At 2:00 a.m., I was awakened with a jolt. Lying in my upstairs bedroom, feeling the cool farm air coming through my window, I rationalized that I was dreaming and tried to close my eyes. Within seconds, I heard a shrieking command…“Sis—Help—I need you.” The gut-wrenching alarm in that familiar voice (my mother’s) startled me to sober lucidness, and I hit the floor with my bare feet– involuntarily moving toward the voice. There in my parents’ bedroom, mother stood transfixed over my father slouched in the bed. I froze in paralyzed horror! Dad was grasping his chest, flailing, and choking. He murmured, “I need air—Open the window. It’s like a Mack truck on my chest.”
Mother took charge. “Hold him down. I think it’s a heart attack. I’m calling the ambulance.” I hesitated! (The sensation of holding one’s father down is incongruent by nature.) I forced myself to act–my arms penned him down–independent of my cognition.
In what seemed an eternity on that April morning, a bulky hearse arrived and two men loaded my precious dad prostrate in the forbidden rear cargo area. We followed in our Buick to the Kokomo hospital—an agonizing 45 minute journey. (In my head, I screamed…“My life’s anchor, my protector–my refuge! God, why did they put him in a hearse?” I questioned reality –“This is a dream, I will wake up? Who will walk me down the aisle? Who will be there? He is my identity—my connection…Oh, God, no.”)
The next two weeks were a complete blur. I spent every waking moment outside his hospital door—numb but in control–missing my senior class activities and lessons—being the glue for my family.
In intensive care the doctor reported that vital signs were deteriorating. Our family minister, Vernon Powell, conveniently making his rounds at this strategic time, said, “We should perform an anointing for healing prayer.” I was devoid of sensation and disconnected, as I watched the ritual from outside myself. (In retrospect, I recognize the out-of body sensation was stress-induced.)
I stood as the clergyman, a good friend of my father, read the scripture and recited the prayer! Stillness enveloped the hospital room.
Aghast—the heart monitor began to synchronize in its systematic reporting of the essence of life signs. A nurse hurried in to check the gadget jetting out from the wall on its aluminum arm. It was not difficult to read her subdued but cautious surprise. We knew she was anticipating my father’s imminent death. When the glimmer of hope hit my consciousness, I questioned in whisper: “What could this be? Did we witness an act beyond our comprehension?” Yet then and now, many decades later, I cannot put it in words!
The summer of 1970 was an emotional tornado as I did not process the events of April with anyone. My dad came home from the hospital stay several weeks later, and although frail and disabled, he was none-the-less, my dad. Some normalcy returned, but my childhood was abruptly concluded, and I was an adult.
The life-changing events solidified my decision to attend a small college where I could feel some insulation. Thus I would focus on growing my intellect in a safe place— a conservative school of 1,200—Taylor–a place to figure out where I was in life—to distract me from feeling. Boyfriends, activities, my usual community projects, and more boyfriends didn’t dull the pain during the summer as I struggled with the guilt of leaving for college.
The degree at Taylor dictated that students take a philosophy course as a graduation requirement so in my junior year I complied. Campus had been a fairly worthy experience but I was generally annoyed with the do-gooders on campus who didn’t really know about life and its inevitable suffering, as I thought I did. Our assignment for the philosophy class was to read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning.” As a history major, I was intrigued to delve into Frankl’s experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz in 1946; the historical record enticed me. Dad and I shared a love of history so I would relate it to him when I was home. Little did I know Frankl’s words would give root to meaning for my life and tie together an understanding for my family’s trials.
I devoured the book. Before reading Frankl, I believed inevitable suffering was what aged and changed people; life’s challenges and struggles (disease, famine, natural disasters) were what killed the spark and brought bitterness, hopelessness, and pain with the inevitability of death. Frankl had been imprisoned in the concentration camp and endured, survived and wrote of it. He observed countless people there. He reframed his own sufferings. He observed that in the midst of the most bizarre and horrific treatment in concentration camps, people had a choice of their attitudes and perspectives on life. The few who survived, selected hope.
I deliberated—Life is not something that happens to us but it is something that we experience and choose to process for our own. Our thoughts determine how we perceive every experience. Frankl wrote: “When we are no longer able to change a situation – just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer – we are challenged to change ourselves. …therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.”
The experience of studying Frankl was life-changing for me at age 20. It offered me the perspective of the power of words, because through this journal, I found a kind of intrinsic way of finding meaning. More than anything it offered a perspective that was not one of predetermination of the Old Testament… “What you sow…you shall reap,” but a perspective of self-determination. From Frankl, I interpreted for my own life that I could choose my reaction and perspective on each and every life event—whether it be joy or sorrow. When I chose to see the situation as an opportunity—then I could impact others positively.
That is not to say that this one book caused my life to be a panacea. I was about to graduate from college and begin my career as a high school teacher and face the new challenges of a marriage and family. Other challenges and losses would be inevitable, for sure. Along the way however, I have always held onto the cognitive concepts of Frankl and when I am in need of internal courage and fortitude, I inevitably think of Frankl.
Later when I entered graduate school to study for my counseling credentials, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” was again a required reading—as if to say in a cosmic sense—you need to be reminded!
I’ve worked in the mental health field for most of my adult life. I have given Frankl’s book to many friends and family members as a present and I reference it often in counseling situations. I learned in my studies that many therapists use cognitive approaches to help their clients to re-frame perspective. After all, our attitude determines outcome– so often. When I visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C., I learned that Frank’s book was the second most widely read book and per the Library of Congress, one of the ten most influential books in American history. I whole-heartedly agree.
As the parent of three kids and in a marriage of 37 years and certainly as a professional woman and writer, I try to impart the wisdom I learned from Frankl. I did find a Christian Existentialist connection but it was not strictly from Biblical interpretation but also from the wise experience of Frankl’s incredible suffering and his acute insight into a person’s ability to determine his (or should I say ‘her’) own attitude in any situation.