Saturday, January 9, 2010
Unfurl the Sail
Life is short.
We hear it all the time, but does it resonate? Or is it another one of those three-word phrases that is said so often, so nonchalantly, that it becomes trite and loses its depth: I love you. I miss you. Grande white mocha (okay, so maybe I'm the only one who uses that one daily)?
As my friends and I stand at the brink of 40, our lives play out like records in a small-town newspaper. Our names have slipped from the honor rolls, the college graduations, the wedding announcements, the birth announcements and the real estate transactions to, for many now, the divorce listings.
One day, our names will be recorded in the obits, our existence summed up in three tidy paragraphs: our birth and death dates; our work, church and civic memberships; our survivors.
When I began my career in journalism, I had to write obituaries. The funeral home directors and I would prattle about the weather or joke about something in the news as the details of Mr. Morgan's or Mrs. Buchanan's lives were jotted down in my spiral notebook in nice, neat lists.
I would type them into the VDT (um, yes, VDT; they ran on hamsters back then) and shout over to the copy desk: "Obits are in!" Then I'd take a swig of Dr. Pepper and down some barbecue Fritos as the newsroom police scanner reported yet another car fire.
That was all there was to it. I learned to write obits in Journalism 101. The process is fairly standard, unless the dearly departed is famous or a local big-wig. The protocol is the same because most of our lives are fairly standard. We're born, we live, we work, we love (if we're lucky), we procreate and we die.
The question is, do we appreciate what will one day appear in our obits? Do we celebrate our lives while we're living them? Do we embrace the moments that blow past us, like wisps of a dandelion? Or do we live by the standard, doing only what is expected and reaching for nothing more?
To be fair, it is difficult to reach for more. We often feel trapped by our circumstances. We don’t have enough money. Our children are young. The job pays the bills. We're too old. People will talk. It's good enough.
My grandparents, whom I loved dearly, were survivors of the Great Depression. As a result, they lived their lives frugally. They stored canned goods beneath their beds and socked cash away in pillow cases. They toiled and saved. They never traveled, for that seemed a frivolous use of their hard-earned money. They sat in lawn chairs in the front yard of their gray brick house and watched other people go places.
When I was in high school, my mother decided that my grandparents should see the ocean. They protested, but my mother persisted until she convinced them to make the trip with us one summer. We all scrunched into their Buick and drove 10 hours to Destin, Fla., where we rented a cottage by the beach.
My grandparents complained: they grumbled about the temperature in the cottage being too cool and they wore sweaters. They frowned at platters of seafood and talked of missing "home cooking". They were old and stubborn; it was almost too late.
When they stepped on the white sand beach, when they saw that big, wide ocean stretched out before them, crashing and churning, they were afraid of it.
But my grandmother walked to its edge, anyway. She allowed the wind to whip her perfectly curled silver hair. She stooped to pick up tiny white seashells and slipped them into her pockets.
When she died, we found those seashells tucked away with some of her most treasured belongings. I slipped one into my own pocket.
Her shell reminds me of "George Gray", a poem by Edgar Lee Masters that I first heard in a high school honors English class. It's from Masters' Spoon River Anthology (1915), a collection of epitaphs written for the fictional residents of the small town of Spoon River. I loved the poem so much that I cut it out of the poetry packet in high school and pasted it in a scrapbook. I give full credit to Mr. Masters and hope that it is acceptable to share it with you here, because it is so meaningful to me:
I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me -
A boat with furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one's life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire -
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.
For many years, the sad story of Mr. Gray was ignored in my high school scrapbook, tucked between pages of cheerleading camp and school dance photos. It wasn't until a health scare a few years ago that I reached for it again.
I'm fine, thank you. But a few years ago I began to have muscle twitches I couldn't control. I ignored them at first. Most people get involuntary muscle twitches on occasion, usually beneath their eye or maybe in a calf muscle. They're harmless and go away as quickly as they came. But mine didn't go away.
I was having muscle twitches off and on for days, and they occurred all over my body (yes, all over. Some are more fun than others). Muscles twitched in my arms, my thighs, my abdomen, even my tongue. I would wake up at night twitching. After three weeks, I was a little concerned, so I mentioned them to my sister, who is a nurse. I thought for sure she would blow them off, but she discussed them with her doctor, who told her the medical term for muscle twitches is "fasciculations" and recommended simple blood tests, as they most likely were the result of a thyroid condition, Lyme Disease or a lack of calcium or magnesium.
I had the blood work. My thyroid was normal, as were my calcium and magnesium levels. I tested negative for Lyme Disease. The twitching continued daily, so the doctor referred me to a neurologist for additional testing. That terrified me. A neurologist? No one wants to be referred to a neurologist.
That's when I made the mistake of googling the word "fasciculation." The links that immediately popped up on my computer screen were for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as "Lou Gehrig's Disease." It turns out, muscle fasciculations are a primary symptom of ALS. And I knew one thing about ALS: Lou Gehrig died from it. No one survives ALS.
I was 37-years-old, and suddenly, doctors wanted to test me for an incurable, cruel disease. I couldn't even look at my children without bursting into tears. I found myself praying for neurological conditions that while horrible, but might not prove fatal, like multiple sclerosis. I could live with multiple sclerosis.
A few weeks later, I saw the neurologist. A neurologist's waiting room is an incredibly depressing place, where old people waste away in wheelchairs or stumble to their seats with canes. I was too young, felt too alive to be there. I tried to read old copies of Time magazine but I couldn’t focus on the words.
Eventually I was called back to the exam room and told to put on a gown. I sat nervously, waiting for the doctor. My heart pounded and I fought back tears as he came in and asked about my symptoms and my twitches. In a heavy Indian accent, he told me to calm down, that my fasciculations most likely were the result of a benign condition. Then he put me through a series of tests in his office. I walked on my tiptoes and my heels. I pushed his hands away with mine. The bottoms of my feet were poked with safety pins. I listened to chimes vibrating near my ears. And then he tested my reflexes. He tested them again. And again.
"Your reflexes are a little fast," he said, his brow slightly furrowed. "It's probably nothing. You've probably always had hyper reflexes, but I think I want to do an EMG on you."
I had scared myself on Google enough to know what Electromyography meant. "You're testing me for ALS," I said, and then I promptly broke out in hives.
"You do not need to worry so much," he said, patting my hand. "But I think we need to rule it out, yes. It's just a precaution."
So two sleepless, restless, unnerving days full of crying jags later, I was back in the waiting room, awaiting a test that involves a needle jabbed into virtually every muscle in my body to measure the electric activity of the muscles. Electrical currents are sent through the needle to stimulate the muscles, registering the strength or weakness of them. If my muscles showed significant weakness, I most likely had ALS.
In the gown again, I stretched out on a table, as my doctor said, "I'm not going to lie to you. This is going to hurt. I'm going to start with your toes and work my way up your legs to your back."
Ahhh. How comforting. Turns out, you can't have any medications before an EMG because it can impact the test results.
I practiced Lamaze breathing as he jabbed and electrocuted the muscles throughout my body. But all I could think was, "When this is over, I'm going to find out if my life is over. This could be it for me."
I tried to tell myself there would be some comfort in knowing, that in some ways, it might be a gift. I would have time to prepare my children and say my goodbyes. I also thought of things I never thought an optimistic person like me could think of; I found some sympathy for Dr. Jack Kevorkian.
An hour or so later, my time as a human pin cushion was over. My doctor pulled me up, took my hands and said, "Good news! I did not detect muscle weakness, so I do not think you have ALS. I think this is a neurological disorder called Benign Fasciculation Syndrome. But I still want to see you annually because you are so young. Like I told a doctor friend of mine who suffers from BFS but is still convinced he is dying, if you're not dead in three years, then we know you're okay!"
I didn't know whether to laugh or jab him with one of those electrified needles.
I am thrilled to say that I will reach the three-year mark this March with no muscle weakness noted. I still suffer from random muscle twitches daily (a great party trick!), but they no longer scare me or send me running to play Dr. Google. I remain under the care of my neurologist because I am symptomatic, but all of my checkups have been reassuring.
So, as horrible as that time on the EMG table was, it indeed was a gift. It was a fresh start. My life was handed back to me.
Not long after that, I dug out that yellowed copy of "George Gray" from my scrapbook. I read it again, and it spoke to me like never before. Like my annual neuro visits, poor George Gray's epitaph is a reminder to use it or lose it.
I appreciate all that I have and all whom I love; yet, I also must remember that life is for learning. Whether we play it safe or take chances, we're all going to end up in the obits eventually. Why not try to glean something along the way?
So I ask myself: am I milking life for everything it has, or am I just going through the motions? Am I that boat at rest in the harbor?
Someone close to me, a 31-year-old mother, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. The day I learned of her diagnosis, I sat outside on the front porch swing so my children wouldn't see me cry. I prayed for her and her family and cursed the unfairness of it. She is a fighter, and thankfully, her prognosis is good. Even so, I grieve that her life has been marked by disease, discomfort and fear.
As I prayed on the porch that day, I heard a terrible cry coming from the tree in my front yard. I jumped from the swing in time to see a hawk snatch a dove from its perch on the dogwood. The dove was screaming; its mate was shrieking. I watched in horror as the hawk clasped the dove in its claws and swooped in circles above my yard. The dove was crying as it frantically fought to free itself from the predator's talons.
I couldn't believe my eyes. I live in the heart of town. I had never seen a hawk in town before.
The hawk flew back and forth across the street, trying to hold onto its prey, which continued to shriek and struggle. While it seemed to go on forever, it was only a minute or two before the hawk dropped the dove from a great height. The dying bird fell at my feet in my front yard.
The timing, horror and symbolism of it were not lost on me. I stood in my yard, shaking and crying. I tried to comfort the dove, which was mortally wounded. I screamed at the hawk and frightened it away.
It was as if God himself had driven home the point: Life is fragile. It's the dove in the dogwood. We can be fine one minute, only to be caught in talons the next.
Really, I'm not a downer and I have an annoyingly optimistic view of the world. I live, laugh, love, dream and hope. I dance all the time to songs only I hear. I tell goofy jokes and I play. I often slide down my hall in sock feet instead of walking. I might even turn cartwheels in my backyard on occasion.
Why? Because I can.
I have reached out and renewed friendships I had let wane, and I have embraced new relationships.
I began writing again because it's not too late. It's never too late.
I'm not trying to be preachy or syrupy. I'm not your personal Jesus, Dalai Lama or Oprah.
I share these stories with you only because they mattered to me. They were important lessons to move through life, to not be paralyzed or rooted in place by circumstance. Embrace the journey, even if it scares you. Even if it might end in bitter disappointment, there are lessons in the trip.
Open the doors you thought were closed.
Unfurl the sail.
I dare you.