The clarity of mortality

The palm stands on the edge of space.

The wind moves slowly in the branches.

— Wallace Stevens


By Steve Dieffenbacher


Do the body and mind know when the angel of death is near? Looking back now, I wonder. For three weeks in March, I felt an obsessive urgency to resolve loose ends in my life — to reconnect with friends I hadn't seen for years and deepen bonds with ones I'd long had. I brooded with uncharacteristic fatalism about my immediate family, my brother living in Southern California and our late parents.

For those three weeks I felt a growing exhaustion, accompanied near the end by bouts of mild nausea and a headache and cough that wouldn't go away. Finally, on Friday, April 2, I who often walked three or four miles every day and hiked up mountains in the summer, was so winded reaching the top of the newsroom stairs, I could barely breathe.

At my desk afterwards, as the clock ticked toward 5 p.m., I called my doctor's office, doubtful anyone would pick up so late in the day. When the receptionist answered, she connected me to his assistant, who after hearing my symptoms, told me to go to the emergency room immediately.

Within hours, after a series of tests, I was in a Rogue Valley Medical Center room with a grim diagnosis, life-threatening blood clots in my lungs and pulmonary arteries dispersed like a fine spray, "too many to count," one doctor said.

After four days of monitoring I was released, the clots remaining as spectral shadows to be absorbed by my body over a period of months if all goes well while daily doses of blood-thinning medicine prevent more from forming.

For weeks at home afterward, I had time to think, and those thoughts became a magnification of my pre-hospitalization urgencies — vivid recollections of the people closest to my heart and the stunning landscapes I associate with them.

In the end it was these vivid memories of place — landscapes of possibility — that allowed me to ward off my most morbid thoughts of "the stale grandeur of annihilation," as the poet Wallace Stevens described it, brought on by nightmares of dissolution that haunted me days after I came home.

As I drifted back to sleep after those dark dreams, memories came to me like a slow-moving film, revitalizing recollections of the lake-filled expanse of Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, where a few years ago I had seen the sky turn violet and sagebrush glow orange as the sun fell under hills in an emptiness both welcoming and humbling.

I remembered a hike years ago at Crater Lake National Park that seemed like a pilgrimage — a day-long trudge through a pumice desert under a looming thunderstorm to reach Boundary Springs, the source of the Rogue. There, after wandering through a seemingly dead land for nine miles, I'd come to a lush meadow where water bubbled from the earth to create a river.

In another reminiscence, I stood beside a gravel road with the long eastern slope of Steens Mountain rising on one side and the sweep of the high desert under rolling clouds on the other.

What does one think of when the dark wind of mortality moves alongside, its cold whisper on your shoulder every day? What would linger most as "the palm at the end of mind," as Stevens put it?

For me it wasn't work, with all its petty rivalries and oppressions of the spirit, nor those momentary, material things whose satisfactions are so transient and hollow. What remained were my family and friends and a faith in the Oregon places I've loved, usually with one or more of those people beside me, landscapes that linger in the imagination, more precious now with every moment of slowly restored breath.

Steve Dieffenbacher is a Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. Contact him: 541-776-4498 or sdieffenbacher@mailtribune.com. Rogue Valley residents may submit articles on inner peace; a spiritual path; courage; forgiveness; Presence and more. Send 600 - 700 word article to Sally McKirgan innerpeace@q.com Previous articles: www.dailytidings.com search: inner peace.

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