CHAPTER ONE: STRUCK BY LIGHTNING
Lazarus, esteemed elder and learned scholar, walks down the central street of his hometown, scrolls under his arm, his robe pristine white, on his way to a study session with his students. As he passes, the town's inhabitants greet him by touching their hands to their foreheads in a sign of respect.
Suddenly, without warning, Lazarus stumbles, falls, and collapses senseless in the street. Immediately a crowd of people runs to his aid, and soon the news electrifies the entire town. Lazarus, the elder, has been struck down, as though by lightning, and even now is being borne to his home, while the town physician is urgently summoned.
What misfortune! What woe! the townspeople exclaim. What are we to do?
In Mill Valley, the suburb of San Francisco where I live, summer days are often cool and fog-shrouded. But July 1999 began with a heat wave. My family -- my wife Amy and grown son Ivan -- were looking forward to the July 4 weekend, a traditional time for us to barbecue hot dogs and corn on the cob, and later perhaps watch the fireworks at the local county fair.
After a busy week in my software business, I was not feeling well. On the day of the holiday, I was running a bit of a fever. But I felt well enough to participate in the festivities; I assumed I had a touch of the flu, or a summer cold.
Over the next week, however, the fever worsened. I was also beginning to feel a sharp pain between my eyes. I suspected a sinus infection, a chronic problem for me, and scheduled an appointment to see the nurse practitioner who assisted my regular family doctor. "Yes," she confirmed, after a quick examination, "looks like a sinus infection to me." She prescribed a sulfa drug and sent me home, certain that I would be well in a day or two.
I took the medicine, but the fever continued to climb. When it hit 103, I moved to the downstairs bedroom, where it was cooler, and began spending the whole day in bed. From then on my memory of events becomes vague. Amy tells me I spent three days in that bedroom, each day sicker than the last, taking powerful pain pills for my headache and sleeping much of each day. Finally, one evening I telephoned my physician's on-call doctor to report that I was beginning to have difficulty balancing, and had a roaring in my ears.
"Can you touch your chin to your neck?" he asked.
I could, but just barely.
"You'd better get down to the emergency room," he said. "Those are fairly striking symptoms. It could be meningitis."
"Go there now?" I said. It was already 9:00 P.M.
"Now," he said firmly.
I don't remember the trip. Amy told me later that I was so dizzy that the only way I could negotiate the outside stairs leading down to the garage was to sit down and slide backward, one step at a time. At the bottom I vomited. I do have a hazy memory of sitting in the car in the parking lot of the emergency room, my vertigo so severe I couldn't get out. When an aide had to lift me into a wheelchair, I cried out in pain.
I also remember the name of the emergency room doctor -- Teufel, which I knew means "devil" in German.
"Teufel! The devil! I am in the hands of the devil!" I thought as they wheeled me into a stall on a gurney.
I have only a few further fragmentary memories of that evening before I lost consciousness -- the voice and face of the kindly Doctor Teufel -- in real life an angel, not devil -- the roaring of the hospital fans, and Amy, hovering over me with loving concern. I also recall her face sometime later that evening, wrapped in a mask of metal foil. And I thought, "The devil's got her too!"
But there was a reason for the mask. Who knew what contagious horror I might be carrying? At this point the doctors could not be too careful.
I soon lost consciousness entirely.
For the next two weeks I would be a patient, not a person. It would be two weeks before I would emerge from deep coma and be lucid enough to understand what had happened -- that I had been struck down by an acute and life-threatening case of viral encephalitis, a rare disease with various causes. Sometimes, as in the case of the West Nile virus that made headlines that same summer in New York, it is carried by mosquitoes, but this was not so in my case. The doctors suspected herpes zoster, the same virus that causes cold sores, but they could not prove it. In spite of the diligent efforts of several infectious disease specialists (they even sent a sample of my blood and spinal fluid to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta), no one was ever able to determine how one person in a suburb of San Francisco could come down with a disease more usually seen in Africa or Southeast Asia. My chances of getting it were probably about the same as being struck by lightning.
We read about random tragedies every day in the paper: a car full of joyous teenagers crashes, a kindly old woman is brutally murdered, a high school principal falls off a ladder while changing a lightbulb in his house and becomes a quadraplegic. We know these things happen all around us. They are a part of life, and yet most of us manage to avoid thinking about the possibility that they could be a part of our lives. Yet even today, nearly two years after the event, Amy and I still shake our heads in amazement at the shock, the suddenness and injustice of it all. Why did it have to happen to me? To us? Our lives had been going so well. I had recently published my first book, Work as a Spiritual Practice, which drew on my fifteen years as a Buddhist meditation teacher and another fifteen as a business entrepreneur. The business I founded was doing well; Amy had recently decided to leave her demanding job as a school principal for some well-deserved time off. I had just fulfilled a lifelong dream by releasing a commercial recording of original self-performed piano pieces. We were on top of the world. And then this!
In previous centuries life was not always so pleasant or secure. Then the lightning of personal tragedy struck regularly. Wars, famine, disease, poverty, all took their toll. Everyday life was an uncertain proposition. Ancient cultures sacrificed and prayed to their gods to spare them such suffering, and when it occurred, attributed it to the wrath of some offended deity.
And there were also ancient sages like the Buddha, who taught not of vengeful gods but of reason and wisdom. The study of Buddhism was my first career and occupied the first fifteen years of my adult life. As an ordained Zen Buddhist priest and meditation teacher, I taught classes and lectured, expounding the Buddha's ancient wisdom that life's woes were not the random whims of angry gods but the fundamental condition of human existence. "All human existence is characterized by duhkha," he taught, using a word often translated as "suffering," though the term has a deeper meaning that includes joy as well as sorrow, both of which are fleeting and unpredictable, bound to change and pass away. Though we may intellectually understand this truth, most of us tend not to dwell on it. Buddhist spiritual practice is designed to help us incorporate this truth into the way we live our lives. And though I expounded these teachings for years, and wrote about them in my first book, it was not until I suddenly found myself on a gurney in an emergency room, my last memory the face of my loving wife, that it hit me, like a clap of thunder, what the Buddha really meant.
Regardless of the place, regardless of how advanced and modern a civilization we have become, or how healthy and affluent, the tragic, unpredictable, and grievous lightning of suffering can strike at any time.
I had been a Buddhist for thirty years, and had the ordination certificates and teaching credentials to prove it, but I now feel that my true baptism into the Buddhist faith occurred on July 13, 1999, when the lightning of dukkha struck me down and my familiar, predictable, wonderful life of fifty-two years fell completely, disastrously, apart.
Copyright © 2002 by Lewis Richmond