In so many ways, it has been an “aha” week for me. As I complete my first month-and-a-little, post-work challenge, the struggle to find a rhythm, a personal harmonic in synchronous vibration with my disability’s fundamental tone—defined by dressing for ease and not for the job, more and more intimacy with personal care assistants, lunches with friends, longer naps than I ever thought possible, the need for more and more physical support–has been the true north of my journey. I say true north as my direction seems to have veered from the magnetic attraction of the destination, toward what is a much more real, more dis ease accommodating journey.
We humans love to describe life with the journey metaphor. And why not? The path is clear; birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, work, relational commitment, parenthood for some, empty nest, maybe grandparenthood, retirement, agedness, and off we go into the light. I may not have named all of the points or their exact order, but the birth – death existence is quite a trip, and one that we all face. The uniqueness of the journey is in the dash between our date of birth and eventual death. Each significant occasion that marks our lives, seemingly unique to us, can be generalized in broad paintbrush strokes to humanity’s experience. And each occasion is an opportunity for growth or calcification.
Life growth and death brittleness come in many guises. Each of us might know growth through our partners, our relationships, our families. But we might just as easily experience the ravages of a relationship gone bad or a partner without commitment. How many of us know the pain of family dynamics framed by substance abuse or addiction? Each of us can hope for health in our lives, but we also know with certainty that what lies ahead will be marked by dis ease through manner of ways the human body goes wrong. We hope for good jobs and are aware of the tenuous nature of employment. The journey is not easy or sequential. For some, it looks like a straight path while for others, life is defined by events that are out of our control, clear leaps and bounds from event to event. Thus while the dash looks like a straight line from birth to death, life’s eventualities belie the look.
I know that you know this. I am just saying it for me.
This week, I found a bit of peace. It came through a slight reframing, a deeper spiritual understanding of my own journey line toward the death that awaits me a whisper of time from now. And I realized that the core idea with which I left my working life, consisting of a list of things to do, accomplishments to be checked off day to day and week to week, was silly. I am not retiring at the age of 65 with a hope of 20 years ahead of me for travel and all of the things I haven’t done. I have not reached a pinnacle in my professional life that feels worthy of celebration and satisfaction. Ev and I will not be selling the home and moving to a desert island. Nor will I be devoting my leadership experience to serving on the board of some meaningful nonprofit. I’m not going to start training to compete in the 70 and older bracket of the Ironman. “My hands are tied, my body bruised, she’s got me with nothing to live for, and nothing left to lose;” Bono’s religious romantic tome to existence pretty well sums it up. It is harder and harder to communicate through my hands, my ALSFRS is down, I cannot bathe or dress myself, eating requires assistance, I tire easily. What was I thinking?
Sometimes, epiphanies are so quiet they scream.
None of us is granted such prescience as to know the exact moment of our ending until the moment happens. And there is my “aha.” I truly do not know how much time is left me in this wonderful life. I do know that I will die eventually. The epiphany moves me from a peace that waxes and wanes in its ALSness to a peace that waxes more and wanes a little less in its utter humanness. My problem has not been with an impossible concept of retirement, but more with the feelings of loss and grief at the lack of such possibility.
My problem has been me.
What I am trying to do, what this new realization seeks to teach me, is to recognize inevitable frameworks of eschatology. Tom Waits said it when he paraphrased the early Christian church, “Jesus gonna be here, He’s gonna be here soon.” It is not my place anymore to plan for an existence beyond the day, the hour, the very second of breath and life. Rather, it is enough to seek a good day no matter what.
Why didn’t I figure this out earlier?
One of the more interesting concepts to come out of late 19th and early 20th century anthropology is the so-called “cargo cult.” A cargo cult in its classic sense is when a pre-industrial population becomes aware of the availability of goods and services associated with industrial manufacturing societies, and seeks to attract those goods without the manufacturing culture required to make them. Often, this would be manifest in rituals such as building airstrips or docks even though the society owned no planes or seafaring ships. The cargo cult is useful for explaining some of the more bizarre behaviors we observe in the zigzag line of human existence. In an effort to bring the goods home, we come to believe that we can construct a plan for everything, accounting for every variable, smushing in every single experience that we think we deserve, usually within some ritual that becomes less and less tied to the actual facts our lives exhibit.
All my life, I have been waiting for the cargo.
It seems that no matter how clear the lesson, I still try to build my life like a runway to attract perfection, to exercise control in a way that results in the plane landing with all of the straight line journey items I could desire. You can name the journey as you like, but for me, it was leaving behind me the negatives, the things that didn’t work, the imperfections, the losses, by exercising the rituals of retirement so that the cargo would arrive.
This week I realized that I “retired” at the age of 85, not 65. That changes things. This week, I stopped waiting for the cargo to show up. This week, the steady progression of ALS, point after point, and the obvious tasks that are now beyond me, illuminated this new understanding. It is enough to have a good day, hour, minute, second. Therein is the rhythm I sought, the harmonic I needed.
And eventually the cargo actually arrives, and the journey ends with the perfect harmonic and a compelling rhythm wrapped up in melodic wonder.