What would you do if you woke up tomorrow and learned you were a prisoner in your own body? In December 1995, this was the very horrifying reality of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the 43-year-old editor of French Elle who after suffering a massive stroke, became a victim of “locked in syndrome” – a medical condition that left him aware and awake, however unable to move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis of all voluntary muscles in the body except for one eye.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an incredible testament of the human spirit and book I recommend to absolutely everyone. A best selling autobiography told by Bauby through a self created code relayed via eye blinking, it instantly grabs you knowing the thoughts and stories you are reading are those of a man who as he lies motionless in a hospital bed, is reliving moments of his life while others look on during hospital visits, in the long nights where he is unable to sleep, and on visitor-less Sunday’s.
I hadn’t heard of the book before, but after a friend of mine at work suggested I read it and followed up the suggestion by bringing her copy in a few days later, I devoured it. A short read at 131 pages, it left me speechless. Today while I finished it on a particularly packed muni ride, I had to slip on my glasses as my eyes welled with tears as I read the last chapters, which included Bauby’s memory of his last normal day – the day of his stroke. In those pages we read about a man embarking on a normal workday, including a commute into the city (Paris, in this case), lunch meeting at work (which also happens to be his last meal), and a particularly busy drive out of the city as he heads the the Parisian suburbs to pick up his ten year old son for a weekend visit (a visit that never happened).
The last pages struck me and as I felt my throat tighten, thick with tears, I began to wonder should God forbid the same thing happen to me at that very moment, what my last thoughts would be when I looked back months after my own awakening. Would I see myself running out the door that morning late for my bus? Or would I smell the latte I carried in my hand as I made my way into the office? Perhaps it would be the exchange I had with a colleague later in the day which left me in a bitter mood as I waited for not one, not two, but three trains to pass before the fourth arrived with enough room for me to cram myself into. It was at that moment a small sob escaped my lips as I thought to myself in sadness that yes, despite the moments I would want to imprint in my mind, coming before all of them, those moments of insignificance would be those I would recall because they are the moments I allowed to occupy most of my day, the moments we all allow to occupy most of our days.
And then I thought about the moments that mattered most, the moments of significance that should be the first in my mind always, especially should such a cruel twist of fate fall on me. The moments that had been pushed to the back of my mind because of a less than stellar day: the sound of my son’s voice as he leaned his head down to my still sleeping face to wish me good morning, the feel of the sun on my face days earlier as we lay on a raft in a pool together looking up into the blue summer sky, or the feel of his tiny hand in mine, his grasp still filled with trust, no matter how big his hand is getting. It would be that voice I could not respond with, the warmth of the sun I could not feel, and the hand I would not be able to squeeze back, which pushed every annoying, hectic, and crazy moment of the day to the far recesses of my mind. Because God forbid should something that horrible ever happen to me, I thought to myself, I will be damned if I let those moments of insignificance trump the rightful place of the significant – the moments that matter, and will always matter, more than anything.
It’s not lost on me this book came into my life during a particular trying couple of weeks, but that’s the wonderful thing about moments of serendipity. They sneak up on you and enrich your life in precisely the way that is needed at that moment. Sometimes its a friend, sometimes its a book, and sometimes its a moment of clarity that reminds us of what’s important. Whatever they are, we should be thankful for the reminder because in the every day pace of life, its easy to forget.