Sixteen years ago, Bill Long spent a year living in the Baily lighthouse while writing Bright Light, White Water, a best-selling history of Irish lighthouses. Two years later, at the age of 62, he suffered a succession of seven major heart attacks in six months, culminating in a heart transplant. Now fourteen years later, he finds himself in a race against remaining time as he struggles to cope with chronic pain.
” The transplant was a total success, thanks to God and Maurice Neligan; but that, of itself, is not the blessing.
The blessing is that, through the 14 years since then, I have lived through a minefield of other health hazards: an aneurysm repair, two hernia operations, a gallstones operation and the removal of cataracts.
From all these vicissitudes I have recovered. Osteoporosis and chronic arthritis are the ailments that have, quite literally, “put a stop to my gallop”.
Coming to terms with my pain and, for the past four years, living in a wheelchair, has restored my old faith, deepened it, and brought me to an autumnal feeling of detachment and peace.
I have become hyper-conscious of the race against remaining time and acknowledge the intimations that I am nearing the end of my life.
I am fragile and vulnerable, my immune system “banked down” by daily doses of immuno-suppressant drugs. These and steroids, painkillers and other diverse medications, totalling 28 separate “pieces” per day.
I feel like a poor, flickering flame that, at any instant, may be snuffed out, yet miraculously by God’s grace, continues to burn on. These past 14 years of my life have been permeated by the ineffable sweetness of this undeserved blessing; a gift I shall cherish to the end of my days.
I have come to a wonderful country of peace and contentment where the cost of entry is coming to terms with my pain and renouncing the stupid little conceits with which we tend to clutter our lives.
This is the country Thomas Merton saw as being beyond all horizons – “whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”.
For me, confined as I am to my wheelchair, it is a country, fortunately, not to be found by travelling, but like the hummingbird, standing still. Beyond this wonderful place there are no directions left for me in which to travel.
I am, as we all are, alone with my pain. In the land of pain, comparisons are not valid. Your pain and mine are very different.
We must handle them in our different ways. We must come to terms with our pain and let it enhance rather than ruin our lives.
For myself, I have found that you can never beat pain. It will always be the winner. So, I decided that some compromise was necessary. I decided to establish a good relationship with my pain. Pain had come into my house as an uninvited and unwanted guest.
I had a choice to make. Fight it, or befriend it! So, I talked to my pain. I said, “I will not, cannot fight you. You are too strong and I am too old and too weak. So, I will just let you wash over me. Let you teach me something. Something beautiful and worthwhile. How about humility? Teach me humility.” And that, for me, has worked.
Fourteen years ago my cardiologist told me that I would have about seven years to live on my transplanted heart. He was working on an actuarial basis – taking my age and general health into consideration. I have lived for just twice that time-span.
God’s actuary had other plans. With God’s grace I shall see the publication of my next book in the spring. And after that? Who knows?
Perhaps another book or two.”
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times.
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