I've spent the last several days digging around in 15-year-old memories trying to recall anything I can about Dec. 8, 1995. It was my 22nd birthday. Did I have a party? Did I go out with friends, or to dinner with family? I was in my last year of college. Did I have a final exam? I always had finals on my birthday unless it fell on a weekend. What courses was I taking that quarter? Was there snow on the ground? Did I go to work that day? Did I get a gift that I really loved?
I've come up with nothing.
Jean-Dominique Bauby remembered Dec. 8, 1995 with a clarity that eludes me. He remembered because it was day he suffered what he describes as a “cerebrovascular accident,” also known as a life-changing stroke. It was the day “the life I once knew was snuffed out.” He woke from a coma nearly two months later completely paralyzed from head to toe, with the exception of his left eye.
Through painstaking work over the next several months, he learned to use the blink of his eyelid to communicate using an alphabetic code. He re-learned how to turn his head, and to stretch his muscles in microscopic ways. He held onto hope that he might over time regain more and more function. He dreamed of walking again and of tasting food. He wrote this book.
The book chronicles the months of his life inside what he describes as an “invisible diving bell,” but it's more than that. It's a soaring, painfully poetic meditation on the resilience of life even in the face of insurmountable obstacles. Bauby uses the metaphor of the butterfly to describe his mind and spirit after the stroke, and there's a gossamer quality to his writing, as if his words are being carried on bright, delicate wings. He flits across time, remembering past loves, past travels and past meals. He often jumps into the present and his life in the hospital where he spent the last several months of his life (the back cover text says he died two days after the book was published in 1996). Sometimes he imagines the future. He ruminates on family – his relationship with his aging father, and wondering what his relationship with his own children will become in the wake of his paralysis. It's all beautiful and tragic and poignant and inspiring.
There are some ways I can identify with Bauby. Having recently turned 37, and having spent nearly a lifetime struggling with my weight, I've been feeling keenly the limitations of my own body. I'm slower and more creaky than I've ever been, and with 40 just a few short years away, I've been trapped in my own diving bell of thinking my best days are behind me, and all that lies ahead is continued deterioration. Then I read this small revelation of a book – written by the blink of a man's eye – and I think I should be thankful for a strong heart, and working limbs, and the chance to do better. If a man can write an entire book – albeit a short one – while quadriplegic, surely I can find it within myself to conquer my own lesser problems.
There are a myriad of other lessons that can be gleaned from this slender, powerful volume. Live. Love. Share. Connect. Observe. Remember. I recently acquired a new journal, and intend to use it in part to jot down a few things I want to remember about each day. So far today, there's the golden warmth of butter melting on my tongue as I sauteed vegetables for a frittata this morning, the joy of opening the blinds to find the first clear blue sky I've seen in weeks, the sound of my cat purring as he basked in the sun, the delight of exchanging online messages with a few dear friends while I sipped a mug of coffee. These are simple, yet abundant, pleasures that fill each of our days – pleasures we take for granted until disaster or tragedy strikes. But they shouldn't be taken for granted, so I invite anyone who reads this to join me in marking down just two or three things each day that said, “I was here. I lived.” If today were the last day of life as you know it, what would you want to remember?