Beginning in July, 1999 I became 90 years old for a year. What happened? I was struck suddenly with viral encephalitis and within hours was in a coma so deep no doctor thought I could survive. Obviously I did survive and regained all of my abilities and functions, but it took several years. I tell about this ordeal in my book Healing Lazarus. Later I would joke with people about the “year I was 90 years old” (no offense to those who are 90 years old and healthy, but that was the phrase that kept popping into my head). Actually the book is at least 50% about my wife and how she coped with my illness and took care of me while I couldn’t take care of myself. I tell people the book is a love story.
For quite a while I couldn’t walk without a walker, my balance and spatial orientation were out of whack, and I had a devil of a time concentrating. It was without a doubt the most difficult experience of my life-notwithstanding the fact that my mere survival was a true miracle-and the hardest test of my Buddhist practice.
Of course there were hidden gifts in it-as I feel there is in much illness-though it took me years to understand what they were. One gift is that as I recovered I had so much renewed appreciation for the gift of life itself, and the gift of health and a working mind and body. I also had a much greater appreciation and empathy for people who are disabled, dying, in pain, and suffering in any way. Of course Buddhist teaching and meditation open us up to these things, but this illness of mine was not just study or practice, it was the “real deal.”
I don’t want to make this blog about my illness-which happened over ten years ago-but I still get letters and emails from people who have gone through something similar and have been so grateful that there is a book like mine that tells the experience from the inside. So I’ve tagged this post with the word “encephalitis’ so that through the magic of the web people or their families who have been struck by this catastrophe can find this post and realize there are others who know what they are going through.