Paul Batura: ‘Man plans and God laughs’ – A sudden family health crisis proved that old saying true

Texting, emailing, instant messaging, and posting on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites have become the go-to means of communication for many of us today. Talking? So old-fashioned. Who needs it?

I do. In fact, I prefer it – and the value of talking via an old-fashioned phone call hit home for me after a conversation with my brother just before he was hit with a frightening health crisis.

Saturday, May 9 began in fairly typical weekend fashion. I had a list of things to do, including mowing the lawn and running some errands around town for Mother’s Day. As I went about the chores with our boys, I began thinking about my brother, John, who was at home recovering from endocarditis – an infection and inflammation of the heart’s inner lining.

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I made a mental note to call him later in the day, just to check in and maybe offer some encouragement.

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I have three older brothers and an older sister, and John is the middle sibling. Growing up, I used to jokingly refer to him as “Golden Boy,” because he seemed to sail through life unscathed. He never gave my parents any real trouble, and in fact, wound up helping them with all kinds of technical tasks as I stood watching and feeling quite helpless.

Even at 11 or 12 years of age, John was rewiring things – fixing the toaster, radio or television, and installing surround-sound before it was popular. He graduated on a Navy scholarship from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in electrical engineering and spent nearly a decade in the Navy before moving on to civilian jobs.

Our parents’ last wish was that all five of us kids would remain close after their deaths.

“When parents die,” my dad said, “the kids tend to drift apart. Please don’t let that happen.”

John took my mom and dad’s urging seriously and set up a conference call for the five Batura siblings on the first Sunday of every month. We are spread across four time zones, but we almost always manage to gather for a chat of an hour or more.

A good conversation is like a beautiful piece of architecture – it’s layered with multiple points of interest.

My brother’s recent heart problems came on suddenly – high fever, aches, chills, restlessness. Thankfully, he tested negative for COVID-19. His heart infection landed him in the hospital for a week, but the prognosis was positive.

I tried phoning John several times May 9 and finally reached him on the third attempt. The pace of his speech seemed slow, but we caught up with one another and had a lovely chat. We even reminisced about old neighbors and teachers, and the time he put me in his bike basket and pedaled up Grand Avenue to Dunkin’ Donuts.

We talked about matters of faith, including one of my mom’s favorite observations: “Heaven is my home, but I’m not yet homesick.”

I was at my desk in my basement home office this past Monday morning when my phone rang, revealing my brother as the caller. It struck me as strange that he’d be ringing me in the middle of a workday, but I answered with enthusiasm.

It wasn’t John – it was his sweet wife, Robyn.

“John’s just been taken by ambulance to the hospital,” she began, her voice full of emotion. “We think he had a stroke.” Unfortunately, she was right.

Emergency surgery soon followed, successfully removing the blood clot from my brother’s brain. Doctors say strokes are like forest fires – clearing the clot stops the fire, but the damage remains. An MRI revealed the stroke attacked the communication center of John’s brain.

The damage has been deemed as “moderate” – but it’s still too early to know what that means in practical terms. John is still not yet out of the woods regarding other ailments.

It would be an understatement to say that I’m so glad I called my brother last weekend. A good conversation is like a beautiful piece of architecture – it’s layered with multiple points of interest. And as buildings take on new dimensions and appeal depending upon the light and time of day, so do our chats according to circumstances and our willingness to reveal a part of ourselves with another person.

My friend Jim Downing, who died at age 104 and who was one of the oldest survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought America into World War II, used to say there are three levels of conversation. The lowest is trivia – things like the weather. The second is people – gossip, of a sort. But the highest and most rewarding level is the exchange of ideas – deeply personal and meaningful thoughts.

In hindsight, I wish my brother and I talked longer just before his stroke. But of course, we had no idea a stroke was awaiting him.

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Life can change in an instant. It sounds a bit woo-woo to say there’s no such thing as “tomorrow” – but it’s technically true. The only time we’re guaranteed is right now.

There’s an old Yiddish saying that sums it up: “Mann tracht, und Gott lacht,” which translates to “man plans, and God laughs.”

According to statistics, an average of more than 8,000 people die each day in the United States – a number that is undoubtedly higher now due to the current coronavirus pandemic. I suspect many who pass away today didn’t think yesterday that would happen – but it did.

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Is there someone you’ve been meaning or wanting to talk with? Is there someone you love who you feel compelled to let them know it? Stop putting it off. I’d encourage you to call them today.

And if you’re a praying person, we’d be eternally grateful if you might say a prayer for my brother and his family. Thank you.

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