You learn a thing or two about yourself when you have a blood infection and pneumonia, when your life has no choice but to come to a screeching halt, when you have to let go and then some and allow others to do for you.
I’ll spare you the gory details of the how and the why. Suffice it to say two weeks ago today I dropped onto the oversized chair in our dining room and didn’t move much for the week-and-a-half that followed. If you’ve had pneumonia, you know. If you haven’t, you can probably imagine. Many times since becoming a parent I have somewhat sardonically wished for a whole day just to sleep. Well, I got my wish—times seven. All I can say is be careful what you wish for . . .
From that moment on the chair, when it was clear something was wrong, the enormous support system I am so fortunate to have surround me went to work: The jobs that are customarily mine in the house and outside the house were parceled out to others; colleagues at work stepped in and took care of my students. I remain grateful—so grateful that words actually fail me—but their extreme competence reinforced something beyond just how lucky I am.
I have never harbored notions that I am the center of the universe. In fact, this week when one of my sons was acting as though he believed he might be, I told him the world did not spin around him. His response to me was, complete with a premature teenage roll of the eye, “Mom, you always say that.”
And indeed I probably do—mostly because I wholeheartedly believe it. I am no more—and no less—important than anyone else. Further, I have never thought for an instant I was indispensable.
When you’re sick, bedridden specifically, if you are awake and somewhat aware, you have a unique seat, a view of what life would look like—and how it would go on—without you. As I shivered under the covers, coughing, awake, I could hear a version of the soundtrack of my life downstairs—dinner being prepared; children laughing, squabbling, playing; the hum of the washing machine, the clink of the stainless steel lunchbox containers coming out of the dishwasher and being packed for the next day.
And though I think if you had ever asked me, “Samantha, do you think life would be able to go on without you?” I would have had sense enough to answer “of course,” this is actually a strange body of knowledge to now have, to know definitively, because it is truly equal parts comforting and unsettling—comforting knowing I haven’t inserted myself into this world to such an extent that it would cease to exist in my absence, unsettling perhaps for the very same reason.
But as I sat upstairs muddling all this I realized something else. Though I am not the center of the universe, though I am far from indispensable, this life is different because I’m in it. Life could and would go on in my absence, but it wouldn’t be the same.
It sounds so obvious—that our lives make a difference. But amidst the day-to-day goings-on, the cacophony that swirls around us, it is sometimes easy to forget the impact we have, that even our smallest gestures and deeds have enormous power, that though we are not the center of the universe we just might be that important in someone else’s; though none of us is indispensable, we all matter.
It took the stillness brought on by illness to get here, playing, however briefly, the role of disengaged spectator to reveal this fact. And while I’ll stop short of saying I’m grateful for the pneumonia, I will be forever indebted for the space it created for the cementing of one of life’s most important lessons.