Love Notes from the Universe

Do you remember when you were in junior high, and someone “liked” someone else enough to risk the possible consequences of passing a love note, person by person, row by row until it arrived at the beliked person’s desk? Do you remember how the worst thing that could happen would be that the most “immature” kid, probably with the loudest mouth, would stop the progress of the love note and share it in bits and pieces, dribs and drabs of horrible embarrassment to the point where the sender wished the ground would open up and swallow them whole so that the nemesis, the beloved, classmates, teachers, the entire school would never be faced ever again? It was a cruel lesson – the risks of declaring your love were not worth the embarrassment of the declaration – and by the time you reached high school, you probably learned to hide your emotions until you were totally sure that no one was watching and the person who was the object of your affection would actually return the feeling.

If you learned the lessons as well as I did, then the noise of safety and surety overwhelms your perception of love’s declaration.

It isn’t that you shouldn’t be careful. Sometimes it feels like some people exist with the primary focus of embarrassing others just for the entertainment value. But love notes exist. They are like spacecraft out past the edges of the solar system, or radio signals that continue to be received but not decoded. Even when it seems like nothing can go your way, the universe sends declarations of love, some quite general – a sunset or a moonrise; others very specific – a chance meeting or a message from the past. For me, it wasn’t until I became aware of how dis ease humanizes, that I realized how pervasive these messages were, how many of them were directed at me, yet how frightened I was that somehow or another some version of that loud mouthed kid was still around looking for ways to embarrass me with my own emotions.

If the fear of love’s expression isn’t dis ease, then I don’t know what is.

In the early days as I was slowly awakened by ALS, I marveled at how often people would relate their own dis ease in the face of my challenge. Their pit of the stomach narratives were often prefaced with something like, “Of course, this doesn’t even compare to having ALS like you do,” as if such a comparison would lessen the effects of their personal condition. Just in the past few weeks, old and new friends confided their own ALS lessons in practiced tones and whispers, sharing the loss of mothers and fathers long ago taken, years of anger and sadness and confusion so that in the hearts of my friends, their parents’ deaths might have happened yesterday. As they talked, as they cried, as they worked through the fact that some of them did not even know what was wrong with their mom or dad, or even in the knowing were not allowed to acknowledge that ALS was taking their beloved parent, I knew I could offer no meaningful comfort. But being in the presence of such tender and raw emotion, such beautiful openness, breathing the same air, listening as they worked their way through the years of pain, navigating their hurt into a more nuanced space that acknowledged how complicated life and love and dis ease truly are, was like receiving an encrypted message. And even though comfort could not be offered, it was taken by both of us in the courage of the expression.

If you can quiet the noise, love notes from the universe make their way desk by desk and row by row.

Less than two months ago, I truly believed that my time was finished. I was always tired, and I spoke in whispers, afraid that if my voice was any louder, it would overwhelm the holy act of dying. I planned my funeral, mustered all the energy I could find for one final push of writing, reframed my dis ease in the comfort of a life well-lived and the regret of a life cut short before its time. I was convinced this would be my last Christmas, my last anniversary, the winding down with the family and friends that I love. In that time, my heart became very quiet, and my hearing acute. Suddenly I realized that whether on the stage in front of a thousand people or in the quiet intimacy of my own thoughts, the love notes that before had to disrupt my awareness in order for me to perceive them, required no such violence.

In the quiet solitude of winding down is the ocean roar of love.

One of my greatest worries has been the hurt my death will inflict on those I love the most, and I now realize there is a love note for that. Recently a friend, out of the blue, reassured me this way, “I know you are worried that by leaving your loved ones in death, you will hurt them. And they will be sad, but it will be a beautiful sadness. It will comfort them when you are gone.” Where did this come from? We were just enjoying lunch together, when she offered this remarkable comfort. And had I not been so quiet, I would have missed its solace.

The love notes are there when you need them the most.

In the week that followed our program at St. Thomas, my fatigue and vulnerability, underscored by the frenzy of preparation and the emotional letdown that often occurs after such an event, led me to believe that neither love nor friendship nor beauty could possibly rise again above the gray fog pressing down upon me. And then I received a love note from a friend that I have not seen in 30 years. Her message ended, “You are dearly loved.” It was a reminder of how closely we had worked together, how openly we had shared our passion for the education of high schoolers in a small town in Indiana, how synergistic our relationship had been. But how did she know that such a simple statement would be the fresh wind needed to blow away the fog and fatigue at that specific time?

I am convinced that if we can quiet our inner tempests, the love notes carried by the universe will be present.

Sometimes, the universe sends you love notes – not frilly ones, never with chocolates and roses or dinner invitations, never sexual or overt, never seeking to embarrass the recipient. The universe sends you love notes at your most vulnerable, at your most beaten-down, when you are fatigued in the midst of enormous energy or alone in the midst of loving crowds, when you are sad in the midst of great joy, when you are amazed at the confluence of time and space and friendship and comfort. They arrive in strange clothes and surprising music, in cacophony and quiet moments. They lift you at moments when you feel crushed and at moments when you might only know despair. And it doesn’t matter if that kid in the back row reads them out loud or not. They are love notes, after all.

And for me, their message is clear: I am not finished, at least not yet.

All Good Gifts

It is that time of holiday truce between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah and the season of Advent, and I am reflecting on the many gifts I have received since my rebirth in ALS. In my three years since diagnosis, it has been so rare to feel like there was something I could do about my physical regression. I have gotten used to the idea that, as one of its gifts, ALS takes and all I can do is anticipate the loss. This is been borne out by experience, for example my mobility has regressed from walking with the support of a cane to a walker to using a scooter and now spending most of my time in a power wheelchair. The decline of my physical capabilities has been inexorable, and the challenges have become, especially in the past three months, exponentially iterative – one multiplied on top of another on top of another. It should be no surprise that I had come to the point where I despaired that anything I might do in anticipation would be totally palliative in nature, holding off the inevitable and trying to maintain where I was for a few more days or weeks. I had come to despair that nothing would result in my feeling better, that each day would be a little closer toward death, that the best I would ever feel would be right now, because the nature of ALS is to feel worse and worse and worse. Thankfully, in the past month that situation has changed.

In June, I was tested for diaphragmatic strength and phrenic nerve function to see if I might be a candidate for a diaphragmatic pacing system or DPS. Much like a heart pacemaker, only with the power source outside of the body, the diaphragmatic pacing system stimulates the diaphragm causing it to contract and not so gently forces the person to haul in a large breath of air. The DPS was first approved for persons with spinal cord injuries as a way of weaning them off of a ventilator. Aside from the initial surgery to place the electrodes in the diaphragm, the DPS is far less invasive and requires much less maintenance than a ventilator to keep it going. Over a year ago, the Food and Drug Administration approved the DPS on a compassionate care basis for the treatment of ALS. I have been watching with great interest other brothers and sisters in ALS who have had the DPS installed, and I have been doing a great deal of research on the pluses and minuses of the system.

Having passed the June test, it came down to waiting for my breathing to deteriorate into the treatment window that Mayo uses for its protocol, and to file with my insurance to see if they would support the procedure. Those two events came together in mid – October, and I had to decide quickly whether I would do the procedure or not. One reason you might not go through with the procedure is that the surgical team is not sure whether the DPS can be implanted until they have you open and they can stimulate the diaphragm directly. If it contracts, all systems are go; but if it does not, then they close the incision and send you home. I have had enough disappointment already, so even as I scheduled the procedure at Mayo, I steeled myself for the distinct possibility that my diaphragm would be too far gone for the procedure. But it was a rousing success. On November 14, I had surgery to install the diaphragmatic pacing system, and on November 15, I began the process of calibrating its stimulation to the wide smiles of the medical staff.

And here is the first gift.

I feel better. I am breathing more deeply, tolerating the electrical shock to my diaphragm very well, getting used to speaking around the delivery of the shock, and ironically, in spite of fatigue from the surgery, I have more energy. Unlike every single palliative intervention that we have made in the past three years, the DPS has actually helped me experience improvement. I am even sleeping more soundly, though not with the device, and my voice feels stronger than it has in a number of months. What a joy to experience any physical improvement.

Gospel! And there is more.

I have managed to solve some communication problems that I was having before the surgery. With the loss of hand and arm strength, I had lost the ability to use an iPad, to manipulate both the speech to text software I was using, and the smart house technology that I relied upon for basic functions such as turning on and off lights or music or other devices. In the past month I had despaired that I would be totally reliant on another person in order to accomplish such basic tasks. And to be truthful, I am so reliant on those who are with me for such simple things as straightening my fingers, placing my hand on the joystick of my wheelchair, or doing a bit of range of motion just to relieve the physical effects of ALS. But in communication, with a stronger voice and new technology workarounds, I am beginning to find a bit more of that independence that I value so greatly. Using an actual laptop computer instead of an iPad has allowed me to interact totally by voice, and while I am not back to 100% of what I was, the 85 to 90% is highly acceptable. So, even though this is more of a symptom handler, in conjunction with the DPS, I feel like I have voice control over my life again.

But, dis ease insists that the shoe must drop.

Over the past three years, I have worked hard not to be hopeful in my progression. I know that sounds strange, but I have learned that in such hope, particularly with ALS, lies crushing disappointment. I have sought to be realistic and honest and truthful with myself about my prognosis, my life as it continues, my life as it ends. With the installation of the DPS, I find myself having to reconcile this little uptick in how I feel with what ALS hammers home day after day after day. I mustn’t hope for more than is possible. What is possible is that I will feel better for a while, that I will find my voice again for a while, and that my physical body will continue to deteriorate. Reconciling the juxtaposition of deterioration with the tiny flame of hope that the DPS kindles has become a new life task for me. I am by nature a hopeful person, and I have managed to channel my hope into the lives of those for whom I care and that I love. My hope is for humanity, and that through relating my experiences it is helpful to find deeper humanness. And I have learned not to hope for myself except to accomplish this life as best I can within the framework of the circumstances in which I must exist.

My new reality is really just my old reality – I will fulfill body and spirit as designed.

In essence, I am granted the gift of spiritual rationalism. It is in the nature of the human body to wind down until death. It is in the nature of the human being to hold death off for as long as possible. These are facts. One can leave you depressed and morose, the other unrealistic and silly. So I now seek to continue my process of reconciliation, feeling better yet getting worse. I know that none of this is a cure for ALS. Just as Leonard Cohen points out that there is no cure for love, ALS points out that there is no cure for life. But, to have a procedure that results in feeling better almost immediately, coupled with finding a way to bring voice control back over my environment, I have a more positive outlook than I have had in months. I know that ALS continues, but I feel more the possibility of this spiritual and physical and emotional goal I articulated to myself three years ago – to live fully until I die.

And this is no holiday truce – each of us is granted the gift of living in hopeless possibility.

That Which Does Not Kill Me

As expatriates living in Egypt, we walked a fine line between the laughable and the ludicrous, sometimes within seconds of each other, and often in the same situation. With so many possible stories from which to choose, I hope you will indulge me in using the local beer – Stella (not to be confused with the Belgian Budweiser) – to illustrate. Stella came in oversized bottles, green or brown, that had to be held up to the light in order to see whether “floaters,” usually some unfortunate cockroach seeking an early sample of the brew, were present. And more often than not, the carbonation had seeped out from an improperly installed bottlecap. Drinking Stella was at the very least a question waiting to be answered, and sometimes it became a great adventure, more than anyone should have just for the sake of drinking beer.

 Local entrepreneurs played upon the quality control of Stella beer. They developed specific fashion lines for the expatriate communities so that two extremely popular T-shirts sold in our ghetto environment were Stella – inspired: “Stella Beer – 10,000 Cockroaches Can’t Be Wrong!” and my favorite, “That Which Does Not Kill Us Makes Us Strong – Stella Beer.” Who am I to argue with burgeoning capitalism?

From my dis ease and ALS vantage point, “That which does not kill us makes us strong” garners a much different meaning than my interpretation of 25 years ago. As I look back at my old normal, the saying might actually be one of the primary stanchions on which I built a major part of my life. “That which does not kill us…” smacks of running at the speed of light right up to the edge of personal disaster, just to see how long you might totter before going over. A false implication of immortality exists in the saying. For many of us, “that which does not kill us,” actually becomes “nothing will kill me, and I will always be strong.” It only takes the kind ministrations of dis ease to contradict the immortality and blur the meaning.

If you know dis ease, then you know a confluence of negative events can be deadly. It can happen very quickly as in a horrible accident where one poor decision cascades into fatality. Or it can happen in slow motion; a floppy foot, a couple of falls, a lump, a hematoma, a diagnosis. It isn’t the speed of the event itself, it’s the confluence, and at some point no matter who you are or what the circumstance, it becomes too much to bear, overwhelming your humanity into a new existence marked by your certain demise. But our human existence is also marked by denial. Since the time of my diagnosis, well-meaning people have shared that “God only gives you what you can handle.” I usually thank them when they say it, for I know they mean to offer me comfort. But such a statement is one that obfuscates our human condition. Something out there will kill us.

This past week, I Skyped with a friend with whom I had not spoken for years. Our conversation, framed in connection and catch up, found us trying to explain in the space of an hour some of the most meaningful events in the time since we last saw each other with all of the success one might have teaching nuclear physics to a three-year-old. Both of us struggled to overcome language and context and emotion and time, bravely seeking to re-create connection. Each of us had a story to tell about our kids, and that story contained real fear – palpable, tangible, sweat streaked and tear stained and just distant enough to allow us to relate the stories in straight tones, yet present enough to still invoke the powerful fight or flight that only a parent experiences. I think that one of us even said, “That which does not kill us…” in an attempt to rationalize tough times in the lives of our kids and the fear we both carried.

We are both old enough to know life’s great lesson – it will always give you more than you can handle.

It isn’t difficult to apply what we both know to my present situation. I have never had a teacher like ALS – so demanding, so exacting, so focused on the outcome. ALS schools me to remain psychologically upright even as she lays me flat. ALS requires me to strategize independence, even as she diminishes my body, forcing me into dependency I neither seek nor want. ALS reveals gradual and sudden loss – pure, heart wrenching, gut scalding. It might seem her real lesson is, “That which does not kill us, actually will,” but I keep learning that one must not end with the obvious answer. The depth of my teacher is far greater than being simply overwhelmed.

We are taught to believe that we have control over things that we do not, that we are personally responsible for such control while life belies the fact. Paradoxically, we know our control is miniscule, dwarfed in its comparison to God the universe and everything, so it might seem our only choice is existential angst. Deeper learning seeks reconciliation, so that through the requirements and diminishment and loss, ALS whispers to me to have faith; the lessons are deeper than the losses, each loss is a teachable moment, an opportunity to grow until growth is no longer possible, a roadmap to the ultimate outcome, a faith in more than the fact of loss. ALS quiets the noise revealing human music and God singing in great statements, credos of faith that we are here in the moment with no influence on the past, and a future always unclear. And if we choose we can go it alone, or we can embrace our big messy human condition together in the struggle to understand a world that of necessity must always be just beyond our comprehension. The noise abates, and what is left is a teacher’s purity.

Open your heart. Breathe in faith. Embrace your humanness. Glimpse God. Sing.

We will always be given more than we can handle. We will always have the choice as to how we respond – collectively, singly, the great choral hallelujah, the quiet solo aria. There is space for both so that in the end when we must go gently alone, the gift becomes apparent if you have eyes to see or ears to hear or skin to sense. That which makes us strong is what we can shoulder in concert, in tryst with each other, blessed by the communion of saints and sinners with lusty voices trying to go it together until we are released into the magnificent universe to rejoin that which we cannot understand with one, great, hymnal, solo aspiration – a final ah.

I think you could drink to that, although if it is a Stella beer, you might want to check for floaters.

July 4

July 4

It is July 4th, and in the last two weeks, maybe even in the last seven days, more than one friend has told me I seemed a little “dark.”

And I thought I was hiding it so well.

So I will admit that I have had thunderheads round my eyes, that I have felt less connection, less space, less. I admit that something I knew but couldn’t acknowledge was taking place. I admit that I just wasn’t moving through the harder times, the more challenging times, the situations that were clinging to me with all of the grasping, cloying, olfactory, primal qualities of old smoke in the morning – hard to get rid of once it is on you, yet pleasant in small amounts as memory or flavor. I did not see the same darkness as my friends, but I now realize that the last set of losses, the last paper cuts, have been particularly hard to take.

I always overestimate my readiness for such things.

If you know anything about the physiology of the brain, you know that there is a great deal of motor cortex real estate devoted to the thumb, and I suppose that is why I have been able to keep some thumb function up until this point. There’s just a lot more that needs to be taken down in order for ALS to have its way. But now, my left thumb shakes, and it chooses its own direction in defiance of my desires.  And on my right hand, while my thumb is still somewhat functional, fatigue sets in quickly, so it’s functionality cannot be trusted. Add to that, the fact that my left side is always a little bit ahead, specifically that my left hand keeps informing my right of its future, and you have a recipe for a living Caravaggio* whose loss is less violent, less sudden, but no less significant.

So now here is the reckoning – no arms and no legs, no feet and for all intents and purposes, no hands. In the meantime, my neck grows weaker and and my sleep is inconsistent. I won’t even go into the challenges of ALS logistics. Each small loss must be translated into these larger, taken for granted arenas that most adults plow their way through (except for flossing) without a thought in the world except, “do I look as good as I possibly can.” At night I look up at Ev and sigh, “Sometimes, it sucks to be me.”

I’ve told you many times, I am no saint.

And yet, I cannot help but perceive a certain sense of purpose at work in all of this. It is as if a confluence of universal ethers has come together in a very personal way to teach me another lesson and another and another. My history is one where I stepped up in my youth and learned the skills required to keep a family running, and then I pushed those skills out into my own life. I realize now that many of the failures that I perceive in my first 50 years, were really my inability to translate my need to care into anything but my needs. I didn’t really learn how to care with any modicum of success until about 10 years ago, when I came to understand that human fulfillment is in the ability to translate deep care for all those with whom we cross paths, but in a way that allows such care to be reciprocated.

Please don’t read into this anymore than what was going on in my mind and my heart as I moved through the life that I knew.

Imagine that you have mastered some impossible technique, some skill set, some knowledge base, some attitude to a point where it has become like a second skin. Imagine that you are still approaching the apex of your purpose, your raison d’être, your life wonder, your grand opus, your artistic fulfillment, imagine. And then the universe writes across the sky a secret message that only you can read, “Enough! It is time to learn the real purpose.” Your head would swivel, your thoughts would lose their direction and alignment, and you might even be afraid.

I am afraid.

When my friend and teacher Matt asked me how I was doing, “not physically, but otherwise,” he stated that I seemed to be projecting darker.  I don’t like to characterize mood as dark or light, black or white, or any other arbitrary, colorful categorization. But when he said this, I realized that my grief was more present, more surface, more perceivable. It has not helped to see friends with ALS fulfill their destiny, nor to see brave caregivers in their own grief, and let me be honest, in relief that such a journey does have an ending. If you chose to perseverate on this reality, it could push your soul out of your body. But when Matt made his observation, I also realized that that while deeply challenged, I still do not despair. I have not moved through the latest losses as easily as before, yet I still see myself moving through. While the great lift that comes in the rise of the breath and the flooding of the lungs with blessed spirit has been slower to arrive, I have not lost my faith.

The fact is that none of us is truly finished until the great lessons have been learned. I learned how to push care, even for those who didn’t want it, so that my life was defined in a single dimension. Dis ease has brought me the spherical lesson over and over and over again, that care for requires care of, that caregiving requires caretaking, that caring space is not only physical but deliciously, consciously spiritual. I have faith that I will move through and become even more the person I want to be, the person I need to be. I am not finished; life is not done with me yet.

Today is July fourth, the day that our still very young and fragile and maddeningly frustrating democracy celebrates its own birth. There will be speeches and fireworks and movies and concerts and all manner of patting ourselves on the back. I will not be swept away by the speeches or music (except for Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait), but I cannot help but see the direction we are headed with the hope that at some point, our immaturity will give way to that which holds true meaning – that faith and love have far more significance than avoiding pain and suffering and death. That the remarkably gargantuan resources that we plow into death avoidance could be repurposed into life embracing, refreshingly chilled water awakening us to our possibilities, such simple love that when given, only multiplies and grows. I see this in my sons and daughters-in-law and dear friends and most of all my one true love, Ev.

It isn’t dark at all, and it isn’t light. It is faith in what will be, and the love that will come, and it isn’t as bad as I thought.

*Michael Ondaatje’s thumbless thief in The English Patient.

Arcs and Vectors

I’ve been pretty quiet about an upcoming event, but I think I can now announce that my son and daughter-in-law are expecting their first child, Ev’s and my first grandchild in August. As you can imagine, we are really excited, and every once in a while I catch Ev tapping her toes looking forward to “getting my hands on that baby.” We anticipate birth with such excitement, superimposing hopeful fantasies and imagined perfection on these tiny humans yet to be born. At the same time, we call into question our own childhoods, exploring our parents and their parents, seeking understanding and wisdom before the experience. I can’t help but be comforted by the fact that as I wind down my time in this space, a new human being poised for birth finds his own way, perfect in possibility, not yet shaped into the joys and sorrows of life as we know them. Long explored by poets and philosophers and scientists and clergy, one cannot help but marvel at the contrast – beginning and ending, alpha and omega, birth and death, baby and grandfather yet to be.

Life is up and down.

A new baby and a man with dis ease are at different points on the same trajectory. A baby, like a sunrise reveals the hope of a new day, dew on the grass, birdsong, buds opening into new life. While she must acquire every single behavior associated with a fully functioning human – speaking, bathing, toileting, feeding, dressing, schooling – for just a brief moment between birth and breath there is nothing but pure potential. And over time, she will learn to make responsible decisions leading to the  independence in living that we so value as a culture. Our new grandchild, still in utero, is now nothing but a hopeful point, barely perceptible on the life arc that we all experience.

On the other hand, my trajectory is at the end of its curve, an Apollonian finale hissing into the ocean’s bubbling cauldron of the life that was. All of those human basics, pounded into me in a lifetime celebrating independence, indicative of adulthood’s responsibilities, are shedding like so many feathered layers, melted from the wax wing bindings of life’s earlier flight. Where our grandchild will acquire the intellectual and physical capacities necessary to independent life, I now lose these very same capabilities. While I still take responsibility over my own body, I can only do so through the help of others.

The arc, birth to life to death, is a story of acquisition and loss.

We accept the lack of ability in an infant, hoping and expecting that capacities will develop and capabilities will be achieved. It is far more difficult with our elders. In conversations with people my age, “Mom just doesn’t feel like mom anymore,” has become a mantra. If you think about it, the idea that “mom” would remain evermore the “mom” of memory is illogical. There is not a person on earth who has the same capabilities today as they had yesterday. We age, and our physical capacity wanes, trickling out in dribs and drabs of lost elasticity and flexibility and strength and eyesight and hearing, or worse our mental faculties fail us until we feel our youth as some distant fantasy of another person beyond our memory. The dependent needs of a baby are framed in hope while the dependent needs of mom and dad foment despair, yet the expectation that our moms and dads would be like they were when we were young is just as strong as our expectation that a baby will grow up.

The arced trajectory is a story of upward mobility and precipitous fall. Its narrative is one where youth is celebrated, envied, and ironically disposed of in adult expectations that are unattainable and unreasonable. In our culture we superimpose the avoidance of dependency at all costs on to the expectation. Thus, when our lives reach their independent apex, old age looms as a tragedy to be avoided and put off. We are born, we live and if we are so fated, we age until we die.

In anticipating the birth of our first grandchild, in anticipating my own death, suddenly I am hyper-aware that independence from others, this most desirable state, implicitly means that independence gained must never be lost. It is an illogical belief, fraught with mythos and irrational assumption. Our bodies are designed to gain capacity and then, in what Steve Jobs once called “… the single best invention of Life, … [death] clears out the old to make way for the new.” Our minds are designed for greater and greater analysis and efficiency at the cost of less and less plasticity. Our souls are designed to cling to this physical existence as if our very lives depended on it, and they do. In anticipating the birth of our first grandchild, the grand design, the arc of life, the trajectory of birth to death, soaring to its apex and tumbling freefall into death, provides me little comfort.

A number of years ago, I was preparing to do Brahms’ A German Requiem with my small but mighty church choir. Since it was for church and the German would be problematic to teach, I was working with all manner of translation software and biblical renderings to try to truly understand the biblical texts that Brahms had selected, rendering them into a more meaningful English translation than the Victorian English provided in the score. In the second movement, the chorus begins with the line, “Denn alles fleisch es ist wie Gras.” I have always translated this line as “then all flesh is like the grass,” but one of the translation engines I was using at the time came up with the following: “we are like meat.” I had to laugh, partly because of how far this translation was from the original text, and partly because of its accuracy in capturing the human condition.

Having just heard a lovely performance of A German Requiem last weekend (auf Deutsch), I am reminded with a smile of both the sentiment and the ultimate reality. Rather than a trajectory that implies upward hope and downward despair with all of the crazy energy we put into denying the fall, the birth of a first grandchild causes me to think of life as a vector, pointing up and forward, acquiring all manner of joy and sorrow until, weighted down by life’s cumulative experience, our only chance to break free is to shed our fear and sadness, our hurt and tragedy, our triumph and success, the very things we strove for with such energy, with such purpose, until we are only love and empathy and pure collective humanity. In the arc, we flourish and we fade away, and the gymnastics we perform to maintain the charade of physical independence will ultimately fail. But the vector is a story of comfort, for there is great hope that babies bring and great truth that aging teaches, leaving us pure spiritual connection within ourselves, with others, and with God, even into death.

No wonder we cannot wait to get our hands on those babies.

Elegy

When Ev and I were 26 we moved beyond United States boundaries to Norway. We had with us our 14-month-old son David (Jon would be born three years later in that oh so special country), a thirst for new adventures and the fire in our bellies to become great educators, the teachers we wanted to be. And within a week, we had met so many others like ourselves, green and young and excited, as well as a few people old enough to be our parents, but still excited nonetheless.  And we knew we had made the right decision. Within two weeks, we began to recognize the wisdom and life experience in some of those our parents’ age, and we realized that all the young teacher energy, all of the young teacher synergy, could not hold a candle to the force that was one of those couples, John and Ruth.

I’m not sure what it was exactly, but I think our respective families would say that we fell into each others’ lives at just the right time. Always respectful, always mindful and full of enthusiasm, John and Ruth became to us the parents and grandparents we ached for so far away, and likewise we became the children and grandchildren close by, when their own children were equally distant as our families. If that were the end of it, it would have been a beautiful narrative, a time together defined by circumstance and geography and travel and adventure. But there was something else between us, something that allowed us to turn each other free from living in a place we all had come to love, to living in new places that we knew we could share in some endeavor greater than what we had known before.

You see, in our story, we were meant to find John and Ruth, to interweave our lives with theirs off and on but always keeping track.   Each of them brought something special to any situation shared. John loved a good story, good food and good company. Ruth brought an eye for the beautiful, an ear for that which was the most lovely in human interaction, and most of all a sensibility that every moment would be a special moment if we just paid attention. I could speak of each of them for hours, but at this time I need to focus on Ruth, beautiful and sensitive and grounded Ruth.

There are so many things that I could say about Ruth. I know that for every story I would tell, sons and daughters and friends and neighbors and acquaintances and first timers would nod knowingly, eyes lighting with the joy of being in her presence, inspired to share other stories a hundred and a hundred times over. I will share two, knowing that there are thousands.

When we lived in Egypt, John and Ruth  visited us at our home. I have never seen any one person wring so much out of one week in one place as Ruth in Cairo. One of our friends had concocted a 24 hour Sinai tour that he would give for the not so faint of heart, and he and Ev decided to take John and Ruth out on this grueling, no sleep circuit. It began at St. Catherine’s monastery at the base of Mount Sinai. One would awaken to be on the paths by 2:30 AM so that the sunrise could be experienced from the top of the mountain. On their way back down, Ruth was stopped by a man from Japan who asked her politely her age. When she told him she was 66, he just shook his head as if to say, “how could I ever possibly keep up with someone so fit?” What he didn’t know was that two hours later Ruth and John would be snorkeling in the Red Sea and then taking time out in the desert looking at rock formations. And as we all know, Ruth’s hiking only got better with age.

A second story is a little more personal. When Ev and I were in our third year in Norway, Ev miscarried. We were devastated. In came the community led by Ruth, not so much to make it right or to offer any kind of silly observations like, “God must’ve really wanted that baby,” but instead just to offer company and attention and a meal and assurance that while we were disappointed and sad, it would get better.  I know there are much more special stories about Ruth – stories of invitations into homes of people she had just met, stories of friendships maintained over years and years and years in Libya, stories of parties and gatherings that were so right that one could only marvel at the woman who had thought through the remarkable detail of these social occasions, and most of all, stories of a woman in love with the Middle East. But the Ruth I know is the Ruth who understands the joy of being, that sometimes being is all we’ve got, and that is a powerful story.

I suppose that there is nothing I could relate that would add to this beautiful story of Ruth except that she taught me how to keep a sense of wonder, to be brave in times where self-consciousness ruled, to value the beauty in the individual human no matter who he or she was. Ruth encouraged me to be grounded, feet firmly planted in my history both good and bad. Ruth cheered me to soar with wings opened to the sun and wind and rain of life’s wellspring. Ruth could laugh in a way that lifted my heart, and two sentences later cry tears tinged with the joy of  life fully lived. And she freely gave the knowledge of just how one does that — so that I learned to laugh in a way that lifted my own heart and to cry tears that told me that life lived in wonder and awe was my privilege.

After I was diagnosed with ALS, John and Ruth were two of the first people we called. I loved how matter of fact they were, how easy they were to talk with, how they focused on a healing future, how they wrapped their prayers around Ev and me. After our first visit at Mayo in which my diagnosis was confirmed, we scooted over to La Crosse to see them. And there was Ruth with a special meal, a place of warmth, healing for the unhealable, with laughter in the face of fear, and with tears that soothed confusion in reassurance that love is greater than all things.

And this is the most important thing that Ruth’s life teaches me. She was and is and always will be the greatest reassurance, that love stands when all else falls, that love is present when presence is remote, that love is the best way, the only way to reach out beyond the confusion of what it means to be human, that love is the holiness humans are granted in proof of God.

When Ev and I were 26, and we moved to Norway in search of the great adventure, we never believed that the great adventure would be eternal love shared, but that was our discovery.  And for us Ruth will always be that eternal love.

Prophecy and Respite

Psalm 77 sings dis ease’s prophecy:

I cry aloud to God, and God will hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah

December is the season of prophecy, a time for considering the truths that prophets of old proclaimed. In history, prophets served as a clarion call, a thorn in the side, burr under the saddle voice of the particular dis ease of their times. I cannot help but see parallels between dis ease and prophecy, for the similarities between the prophet and dis ease is striking. In The Prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel observed, “We and the prophet have no language in common. To us the moral state of society, for all its stains and spots, seems fair and trim; to the prophet it is dreadful.” Substitute “dis ease” for “prophet” in this passage and the parallel understanding of how dis ease leaves us naked in the wilderness of our own lives is clear.

Prophecy is about awakening, becoming conscious of the truth that is all around us. The prophet brooks no denial, yet it is not the role of the prophet to call us to despair. Rather, we are extolled to seize responsibility for ourselves, our brothers and sisters, our world, no matter the circumstance. Heschell writes, “To us life is often serene, in the prophet’s eye the world reels in confusion. The prophet makes no concession to man’s capacity. Exhibiting little understanding for human weakness, he seems unable to extenuate the culpability of man.” Dis ease serves the same role, existing in spite of denial, requiring reconciliation between its truthful prophecies and the ease and health each of us desires. It is a difficult razor’s edge on which we humans find ourselves precariously balanced, for no matter what, we know that dis ease is our future, a call to consciousness, an awakening to its stark reality. But losing the hope by which we can light the world must not become our default option.

Am I listening?

ALS is my prophet, my future, my present, my past. Each day, I awaken to my prophecy with the convoluted and complicated task of fulfilling the human condition ALS has so firmly bestowed—to embrace my dis ease, yet not deny hope. It is exhausting, difficult to realize, never fully accomplished; yet ALS prods me to attain the exquisite humanity of this dichotomous awareness. Rebbe Heschell gets this: “Who could bear living in a state of disgust day and night? The conscience builds its confines, is subject to fatigue, long’s for comfort, lulling, soothing. Yet those who are hurt, and He Who inhabits eternity, neither slumber nor sleep.”

It is a constant and inexorable tension; the unconscious serenity of ease, the unsleeping prophecy of dis ease, the need for respite and slumber.

The dreams of mystics and scientists and holy persons and activists are prophecies of respite and imagination, holy paths leading to a more fully realized version of our humanity rather than the dis conscious humans we so easily embody. Prophecy’s dis ease requires a robust imagination to move us past the brittle reality we so easily deny yet deeply know. But to access this imagination, we humans cannot engage our dis ease one hundred percent of the time. Even the strongest among us requires respite.

We are only human. We need our sleep, and we need our dreams.

The Buddha, before enlightenment and in spite of his father’s machinations, recognized aging and disease and death and the renunciation of material comforts to set him on his holy path. The Prophet Mohammed knew visions of Islam, the way, to right the creaking, failing religious practices of his day. Saint Hildegard von Bingen lifted her sadness with holy visions of light within light. The logic of the Law inspired Maimonides to perceive within its tenets, the Unity of G_d. The prophecies of peace and audacious dreams for human compassion and love inspired Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King. Susan B. Anthony dreamed suffrage rights of full citizenship. Albert Einstein described streams of consciousness, a cessation of verbal thought in which symbols swirled and his own scientific understanding of the universe deepened into epiphany.

Holy paths need holy dreamers and holy dreams. Sleep begets dreams, and dreams provide respite.

When I was first diagnosed with ALS, I had fantasies and dreams of running away from the condition, associating my dis ease with place rather than person. Even when we went to Korea to visit our kids, I dreamed that the plane trip with its pressurized cabin was a cure. It was such a vivid dream, that I awoke our first day in Seoul with the delicious feeling that I had imagined ALS, that I was free of dis ease’s burden, a respite from the presence that haunted my waking. I wrote of this simultaneous joy and grief, as reality slowly dawned on me that I had dreamed one of those hyper-real, jet-lagged, edge of consciousness visions only to awaken to the dis eased reality at hand. And I learned the respite of those few moments was a refreshing breath that crystallized sadness into jewels of realization that I was not helpless in the face of this or anything else. Physical realities notwithstanding, I could go on, finding the strength to persevere until I could not.

One of the great programs of our local ALSA is the Jack Norton Respite Care Program. Designed to give caregivers up to 18 hours per month of much needed “me-time,” it provides home care assistance during caregiver time away. It should be of no surprise how important a program like this can be. Most of us intuitively know the value of a little down time, whether it be a few minutes break or a vacation. With ALS, the care and feeding of caregivers is especially important, for early on in this dis ease, the realization of the enormity of what is to come can be overwhelming. Ev and I know what happens when she is not able to find the time for exercise, yoga or a cup of coffee with friends. Suffice it to say that Ev is much better when she is able to take care of herself with a little time away.

Prophets speak our fear of abandonment, that we have been left alone to face the conflicting pulls of denial and despair. They tempt us to think that God might be a cruel prankster or a benign being suffering from ennui with this creation; or even non-existent as evidenced by the overwhelming imperfection seemingly beyond human capability. When I consider humanity’s collective pain, I could go the way of the psalmist, moaning and fainting. When I consider my own dis ease manifested through ALS, despair is possible each day. But somehow, I remember the rest of the chapter:

I will meditate on your work and think about what you have done. God, your way is in holiness.

In the meditation, the holiness, the reality, the work manifest in the words of the prophets, is dis ease. And there also lies the respite required to dream the holy ways that bring us the hope we so require. In this season of prophecy, dis ease shows me despair, truth and hope.

Selah