I was a hothead for most of my youth. Whether nature or nurture or something in between, I grew into a person who would flip out at the first sign of trouble. Everyone was on edge. I thought all adults were.
Seriously, this sense of madness stretched across my childhood. My sixth-grade teacher once picked up a desk with one hand and threw it across the room during an afternoon-long screaming session. When she saw my eyes bug out, she turned to me and angrily asked.
What are YOU looking at?!
I said the first thing that came into my mind.
The class laughed. Even the teacher cracked a smile. The entire terrifying event came to an end and we all just went back to spelling words or dinosaurs or whatever. We all pretended that any of this insanity was freakin’ normal.
It wasn’t. It was nuts. I would hate to think that my kid had a teacher spend hours screaming at her class like Mommy Dearest. The scariest thing was that my third-grade teacher was the same way. My fourth grade teacher? She used to hit us in the head. Seriously. The more I think about it, the more I think, “What type of school did I go to?”
Either way, I knew my tolerance for nonsense was extremely low. Between emulating those I saw and being prepared to thwart a random desk attack, I was usually on edge as I grew older. I was stressed, filled with anxiety, and always just one sentence away from going all Wrestlemania on people. One more word. I swear. If he says one more word…
Then, I had the heart attack. That’ll knock the fight out of you quickly. My surprise quintuple bypass came with it mere hours later. I had no time to prepare, either mentally or physically. All I knew was that I was getting my chest pains at two and getting my chest cracked open at 8. It was a roller coaster ride that lead to my first ever surgery. A major one.
When I regained consciousness the next day, I had a tube in my throat and a feeling unlike any other before. I felt vulnerable in every sense of the word. I was aware, laying in that bed, that if someone came in looking for a fight, I couldn’t do anything. For the first time in my life, I knew I couldn’t defend myself if the moment came. I couldn’t even get up. I had nightmares about it for days.
This temporary feeling of helplessness brought with it a sense of letting go. I had to accept that sometimes, in life, you just have to allow things to be. My overall attitude was pretty zen-like by the time they moved me from the ICU to recovery.
That’s where I got my roommate, Jake. I didn’t talk to Jake. He sat on the other side of the curtain. I got a few glimpses of him. That’s about it.
I know he went to the bathroom a lot, though. That I remember. Middle of that first night, I’d wake up to the sound of him running back and forth past my bed. It was annoying. I told myself to go back to sleep and be calm. Dude’s gotta pee. It’s a hospital. I had to let things go. Start with this one. Mellow. Mell-ow. Go back to sleep.
The smell in the air made it hard to, though. It was thick, like cigarette smoke. I figured I was losing my mind. After all, we were in a hospital. There were tons of awful smells. Each person here smelled terrible in their own way. It was my mind confusing things with my nose and it couldn’t be real cigarettes. That’s insane. Stop looking for fights. Just go to sleep. You always get worked up over nothing. Mellow.
The next morning, I woke up to a nurse standing on my side of the curtain while another one was on the other side. I could hear the other one saying:
Jake, have you been up and walking around the rooms last night? Also, do you have cigarettes with you?
I perked up and tapped the nurse who was taking my blood pressure. When she looked down, I made a smoking motion with my hand and gestured between Jake’s direction and the bathroom. She nodded and whispered to me.
Yeah. We think he was. Do you want to change rooms?
Hell yeah I wanted to change rooms. We huddled together like refugees fleeing oppression in the dark of night. I migrated a few doors down and the nurse brought my belongings over for me. Thank goodness they were still there.
I say thank goodness because, it turns out that Jake was a homeless man who checked himself into the hospital so he could get painkillers. He had been looking for things to steal and smoking cigarettes in our shared bathroom right next to me, three days after my heart surgery. Later that morning, when I took my shuffley sock walk around the hallways, there were police coming in and out of my old room. A voice in my head nudged me.
Hey. Zen’s great. But sometimes it’s OK to be like, “WHAT THE HELL!?”
This was one of those times. It was a lesson in patience. I’ve made sure to remember Jake as I’ve gone about my life. It’s about balance.
I try to live calmly now. There have been moments where a part of my brain says, “Hey. Chill out. This isn’t as big of a deal as you’re making it.” When that happens, I listen.
I also try to live a realistic life now too. There have also been moments where that same part of my brain says, “Hey. Remember that homeless guy was smoking cigarettes in the hospital bathroom and could have easily stabbed you in your sleep for your iPad? Should have called the nurse.” When that happens, I listen too.