Zen and the art of trying not to worry

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The Independent Culture
THIS YEAR, so far, has been a terrible year. One of my closest friends died; my baby has been very ill; and every time I say, "Things have got to get better," things immediately get even worse. So last weekend, I decided to stop hoping for any improvement. "Just get through each day at a time," I told myself.

It was my husband's birthday, as a matter of fact, and instead of icing his chocolate cake I was sitting in the paediatric ward of our local hospital (as I have done with monotonous regularity over the past month). Tom, our 11-month-old baby, has been sick, on and off, since January. This was an on-day: he was very feverish and he had diarrhoea. We ended up having to stay the night there, and towards the end of the evening I rang my husband to say "Happy Birthday".

"This is the worst birthday of my life," he said.

I was just about to mumble something reassuring, like, "Don't worry, nothing can get any worse," and then I stopped myself. It might be tempting Fate to deliver another blow, a mighty thwack around the ears to punish my presumptuousness.

Lying on a hospital bed that night, I tried to see life in a Zen Buddhist sort of way: what will be will be, and all that stuff. Then I reminded myself that we were quite lucky, really. We were in a modern London hospital, with drugs and X-rays at our disposal. But I soon lapsed into despair, and started worrying that Tom had leukaemia, or some rare tropical disease. By about 3am - the blackest, saddest time of the night - I couldn't stop thinking about a tragic little 19th-century tombstone I'd recently seen in a country graveyard: seven babies from one family, brothers and sisters who had all died under the age of one in the space of less than a decade.

Is there any instruction to be derived from such thoughts? No, definitely not. It is pointless reminding yourself that plenty of other people have suffered (or are still suffering) in more appalling ways than you can imagine. You still want your own child to be healthy and happy and thriving. But what is true, I think, is that we now have far greater expectations of good health. In this age of vaccinations and antibiotics, medicine is supposed to be magical, encircling our children and everyone else we love with complete, near divine protection.

Unfortunately, it doesn't always work out like that. So far, the doctors we have seen have not been able to make Tom better; nor have they found a miraculous cure for our neighbour's child, who has asthma. By chance, both children were waiting for an X-ray at the same time last week. Neither of them was at death's door; but they were miserable, and sick enough to have caused their parents many sleepless nights. I sat with my neighbour and we commiserated with each other, and agreed that the X-rays would probably reveal nothing (they didn't); but we were nevertheless grate- ful that something was being done. In the past, I have placed my faith, in a small, semi-ironic way, in magical signs and cures of a more superstitious nature. A double rainbow in the sky not long before Christmas? That meant my sister was pregnant with much longed-for twins. A full moon shining high above our house last March? What else could that signify but that I was about to go into labour?

This year, however, I have lost faith in these portents. I've even stopped reading my horoscope in the London Evening Standard, a ritual that I usually cling to in times of stress. It's too depressing to be told by Patric Walker that 1995 is going to be a tremendous year for Geminis, when it so clearly isn't for me and many others.

That's why I'm thrashing around looking for other rafts to cling to. The Zen Buddhist approach, as you might have guessed, didn't last long. I left the hospital on Sunday morning, determined to get through the rest of the day with lots of positive thinking; within five minutes I was shrieking with rage because our car windows had been smashed.

"How could anyone do this?" I said to an old lady who happened to be passing at the time. "My baby is sick and now I'll have to drive him home in a freezing car full of broken glass."

"It must have only just happened," she said. "I passed your car on my way to church an hour ago, and no one had touched it then." She told me that she had been to Mass at the large Catholic church that looms above the hospital, and indeed the rest of north London. I looked up at it, and wondered if she, or God, was trying to tell me something. Would my baby get better if I started praying? Was I being punished for some obscure yet dreadful sin that I have already forgotten? What, exactly, could I have done to warrant such divine retribution?

I would like to be able to tell you that I had a dramatic spiritual experience on the road home; but I didn't, perhaps because I was on my way to Crouch End, not Damascus. Instead, I wallowed in misery and self-pity and vengeful thoughts towards the hooligan who smashed my car windows, which is probably not a very Christian response on my part.

I am nevertheless open to any suggestions as to how to transfigure my life and make my baby well again. In the meantime, I'm pinning my hopes on one of the hospital's paediatric registrars, a young woman who talks to me in a matter-of-fact yet also very kind way. She is arranging for Tom to have further tests, for all manner of ailments. "Don't worry," she tells me. "We'll find out what the problem is." So far, I have managed to stop myself from flinging my arms around her neck and wailing, "But even if you discover the problem, will you have the answer?" I just nod and say thank you and pretend to be calm, which of course I am not. Perhaps I should give up on these efforts and acknowledge that, like most people, I am not a serene, rational being; nor will I ever be. !

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