most this amazing

I spent the weekend analyzing John Harris’s diatribe against the poignancy of mortality (Enhancing Evolution) and caring for patients at a remote hospital in northern Idaho. Harris, in arguing for the moral necessity of medical immortality, is adamant that we have deluded ourselves into thinking that the fact of our mortality is central to our identity as humans, openly mocking the emotional language of various ethicists and philosophers. Harris’s rebuttal, both flippant and vitriolic, is that only puritanical dimwits find beauty in the rich transience of physical life. His harangue, balanced against millennia of religion, literature, and folklore placed these questions squarely in my view.

From Harris, I moved to a gift from my delightful wife. Jim Harrison’s Returning to Earth shares a complex and much-loved Finnish-Indian man named Donald, slowly dissolving from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in the northern Midwest. I read Donald’s story at the airport and on the flight to my still-new home beside the Wasatch Mountains.

The book transformed quiet exhaustion into meditative pleasure. I had spent the dark hours before dawn struggling to prevent severely bruised lungs from taking a young man’s life. I experienced our fairly standard procedures for beginning life support with affecting clarity. In the few moments left to me before he would literally expire without life support, I pulled his strong face–not yet 25–toward me, into the embrace of the barrel-shaped resuscitation mask we use to inflate lungs in preparation for intubation. My pinkies and ring fingers locked on the sharp curve of his jaws, my thumb and forefinger sealing the masks to his lips. His long moustache (an affectation he wore to honor his deceased father, I later learned) curled as I placed the respirator’s tube through his throat and past his larynx, his vocal cords hanging like curtains on a stage. Staring into his glistening trachea, I had to pause to brush the thick hairs on his upper lip aside.

Harrison’s book folded over my finger, I had called from the airport to make sure he was still okay and smiled at all of us when the nurse reported that analysis of the gases in his blood demonstrated we had perfectly corrected his troubled breathing.

On the plane, I listened to a jumbled collection of music from my youth, while I continued to read about Donald, his wife Cynthia, his daughter Clare, his powerful and haunted ancestors, their close relationships with bears (yes, bears). I looked up from my reading only when the pilot announced that we had begun our descent. Siouxsie Sioux, named ridiculously but appropriately for that moment, sang about Israel, her ghastly Banshees strumming their guitars and drumming their drums.

On my left, the Wasatch had begun to appear, deep ocher brush covering their shoulders like a wool shawl. Mount Ogden towered above even its own shoulders, massive granite cliffs protecting its west side. Brown, ocher, green, and then a dusting of white snow, present just until the weather warms, all against the burnished grey-white brilliance of exposed granite. A lonely bike path, a string of dirty brown winding its way along the east ridge.

When the small plane shuddered and bumped before extending its landing gear, I remembered how desperately our turbulent airplane had twisted its tail on the way out of Salt Lake City, my pause then to love my wife and children deliberately on the off chance the plane lost its way, my pleasure when the plane quieted and we continued our ride north.

As I regarded Donald, my patient, my family, and the Wasatch on the cusp of winter, language of E.E. Cummings I borrowed for my wedding proposal returned to me.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

In those gentle and brilliant seconds I felt so attached to this world in its fragile and transient beauty that I wanted to hum and thought for that moment that I had known myself.

Lacking words of my own, I would conclude with Cummings and against Harris:

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

as always, details have been changed to protect patient privacy.
First posted in 2007 at

Banner image is of Mount Mkinwartsveri (Kazbek), with the Church of St. Mary foreground left, image © Samuel Brown 2000