The Shocking Clarity of Almost Losing It All

Friday, December 16, 2016 - 5:30am
Photo by Ryan Seyeau
The New Better Off

The Shocking Clarity of Almost Losing It All

I made sure that Maya, just three months old, was asleep in the Pack n’ Play, and pulled John, my husband, up off the floor of the bathroom. He was conscious, but disintegrating, weak and feeling numbness in one of his arms, weepy and scared about what was happening to him.

I dragged him down the stairs of the quaint Vermont bed and breakfast, hoping we weren’t waking others up in the process, and pushed the front door open to a welcoming shock of cold air. Stars were blinking in the midnight sky. Snow covered the ground. John knelt into it. I knelt beside him. “Breathe, babe, breathe,” I said to him, little puffs accompanying each word.

He tried, but it was pretty useless. He was hopelessly dizzy and on the brink of throwing up again. “I think we need to get you to the emergency room,” I said. He nodded noiselessly.

After I got Maya bundled up and in the car seat, we did go to the emergency room on that frigid night. It was mercilessly bucolic — friendly in-take people, no wait at all, even a volunteer who was clearly told to go give a hug to the young-looking mom with the baby and the sick husband. After running a bunch of tests they decided that John had a severe case of vertigo. No heart attack, as they had first surmised.

All of that was pretty memorable. But what I remember the most vividly is this: later that day, I was driving the rental car down some minor highway, the snow surrounding us still, a house here and there, both John and Maya asleep, and I felt a soaring sense of euphoria. Not a hallucinogenic euphoria. It was an earthly euphoria, one of the most grounded feelings, in fact, that I can ever remember having.

This is my person. This is my baby. They are both safe, sleeping. This is the snow. These are my strong hands on the steering wheel. This is my life. This is all there is. And it is so fragile. And beyond enough.

I was reminded of this moment recently when a group of friends and I were discussing what it takes to be in touch with the “big picture” in the midst of our frenetic, modern lives.

One friend’s husband woke up one day with a tumor the size of an eggplant in his back. They had just had their first child. She said that the days between when she first ran her fingers over the foreign object, taken up residence in the most familiar body to her besides her own, and the moment when the doctors removed it and found it to be — to their shock — non-malignant, were the most loving days of their lives. They gazed at one another with a visceral sense of how precious and un-promised their love really was.

It’s been a year and another baby since then. “Can you still touch into that feeling?” someone asked her.

She slowly shook her head. “Every once in awhile, but it’s rare,” she admitted.

It’s true for me, too. That night in the emergency room was like a super boost of clarity, of reverence for our precarity, of gratitude, and yet, it faded rapidly. Within days I was preoccupied with getting the tags for the car seat at the airport gate and irritated with John for who knows what small, insignificant thing. Like snow, perspective melts faster than you might think.

One fundamental paradox of the human condition is this: we crave the capacity to know what really matters so much and yet we fear the very thing — loss or the threat of loss — that grows that knowing. And what’s more, loss is inevitable, so our efforts to control conditions such that we don’t have to experience it are ultimately futile. Vertigo descends. Tumors the size of eggplants show up. Fires take young artists and activists, promising as hell.

It is these moments that we fear, these moments that are inevitable, that put us in touch with a proportionate sense of gratitude for just how lucky we are to live on this earth for even one day.

I’m not claiming that’s any consolation for the suffering — particularly for those who don’t get the comparatively gentle perspective borne of close calls, but the brutal realization of disease and death. I’m just acutely aware of how much more accurately we weigh our own small lives when we touch into just how vast and inevitable loss really is. Time slows down. Our senses are empowered. The sound of a peacefully sleeping person that you love becomes what it really is, the most sacred sound in the entire universe.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection



CEM, as always, you pull at our strings and make up remember why we are here. Thank you.

Thank you Dena. Means the world from you, especially. I know you've had far too many reminders of what matters most with your sister's illness. Love you.

Yes, "the sound of a peacefully sleeping person that you love becomes what it really is, the most sacred sound in the universe"... Thank you Courtney as your message comes at the moment when I need it the most. So much love your way...

Vertigo, if one has never encountered it, is very frightening. In my experience with it, I immediately went into the panic of "what will happen to my three kids if I die today?"
Still, life will for all of us, inevitably, hold real and painful losses in addition to near misses. To prepare for the big ones it may be valuable to ask whether any loss can really be "losing it all," or whether we can fortify ourselves in the face of loss by considering our connection to something larger than what we might consider "all." We are still connected to everyone we have loved, even when they are gone, as well as to all living things with whom we share the Earth.

I have the most difficult time finding words for the sublime. Thank You

Your brother Chris shared this post with me, Courtney. It is beautifully written. Thank you.

This post, at this time of the year, for me: two days into being 36, resonates--like the snow outside my Minnesota windows. I know it is cold and I feel a bit of it inside but the heat keeps me and my babies warm and for that I'm grateful, knowing the heater can break, that these wide windows I adore could become a source of danger. Life is so fleeting and it is the meaning we take from these moments when we feel it shake and break that we are reminded so sharply of how we matter, to ourselves and others, and of course how we don't matter to any of it at the same.

I just read this from the hospital room where our near three month old baby boy is resting with my wife. I appreciate your words! They are encouraging and a blessing. Thank you!

Courtney, what a beautiful piece. I found myself with shivers as I read it. I just found this blog today, and boy am I happy I did. Thanks for bring goodness into the world.

This line: "Like snow, perspective melts faster than you might think."

Spot on. So often we think our perspective will change, surely, based on life events around us. The things that happen must have a mark on our outlook, on our vision, on our ability to commune and interact. But so quickly it slips away, it melts. Perhaps we need a constant perspective-inducing snow to fall upon us so we truly grasp the depth of it all.

May the new year bring us a perspective that lingers and ultimately, remains.