The View From The Back Of The Ambulance

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

During my recent illness and hospitalization I had a couple of brand new experiences.

First, was the request by the physical therapist that I would try walking with a cane. The goal was to take some of the weight off my affected leg and allow me to move around a bit. I have to say, it was a blow to my ego. I always thought that canes were for old people. (Careful – I know what you’re thinking!) And as one who has used a much larger walking stick, a shepherd’s staff, a crosier, for the last 14 years, walking with a cane was very different. It wasn’t especially helpful for me this time around, but I suspect that before my days have ended, I’ll have the chance to try again.

The other, more compelling first-time experience for me was riding in the back of an ambulance. Thank God I had never needed to be transported to a hospital in an ambulance before. And even this time, it wasn’t on an emergency basis – but only because the pain and paralysis in my leg made it impossible for me to get into a car.

But the relatively brief journey from East Providence to Our Lady of Fatima Hospital was memorable. I remember thinking, first of all, that perhaps this is how my last moments will be spent – on a stretcher, in the back of an ambulance, on the way to the emergency room.

And I was really struck by the view from the back of the ambulance, a view that one seldom has the opportunity to experience.

It was strange having the ambulance pull out of my driveway, leaving two friends, my dog and the Steeler banner receding in the background.

It was strange heading to the hospital, not knowing what the next few hours or days would hold for me, completely abandoning the tight control I usually have over every detail of my life and schedule.

It was strange driving along the Wampanoag Trail, Route 195 and the streets of Providence looking backwards at all the surroundings slipping away. It’s a perspective one seldom has since we almost always look ahead when we’re walking, running, riding or driving. We usually face the direction we’re going, not the places we’ve left behind.

If you think about it, the view from the back of the ambulance serves as a fitting metaphor for life, one that’s especially relevant at this time of the year.

We’ve just ended one year and started a new one. I wonder if you’ve had the opportunity to look back and think about the experiences of the past year. Was it a good year or bad? Did you have good health or illness? Did you meet with some success in your professional life or suffer through embarrassing failures? Any new babies in your family last year? Lose any loved ones to eternal life? End up with a new job, a new home or a new car? Any marriages or divorces among your friends? Take any great trips during the year or did you stay close to home? Did you grow in virtue or fall into sin? Did you move closer to God in 2006 or further way?

In short, what does 2006 look like now as you peer backwards and it begins to recede from view?

The same metaphorical look from the back window can be applied to your entire life, not just a year. Looking back, life passes quickly, doesn’t it? I’m keenly aware that based on actuarial studies my life is about three-quarters over. Of course, it could end way before that too, and that would be okay. As the Psalmist reminds us: “We have spent our years like a sigh. Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong. And most of them are fruitless toil, for they pass quickly and we drift away.” (Ps 90: 9-10)

That’s it in a nutshell: the years pass quickly and we just drift away.

It’s a good exercise, then, to look back and reflect upon your life, to think about the good and the bad, the positive and the negative, to assemble all the pieces of the puzzle so that a clear picture emerges. Everything you’ve experienced in life – what does it mean? Have you done what God has asked you to do? Have you fulfilled your purpose in life?

One final point. In riding in the back of the ambulance, it’s impossible to see where you’re going. You don’t know what lies ahead on the road. You trust your journey to someone else hoping they’ll know the way and will get you to your destination in safety.

And so it is with the future. You really don’t know what 2007 will hold for you, do you? You have no idea what will come your way.

Really, all you can do is work hard, take care of yourself and try to do good things. Then place yourself in God’s hands, confident that He knows the way and will get you to your final destination in safety.

(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)