I start this entry on 15 February 2018 while staying at the Roseate House in Delhi, India, a massive, sprawling city of officially twenty million people, but probably closer to 25 million since it is impossible to get an accurate head count. Jan and I traveled here to attend the elaborate wedding of my Godson.
We went to the wedding by bus on the 16th, a journey of about 100 miles southwest of Delhi to an ancient fort which was built by the Moguls in about 1740. The fort was recently bought by a major hotel group, and it was refurbished and made into a wonderful luxury hotel on the highest piece of ground around, with a commanding 360 degree view of the valley below. What a defensible place this was a couple of hundred years ago!
I was not feeling well on the morning of the 16th and felt worse as the bus proceeded south. I had been sitting close to coughing passengers on the airplane from London to Delhi, and the day after I had arrived, I had been in a very crowded shopping area of downtown Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world. On the day of the bus ride, I had a full-blown respiratory infection and was nauseated, but I had no fever. For the next several days, I managed to do the things I was expected to do as the Godfather of the groom at a traditional and highly orchestrated Indian wedding, though I did fall as I was going down the stage steps after addressing the audience and extolling my Godson’s virtues. I was helped to my seat in the audience by several of my great friends who had immediately run to my aid. My goal from that point on was simply to get home. I did not want to die half way around the world.
On Tuesday, the 20th we got to the Delhi Airport about 11 PM, in plenty of time to go through all the security measures and check our luggage. The airport was absolutely crowded, yet the airline check-in counter was closed and would not be open for another couple of hours. There was no place to sit and we had four pieces of luggage to monitor. Security guards with automatic weapons circulated among us. I managed to find a short wall about four inches thick surrounding a bit of decorative vegetation. I sat on that wall with the baggage around me. I began feeling weaker and perspiring. Somehow, I managed to get a piece of our luggage under me, and I sat on that with my back either against the wall or leaning against our luggage cart. I held my head and covered my ears, trying to “zone” out of all the noise and confusion. Jan had walked away, trying to get whatever information she could find about our flight and check-in procedures.
The next thing I clearly remember is hearing Jan’s voice screaming somewhere in the distance, “Ken, Ken, answer me, Ken!” Soon I was on a wheelchair and being rolled through the crowd. I snapped awake and knew I was no longer in control of what was happening to me. I also immediately knew I had to take control or I was going to be in Delhi and probably die in Delhi. My overriding thought for some odd reason is that I did not want to leave Jan with the responsibility of getting my body back home. In fact, I wanted to tell her to leave me there, but I knew I couldn’t tell her that. It would be stressful on her, though I was perfectly at ease with the decision.
I resolved to convince the young doctor in the airport infirmary that I was OK to fly. It took a lot of convincing! He wanted to put me in the hospital. And I knew I would never get home if I did go to the hospital. I knew I was in bad shape. I sat up on the gurney and told the doctor in a very steady voice that I was fine and that I was simply weak from a respiratory infection. He signed papers to release me and warned me not to tell the airline what had happened or they wouldn’t let me board the plane. Jan was also not convinced that I should fly. She said, “what if you die on the airplane?” I said I’d be that much closer home. We walked out of the infirmary and had a cup of coffee at a little open shop about a hundred feet away. We talked a long time, but my personal goal was clear. I told her, I’m not going to “croak” in Delhi.
It was a very hard trip home: the long flight to London, the tedious, cold days in London and not getting any better, the long taxi drive to Heathrow, the chaotic check-in procedures, the movement of baggage to the boarding gates seemingly a mile away, the very long flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, the baggage procedure through U.S. Customs security, the re-checking of baggage to Knoxville, the taxi to our home where I at last knew the ordeal was over in late afternoon on 24 February 2018.
I’m on antibiotics and steroids now and am getting better, though I’m very weak. I had fallen at least twice more in London, and I was unsteady in my walk, yet I still managed to move the luggage around and get on the various escalators during the travel home. I think I even had Jan convinced that I was OK. But I knew the truth and it was only through complete determination to reach the goal of home that I’m here now.
Throughout my long life, I’ve had many close calls with death, too many. But in each case, I was in control of the circumstances. My decisions and probably a whole lot of luck determined the outcome. The Delhi incident was the first time I was ever aware of the fact that others were going to make decisions about me with or without my input.
It’s another lesson I’m learning as I move to the certainty of mortality. I will be helpless one day, regardless of how many friends and loved ones that surround me. Life has a very tenuous thread and it can change in a millisecond. I remember how naïve I once was as an eighteen year old. I remember in my early twenties as a young Marine when I looked in the mirror and saw how strong my body looked. I remember talking into the mirror and saying, “You may be the first immortal man!” No! Wake up my young brothers and sisters. There’s only so much time you have and there is absolutely no time to lose. Please don’t waste your life on things and trivia and on relationships that can go nowhere but down. It’s a great life, but you have to make it so. It is your life, and you must be in charge of it. There will be nobody in the end to blame for what might go wrong except you. And try to get out of the getting stage and into the giving stage. Make the world a better place for having lived in it.
I pray for wisdom every day. I pray for patience, for courage, for strength, and I have concluded that life must count for something. I believe that the test is not whether you lived, nor how long you lived that counts. I believe the only test that really counts is HOW you live. Ken McCullough