Clearing out my garage a few months ago, I came across a fifteen year old notebook in which I wrote down my monthly goals. Be a good man. Read 5 books. Work out regularly. Do 30 pushups in a row. Be a good EMT Get 2 Ivs. It was from a different time, a different life. I lived with my friend Barbara and her son in a rented two bedroom condo in a small town where I volunteered one night a week as a new EMT-I on the local ambulance while during the day I worked for the state government.
I had a radio that I kept by my bedside. Some nights the tones went off and I would dress quickly, run out to my car and with green light whirling drive to the scene where another EMT would arrive with the ambulance. Sometimes the next day, I would close my office door and lay my head on my desk and take a short nap. Some days driving home, I’d have the radio on in hopes of hearing another call I could respond to, and maybe get another chance to get an IV. I wasn’t very good at it, and once in failing to properly tamponade a vein when taking the needle out and attaching the IV line, blood flowed all over my suit pants. Getting an IV was a mark of achievement for me then. It somehow meant I was more than just an EMT. I was this semi-superman character underneath my suit and tie, yes, governor routine. Part of my job was helping oversee the EMS system. As the executive assistant to the health commissioner (appointed by the Governor) I was charged with orchestrating the effort to hire a new EMS Director. It was a difficult time for EMS in the state. Budget cuts targeted at the regional EMS offices had created a huge rift between the state office and the regional staff between those who wanted a more centralized EMS system and those who wanted to keep things the way they were. People were afraid of who the new person would be, someone from their side or someone from the other view. One top doctor in the state suggested I take the job myself as I seemed to be fair and reasonable. I dismissed it the possibility. I probably could have used my political connections to the governor to get the job, but in addition to not being particularly qualified, I saw clearly that it was a miserable job then — that the EMS system in the state was a quagmire and my life would be one unsolvable problem after the other, with every person I made happy, there would be another who I would upset, and besides, there would be no true power to change things, that the politics was rigged for stalemate. I could go out on a limb to create a new, better system, but that limb would surely be cut off. And meetings, god, I would be in meetings all day long. It wasn’t for me.
A few weeks ago, driving back from a transport to a distant hospital, I took a short detour and drove by where we used to live. I have always found it hard to believe that you cannot walk through a door that is still there and not find your old life behind it just like it used to be. A smiling face, glad to see me, cold beers in the fridge for a Friday night, music on the stereo (Springsteen, Otis Redding, Marshall Tucker, Conway Twitty), steaks ready to hit the grille out back, lively conversation. Much has changed in the years since. People go their different ways. I left government, became a full-time paramedic, met a new friend, wrote a book, then another, bought a house, got married, stayed a paramedic, got divorced, kept working as a medic, met another friend, and today find myself still a paramedic, with a wonderful young family of my own. I look in the mirror. I’m forty-nine years old, and although I am in the best shape of my life, I am no longer a young man. The mirror shows the years. Creases in my forehead, gray at the temples. Hair growing out of my ears.
A few months back, I received a call from Barbara’s son, telling me she had passed. I knew she was sick. I had gone out and visited her and her son’s family in New Mexico last year. We listened to music, drank beers and talked about sports and politics and literature and writing like we used to. She had cancer, and was preparing for treatment that at least initially looked like it might be successful. The last time I talked to her, we quarreled and then didn’t speak for awhile. A discussed visit was never finalized. I was going to call and see how she was and now I can’t. I think when we last spoke she knew she was dying and didn’t want me to see her in a feeble state. Her son told me she shut most of her friends out in the last month. He said she kept going to work, tried to keep herself busy right up until the end when she could no longer hide that she really was dying. They got her hospice care for the final few days to help her with the pain.
Last month I drove up to Boston for the fiftieth birthday party for my lifelong friend Brad. On the way up I decided to make certain to enjoy the event as if it were the last time I was seeing him. I thought of our history together from high school to living and working in Washington together. On Friday nights we used to drive to Georgetown –the nightclub district, buy a case of beer and sit under a bridge and drink and get a good buzz on before hitting the bars (thus saving a great amount of money). We spent some weekends at the beach, staying up almost until dawn, and then setting our sleeping bags on the beach and waking up at noon to find wall to wall bathers around us. Later we spent a summer driving around the country together, logging 14,000 miles on his old Oldsmobile, going to Statesboro, Georgia, Navarre Beach, Florida, Juarez, Mexico, Silver City, New Mexico, San Diego, Coos Bay Oregon, Deseret, Utah, Lander, Wyoming, Courdelene, Idaho, and a host of other places, having crazy adventures and ending with a tour or every brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He went on to law school, and on to a law career and a large family. In 1994, I to a leave of absence from my government job to help him run for Congress. Every summer we still meet at the Boston Beerworks outside Fenway Park to catch up and drink a few, three, four beers before going into the Park to see the Red Sox play.
At the 50th birthday party I talked with many of his friends, some from the old days, many from his current life and it occurred to me how much a part of our friends we become – we are a collection of our friends and our experiences. I remembered how at Brad’s wedding twenty-five years ago his sister, on meeting me for the first time, said she was struck by how much of Brad she saw in me, and how much of me she saw in Brad. When at this 50th birthday party, it came time for me to give my toast, I talked briefly about the death of my friend Barbara and how sad I was that she was gone, but that now I was coming to understand that people don’t really die – they live not just in memories, but in other people in how they shaped their lives . And how, if you want, you can simply, by closing your eyes, walk back through those doors and remember life and people how they were. I don’t want to rush through the day, I want to remember and carry every moment with me. At almost fifty, for all the aches and pains, I have at least, learned to sit back and appreciate what it is we all have.
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a man says to his comrades on the night before battle, “if we meet again, we will meet by light of day, but if not, why then this parting was well made.” I don’t keep a notebook with my monthly goals anymore, but if I did, it would say this: Be a good man Work out regularly Be a good paramedic Take no day for granted. And when I look into the eyes of the sick and dying, I need to remember that no one who has ever lived life is feeble.