Mere mention of the old Beatles classic sets my mental jukebox a-spinnin’:
All my troubles seemed so far away
But now it seems as though they’re here to stay.
Oh, I believe… in yesterday...
I'm not half the man I used to be
There's a shadow hanging over me
I keep it confined to my head, of course. The last time I busted out in unbridled song all the small animals fled my neighbourhood and didn’t come back for weeks.
Dreamt up whole-cloth by Paul McCartney one night in 1965, Yesterday is a meaningless ditty about shattered romance.
For many, though, it’s an anthem for hard times.
Most of us are acquainted with unexpected reversals of fortune. Dark clouds descend like a shroud “as though they’re here to stay”, the gloom shaded by our frustration with the seemingly random and whip-saw turns of the universe. It can all seem so unfair.
Unfair, maybe. But inevitable, surely. Good times rarely roll on forever. Triumph yields to failure, health to illness, freedom to imprisonment, and so on. Life has plenty of ups, but just as many downs – and some of the downs are brutal.
In The Shawshank Redemption, the superb movie based on Stephen King’s novel, wealthy banker Andy Dufresne is condemned to life in prison after being wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover.
Andy and a busload of other fresh convicts are paraded in chains into Shawshank State Penitentiary past a chorus of jeers from prison veterans: “Fresh fish! Fresh fish! Fresh fish!” After being stripped of their street clothes, doused with a firehose, and smothered with de-lousing powder, they are re-clad in prison stripes and shoved into their new cells.
Some of the prison’s hardened cons, led by a murderer named “Red”, place bets as to which of the newbies will be the first to crack.
“Somebody always breaks down crying,” Red observes. “When they put you in that cell and those bars slam home, that’s when you know it’s for real. Whole life blown away in the blink of an eye, nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”
Sure enough, the nightmarish blackness of that first night, riddled with vile threats and vicious heckling, proves too much for a tubby convict dubbed “Fat Ass”. He dissolves into a heap of agonized sobbing:
“God! I don’t belong here! I’m not supposed to be here!”
Maybe not. Yet there he was.
So it can be with us. When we’re sideswiped by calamity, our “whole life blown away in the blink of an eye”, it’s only human to lament: “I’m not supposed to be here!”. It’s human to yearn for yesterday, “when all our troubles seemed so far away.”
But it doesn’t do us much good. The past is in the past. Another hit single from the long-ago 60’s put it plainly: “Yesterday’s Gone”.
Our attitude in these things doesn’t cut the other way, ordinarily. When life is chugging along smoothly, when everything is coming up roses, we think that all is as it should be. Never does “I’m not supposed to be here!” enter our heads. We take ample credit, even, for our comfortable lives, willfully unaware that the line between triumph and tragedy is whisper-thin.
We get away with it, most of the time, because the odds generally work in our favour. We live in a world of close calls. “Almost disasters” far outnumber actual disasters.
I can relate.
I almost died, years ago, in Tupelo, Mississippi, at the jaws of a pit bull named Popeye. Popeye was a “client” of mine when I practiced veterinary medicine in the Deep South.
He belonged to a kindly old couple, as far removed as one can imagine from stereotypical pit bull owners.
Popeye was not “kindly”. Each time he came for his annual check-up his owners would fasten a sturdy wire muzzle securely over his snout in the parking lot before hauling him, bristling with rage, into the clinic. I would vaccinate him in a cold sweat, apply my stethoscope with trembling hands to a muscular chest trembling with anger, declare him healthy (as if there was any doubt), and exhale with relief as he exited the building, growling malignantly every step of the way.
One day Popeye returned for an unscheduled visit. All the fight had left him. He was devoid of bravado, just a shadow of his old self, a walking skeleton: sixty-five pounds of tightly-wound fury had wasted away to thirty pounds of lethargy. It took all of his energy merely to put one paw in front of the other.
He was, quite literally, half the dog he used to be. And he was accompanied by just half of the elderly couple: the husband had passed away a few weeks earlier.
His widow looked at me in teary desperation: “Please, Dr. Les,” she implored, “Please do something for Popeye! I can’t bear to lose him too!”
The shadow hanging over Popeye, as it turned out, was lymphosarcoma – an aggressive cancer common to dogs. (The first case of canine lymphosarcoma I ever encountered, incidentally, came during my third year of veterinary training in Saskatoon - a German Shepherd brought to us by a fellow named Harold Butt. “Call me Harry!” he commanded upon making my acquaintance. Harry Butt. I’m not making it up. Truth is always richer than fiction.)
“Spare no expense,” I was advised by Popeye’s distraught owner. “Please – please - do everything you can.”
I put him on chemotherapy, cycled it every three weeks, and lo and behold: his cancer went into remission. Sixty-five pounds of muscle-bound pit bull, restored. He was a surprisingly good patient, to boot. Not so much as a twitch of aggression. No muzzles required.
We formed a bit of a bond, I felt. Perhaps he appreciated me saving his life.
After finishing his last chemo cycle, he came in for one last physical. Examination complete, my assistant Tracy took him for a walk in the exercise yard behind our clinic, an enclosure with a 10-foot-high fence and single doorway access.
Proud of what I had accomplished, I strolled into the enclosure to survey my handiwork, straying about 10 yards from that doorway.
At the far side of the yard Popeye turned to look at me. He looked at the door, then back at me. Locking his eyes on mine, he took a couple stiff-legged steps. Then he charged, cutting me off before I could get back to the door.
He knocked me down and went for my throat. At the last second I got my left hand up to blunt his attack. He sunk his teeth into it, ripping, tearing, snarling.
Screaming, Tracy ran across the yard, hauled on his collar and pounded him desperately on the head. After what seemed like an eternity (probably only twenty or thirty seconds) he released my hand, and Tracy hauled him away, blood-flecked foam dribbling from his jaws, leaving me on the ground cradling my mangled hand in shock.
A plastic surgeon managed to sew my mitt back together later that afternoon. Had it been my neck, had it not been for Tracy's courage, the outcome would have been fatally different.
It was, suffice it to say, a very close call. I guess I’m “supposed to be here”.
Linda Besner, author of Feel Happier in Nine Seconds, opened a fascinating essay in The Globe and Mail last summer with this vignette:
Near midnight on July 7, 2017, one of the worst disasters in aviation history – in which Air Canada Flight 759, carrying 135 passengers and five crew, missed its runway on the descent into San Francisco International Airport and crashed into four passenger planes awaiting takeoff, killing or injuring more than 1,000 people – came within four metres of happening.
Tragedy almost struck. But it didn’t.
Near tragedies happen a lot. According to an estimate in Besner’s essay, for every disaster that happens there are a hundred or more near-misses.
Yet for all the near-misses, disasters do happen – everywhere, every day, and to all kinds of people. I have a front row seat to this kind of thing: I’ve been a pediatric emergency physician for the last fifteen years. Time and again I’ve witnessed kids and their families getting sucker-punched by critical illness and injury.
It can be difficult to bounce back, to regain one’s equilibrium, in the months and years following sudden calamity. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds of regret; to fruitlessly wander the barren landscape of “if only”.
But the path to recovery and healing doesn’t cut through the past. Life can’t be lived in reverse. Moving forward is the only option, and it’s darn hard to navigate while riveted to the rear-view mirror, ruminating over the crappy hand we were dealt.
The aforementioned Andy Dufresne, unjustly confined within the walls of Shawshank Penitentiary, offered this nugget of timeless wisdom - applicable to any circumstance, really:
“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really: get busy livin’ or get busy dying”.
That’s not quite as poetic, perhaps, as Rudyard Kipling’s famous admonition to “meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.”
But the advice rings equally true.
I have the deepest respect for yesterday.
But I live today.
And I believe in tomorrow: since the day of Popeye’s betrayal, I’ve enjoyed 9,306 of them.