And what do I mean by the “WHOMP!” factor?
Well, for Downton Abbey watchers, it was the episode just before last in Season 3, when Lady Sybil, in the throes of childbirth, suddenly began to exhibit symptoms of eclampsia and was dead within the quarter hour. (For anyone not swimming in the pool with the rest of us, D.A. is the highest of high-class BBC soap operas, an “aristosoap” in the Upstairs, Downstairs lineage, about the travails of Lord Grantham and Lady Cora (an American) and their three daughters, of whom Lady Sybil was the youngest and far and away the nicest; as well as the even more melodramatic travails of an assorted lot of servants, from Carson, the exalted butler, to Daisy, the kitchen maid.)
Imagine: here’s Lady Sybil, who had defied convention and her father (often the same thing) in Season 2 to marry the chauffeur, a fiery Irish revolutionary. They had overcome these major hurdles and were back at Downton Abbey (where Branson, the former chauffeur, was grudgingly seated at the dinner table) so that Sybil could have her baby in peace and luxury. She is beautiful, kind, democratic, and heavily pregnant, and all is going well when WHOMP! Sybil is dead. (An aside, with a warning of semi-spoiler: If you think that was bad, wait till the last episode of the season.)
Anyway, it made quite an impact on me, so that it’s been on my mind since. And it occurs to me that there’s a WHOMP! factor in our everyday lives. Or what we think is everyday about our lives. On the lowest level, this morning I had a long list of chores and errands, and by a purposefully calm and serene attitude was keeping my head above water until 1 -2 -3, the phone rang with an additional set of c. and e’s. Whomp!
Not to mention illnesses, and even deaths. We’ve had a bunch of these around here, and if there’s time to absorb and process them, the head stays above water. But if, as has happened, there’s another stone tossed in the water, then another — the waves can swamp even a sturdy vessel. So I don’t like things, like stones, that rock the boat. An airplane ride is tolerable to me as long as there’s no turbulence. I don’t like WHOMP! one little bit.
And yet —
Here’s the thing I just thought of. Certainly when it comes to movies and television and novels and operas — without some “WHOMP!” factor there’s no drama, no suspense. No story. Just riding along calmly, nothing happening — what keeps you reading? Watching? Listening? What gets you involved? What makes your heart beat faster? So what’s a peace-loving, happy beginning-middle-and-ending yearning girl to do?
A dilemma. Then suddenly I remembered something that happened to me many years ago, something I misplace from time to time but never fully forget. And that’s what I want to share with you, in case you too are a peace-loving person, or at least in a peace-loving mood, and find yourself disturbed at being disturbed.
I was apprenticing in hospital chaplaincy on Long Island, and was doing a task that felt like doing nothing: I was sitting in the room of a patient who was hooked up to several monitors. I was just sitting with her for a while as she slept. Her breathing was erratic, which showed on the monitor: not a strong regular even rhythm, but more a series of lurches, sometimes resulting in beeps. And I was thinking how I wished that erratic detours and lurches and sudden crises didn’t exist, that things always ran smoothly.
A nurse came in, in response to another set of beepings, and I shared my wish with her. She looked at me. She pointed to the monitor, and said, When nothing happens, when that line goes flat — she paused — then you’re dead.
A WHOMP! moment itself, that was, but like a defibrillator, it shocked me back into life. I guess I need to be reminded of that from time to time, especially in difficult times. When nothing happens, when the line goes flat — you’re dead. What I need to do is to ride with the turbulence, balance with the waves, and be grateful for every breath, in every circumstance.