Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How to save a life

"Where did I go wrong, I lost a friend
Somewhere along in the bitterness
And I would have stayed up with you all night
Had I known how to save a life"

Last Friday, as I was walking through the lobby of my office building to grab a mid-afternoon coffee, I heard some delicious notes of music wafting through the air. Instantly, I glanced in the direction of the grand piano, which sits lonely in the lobby most days, to see the fingers creating this music. In the brief moment between matching the 10 fingers to the face they belonged to, I was overwhelmed by a sudden gust of sadness and my feet dragged to a slow halt in the middle of the hallway. The mere combination of the melody and pianist had me rooted to the spot and I felt the need to sit down so I could reassemble my delinquent feet.
You see, as dramatic as this sounds, the moment just felt laden with emotion, as if the air could be cut with a knife and I'll tell you why- sitting behind the piano playing the music to 'How to save a life' by The Fray, was a man who appeared to be in his mid-twenties, with shortly cropped hair, wearing a camouflaged t-shirt, and a prosthesis on his right leg. This, by itself, is not a rare sight for me considering the fact that I work at a military hospital that prides itself on the extensive care it provides to wounded warriors. What got me initially wasn't just the sum of the parts but a specific part itself; his face. More specifically, it was the sea of emotions on his face as he plunged into the music that was creating tides both high and low. Every emotion on his face spoke the lyrics of the song that I know by heart, so that he was, in essence, wearing his heart on his face.
Granted, my entire experience lasted about 4 minutes as I sat on one of the couches scattered in the lobby and soaked it all in, but the thoughts of this experience lingered on with me for the rest of the day. I kept wondering what this man might have been thinking as he played this music, undisturbed by the steady stream of passerbys in the lobby, unaware of the staring eyes, and even unfraught by his wife and toddler who sat by his side. Had he been unable to save a life? Was this the life of a friend who fought alongside him in a battle or a war, or was it his own life as he chugged through a raging war while watching pieces of himself deteriorate and scatter all around him? My mind wandered more on the latter.
One might argue that his life was still with him, afterall, he had his body, albeit without a right leg, a beautiful wife and darling child. However, what do we know about his emotional life? Did he lose a big chunk of the person he used to be in the war? It is not uncommon for men who live through the horrors of war to experience their life back home in a surreal manner. Honestly, it can't be easy to switch from a high-intensity, unpredictable environment where danger lies at every corner and your life is constantly at risk, to one where people smile at strangers, kids blow bubbles while cackling with laughter and bunnies hop around in meadows of flowers. How do you let your guard down after spending several months with your guard kicked into high gear for basic survival?
Not surprisingly then, a considerable number of active military men have adjustment problems when they return home after their first deployment. The impact of adjustment problem is manifested in several ways, including an alienation from friends, previously enjoyed activities, an alteration in personality and more importantly, tension between loved ones. This is what leads to previously happy go-lucky men/women turning into brooding, sullen ones, or previously gentle and patient soldiers displaying aggressive, impulsive tendencies post-deployment. This is also what leads to loving, caring spouses turning into detached and distant ones. This, alas, is how a person loses his own life while fighting to save that of others. A sad moment for the rest of us then to realize that those who know how to save our lives, sometimes end up losing their own life in the process.

Sadder still, is the experience of relatives and loved ones as they try to help a person rebuild his/her life. How does one fight the bitterness of a horrid experience in someone else’s life without letting it seep through his/her own veins? How many nights would you be willing to stay up if you knew how to save the life in front of you, that of a friend and a loved one? One? Two? A few? A Lifetime? At what point do you go from wanting to save someone’s life to losing your own in the process? Vicious circle…isn’t it? You see now why my feet wouldn’t move from the spot and why the air felt so thick with emotion? It wasn’t just due to the scenario in front of me; it was due to the scenario that possibly lay behind the one in front of me.  Funny how one song and one emotionally expressive face can showcase a lifetime of possible experiences eh? It would be pretty cool to experience people with their choice of a song that envelops all that’s contained in their past. A song that converts a face into a slate of emotional experience. Perhaps then we’ll learn to be a little bit more empathic in our dealings with those around us? Perhaps that’ll give us a chance to save a life…even if the life we save may be our own.

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