Four years after LA Times op-ed columnist Meghan Daum was placed into a medically induced coma during her treatment for a rare case of typhus, she writes in the New York Times Sunday Review section about the unexpected aftermath — for her friends and family as much as for herself. It's also wrapped up in her experience with her mother, who died less than a year before Daum's illness. Daum, according to her doctors, was lucky to come out of the ordeal without severe brain damage or even alive. But the people around her expect something more, it seems.
In helping care for my mother during her illness, I had expected to dispense pills and wrangle with the insurance company. What I had not expected was that I’d be tacitly charged with the task of keeping others updated not just with information about her condition but also with a story. The story would end not just with my mother’s death from a random, rare, brutal disease but with some identifiable moment of peace or transcendence — or at least something onto which the rest of us could attach some measure of meaning. For lack of an alternative, I went with the Christmas line.
A year later, when I found myself offering up similar platitudes in the wake of my own brush with death — it really puts things in perspective, you learn what’s important, I’m not going to sweat the small stuff anymore — I felt, once again, as if honesty would have been downright rude, even a betrayal of love and friendship.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I was grateful to be alive, physically and cognitively — and, to be honest, even more grateful not to have emerged from the coma alive but with severe and irreparable brain damage.
But I also knew myself well enough to suspect that after a few months of smelling the metaphorical flowers, I’d probably go back to being the whiny ingrate I was before. And as friends came by with meals and groceries and showered me with well wishes and all manner of questions about my state of mind, the more it occurred to me that their hunger for stories of my cosmic transformation was rooted less in their concern for my soul than in their culturally ingrained need for capital-C “Closure.” Because they wanted this chapter to end for me, because they wanted me to go back to being as healthy as I was when I was a whiny ingrate, they wanted to make sure I was sufficiently transformed so as to never whine or be ungrateful again. It was as if the only way any of us could be sure that my body was clear of infection was for me to officially become a better person.
Americans have always been suckers for stories of triumph over adversity. But increasingly, we’re obsessed not just with victory but with redemption….
Also in weekend reading:
- Joe Mathews argues at Zocalo Public Square that Californians who are older and more well off than himself are somehow running things for those younger. Why Can’t Older Californians Act Like Grown-Ups?
Our elders in California have told us all our lives that this state is a global leader in higher education. And yet kids today often can’t find space at public universities, and those who do are running up huge debts to pay ever-escalating tuition fees (twice as much as what they were merely seven years ago). We hear that California is deeply committed to public education, yet this rich state funds schools at the level of poor states in the Deep South. We’re supposedly the world’s technological trendsetter, yet our cell phones routinely drop calls. Our leaders say fighting climate change is imperative, but they want future generations to pay most of the costs. Our politicians have trumpeted recent statistics showing California leading the nation in job creation, but it’s still awfully hard to find a job here: Our unemployment rate remains above 7 percent while the national rate has dropped below 6 percent.
In the face of promises like these, the generations in California have reversed roles. It is the younger people who behave more like grown-ups. Younger generations (of which I am a member) are driving and smoking less, eating healthier, and committing fewer crimes than our elders did. Our elders got the stable retirement benefits and the big run-up in their real estate values, and protected themselves from higher property taxes. We got bigger college debts and housing debts, and are far more likely to be struggling on budgets.
NYT graphic with the Daum story by Jon Han