From the Silence

Why has it been so difficult to write in the past month? I can think of all kinds of reasons, none of which seems particularly credible. Perhaps it is three separate infections, nothing much on their own but one after the other, creating iterations and variations on a theme of exhaustion through conditions that are hard to shake. Perhaps it is the deep freeze of late January and early February in Minnesota, when on the day when the temperature reaches the teens, good Minnesotans shed their clothes down to shirtsleeves and enjoy the balmy weather even though it is colder than sin. Or perhaps it is a new phase in the inexorable march of dis ease, a new beginning as I wind down to the inevitable. Illness, winter, dis ease, one is not mutually exclusive of the other, but the energy that each requires compared to the energy that I possess puts me in the deficit.

I am almost always at least a little bit tired.

This is new territory, a new geography where writing seems noisy, and I feel quiet, where two or three hours of napping on top of a good night of sleep is normal, where I am happy to just sit and think, to doze and listen to music wending its way in and out of consciousness. It is a space where the definition of living remains constant, but the meaning shifts and mewls – horizontal to vertical, cries to calls, life to laughter. It isn’t that I am not awake, alive to possibility. Rather, projecting outward seems less and less relevant, and aligning energy, above and behind, head and heart, body and soul, is a far better use of life force. And even though I occupy new space, there is still a consistency that I recognize as self.

I still love, I still feel, I still desire, I still recognize possibility.

ALS has its own gravity, strong enough that being in its orbit yields the realization that each repeated circle is always just a bit smaller, a hair closer to its sun, a flick of the wrist of the master fisherman reeling me in until I am caught and netted. That ALS affords any orbit at all is a marvel, for its main effects are an exaggeration of the laws of physics that keep all of us firmly grounded on the earth. As I spiral down, my perception is blurred so that I cannot tell whether the weight I feel is due to its mass, so vast that light does not escape its pull and so hot that purification by its fire is all one can expect from the encounter. With the completion of each orbit, my existence becomes more and more about being, less and less about doing, and the silence of the space roars its presence.

In this space, verbal expression seems so inadequate, words less meaningful. I find myself turning to music just to name the feelings, the experiences, the Godhead of my dis ease. More harmonic than tonal, more fundamental than overtone, more rhythmic than steady beat, it is music that defines the emotion – E major sunshine and brightness, steady and assured F fundamental, B-flat minor a sadness that hangs five times from the staff like crows on a wire. Words fulfill their meaning through phrases molding and shaping the line so that its apex hangs in the speck of time that defines temporal existence. And as with all orbits there is a point of no return, for it is only a matter of time before I will be consumed by heat and friction and cool atmosphere returning this body to the constant motion of rest and essence. I am assured and reassured by my faith in what I hear and experience.

And I am thankful.

I am thankful for a family as loving and supportive as mine. I’m thankful for the communities that have held out their arms and embraced me with love and tears and straightened fingers and blankets and peanut butter and music and the space to fall asleep. I am thankful for the opportunity to get to know great people in the medical field, compassionate men and women who walk beside me and heroically seek respite for me. And as strange as it may seem, I’m thankful for a life framed by true love and ALS allowing me to grow beyond the lesser person I could have been. When I consider the person I might’ve become, blind and ignorant and tone deaf in a world of art and knowledge and music, the gifts bestowed by my one true love and my teacher are beyond comprehension.

I know how this sounds. It sounds like I am resigning myself to death, even though the silence from which I write feels very much alive. But if I am resigned, then like everything else I have experienced through ALS, it is much better to be ready, to anticipate, rather than to pretend that existential stasis is actually real. Like preparation for the performance of a beautiful yet challenging piece of music, this quiet serves as rehearsal time, a human attempt in the great liturgy that frames life to try to get it right. It allows me and my loves to practice for the moment when quiet is the best gift that we can expect in spite of the noise that always frames the ending. It allows me conservation of energy and the liberation of spirit as I spend time, delicious and beautiful with friends. It allows me to breathe in the honeyed sweetness, the life presence of my one true love, unencumbered by the baggage we think we will require, supported by the truths we will actually need – love and life and laughter and tears.

In the three plus years since ALS framed my life, I have sought to be engaged fully with life as I knew it. Now, it seems more important to engage with life as it is. I hope this means more time with loved ones, both friends and family; more evenings with Ev listening to the local classical station, drinking in each other’s presence and knowing full well it will never be enough; more yoga with Jon and Kirsten and loving joyful visits with my granddaughter and David and Athena, family meals where I can barely keep up with the conversation; more naps during the day and deep sleep at night. I hope this means more time to think, to listen, to perceive that in the silence is life and death and life again.

And maybe, I can kick the last vestiges of infection, bone chilling cold, and dis ease.


19 thoughts on “From the Silence

  1. Dear Bruce,
    You can also write eloquently and I am enthralled by your posts and how you describe your being depending on your condition. I have experienced a different life over the past few months having broken my leg badly in Vietnam due to a motor bike accident which left me immobile for months. I also lost my father in December as he died peacefully at the grand age of 92. Both events have enabled me to view life differently; to cherish the time with loved ones, the laughter and company of friends and to put work into perspective – just as you describe. You are making the most of every minute; I think of you often and send my love to you and Ev. Moyra xxx

  2. Serious disease and trauma gives (sensitive) people opportunity to learn things they would never learn otherwise, it humbles, and it opens our eyes.

  3. I do not think that I ever would have seen so many subtle references that I myself stand in awe of every time I visit your home. Silence though, it is one thing that I have always cherished in mine. Alone with thoughts upon thoughts and knowing that they belong only in the context of my existence. Relevant, yet private and intensely mine. That you are able ( or have been) to share so much of yourself with others is beautiful. “Life” forms and molds us as clay before the maker. Is this how “God” does it? I wonder. Are you or I serving his purpose better by the suffering of these tasks? Does this suffering make us worthy of heaven? I hope.

    • Kris, I believe that we are worthy of heaven by virtue of our status as God’s children. No suffering required. 🙂 But, as my husband reminds me often, “The Buddhists are close to right: ‘Life is pain and suffering.'” I try to remind myself daily that everyone’s going through something – or they soon will be. Most of our journeys are completely out of our control as to the path they will take. I think that’s the scariest part for me … that, and wondering how I will react when I really hate the path. Bruce has shown me another way in this post. Simply beautiful!

  4. I can’t tell you how much I miss our Monday lunch visit. I won’t tell you that I’m on vacation on the sunny and warm FL gulf prepping for my knee replacement. But I will tell you how grateful I am for all your dis eased words that ease my own soul.

    From birth on we are all on the slippery slope of life, some of us falling faster along the curve than others. Like most others my septuagenarian age, I have buried both parents who loved me no matter what, a young son who charmed me daily, and a brother who made me laugh so hard I couldn’t get off the floor. Where they are now is where we are all headed, and yet I greatly miss those gone who were given me to love.

    You are right. Being a believer makes all the difference in life. I can’t imagine the emptiness without belief. My only worry has been hanging on to it. Your words are such an affirmation for me. They are graced with wondrous words like these: “B-flat minor [is] a sadness that hangs five times from the staff like crows on a wire…” and, still, warmed away by Bach’s E-major violin concerto. For now, more I do not need.

    Thank you so much.

  5. Your writing is so touching, so beautiful. I know well the misery of infection, and I wish you speedy healing. We’ve had a deficit of sunshine here in Houston lately, but if the sun comes out tomorrow or the next day, I shall tip my face to it and soak it in, in your honor.

  6. I was hungry for your words, dear friend; they are always such a deep blessing. I’m sending you warmth and love from New Orleans. Soak in all the love around you and nap on! 🙂

  7. As I read this, it feels like you are expressing exactly the way I feel, only with much greater eloquence and precision than I ever could. I especially appreciate your illustration of the gradually shrinking orbits that ALS draws us into. So true.

  8. Pingback: Hey, It Still Runs! | Ok, so far

  9. Thank you, Bruce. Four weeks ago my brother’s ALS took him from life to death to — as you beautifully pointed out and he so fervently believed — life again. Your post shines a sorely needed light on the dark space of my grief. May you feel God’s embrace in your silence.

  10. In the words of Charles Spurgeon, “Those who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls,” you again, Dr Bruce, have shared rare pearls with us in your affliction! Thank you and I continue to pray for joy in your suffering.

  11. “My existence becomes more and more about being, less and less about doing, and the silence of the space roars it’s presence.”


    Beautiful. Thank you for sharing. I’m going to have to re-read this a few times to feel the weight of it.

  12. Yes, thank you for sharing. I lost my uncle to ALS back in 1988. I wish I hadn’t lived so far from him during his last days. I would have liked to have spent more time. As another blogger reminded me after the loss of my sister this past December, we have to milk the time we have been given. God bless you!

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