opened” and they saw each other in a new way. Adam saw Eve and saw that, if he didn’t want to, he didn’t have to wait for her to give herself freely to him. He could take her by force and dominate her, physically and emotionally. Eve saw that he could do this, and she saw that she could control him more subtly by charm and seduction. Each learned, all in a second, that it was possible to use the other, rather than wait for the freedom of gift. Did they really think it out that far? I doubt it. I very much doubt they could see in an instant all the long history of abuse and domination, manipulation and rape that they set in motion. They could not see the horror of depression, self-mutilation, suicide and sheer emotional and spiritual pain that they had unleashed. All they knew (I would guess) was that the other was no longer fully trustworthy. Each feared, where fear had been unknown before, and they created barriers to hide behind.

The relationship with God was much the same. After trying to snatch out of His hand something that He had not yet given them, they realized they had betrayed His trust and love. Unable to stand the guilt and shame they hid. I wonder if they didn’t project their own selfishness on Him and fear that He would take from them and use them. They certainly tried to shift the blame, Adam shifting it to Eve, and through her to God. Eve blamed the serpent. But they feared God, and they hid. Foolish gesture, of course. Nothing and no one is hidden from God, but God is not like us. He will not Lord His power over us. He wanted Adam and Eve to lay their souls completely open and free before Him, but if they wouldn’t consent to be naked before Him (spiritually) He wouldn’t force them. He allowed them to hide.

The rest of salvation history has been His coaxing, His wooing of us. This is symbolized in human courtship. We talk of smooth lady’s men who can “charm the pants off” the women they want, which is a perversion of the gift. A profound and deeply right symbol of that gift is a husband slowly wooing his wife’s heart until she has no fear of giving him her body. She feels comfortable and safe with him because, as John says in his letters, “There is no fear in love for perfect love casts out all fear.” We are all still trying to hide from the God who loves us. We clutch our dirty rags of vanity and self-delusion around the nakedness of our souls and scream in fear at the slightest hint of being asked to strip them off. We fear God using us (for we use each other and ourselves) but He never will. He will spend our lives slowly teaching us to be comfortable with Him and feel safe with Him, but He will not be satisfied until we shed every last stitch of our pitiful scraps of covering and allow Him to wash us clean and dress us in robes made white in the blood of the Lamb. He wants to marry the Church, His Bride. He Himself will provide the wedding garment, but it will be to adorn the beauty of His Bride, not to hide her shame. She will have no shame left.

She will be perfectly willing to appear before Him naked, seen through and through by His piercing gaze, and she will not shrink. Perfect love will have cast out all fear.

We are that Church.
I am that Church.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cricket in the Dark

One time in Afghanistan, around Christmas I think it was, we stopped over in FOB Tillman. We were doing some blasting to cut out rock so the construction engineers could build a nice new road to the top of the mountain where the FOB had an observation point (OP). It was a nice easy job, only during daylight hours, and the cooks knew what they were doing at that FOB. They left the chowhall open at all hours, so no matter when you got the munchies you could walk in and grab some chips or those little single serving microwave pizzas or some raw fruit of some kind. Our sleeping arrangements weren't so bad either, apart from the mold-and-gasoline smell that permeated them. They were old brick buildings with I-beams supporting brick roofs, and they had clearly seen some use, but we didn't have to pull guard duty, there were plenty of cots, and some MRE boxes to use as card tables.

On this particular night, we were all packed up to be ready to leave the next morning and we turned the lights off at about nine. I was asleep fairly quickly. I slept about the same as I always sleep, which is to say I woke up every couple of hours to drink some water, and every time I woke up in the middle of the night I heard a cricket chirping away in some pitch black corner of the room. Sometimes I awoke to the sound of swearing or a flashlight being cursorily swung around the corners of the room. No one put it in any serious effort to find the offending insect. Instead they turned off their flashlights, muttered some vulgarity or profanity, and tried to muffle their ears with their pillows.

In the morning the LT was tired and cranky and almost the first thing he said after lights on was (I'll pay fifty bucks to anyone who can find that @#$%#@$%^ cricket and kill it!"

"Aw, come on, Sir," I said in the voice of sweet reason. "He's just trying to find a lady cricket. All he wants is a little love and affection."

"That's all well and good," the LT snapped. "But I think after six %$^#&! hours, I'd give up."

I didn't reply to that because he was in a bad mood, but secretely I was glad no one hunted down that cricket and killed him. He was a persistent little fellow and I was rooting for him. After all, faint heart never won fair lady.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Naked Under Your Clothes

A few weeks back I posted as my facebook status “Naked I came into the world, naked I shall depart it. One could say that a truly wise man spends his entire life naked.” It got some laughs and some semi joking agreements, and at least a couple of people thought it was a disturbing image.

The truth is that it was half a thought. It came into my head for some reason on the tail end of an ER shift that was winding to a close. Something suggested the well-known quote, “Naked I came into the world, naked I shall depart it.” I’m not sure what brought it to mind, but it came into my head. At four in the morning my thoughts are often rampant flights of association and immediately I thought of the phrase, “naked as the day I was born,” and switched it to “naked as the day I will die.” I brought in the old story of the samurai who practiced death every night by hanging his sword over his pillow and staring up at it until he fell asleep. I remembered the story of Saint Francis when his father disowned him, how he stripped himself of all his fine clothes in the middle of the public square and went on naked to beg for his food and clothing for the rest of his life. As I say, these are all flights of association. They went through my mind in less time than it will take you to read the period at the end of this sentence. In fact, you probably wouldn’t even read the period unless I reminded you it was there, but you would grasp the significance of it nonetheless. My mind works somewhat the same way in moments like that. Things come together faster than I can watch, and I grasp the significance without seeing the moving pieces. So as soon as I thought “Naked I came into the world, naked I shall depart,” I said, (out loud) “I guess a wise man would spend as much of his life as possible naked.”

It’s okay. My buddy that I was talking to is used to my conversational style. He responded very appropriately, “You’re retarded.”

So now I’ve had a few weeks to allow that thought to percolate and it’s time to look at it more analytically. St. Francis is a good starting point. He grasped the spiritual principle so intimately that he exercised it literally and physically as well. He stripped in the town square and walked off without a stitch on, and for the rest of his life he counted nothing in the world his own. It’s as if he thought, “I won’t be able to take any of it with me when I die. Why lug it around here?” He was essentially travelling light. When God called him he didn’t have to waste any time packing.

I am not recommending a nudist colony, any more than I believe that kind of total detachment from the things of this earth is the norm. St. Francis was a sign. He lived in an extraordinary way to point out to the rest of us the truth, which is that eventually, total detachment must come. In the end, in death, we will be totally removed from everything in this world, so wisdom dictates that we practice such removal.

Now, just as literal nakedness is not appropriate in most situations in our world, so wisdom is not necessarily getting rid of everything we own, but certainly being ready to. Putting our possessions in their right place. A good example is my Dad. After working the farm under his father for thirty years, and then owning it himself for less than ten years, he came home one day to find the barn burned down. His response? He shrugged his shoulders and said, “God has a reason.”

When he had a barn and a herd he worked them into the dirt. He poured his blood, sweat and tears into them, fourteen hours a day, every day, for his entire adult life. When they were taken away he shrugged and thanked God, and we saw where his security truly lay. He has been naked under his clothes for many years.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Shepherd

I had a man come into the ER one day. He was 94 years old. He had had diarrhea for two days, and then that morning he had felt tired and drowsy. So much so that he didn’t go out to walk his sheep to pasture and watch them all day, as he had done every day for nearly a century, with hardly any breaks. His daughter had gotten nervous and brought him into the ER. He spoke very little English, but he told his story with no frills and no fuss. It was not a big deal to him. His daughter supplied the nervousness. We drew some blood to check for all the usual suspects, i.e. infection, diabetes, anemia, etc. We hooked him up to a line of normal saline because we figured after two days of diarrhea he would be a bit dehydrated. Then we got a 12 lead EKG, which showed a rhythm that many 50 year olds would envy.

You have to picture him as I saw him, to understand. He was old, with a typical broad, Navajo face burned almost coffee brown from years of weather. He was very tall. I would bet he was once over six feet, and even now he stood with very little stoop and was as tall as I was. He wore tight jeans and cowboy boots, and a belt with an enormous buckle, a flannel button up shirt and a white cowboy hat. All his clothes were well worn, but clean, as if he had gotten dressed up to come to the hospital. When I went to look for a vein to stick him with the IV I saw that his arms were still thick and ropy, with great, gnarly veins like worms coursing under splotchy brown skin. He had the same perpetual farmer’s tan my Dad and Grandfather always had. He sat bolt upright on the end of the bed, kicking his legs like an impatient two year old, until we asked him to slide back against the raised head of the bed. He hopped his feet up onto the end of the bed and scooted on back with ease and when I asked him, through his daughter as an interpreter, whether that had made him tired, he took a deep, exaggerated breath and shook his head with studied nonchalance. “No.”

Bless his heart, that old man wasn’t giving us an inch. I rejoiced to see his pride.

So I got his history and did a physical exam. I had a hard time listening to his lungs through the thick, solid muscles of his back. His daughter said he used to be a very powerful man when he was younger. All I can say is, if I make it to ninety, may I be in that kind of shape. He told us a bit about his experiences as an artillery man in Europe in WWII, and seemed to be much more interested in that story than in being too tired to walk the sheep for one day.

We left him with a specimen cup and instructions to give us a urine specimen as soon as he could. I wanted to check for a UTI (Urinary Tract Infection). It’s always in the back of your mind for old people with unexplained sudden general malaise. But then again, so is pneumonia, G.I. bleed, septicemia, etc. You have to rule out problems by system, there are so many possible issues.

Over the next couple of ours the labs were backed up with patients and so were we, but the old Shepherd’s results came in a little at a time. I checked in on him from time to time. I listened to his lungs to make sure the fluid we were giving him intravenously didn’t go to his lungs. It can do that with old people if their kidneys aren’t working well. After a couple of hours all the blood was back, but he still hadn’t given us any urine. He kept insisting he couldn’t go, which made me suspect he was even more dehydrated than we thought, although these desert folks are probably always down a percent or two from what textbooks would consider optimum. One time I checked on him, he was sitting in the bed twiddling his thumbs (literally) with a frustrated look on his face, and he asked if he could go yet. We told him we couldn’t let him go until we checked the urine. He sighed and looked at the urinal, and then asked us and his daughter to leave. Five minutes later the specimen was at lab.

It turned out nothing was wrong with him. EKG, Chest X-ray, CBC, CMP and UA all negative. All his numbers were probably almost as good as mine. He probably just got a viral gastroenteritis and was feeling sluggish simply because of the dehydration. We let the nurses give him a sandwich and some juice and tell him he could go as soon as he wanted. He ate the sandwich, put his shirt and hat back on and left with his wide, hip swinging stumping walk in those old, beat up, carefully cleaned cowboy boots.

I loved that old man. He was a man with true greatness of soul. He had found something that he loved, that brought him peace, and he was going to do it, and keep doing it. Never mind that his life was slowly drawing to a close. The sheep still needed to go out to pasture every day. He still chose to spend every day alone out in the open air and sun of the Arizona desert, still ate the traditional diet of mutton and fry-bread, still lived and kept close to his children. Someday I think they will find him lying alone and still out on the mesa, and I envy him that death. That is a life truly lived, lived so well that not even the growing onset of death can interfere with him in his business of living his life.

That is true greatness of soul.