Lessons from the ICU
I’m sorry I wasn’t able to make a new blog post last week. I was in intensive care at the time with a critically low sodium level and Influenza A. As with all experiences we’d rather not have, there were some bright spots, moments that were instructive, not only for the person I am, but for the writer I am as well.
Slow down. It was nice, truth be told, to be able to shut out the world for a time, to let its noise and demands fade away, to not always be thinking about the next thing I had to get done. We need to allow our writing processes these same periods of rest, to not always be forcing the words onto the page, to let our material deepen over time. We might also allow our characters this same gift. In the midst of narratives that are moving from event to event, we might find those moments of peace, of silence, for our main characters, moments where their experience of the narrative might have the chance to take on additional layers of meaning. Readers pay attention to the attention that the characters pay to the events of the narrative. Those characters sometimes need time and rest in order to pay closer attention to the stories they occupy.
Know that love is always present. I can be a stubborn cuss. Last Friday night, when my wife, Cathy, a nurse, noticed that I was restless, agitated, mildly confused, she insisted on taking me to the ER. “No,” I told her. Her reply: “I’m making an executive decision. We’re going.” It was a good thing we did. My sodium level was at a critical stage where I could have suffered seizures. Cathy knew I needed medical attention and she made sure I got it. During the nearly seven days in the hospital, she rarely left my side. She was there to help with my care. She was there to talk to the countless doctors who attended to me. She was a calming presence at moments of concern. She was a gentle presence, who only told me later how frightened she was that she might lose me. I’m blessed with her love as well as the love of friends and family. I try my best to return it. We can give our characters this same love. No matter the ugliness of their lives, we might find small moments of grace for them. We might do better to understand the sources of their behaviors. We might think about what they carry with them from their pasts. I like to imagine my adult characters as children. It never fails to soften, or at least cast light on, their rough edges.
Give thanks for the care from strangers. I received such good care from a host of strangers, healthcare professionals who serve with patience and kindness. It’s good for a writer to be reminded of such sacrifice, to understand that our anxieties over how our writing is going shrink in comparison to the importance of the work these nurses and doctors do. We are similar caretakers of our characters. We should listen to them carefully. We should do what we can to satisfy their needs. We should open ourselves to the totality of a lived life in an attempt to be more understanding.
Ah, perchance to dream. One minute I was moving from the chair to the bed, and the next minute I was gone. Cathy said my eyes rolled back in my head, and she and the physical therapy aide laid me back and started calling my name. I was only out a few seconds, but in that time I had the most wonderful dream. I was riding in my father’s 1953 Chevy pickup along the County Line Road near our farm. He’d come to get me, he said. I was a little boy again, and I felt such peace being with my father, with whom I’d shared much turbulence and heartache. It was near dusk. The mourning doves were cooing. A breeze was blowing through the wheat in the fields. We were just driving. I didn’t want to come back from that dream, but I heard Cathy calling my name, and I opened my eyes and there she was. I was back in the world, and thankful, if only a little sad to leave the boy I was behind with my father. The writer often operates within this space between the real world and whatever world exists beyond it. Our characters long for peace and perfection even while doing what they can to make a mess of things in the here and now. What would it take to make them happy? Can they imagine it, dream it? Can we allow them those small moments of grace necessary to the lives they wish they had?
I’d never wish for Influenza A or for a critically low sodium level, but illness has a way of clarifying. It provides a moment of pause. It gives us an angle from outside whatever it is that concerns or preoccupies us. It demands we pay attention, and perhaps that’s the greatest lesson of all for a writer—to pay close attention to this wonderfully messy world that blesses us each day we’re lucky enough to be alive.
Holy cow. That’s so beautiful.
I cried, Lee–standing at the top of the stairs, stopping to read this news.
You’re someone who heals us. Stick around. The Chevy will wait!
Love your way.
Roy, Cathy said my dad can’t have me just yet. Guess the Chevy will indeed have to wait.
Cathy is right– you have miles to go right here on our earthly plane. Thank goodness!
As do you, Jeanne!
A lovely take on a scary situation! Sometimes we need that wake up call. Glad you are on the mend.
Wow – it’s kinda good to know that in the “between state” we can be lead to a comforting place – or lead through comfortably. I’m glad though that Cathy called you back. Makes me hope there is someone there to call out to me when and if I might need it.
It was the oddest feeling, Joy. I’m glad to be back.
Love this: “What would it take to make them happy?” I’m digging into a near-final revision on my novel, and I want this in my mind as I tackle the text. So happy to hear you’re okay and that you have a Cathy.
Thanks, Angie. Good luck with the revision.
So glad you are back! We need you as does Cathy. She’s my kinda gal making Executive Decisions. Many thanks to Cathy from this follower.
Wow, that’s some nasty flu. Glad you recovered. Tough way to generate new material.
I’m very grateful to Cathy for making that executive decision and also for caring for you along with the hospital staff. This is a very moving post. It will stick with me as I move through my day. I will find moments slowness and remember to pay attention.
I am so happy to hear of your recovery and healing after such an ordeal. The two most powerful words in your blog? Slow down. I will heed those words of wisdom.
I’m so grateful I stumbled on this especially thoughtful post today, and even more grateful that its author is so generous with his life experiences, on and off the page. Lee, you are a fountain of wisdom for fictionaires and story-weavers of all walks and levels. So glad you’re on the mend — for Cathy, and for folks like me, who you bless and nudge and challenge in ways that truly matter. Be well, and thank you.
Thanks so much, Abbey. I wish the best for you and your work.
So glad you’re okay. Thanks for always sharing wisdom, no matter what. Take good care!
While my heart lurched at the thought of you in danger, it also swooned at your ability to pull out the beautiful, just as you did in The Bright Forever.
I need these insights today, as I revise chapters and wrap my head around helping one of my unlikable characters reveal her buried heart.
Thanks so much, Britton. I hope your work goes well.