This past week, I made the mistake of reaching too far, my hand stretching behind me for something beyond my grasp on the floor. In the process, my arm became stuck, lodged behind the arm of my wheelchair, my ability to lift it back blocked by the weakness of my upper body. I sat there for a few minutes feeling really stupid, my predicament slowly dawning on me, panic creeping as the realization that I was alone and there was no one to help me became more and more obvious. I’ve had this experience before, but mostly with my feet falling off of the footplates on my powerchair. That isn’t so bad, as I can tip forward enough to put my foot on the floor, even though I cannot lift it back onto the footplate any more. However, with my arm behind me, slightly twisted, a little painful and growing more so, a mantra of vulnerability began to speak itself, making itself known, rising out of my dis ease like an anthill in a cement crack, first scouting out the terrain and then exploding in lines fanning out in all directions and colonizing my thinking so I could not rationally figure out what I might do. And I will admit to you, I was frightened.
How routine dis ease can become until that moment when it is not, and therein lies vulnerability.
In an unremarkable month, the end of the season’s gray and grit with ashen skies rain or snow indecisive, when spring anticipation is clouded by winter’s harvest of friends and loved ones to death’s embrace; getting my arm caught behind me seems insignificant and small and minuscule. Yet such a tiny happening takes on power and importance beyond the event, and unbeknownst to me vulnerability lies in wait. Slowly, it burrows its way into my consciousness, secure without anxiety or concern that I might or might not traverse its paths, that I might or might not spiral into the traps it lays in this gritty, gray, ashen spring stubbornly clinging to its wintry womb so that the groans of its impending birth are only imagined pleasures. Patient, quiet, dangerous, vulnerability ambushes memories and susceptibility and grief, and I know its name with intimacy. And it knows mine.
I’ve heard the term “vulnerable adult” many times, mostly in the context of old people being conned out of their money or abused by caregivers or lacking the mental ability to defend themselves in any number of situations. And as much as I hate to admit it, I have always associated a certain amount of befuddlement with the label as if it was their fault. So the idea that such a moniker could be applied to me was so foreign, so alien, so out of my old normal perspective that even now its reality seems unbelievable, almost surreal. But this tiny event-a caught arm- interrupted my steady, unremarkable month; and the construct “vulnerable adult” emerged unfolding itself through tendrils of consciousness blooming in the dragging of my feet, the leaden weight of my useless legs, tripping me up with little hints of air and sound, and calling my name in the same breath as its own.
Since ALS,it isn’t uncommon for old disability ideas to track me down and capture my imagination in themes laden with ignorance and negativity and fear and denial. With silent talons from above, they swoop in unforeseen, leaving me a little more stricken, a little more afraid, a little more frozen in disability myth until the sharpness sinks through my skin and lifts me from the terra firma of my able bodied arrogance, delivering a death blow to one more piece of immortal delusion.
Vulnerable is a term I never thought to apply to myself. It drips of a nonexistent control, of total dependency, of an old normal me rearing up and crying, “Not me, not me ever!” Vulnerable is a roadway littered more and more with dis ease as my capacity for its travel becomes less and less. My body will not be healed, and I cannot see the way home.
The old me would have strategized healing the vulnerability: Whip myself into shape so that no one, no way no how, would be able to see me as vulnerable. Intimidate the vulnerability, outwork others in the process so that they wouldn’t, couldn’t dare perceive any part of me as remotely, possibly vulnerable. But, even without dis ease, I was beginning to see the folly of these choices. After all, as a husband and father, musician, leader and teacher I had ample evidence of growth attained through hopeful and creative vulnerability. Yet, as is so often the case, even after my two plus years of ALS saga, I still return to the powerful grasp of a fearful old normal. And I still struggle to apply the gifts of dis ease in spite of my history.
Old habits die hard, and new spaces can be elusive. Vulnerability requires reframing.
Ten days ago, I had the great fortune of hearing the Bach B Minor Mass on the occasion of Bach’s 348th birthday. This particular work, the culmination of Bach’s choral writing, requires the commitment of a group like The National Lutheran Choir in order to pull it off with any kind of integrity. So, the privilege of hearing this piece in live performance was not lost on me. In order to prepare adequately I watched four hours of lecture by the renowned Bach scholar and conductor, Helmuth Rilling. While he is not the most scintillating of speakers, Rilling is a remarkable scholar, and his interpretations of Johann Sebastian Bach’s choral settings are both academically credible and musically imaginative. I had known how much Bach had borrowed from his previous works, but I was not aware of how conscious he was of going back to his best in order to move forward into what many scholars believe to be the halcyon composition of his career. And in this awareness, I realized the key to fully embracing my new found identity.
Like the B Minor Mass, ALS is my magnum opus. And like Bach, it makes sense to sample the best of my past in order to negotiate this certain yet uncertain future. I have enjoyed the fruits of vulnerability as ALS has progressed; friendships deepened, family love expanded, emotional – intellectual capacity developed. Without vulnerability, it would be impossible to perceive the subtle undercurrents of love’s music. Without vulnerability, the sweet breath of intimacy would lie fallow, row upon row of dust bowl dry plantings instead of fertile green growth. Without vulnerability, the beauty of the intellect, thoughts unimpeded by coarse understanding,would go undiscerned.
Without vulnerability, ALS would immediately kill me instead of escorting me home to eternity.
Matt Sanford reminds us that there are multiple stories of healing. Vulnerability is one such narrative, even when ants emerge through the concrete cracks. And I did eventually get my arm back in front, although there was no trumpet fanfare of seraphim, just a sigh of relief.