The Fire and the Phoenix: A Personal Story in the Age of Pandemic

The first sunny Sunday in April invited me to venture out for a walk after isolating in place for a month of COVID retreat. Still a bit wobbly from multiple hip replacement surgeries, I put on my mask and gloves, picked up my trusty Brigg cane-handle umbrella that served as a support for stairs, and ventured back into the world. It was only six steps down my stoop to the stone walkway that led to the sidewalk. In the final step, as I looked up toward the street, my left heel caught onto the edge of the step, and I went sailing into the air. Weightless, falling, and startled, I reached to grab the railing to break my fall.

After what felt like an eternal second, my body smashed into the slate tiles, stopping my fall. One breath, then two…I slowly recovered my awareness of what had happened. My mind scanned my body, hoping to feel the energy and the power to stand up. I could not move. The pain vibrated through every screaming cell of my being. I slowly reached into my jacket pocket, found my mobile phone, and called for help.

As I rode the ambulance to the emergency room, I asked myself, “How did that happen?” I had taken such care to step out into the COVID world.

After surgery—I had a steel rod implanted in my fractured tibia (my left lower leg)—I would have a week of hospitalization, in the time of pandemic, terrified that I would come home with COVID. The pain was severe for days. I had plenty of time for mindful reflection, remembering my life story, daydreaming. Searching for inspiration to push through the pain to do the physical therapy, I recalled my paternal grandfather, Felipe Romero, a Mexican refugee from the revolution of 1910-20. He was a chef and a baker. His restaurant in Edinburgh, Texas burned to the ground. He took a job working as a cook in a prison to save money to build a bakery, his true passion. He called it El Fenix, after the mythical bird that is reborn by fire. Although he died before I could meet him, his name and his story have been a life-long muse for my creative resilience during adversity across my life.

Activating my brain’s creativity reframed my fear, mitigated my pain, and inspired me to recover my mind-body link. Finding a personal story of inspiration to recreate oneself with new vigor is the key to resilience.

As I re-remembered every moment before the fall, I realized that my body was very frightened about going out. Despite my medical training, my years of mindfulness practice, and a career of helping people face their fears, I did not shepherd my body gently down the stairs. Instead, my ego courageously charged into the outing with a manly stride and tripped over my own feet.

What a perfect metaphor for mindless, self-sabotaging arrogance.

My body was broken.

My inattention to my emotional insecurity and physical frailty in the time of pandemic cost me dearly: pain, stress, exposure to high risk environments.

I thank the miracle of my mind, with its natural acceptance of ‘What Is’. ‘What Is’, in each-and-every moment, is constantly changing. My mind instinctively focuses on my body’s pain. With effortful attention, I can bring deep compassion to my body, as a parent would for a child. Activating mindful gratitude for my body strengthens this mysterious and miraculous coupling of mind-body existence.

Breaking my body, once again, enduring the surgical reconstruction, working through the rehabilitation, and relearning how to sit, to stand, to walk, was like being an infant, a toddler, and eventually feeling like an adult.

Falling into COVID was a glimpse into timelessness.  My fear, my fall, and the pain of my broken body awakened a deep awareness of my precious physical being. I am impermanent, fragile, and resilient. With gratitude for each step my body takes, my mind’s focus is fueled by each breath. I feel the joy of living as my mind-body link is welded back together by the fire of the Phoenix.

The Phoenix myth, thanks to my grandfather, kindled my creative resilience. By reframing the ‘fire of COVID’ as a spark of rebirth, I have activated my ‘inner Phoenix,’ empowering my endurance to rehabilitate the damage to my body. I have returned to the new world of telemedicine to help others navigate the greatest threat to global culture, individually and collectively.

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