On Top of the Grass

Almost a decade ago, I was seized by a medical emergency with very little warning.  After a frantic day of searching for an available hospital to perform a needed surgery, I was wheeled into the operating room in the wee small hours of the following morning—in the very nick of time I subsequently learned, due to a severe case of blockage in my colon, caused by diverticulitis.

During the endless days of recovery in hospital afterward, I consoled myself in the lonely nighttime hours by composing a poem in my head, one stanza at a time.  On each following morning, my wife would write the stanza down as I recited it from a sometimes drug-addled memory.


Once home, I tweaked the poem somewhat, then used it as a foreword to a book of tales I was about to publish.  It centered on a sentiment my golfing pals used to joke about in our retirement community—that, no matter what might be ailing us on any given day, at least we were still standing on top of the grass, rather than resting beneath it.

While I was composing it, the poem provided a promise of hope for me that my recovery would be complete.  Later, it became a source of inspiration to do whatever it would take to make that happen.

As things turned out, the hopefulness expressed in the final stanza—written before a second surgery restored me half-a-year later—did bear fruit.  And almost ten years on, the poem still resonates for me with its message of faith and optimism.

On Top of the Grass

It struck with a rush, and hit full-flush,

The pain that would not end.

It twisted my gut until it was shut,

And made my belly distend.

It took fierce hold of my abdominal fold

As I lay on the emergency bed.

I feared I would die, and the question of “Why?”

Kept banging around in my head.

~ 0 ~

My angels of life—my daughters and wife—

Were there from beginning to end.

A sense of their touch meant ever so much

Through pain I could not comprehend.

From dusk until dawn, I thought I was gone

As we raced through the city’s grim gloom,

With siren and lights, we searched the dark night

For an available surgery-room.

~ 0 ~

In the back of the van with the ambulance man,

Sedated, but dogged by the pain,

I yearned for relief, though it was my belief

That I’d never be normal again.

I knew that I should make myself understood,

And tell him I was sinking down fast.

Then he gave me some slugs of painkilling drugs,

And oblivion quickly slipped past.

~ 0 ~

Some hours anon, the doctors had gone,

And I wakened, my girls at my side.

How fair they did seem, my loveliest dream,

Their smiles of relief beaming wide.

They stroked my poor head as I lay in my bed,

And together we gave thanks for life,

The four of us there, reliving the scare,

Just me, and my daughters and wife.

~ 0 ~

The details were grim, but I wanted them,

So I’d know what had happened to me.

They gave me the scoop on my colonic loop,

And I learned it was taken, you see.

But enough does remain, they’ll connect me again,

Just as soon as they figure out why—

And what—caused the block, caused my system to lock,

And laid me so low I could die.

~ 0 ~

I’m home now, it’s great, and so I just wait

For my good health and strength to return.

Then I’ll journey back down to the city’s downtown,

Where the doctor’s next steps I will learn.

A scope and a scan, MRI if I can,

Will give her a plan to pursue,

Then under the knife, I’ll get back my life,

And that life I shall gladly renew.

~ 0 ~

What does it all mean, and why have I been

A victim, or so it appears?

I’m not sure I know, but I’ll go with the flow,

With more smiles than pitying tears.

I know this for true, and I’m telling you,

That all of this sickness shall pass.

When all’s said and done, at each dawn of the sun…

I’ll be standing on top of the grass!


I hope you, too, will be standing there for many years to come.



My Emergency Room Visit

I had occasion recently to visit a friend in hospital, a spanking-new facility in our community.  I had no trouble parking, finding the elevators, or locating his room, and we enjoyed a half-hour or so of conversation before I left.

It was quite a contrast to what I had experienced a year or so earlier, when I paid an unexpected visit to the emergency department of the old hospital, a facility reminiscent of the dark ages of medicine.


My wife was away for the weekend with friends, and I was home alone.  That in itself is never a good idea.

While attempting to open a can with our idiot-proof can-opener, I managed to slice my index finger rather badly.  When my muddling efforts to stanch the bleeding were unsuccessful, I decided—very reluctantly, mind you—to drive myself to the hospital to have the injury stitched.

With a gauze wrapping the size of a small fist encasing my finger, I managed to make the trip without incident.  Not having needed emergency care for quite some time, however, I’d forgotten how long such a simple first-aid procedure could take.

The first clue that I might be in for a long stay came when I had to wait for a spot in the emergency parking lot.  The guard on duty wouldn’t let me in until a metered space opened up, despite my wagging my mangled finger at him.  That word—emergency—takes on a whole new meaning when one enters upon hospital property; Hurry up and wait might best describe what I was about to endure.

Once I finally got the car parked, I had to find the parking meter (at the far end of the lot from where I was, of course!), fumble some coins into it, then trudge back to the car to place the parking pass on the dashboard.  I might have been whimpering softly by this point, although I can’t be certain.  I next proceeded to the emergency room entrance, following the brightly-coloured signs with their pointing arrows, and limped up to the reception desk.

I’m not sure, looking back, why I was limping; after all, it was my finger I had injured.  Perhaps I was subconsciously trying to influence the admissions staff to whisk me right through.  I could almost hear the PA system blaring forth:

Prep the O.R. immediately!  This patient has a severe digital incision requiring prompt attention.  Alert the trauma unit!  We’re on our way up!

Hah!  Faint hope!  I leaned on the reception desk, moaning strategically, waiting for the receptionist.  She was on the telephone, apparently fighting to get off, but losing.  Finally, to my delight, another woman came behind the counter, set down the coffee and bun she was carrying, and approached me.

“Last name?” she inquired.

“Burt,” I responded.  “I’ve cut my finger pretty badly on a tin can, and I can’t get the bleeding…”

“Take a seat,” she interjected, indicating a row of chairs to my left with a jerk of her head.  I meekly joined the other eight or nine folks already sitting there—none of them, to my eye, as much in need of help as I.  Every few minutes, just to emphasize that point, I groaned audibly.

During the next forty-five-or-so minutes, every one of them was called into one of two small cubicles, behind a curtain.  I never saw anyone emerge.  But I was impressed with the efficiency of it, even ‘though I had to wait quite a while to be included.

When I finally heard my name, I smugly entered a cubicle ahead of the people who had arrived after me, every one of them fixing me with a malevolent stare for having the nerve to think I was in greater need than they.  Inside, I was told to sit down in front of a large computer screen.  A different woman sat opposite me.

“Proof of health insurance?” she asked.  “Been treated here before?”

“Yes,” I whined, “but it’s out in the car.  In my wallet.  I don’t think I’ve been in here before.”

“We’ll need it,” she said.

Slowly and somewhat resentfully, I carried my sore finger all the way back to the parking lot to fetch my wallet.  Then I trudged back to the cubicle.  By now I was limping even more noticeably.  Of course, someone else was now inside with the woman and her computer, so I had to wait my turn once more.

At long last, I made it through the data collection process and was ushered through the rear door of the cubicle to what I hoped was the treatment room.  Alas!  It was another, larger, waiting-room, and the whole world, it seemed, was ahead of me.  Including some of the people who had apparently resented me earlier, now happy they had passed me in line.


Three magazines, two washroom breaks, and one half-cold cup of coffee later, I was called into an honest-to-goodness treatment room.  After sitting on the padded table for a quarter-hour, trying not to wrinkle the protective paper pulled over top of it, I finally decided to lie down.  Precisely at that point, a doctor (I greatly hoped) bustled in, scanned my data sheet, donned her latex gloves, then removed the sodden wrapping I had been clutching around my wound.

“Do you need this finger?” she asked abruptly.

“Do….do I need it?” I croaked in horror.

“No, no, no.  I mean, do you need it for your work?  What sort of work do you do?  We can freeze it and stitch it if you need your finger; otherwise, we’ll clean it, glue the skin, and tape it for you.”

My relief was palpable.  All my anger and frustration at having waited an eternity vanished in a flash.  I was so grateful she was going to save my finger, I was seized by an impulse to hug her.

But she wasn’t there long enough for me to act on it.  In not much more than five minutes from the time she’d entered, I was all taped up.  And the bleeding had stopped.

“Good to go,” she said, “unless that limp is a problem.”

“Uh, no, it’s not,” I quickly replied.  “It’s really nothing.”

In no time at all, I was outside on the way to my car.  And to the parking ticket on the windshield, reminding me that I had stayed too long!


A Panhandler’s Christmas

After we retired to Florida some years ago, we discovered that Christmas there is as jolly a season as any we enjoyed up north, enveloped by snow.  It was especially joyous when our grandchildren come to visit.

One evening during our last Christmas season in the sunny south, we all went out to dinner—my wife, our daughter and her husband, and three of our grandchildren.  We’d spent the afternoon shopping at a large, regional mall, and were looking forward to enjoying the cheer of the season and the pleasure of each other’s company.

During dinner, we talked of our plans for their holiday with us.  Unlike the north, where tobogganing, skating, snowball fights, and warm fires were the order of the day, in Florida the beach, the pool, and the golf course were all on the agenda.  We were looking forward to an old-fashioned holiday with lots of singing, plenty of fresh air and exercise, good food, and family to enjoy being around the tree with.

By the time we finished dinner, sharing our happy plans, we were all feeling very fine—warm, full, comfortable.  We left the restaurant, chatting amiably, and began the walk back to the parking lot where we had left the car.

As we waited to cross the intersection, guided by flashing green and red traffic lights that added to the festive Christmas air, we were accosted by a stranger.  He meant us no harm, but his sudden approach startled us out of our contented state.

He was tall and quite thin, and his face jutted out from under a worn cap.  His beard was unkempt, his eyes red and rheumy.  He wore faded jeans, tattered and patched, and an old, plaid shirt with the collar turned up.  The children huddled behind their parents, afraid of being so close to such an apparition.


When he spoke to me, I could hardly hear him in the hum of the passing traffic.  He mumbled through that scraggly beard, through missing teeth, his words coming in disjointed phrases.

“Hey, can you….you got anything….any change?  A bus ticket, maybe….got any…?”

He was clutching a misspelled sign on a scrap of corrugated cardboard that read:

Vetran  homeless everthing helps

“No, sorry,” I muttered, watching for the green light that would allow us to escape.  And we walked away, slightly embarrassed, but relieved to leave him behind.

“Who was that guy, Daddy?” one of the kids asked.

“Did he wanna hurt us?” another chimed in.

Their parents reassured them that he had meant no harm.  He was just a man asking for money.

“Is he sick, Mummy?  Will he be alright?”

None of us could really answer.

When we reached the car, we clambered in silently, each of us lost in our own thoughts.  The kids soon put the episode behind them, immersing themselves in their gaming devices.  As I drove back through the intersection, heading home, the stranger was still on the corner, huddling around himself, approaching passers-by.  He looked pathetic, and utterly alone.  I hoped he didn’t see me staring at him.

Later that night, after everyone was in bed, I thought of him again.  At first, I chastised myself for not giving him something to help him out.  From somewhere, the scrap of a Bible verse teased a corner of my mind—Whatsoever ye do unto the least of these, ye do also to me—something close to that, I think.

But then I rationalized that a token from me would not likely have helped him anyway.  He was obviously past the point where a solitary handout was going to make much of a difference in his life.  He’d probably have wasted whatever we might have given him on booze or drugs, I told myself self-righteously.  At one point, I got angry that he had put me in such an uncomfortable position.

Still, underneath it all, I felt a nagging guilt.  ‘Tis the season to care for one’s fellow-creatures; yet we, so full of the Christmas spirit, had kept on walking.  Because we were fearful, because we hadn’t known how to respond…or because we didn’t care.

Was it best to have ignored him and walked on, I wondered?  Or would it have been better to have given him something, in the spirit of Christmas and with the hope that it would have helped him?  I didn’t know.

As I think about it even now, almost a year later—sitting warm and safe at home at the onset of another Christmas season, surrounded by people who love me—I wonder where that stranger is and whether he’s okay.

And I wish I knew what I should have done.