What if I told you that watching a field of corn grow could save your life? It sounds far-fetched but I witnessed it myself over the course of one hot summer.
My stepfather was one of those unlucky people who is born into a life of pain. At the age of 10 he slipped into a thresher on the family farm during the fall harvest. He lost his leg in the accident and spent a lifetime dealing with the phantom pains and difficulties with an artificial limb.
Years later he was severely burned in an industrial accident at the plant where he worked as a chemical engineer. The recovery was painful beyond belief and he endured the difficult process of skin grafting. His forearms were covered with skin that was as translucent and delicate as rice paper. Grafted skin does not breathe or perspire and it's damaged by the sun so even in the hottest weather his arms were always covered.
He bore all these challenges with grace and was living proof of the old adage, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. He'd need that strength when, early in retirement, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. It was a hard blow and we all felt like screaming, "Enough!! This man has suffered enough."
He was determined to fight the disease and was accepted into a study that offered experimental treatment. Only 52 patients were admitted into the program. The protocol was very, very difficult and in the end only 5 finished the entire course of treatment. Yes, my stepfather was one of those patients. We celebrated when the doctor determined the cancer had remitted. And so life continued for the next 10 years.
And then the hammer fell. The cancer had returned. This was the literal straw that broke the camel's back. But in this case it's wasn't a camel's back, it was my stepfather's mind that broke. I've been in that terrible place myself and I know it well. Your mind simply says, "That's it, I'm done. I'm powering down." He powered down to the deepest level of depression. It was a black time. We were living an hour away from their place and my mother was starting to break under the strain of caring for someone so terribly ill, physically and mentally.
He refused to leave the darkened bedroom. It matched his mind and his mood. He barely spoke and his face was a blank. This is known in psychological jargon as lack of affect, a condition where the emotions are so dead that they cannot even gather enough power to move a facial muscle. He was frightened, not allowing my mom to leave the house for the simplest of errands. He barely let her leave the room, preferring that she join him in the black place where he was hiding.
My sister and I would drive out to visit, allowing my mom some time to breathe and shop. Remembering some of the things in a psychologists bag of tricks I suggested to my mother that she insist he get outside at least once a day. We made a plan that he should sit in a chair on the deck for one hour. The chair faced the large cornfield next to their home.
What happened next was a miracle. No, it was a thousand little miracles all building upon themselves.
At first he protested, as strongly as a person in such a state can muster. Finally he obeyed and sat the in chair for an hour, quickly retreating to the bedroom after each session. It's hard to tell when the first spark was ignited, when the first awakening triggered a message and made a small connection to a cell in his brain.
The first thing that made him aware of something outside of his dark island was the warmth of the sun. One day he said to himself, "The sun is so warm on my face. That's a nice feeling."
He built upon that warmth. Next he heard a bee buzzing around the pot of flowers at his feet. Progress! Not only was he aware of the sun, a chink in the armor had allowed sound into his world.
I'm not quite sure when he became aware of the cornfield, but I do know that it was a big moment. His mind, trained as an engineer, kicked into gear and he said to himself, "I can't do much, but I can sit in this chair each day and follow the progress of this newly planted cornfield."
And that's what he did.
Each day brought new awakenings and each day he spent a little more time out of his dark room. Once he went out in the early morning and saw deer feeding on the few kernels which were remnants of the previous harvest. In midafternoon he noted that children played at the edges of the field and later in the season they crawled inside the cool shade of the corn tunnels.
He noted the leaps of growth. Sometimes it seemed like he was watching one of those high speed films. He started talking, sharing the events of the day in the cornfield. A sudden thunderstorm had threatened to hail on the crop and this was of much concern to him. A tornado ripped nearby but spared his field.
And then the moment came when he made a giant leap. It was the moment when an event in the cornfield triggered a feeling of joy, and the spark traveled from soul to brain and for the first time in what seemed like forever he felt joy. It was something that no amount of drugs or therapy could give.
What happened? He was sitting at dusk, watching the sun setting through the clouds. The cornfield was getting dark, entering it's mysterious hour. Suddenly there was a tiny light. And then two, and then thousands! Fireflies covered the field in a lacy veil of pale yellow light. He knew at that moment that he wanted to live.
This story has an odd twist. His made the decision to live, but on his terms. He'd refused aggressive cancer treatments, only allowing the least painful and non-invasive measures. He decided to find joy in whatever time he had left on earth and by making that decision he was asking us to help him on his next journey. And so we joined him on his journey.
The cancer went into remission and he lived a full and happy life for the next 4 years. When the cancer returned and it was clear that he was near the end his children traveled from Australia to say their goodbyes. I was with him the day before he died. Leaves were rustling outside his bedroom window.
"Can you hear that?" he asked. "Can't you hear the corn rustling in the field?"
"Yes, I can hear it."