Believe. Always.

A year ago this week, I was hospitalized for what, to this day, remains a mystery. It would be the same week the WHO declared a new SARS-CoV-2 variant: Omicron. We were a year and a half into the pandemic and about to have our world turned upside down — again.

I won’t speak for everyone’s experiences post-hospital stay, but there’s a certain equanimity I have gained with the passing of time. In this particular case, I awoke one morning and started my day. Then, sometime after dinner — and pardon the cliche — I collapsed out of the blue. I had lost the ability to stand and, as I quickly learned, to walk.

Cue the Blue Shirts, Toronto’s EMS, who performed a feat of engineering magic and somehow not only got me on a stretcher in a very tight space but also managed to carry me down a flight of stairs in my two-story apartment with absolutely no wiggle room.

Similar to another magical stay in 1995, this time around I was also quarantined, because of Covid or because doctors had no idea what was wrong with me, I will likely never know. They drugged me up good and goodly that night and when I awoke the next morning, I assessed my situation. I could not get up out of the deluxe gurney, which presented my first problem because I had to use the bathroom bad and badly. Other bonus features included: I was alone in a room that had neither a TV nor a radio. I had no cell phone, no computer, and no book to read. In fact, I had a whole lot of nothin’, not even the shirt on my back.

There were tests. There were also needles and IVs and visits to cool and interesting parts of the hospital. And in between there was the kind of silence I hadn’t experienced in years.

The results of all the tests showed nothing. Even my MRI proved my brain was still in good working order. (Suckas! Like taking candy from a baby!) Doctors were dumbfounded. So, after two weeks of being spoon-fed by nurses, having my backside attended to by nurses, and carted around in a wheelchair or gurney by nurses, they were moving me to a rehab hospital. I had to learn how to walk again. (Insert the expletive of your choice here)

On my first morning at the rehab joint, I met the two young ladies who were tasked with (literally) getting me on my feet again. One was a physical therapist, the other an occupational therapist. They explained how things would work for the next couple of weeks, but before they left they asked me if I had any questions. I told them that I didn’t have any questions but that I would never use that wheelchair again. And I would be leaving the hospital before Christmas under my own steam.

Why did I feel it necessary to be a cocky-ass tough guy and tell these two nice people that I was walking out of the hospital come hell or high water? While it’s true that I have a remarkable ability for being an asshole at opportune times, this was a conviction that came from the pit of my (severely lacking confidence at that exact moment) soul. I needed to say the words out loud, in public, to someone else, just so I would believe them. Because in truth, I wasn’t so sure.

Here’s my shitty analogy; prepare to be underwhelmed and throw your device out a window: I’m a kid. I go to the Alps in Switzerland. They’re high. I’m a teenager. I go to the Rockies in Colorado. They’re also pretty high. I’m a young adult. I go to the Andes in Argentina. They’re really high. Look! That’s Aconcagua! I’m a fully formed, dumbass adult. I go to Nepal. I come across Annapurna in the Himalayas (8,100 m/26,500 feet). I say to myself, Sweet gentle Jesus in the god damn garden. They can actually build shit that high? My neck hurt just looking up at what appeared to be a celestial body (and arguably the most beautiful piece of nature I’d seen in my life). Well, that’s how I felt about my present shitstorm. All my previous challenges were those “high” mountains; this current contumacy (big word for a big situation) on the part of my lower body represented the highest thing on the planet I’d ever had to get over. Learn how to walk again?

Right. Baby steps. My days consisted of waking up early, getting on my computer and working until physical therapy started after breakfast. Then, between sessions, I’d putter around my half of the room with the aid of a walker to get more practice in, one agonizingly slow rotation around my bed at a time. Why half of the room, you ask?

I shared my room with an elderly gentleman who’d just had a foot amputated, was waiting for a different hospital to have an OR available to amputate his other foot (or the entire leg; they weren’t sure), was doing rehab in the meantime, and clearly had a broken, sad-as-sin relationship with his son, who I pegged to be a little older than me. Oh, and his backstory? His wife of 60 years died while he was in the last hospital a couple of months ago, so he never got to say goodbye to her, and now he had nowhere to be released after his hospital stay because his home had stairs and he could no longer take care of himself all on his own. He cried to himself daily, usually when he woke up, then after breakfast, and always loudest — and most heart-wrenchingly painful — in the afternoon.

So there was that.

While pieces of my heart creaked and cracked like ice over a half-frozen pond every time my roommate began crying, I needed to focus on getting better. The truth is that nobody could do this for me. There was no drug or chemical that could fix this, no doctor with a bunch of fancy letters beside their name who could wave their magic wand and make this all go away. This needed good ol’ fashioned hard work and a boatload of faith in myself. Simple formula, really. I worked my ass off, from morning to night, and would not relent, even when my legs collapsed, and I crumpled to the floor. Do or die. Sink or swim.

Contrary to the hospital’s projected timeline for me to need full-time assistance at the rehab hospital, I brought the staff there to their knees in shock and awe when I walked out of that joint like a god damn Greek god a mere twelve days later! All the nurses lined up in the hallway and patted me on the back. I think someone was even playing a harp in the background. Maybe a piccollo, too.

Let’s try that again: Twelve days later I met with an administrator who told me they were short on beds — Omicron had blown up in Toronto and they needed to turn my ward into a Covid unit again. In addition, she added, “You’re bleeding our healthcare system dry, you look like shit, you haven’t showered in nearly a month, your beard makes you look like you’re a wannabe Ted freaking Kaplansky — or whatever the hell that guy’s name was — and would you please get the hell off our property before we have our kindly Rent-a-Cops escort you out, in a wheelchair or body bag, either will be fine.”

Gulp. Twelve days later I did indeed walk out of the hospital. No line of nurses in the hallway. Even my two physical therapists were anything but impressed when I walked — WALKED!!! — out on my own two feet, no cane, no wheelchair, a little wobbly, and my BFF carrying my goods for me (one laptop, two books, change of clothes). But I walked out of there and then headed back to said friend’s place for another week of get-your-shit-together prep work so I could return to real everyday life.

As you might imagine, I did a lot of thinking while I was on that otherworldly hiatus. Fortunately, I’d had a lot of experience spending long periods of time alone and in vulnerable situations. Here’s one thing I can tell you I did not do in any way, shape or form. I did not feel sorry for myself or lament my lot in life. Everyone’s different. We’re all unique. How my elderly roommate was going to survive, I had no idea, but I knew how I was going to seize this opportunity and make the most of it. I was going to do the one thing in life that brought me great joy.

Thus and therefore, I got back to writing with one goal in mind: to take my career to the next level. And wouldn’t you know it, something extraordinary happened this past summer. As many writers have mused over the centuries, when we want something badly enough in life — so badly it hurts in all the right and wrong places — the universe has a knack of conspiring in our favour and making it happen.

For me, I found an agent after being released from the hospital. Correction. A Pulitzer Prize-winning Senior Editor from Random House with 20 years of experience shaping countless manuscripts and who had just started her own literary agency found me. As you can see on the About the Author page, Katie Hall and I have teamed up and are now taking our first of several completed novels together to the powers that be in the world of publishing.

I am now absolutely certain that 2023 will be a watershed year in my publishing career. How can I be so confident about this inevitability? When you’ve had to overcome something that seemed so simple yet so out-of-control impossible at the same time, everything else becomes that much easier to achieve.

Here’s the thing about the real Theory of Relativity — the amount of pain you experience in life is relative to the suffering and hardship you yourself have already been through up to that point. Not what others have survived or continue to surmount on a daily basis. You. Your shit. Your shitty baggage. There are no absolutes (except the speed of light, of course), so don’t ever apologize for feeling like the world is shitting on you if that’s how you feel. In my own case, last year’s “event” only galvanized an already fired-up dude bent on writing more and reaching a wider audience of readers.

By the way, in case you were wondering if I exaggerated about how I looked when meeting that hospital administrator last December, have a gander at this Zoolander runway model who’d lost 30 pounds (13.5 kilos) and didn’t see a ray of sunshine for over a month. And then please to meet his younger brother, who just popped off set from filming his new Hallmark Channel special, Gosh! I’m Home for Christmas, Fellas!

Beaten…

…but not broken.

I took the first pic upon release from my hospital “journey”; I took the second pic two hours after getting home and visiting my hairdresser. Just remember this — “they” may knock you down, but only you can keep yourself down.

Believe. Always.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Believe. Always.

  1. HK

    I’m proud of you. That’s all I can say.

  2. Chloé

    You have demonstrated the ability to grow excellent beards as well as the most critical quality for a writer, PERSEVERANCE! Thank you, Richard!

  3. Roxie

    Congratulations on the recent development in your literary career. Best wishes on your next move!

  4. Nick Castelli

    Congrats, Rich! You finally received the recognition you deserve. I am looking forward to reading your next book.

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