Although a new or altered perspective on life can come from small experiences—like turning on a light switch after a multiday power outage, the lasting changes tend to come from larger life events. For my dad, it came from a close call with the school of hard knocks.
Recently I came across a picture of my dad in a neck brace sitting in a chair in the driveway. It took a while to figure out why mom might have posed him in the middle of an oil spot in the driveway. A couple of days ago, I figured it out. (I think.)
In the late eighties, Daddy started experiencing numbness in his extremities. Being Daddy, he ignored it until it interfered with his golf swing. Because he had no pain, neither he nor his doctor were too perturbed about the situation. Finally, when Daddy started tripping when he walked, his doctor sent him in for a diagnostic scan.
The scan revealed a ruptured disc in his cervical spine. It was ruptured on both sides, which, though it caused no pain, put his spinal cord under critical pressure. The smallest incident—a twisting or impact—could result in permanent paralysis. A fender bender, for instance, or a fall. Daddy went into surgery at 8 am the following morning.
As Daddy was leaving the radiology office, the enormity of his situation hit him, as did his lack of a meal. He passed out, going down in a swan dive. Luckily, an alert nurse or tech caught him. Speaking of enormity, did I mention that Daddy was a big man? Six foot one and a hefty 245 pounds. Some catch. (Some swan.)
Overall, he was very lucky and though he did miss a few months of golf, the surgery went well and he had an able caregiver in my mother (whole ‘nother story there!) He’d dodged a bullet.
For Daddy this was a lesson in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff before the book ever came out. I was living in Germany, so I got the run-down of events from Daddy later. He told me once that the full impact of this close call hit him one post-surgical morning in the shower.
A center knob on the wall turned on the shower. Normally, it would be turned off via the same knob. This particular morning, however, rather than turning off the water, the knob simply came off in his hand. Daddy told me that he surprised himself by laughing at his predicament. (He didn’t tell me how he resolved it, but I’m fairly confident it involved bellowing for my mom.) He realized that weeks earlier he would have been “bent totally out of shape” by such an annoyance.
Looking back, I feel grateful for that shower predicament story. It’s the story of Daddy starting his version of stopping to smell flowers. He retired earlier, played more golf, and traveled.
For him, life was relatively short. I like to think back and realize that despite its shortness, Daddy had a lot of moments that mattered. Like enjoying a nice day and petting a cat, even if it meant dragging kitchen chair out to the driveway, oil spots be damned.