A Lesson Before Living: Or, Reflections on a Life Nearly Not-Lived

By: Ariana Aboulafia

August 29, 2016 started out like any other day of my average, 20-something life.

I woke up and got dressed, sliding my feet into my black ballet flats and slowly buttoning my shirt. I grabbed a cold bottle of water from my refrigerator, then loaded up my backpack with my legal textbooks and notebooks and got into my girlfriend’s car. She dropped me off at school, and I walked into class; it was a Monday, and I had a full day ahead of me. First, civil procedure, then contracts, then a meeting with my legal writing professor, and finally torts. By the time I had finished class, it was late afternoon — and, although I was exhausted, I had promised one of my oldest friends that I would go to the University health center that day. She is a registered nurse, and had been concerned when I had texted her the day before about a pain in my left rib; and, with her words in mind, I trudged to the health center. From there, I was immediately sent to the emergency room, and then admitted to the hospital, where I stayed for the next month.

Obviously, being admitted to the hospital made August 29th a day that sticks out in my mind. But, even before my admission to the hospital, there was one thing about August 29th that made it different from most other days — my girlfriend and I had been fighting. My birthday is the 31st, and I had been upset that my girlfriend had not planned anything that weekend to celebrate. In retrospect, it was a ridiculous thing to be upset about; we had just moved across the country, I had just started law school, and we were both stressed. Regardless of birthdays, I knew, as I had always known, how deeply she loved me — but I was feeling hurt, and because of that, I had been ignoring her apology texts all day while I was in class. The second I entered the ER, however, I grabbed my phone and texted her first.

“I’m in the hospital”, I typed out, “Please come, Lauren.”

Ten minutes after I sent the message, she was sitting in a chair next to my hospital bed. And, later that night, when the doctors diagnosed me with a rare gastrovascular disorder called superior mesenteric artery syndrome — a disease with a 33% fatality rate — Lauren was still in that same chair, right next to my hospital bed. When the nurses told me they were not sure if I was going to make it through the night, she was there. When the head physician told me that he was not sure if I’d make it to my 22nd birthday, she was there. And, for the next thirty days, through multiple procedures and the acrid smell of blood on the sheets, through sleepless nights filled with pain and painkillers and fear and questions, she was there.

And, you know what the craziest thing is?

Not once, during those thirty days, did I bring up the fact that I had been upset with her, or that I wanted a birthday celebration, nor did she bring up that I had been ignoring her text messages. And, this is because the second that I got sick, the smaller things ceased to matter. It may sound cliche, but my perspective changed that quickly — suddenly, all that I could think about was our love for each other, and a lack of a birthday celebration seemed less important when I became simply grateful to have another birthday pass.

There are certain things in life that change you; and, spending a month in a hospital bed is one of those things. I have learned a lot of interesting things in my short life, but nothing has taught me quite so much, quite so quickly, as this experience.

Shortly after being discharged from the hospital, I had a phone conversation with one of my best friends, the person that I took to my prom in high school, who I now consider to be more of a brother than a friend. Our conversation centered mostly around how I had been feeling, as well as our favorite topic: film. But, we did veer into the philosophical at one point, where he told me something that has stayed in my mind ever since.

“You know”, he mused, “Everyone always says that life is short. And it’s true, it is. But, life is also long, and no one ever talks about that.”

In the months since that conversation, I have been attempting to reconcile these two assertions in my mind, and figure out how life could be both short and long at once. Because, the thing is, that he was absolutely right — everyone loves to talk about life being short, but understanding that life is short is just as important as understanding that life is long.

What does this mean, in applied reality?

So, life is short. This means that it is important to pick your battles, to cherish your time with your family and those that you love, and to do the things that are important to you while you still can. Don’t put off traveling, or starting school if that’s what you want to do. Apologize to someone that you’ve hurt, even if you don’t think that you were wrong. Tell people that you love them, every single goddamn day.

But, at the same time, life is long. This means that it is equally important to live with intent, to understand the consequences of your actions, and to be careful not to hurt people, and to remember that there are people who will hold grudges against you despite your best intentions.

My life thus far has felt more short than long — and, when I was sick, I did realize that there were things I had always wanted to do that I had been putting off, believing naively that I would always have time to do it later. I decided that I wanted to see more of the world than the small slice I had already experienced, and began planning trips to places near and far. I began to reconnect with some of my friends and family, to show them that I cared. My girlfriend and I decided to get married, to solidify our commitment to each other. But, at the same time I am planning on returning to law school this August to plan for my future career, I am putting my life on hold right now to fix my health as best as I can so that I will be able to do all of the things that I want to do in the future.

On one of my last nights in the hospital, I watched and photographed a gorgeous sunset outside of my hospital window, and pondered how I could survive in a life that at once was filled with so much pain and so much beauty. How could I continue to live, knowing that I had encountered so much darkness; and, how could I not, knowing how much light I had seen as well?

Perhaps life is full of equal parts beauty and pain, light and darkness. Perhaps life is at once short and long, and perhaps most of our conflicts within ourselves and with others have to do with the conflicting nature of these two statements. But, if we are able to figure out the balance between the two?

Perhaps then, and only then, will have encountered the true meaning of this life. Perhaps.