Just One More Time

Not that the phenomenon is unique, but in Minnesota you can bet that you have been fully assimilated into the culture when you participate in the “Minnesota Goodbye,”a highly ritualized, almost liturgical set of behaviors. The Minnesota Goodbye is a cultural artifact with its probable roots deeply held in the Germanic, Scandinavian, Southeast Asian and sub-Saharan African populations, not to mention the Irish and the English, that so richly spice our little corner of these United States. Combine cultural roots with a weather pattern that does not encourage going outside for at least six months of the calendar year, and you can probably begin to understand how the Minnesota Goodbye became the well-developed ritual that it is, and why it has taken on an almost religious function in our social practice here on the frozen tundra.

The Minnesota Goodbye occurs when visitors indicate they are ready to go. The host carefully walks them to the door where host and guests stand and chat as if the evening is young and they have not been together for the past three or four hours. Often, the most important exchange of information at a social occasion takes place during the Minnesota Goodbye, for it is in this space where host and guest are assured of one on one time together. Frequently punctuated by the phrase, “let me say just one more thing and then we will call it a night,” the Minnesota Goodbye has been known to last for upwards and beyond an hour in length and for those who are not accustomed to its rituals, it can seem almost irritating in the breadth of its timing and depth of its sharing. Those of us who are not native to Minnesota find ourselves asking why we did not engage in such conversation during the evening’s socializing, or at least why we held such an important discussion until we were at the door. When I first came to Minnesota, I found myself asking such questions (not to my guests of course) of myself and my wife. But eventually as we shed our otherworldliness and cloaked ourselves in the cultural mores of Minnesotans, we became accustomed to the rituals associated with leaving, and now participating in the Minnesota Goodbye seems so normal that to not participate in its rituals would leave us feeling empty, as if our visits were superficial. And we have come to appreciate the Minnesota Goodbye for its utility in ensuring that what must be communicated between good friends is actually shared, that what should be said does not remain unspoken, that a silent chasm between good friends cannot exist. The Minnesota Goodbye is an assurance that just one more thing cannot be left out of the evening’s visit or the joy that comes with friendship’s deep communication.

Medical practice can be very much like the Minnesota Goodbye.

No doctor wishes to leave any stone unturned in the treatment of her patients. Good doctors especially want to make sure that they have considered all relevant variables and possibilities as they construct a recommendation for appropriate treatment. It is the medical version of the Minnesota Goodbye so that just one more thing is often the rule and not the exception. Just one more thing has tremendous ramifications for patients. In the moment of medical crisis it can offer reassurance that all possibilities will be considered. Conversely, in the moment of deep peace, just one more thing can create disruption where it may not be necessary.

I know this firsthand.

My treatment up to this point is framed by the need for managing the ever increasing demands of my symptoms, even as they become more and more difficult to manage. For example, in July, I began to experience difficulties in swallowing. With the help of my neurologist, I worked through the pros and cons of having a feeding tube placed, in case swallowing became so difficult that I would not be able to eat. At that time, I decided that the risks associated with the operation – sedation, being in a hospital, possible side effects of a surgical procedure no matter how simple a surgeon felt it to be – far outweighed the possible good of the feeding tube, and thus I determined that the placement of a feeding tube was not an appropriate treatment for me at the time.

A number of my friends and doctors, extremely well-meaning in their probity, have asked me the question, “Why did you not place a feeding tube early on in your progression?” It is a good question and probably more indicative of what we have learned about ALS in the four years since my diagnosis than on any strong personal feelings about feeding tubes. When I was diagnosed, the focus question was on whether to place a feeding tube or not. Now, many neurologists who treat ALS are more focused on the question of whether one would like to keep their nutrition up for as long as possible, citing the fact that weight loss is highly correlated with lack of survival. Upon receiving an affirmative answer to the question of nutrition, only then do they introduce the question of the feeding tube. It isn’t so much that we didn’t know the importance of nutrition, but the fact is that four years ago, the medical approach focused more on the question of a feeding tube almost as if it was separate from the question of nutrition. Since I had experienced no difficulty swallowing, even up through January of this year, I did not wish to submit to one more procedure that would require care and attention by another person when it seemed that it was unnecessary. Hence, up until July when I was able to swallow without any concern, the placement seemed superfluous, and after July when I was able to analyze the inherent risks, my decision remained firm.

I have likened ALS to a train on the tracks, seemingly in slow motion, unable to veer left or right, coming straight at me as I am stalled in this body and am unable to leave the rails.I am highly aware that with ALS, the final cause of death will probably be a combination of lack of nutrition due to eating difficulties and the buildup of carbon dioxide due to breathing difficulties, more likely the effects of the latter. At this point in time when I need to see my respiratory therapist once a month to bump up the BiPAP’s airflow and exhalation, when I need to see my hospice nurse once a week just to bump up my symptom management, when the conversations that Ev and I have are liberally salted with discussion of just how we desire the end to go, I am at peace with the life I have been given, accepting of the death with which I am gifted, and grateful for every day that I still awaken. It is a good space for a person to spend their final months. And I think that my physicians, my healers, my beloved doctors and nurses and therapists are okay with me being in this privileged space.

And in this carefully constructed space, where we are at peace, just one more thing knocked on our door and turned our world upside down just one more time.

The best doctors leave no stone unturned. A dear friend of mine, a neurologist and expert, suggested I look at an alternative way to place a feeding tube. The logic was impeccable. Why should you have to spend so much energy and time on eating when the quality of your meal time could be focused on taste while nutrition could be taken through a feeding tube? And I had to admit that such a possibility actually sounded pretty good. We discussed a procedure that could be done with me awake and on BiPAP during the entire time. Yes, it would mean I would have to give up my Do Not Resuscitate and Do Not Intubate orders, for what surgeon would want to operate under such circumstances, but the idea of spending less physical time and especially less psychological time on eating was appealing. And, as I played out the possibilities with my family, I thoughts that I could see them lighting up with hope that such a procedure might result in longer survival, a better quality of life. But as I considered the downside to the operation, I had to be honest that with the intubation might come the need to utilize invasive ventilation, something that early on I decided I did not want to consider for my treatment. So, another way to look at this would be higher quality of life versus dying during the operation or a day or two after due to other complications.

I know that these decisions are extremely personal, and that what seems to fit the type of life that I wish to lead could be totally inappropriate for another facing the exact same decisions. I only share this to illustrate how easy just one more thing can suddenly raise itself into your world, your consciousness, your deep analysis and consideration. And that is exactly what happened. The relative peace and calm that we had worked so hard to establish was suddenly disrupted, turned on its ear. and everything that I had imagined as to what constituted a good death was thrown up into the air as I considered the procedure.

Here is the point. Whether you think such disruptions are for the better or worse, the fact is that even when you believe everything is worked out, it is not. And the process of my working through the feeding tube decision required consultation with two different neurologists, two different nurses, a trusted friend at the ALS Association, both of my sons and my beloved wife, and finally our hospice providers. And even though I perceived a hopeful outcome, the 10 days spent in attempting to make a well considered decision also raised feelings of disruption, resentment, irrational hope, and even despair for my family and friends, for me especially, as all of us considered the ramifications of the decision that had presented itself like a Minnesota Goodbye careening out of control.

And what finally led me to decide not to do the procedure? Two different pieces of information surfaced from my two dear neurologists – one was that even if the procedure worked it would not in most probability, lengthen my life; two was that this particular type of feeding tube was susceptible to needing replacement more often than I would probably find acceptable. But the piece of information that really cinched the decision was this: I would have to go off hospice. As I considered the ramifications, I realized how dependent we had become on our hospice care providers for the stability of schedule and environment that they gave us. We had established meaningful routines again, we knew who to call and for what, and we really liked the people with whom we were working as they seemed to understand our goals for peace and dignity and joy in the end. And in the end, it was the possibility of losing the human qualities that hospice had brought to this complicated process of dying, that led us to utterly and completely reject both the hopeful possibilities and the frightening counter indications of placing a feeding tube.

Please understand that there is no blame or bad feeling here. I just think it is highly illustrative of how easy the turn of one more stone can shift the foundation of the carefully constructed life. When you are dying, that careful construction is remarkably helpful. And while it is always good to consider the treatment possibilities that do exist, it is just as important to consider how such treatments can disrupt and affect quality of life. Consider how so many of my brothers and sisters in ALS reach beyond their own capacity for something, anything that might offer them a little more life. This extremely human desire makes all of us susceptible to the seduction that comes with the medical version of just one more thing. Who can blame us? So many are young with so much possibility ahead, cruelly robbed by ALS, so that the idea of just one more thing is very seductive. But if you stop and think about it, this susceptibility is more a statement of the value we place on the unknown future, than the gratitude we feel for a past well lived. I know people in their eighties who are having difficulty negotiating their impending deaths. Just one more thing appeals highly two and a irrational future when you cannot find peace with the inevitable present.

Yet, as right and good as I feel with the decisions I have made, with the space I am given as I wend my way toward death, I can still feel the pull of the Minnesota Goodbye. To remain in this peaceful, beautiful space, requires a concentrated effort, a projection of gratitude and acceptance, and the conscious receipt of a peace that passes all understanding. I have come to the point where just one more thing is fine for executing the ritual of the Minnesota Goodbye, but for realizing a life well lived,  just one more thing interrupts the stream of conscious love I am becoming, as I tumble into the river where all life finally ends and continues to its source.

And if I change my mind, I’ll make sure I tell you as we walk toward the door and bid each other adieu.

The Elephant 2.0

I live in a condo where every available space is maximized. When your life is framed by dis ease, you need lots of area to turn around, to fall and get up, to receive uninvited guests and invited love. When your life is framed by dis ease, unless you consciously take charge of the chaos, there are spirits climbing on the walls, unseen by all except you, the floor is a constant jumble – uneven and rolling like the hills of southern Indiana, yet only perceptible to you. When your life is framed by dis ease, the decisions about what you can handle, what you can take, what adds meaning and what subtracts life force take on significance that makes the day to day existence of ALS seem like a vacation. Such decisions are elephants in the room, invisible and waiting for someone to grant them permission to become visible, to acknowledge their presence, to speak their truths no matter how painful. Elephants almost always appear when suffering is present, and I am to blame for the elephants I can see. By not blogging for the past four months, there are so many elephants that have wheedled and cajoled, quietly appeared or loudly announced their presence, that they have taken over every room, every seat, every open space, and I cannot help but be overwhelmed by their sheer number.

Not since my diagnosis have I gone this long without blogging.

I have been very busy writing, and our book, We Know How This Ends, is in its final stages before production. But I have to admit that in paying attention to the larger picture painted by writing a book, submitting, resubmitting, and resubmitting again drafts for editing, my viewpoint has out of necessity been at the 30,000 foot level. From up here, you can see all of the elephants, but the details are not specific. It isn’t a bad place to hang out, but it does not lend itself well to the daily processing that dis ease demands, especially if you are trying to stay in that space between grief and fear, pleasant memory and the anguished unknown, past meaning and future possibility. And, in spite of the incredible support of my co-author Cathy Wurzer, the many small yet largely significant physical changes I have gone through in the past four months are piled up on my lack of interpretation, leaving me much more susceptible to tortured feelings and harmful vulnerability. Really, you think I write to you to keep you informed? I am much more selfish than that.

I need the therapy of blogging; there are elephants in the room.

In early July, I began using BiPAP for breathing support. BiPAP is a more active version of the CPAP that many people use for sleep apnea. I must have been starved for air, because within 10 days I was using BiPAP almost 24/ 7. There are two ways to use this machine. It has its own stand and a humidity element that keeps the air warm and moist as I breathe. This is my preferred manner for using BiPAP. You can imagine that if you had wind blowing up your nostrils, your poor little nose would get sore both outside and in. The humidity helps but isn’t quite enough. My BiPAP machine is also on batteries that can be tied into my wheelchair. This allows me to make transfers or to leave the condo with the BiPAP machine functioning sans humidity. It is OK for a little while, and it keeps me from having breathing events when I transfer from one place to another.

With a long BiPAP hose hanging from my face, I joke with my friends that I am the proverbial elephant in the room, and unbeknownst to them, I am.

The air hose that comes off the machine enters through nasal pillows held by a head strap against my nose. The advantage of using the nasal pillow interface is that I can talk. Other ALS friends of mine that use a full face mask cannot talk with their masks on. But thankfully for me, and probably not so thankfully for my friends, I am able to speak while wearing my BiPAP mask. Unfortunately, BiPAP makes me sound like I have a terrible head cold. Words like “nine” come out as “died,”and “mom” comes out as “Bob.”  I tell my friends that just as I need to concentrate on my pronunciation, they have to put on their BiPAP ears so that we can communicate with some semblance of understanding.

Like any good elephant, I ask people who have not seen me on BiPAP before, if they think it makes me look fat.

At first, I tried to use the BiPAP with my diaphragmatic pacing system. Unfortunately, the DPS is slightly out of sync with the BiPAP. Thus, I was required to try to consciously synchronize the kick of the DPS with the breath of the BiPAP, and for a while, I was able to do it. However, over time my strength to control the synchronization has waned and the DPS has become quite painful, so I no longer use it. I have to admit that I feel a little bit guilty about that. But then I remind myself that in reality, the DPS for ALS is a clinical trial, and until we gain a great deal more evidence that can be meta-analyzed, we just will not have the requisite knowledge for best use and application. I have learned the hard way that one of the great challenges for treating ALS is that everything is on the front lines of knowledge. Just when we think we have figured something out, new knowledge emerges that ironically enhances what we already know while at the same time putting us back to square one in what we understand.

If you listen carefully, you can hear another elephant trumpeting its song in my dis ease life.

The minute I remove the BiPAP mask, my voice becomes so soft that it is barely discernible. The amount of air that I can move through my system without mechanical support is miniscule at best. I am literally out of breath without this machine. Not having the strength to synchronize the DPS and the BiPAP, barely moving any air in and out without support, and other losses are all indicative of dis ease and its handmaiden ALS, especially in terms of where things are in the elegant progression of this remarkable disease. From here on out, life is only too short for me.

So many elephants, so little time.

The greatest elephant in the room is the worry I carry about what happens to my beloved family and my loving friends after I am gone. I know full well that they will keep on keeping on, that their lives will be joyful, and that the sadness that we feel together now will dissipate into a lovely longing for days gone by. But I cannot help but worry. What if all that I have learned and sought to pass on is for naught? What if they forget how to remember my love for them? I know these are small concerns considering all of the adjustments ahead of them. I just want them to deeply know how much I love them and how much my life was bettered by being in their presence. I want them to know how healthy I feel in spite of ALS. I want them to know that because of them, I knew grace.

And in spite of the visual evidence, nose extension and quiet voice, the grace that I feel is the real elephant in the room, gently waiting to take me home.

Falling 3.0

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the psychological and physical effects of falling. At the time, I had fallen a number of times due to leg weakness. Indeed, it was falling that convinced me, pre-ALS, to see a neurologist. Back then, I related how falling made me feel afraid, timid, less confident in my body. Over time, I mitigated the effects of falling by moving to more and more supportive and purpose built medical equipment including the power wheelchair in which I now spend the majority of my days. And I also sought to psychologically change the meaning of falling by associating it with the adventure of skydiving – the experience of falling out of a perfectly good airplane on two separate occasions.

Of the two effects, the physical are pretty straightforward. There are scrapes, cuts, bruises, and depending on the circumstances, broken bones. Luckily, my experience with falling has always been limited to the lesser physical effects. I have never broken anything, my pride notwithstanding, and anything that was physically affected required only a short amount of time before I felt it whole again. The interesting part of the physical is that for a few days or even weeks, it is there to remind you of just what can happen when you fall, the touch upon a forgotten place, the breath that stops at sharp pain, the scab present in the mirror and not even felt. The physical effects take place and if they are not too serious, begin to fade. That is not the case with the psychological effects.

I have always found the psychological to be more profound. After any fall, there is a psychological chaos that goes on both inside your head and your body. Breath feels shaky. Confidence has been disrupted, and presence is compromised. The mind is dulled by the experience, leaving one grasping for words and feeling at odds with one’s assumptions about the physical world, how things work, your relationship to the broader environment at large. For me the psychological bruising is a phenomenon from which it is far more difficult to recover than the physical. Given all of this, I thought I had taken enough control of my environment to put falling into the category of been there, done that.

Imagine my surprise, my shock, to experience the most significant fall I have yet to experience this past week.

Power wheelchairs are very technical machines. From time to time, it is important to change the settings, update the structures, and adjust the mechanicals. This can take anywhere from an hour to four hours or longer. My favorite wheelchair guy is Scott, a man who understands what it means to be in a wheelchair himself, having used one for the past 33 years. He knows a lot of tricks, how to avoid sores, and ways to make the wheelchair more comfortable. What I really like about him is when he is stumped, he turns to his very knowledgeable colleagues and they all put their heads together and come up with a solution. He is really quite remarkable, for he of all people knows that the space for people in wheelchairs between getting to where they want to go and disaster can easily be mere millimeters.

After my last visit to Mayo, we determined that I needed to get my chair adjusted, and I made an appointment with Scott with the understanding that it was going to be longer than usual. Wheelchair adjustment is highly individualized – what works for one person might result in pain for another. It is much more of an art than a science or technical skill, and the amount of trial and error required for this particular appointment kept me there for four hours. I was pretty blitzed by the end, but feeling confident that we had made the right changes I felt ready to take on the world again from the purview of my chair. A little after 5 o’clock Scott and I rolled to the front door of the darkened building, and he said goodbye. I rolled out the door, turned right, headed for the van and without meaning to, got too close to a curb.

To use a hackneyed cliché, what happened next was like a slow-motion movie to which I already knew the ending.

I knew I was in trouble when the wheelchair started to rock. I tried to kill the power to it immediately, but I couldn’t make the switch work. I saw myself rock right, then left, then farther right and completely over, my 190 kg wheelchair landing on top of me, pinning my elbow behind me and pushing my head and face into the pavement. Luckily I was wearing a neck brace, or I might have broken my neck. Unluckily, I was wearing a neck brace which pushed into my neck and chest so that each breath seemed slightly smaller.

It was a confluence of errors. Ev tried to stop me, an impossibility. Her phone was out of juice, and I wasn’t carrying mine. The wheelchair place was closed with no lights on. And its location is an industrial park where very little traffic is likely to pass after 5 o’clock in the afternoon. I remember thinking, “So this is how it will end…,” my breathing continuing to slow. Ev was pounding on the door and screaming at the top of her lungs for somebody to help. I was weakly calling, “Ev, just come and sit with me.” Miraculously, someone heard her, and after being down between 10 and 15 minutes, suddenly there were people all around me who had been working late.

I am so thankful.

Luckily, these folks know how to work with a power wheelchair. Between them, they were able to right me and get the chair back on its wheels. One of them used the attendant control and took me into the building to warm up. Another called 911. All were comforting and kind and very concerned. My first ambulance ride, and just to assure you that I am only bruised and scraped, the ambulance didn’t even turn on its lights or siren. After an exam at the hospital, my kids and Ev brought me home.

And here I am.

I have no words of wisdom this week except to say that even at what seemed like to me the very end, my body still mattered. When I could feel consciousness slipping, I remained present in my body, physically aware in spite of the psychological shock. I could discuss with you the philosophical failings of Cartesian mind-body duality at this point, but I am just a bit too tired, and still very sore, bruised, and shaken up. Even Ev is bruised from the ordeal, a goose egg on the arm and a big hematoma on the leg. We can talk about it another time, for my awareness of just how fleeting life can be, how narrow the tight rope on which those of us with disability roll, how lucky and unlucky the contiguity of variables leading up to and following any event, is hyper sensitized into a weirdly balanced consciousness. My lack of words is a failing of language, not of learning. I learned plenty in this particular fall.

Needless to say, I am just happy to have a little more time for discussion.Ev and I are not finished just yet.

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.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

One of my very favorite stories is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. While most Dickens scholars see this as one of his lesser writings, I love the social, cultural, economic, political commentary that he so accessibly offers. And even though you would think that at my advanced age I would have Christmas Carol fatigue, each year in the weeks leading up to Christmas, I make sure that I engage with this story in some way. The Christmas season just isn’t right until I get my Christmas Carol fix. The fact that Dickens presents this morality play using the temporal characters of past, present and future is an acknowledgment of how time takes on meaning both good and bad. For me, my present time is framed by ALS so the future is known and just not that scary. But the Ghost of Christmas Past haunts me, for it is in the near past that this time of year inspires my worst regret.

In our family, this is a week of anniversary, in large part because on December 7, 1941 my father-in-law experienced the horror at Pearl Harbor. He was really just a kid when this momentous occasion took place, but it shaped him to squeeze every last drop out of the rest of his life. When he died at the age of 87, he was disappointed that there was so much more he wanted to do. We were as disappointed as he was, and the gumption he demonstrated in both his life and his death makes me miss him so much that I ache. His life was a great example of how a global event, so destructive and horrible, could be used to do good on the local level.

Less globally, it is also an anniversary for my family and me. Three years ago on December 6, 2010, I was diagnosed with ALS. On this day began a life first restricted by disease’s demands and then freed by my acknowledgment of dis ease as both a challenge and a friend. But, you can imagine how difficult it was to honor the upcoming season that year. In Dickens’ words, we suddenly realized how difficult it was going to be to hold Christmas in our hearts. Faced with the demands of sharing our news with family and friends, colleagues and constituents, our hearts were so heavy that I wondered whether there would ever be any celebration again. Thankfully we went ahead with as much of the season as we could muster, putting a brave face of joyfulness on the occasion even though we did not feel particularly joyful.

ALS can be quite the killjoy.

Now in the days around December 6, I find myself reliving 2010 – those days that led up to my diagnosis and the days immediately following. It doesn’t matter that it was three years ago, it doesn’t matter that I have had plenty of time to get over it. It is my own version of PTSD – and the moment of truth haunts me just as much now as anything else from my entire life.You see, it was not the actual news. While that was crushing enough, it was the lack of human connection as the neurologist delivered this blow to our hearts. Of course, he had to tell us. But the delivery of anything as life-changing as, “You have ALS,” should be spoken as humanely and compassionately as possible. This was not the case. Instead, he created an environment so inhumane, so remote, so cold that we left the office without any sense of possibility except total despair. He sat staring at a computer screen, a 6 foot massive desk between us. He dismissed my beloved to a remote corner of the room. He offered no preparation, no real explanation except for what I could pry out of him. In what should be treated as the penultimate moment of human holiness, he protected himself and profanely reduced us to less than human.

On December 6, the ghost of Christmas past sneaks up in the strangest ways.

I recognize that it wasn’t my fault the way the news was delivered, but the fact that I was not in immediate proximity to offer comfort to my beloved still haunts me. I would do anything to take more control over that moment of truth. I would hold the hand of the one I love, I would hold her eye with mine, I would let her know in every way possible the reassurance that I wasn’t going gentle into that good night. I would do anything to stand between the arrogance of his self protection and her dismissal to the corner of the room. And while today, my true love is defiant in the face of the past three years, at that time it put her to bed for almost a month, fearful that every breath she heard me draw would be my last.

At this time of year I wish the spirits would quit revisiting my weakness in the moment when I should have shown the greatest strength.

For years I had the privilege of teaching leadership ethics. Fundamental to the understanding of Western ethics are the concepts of ethical means and ethical ends. In my way of teaching, prying the two apart was possible but not desirable. I tried to empirically show that means without ends were just a nice ramble in the park with nothing to show for your efforts. I tried to critically teach that in the exercise of any kind of ethical leadership, ends without consideration of the means that got you to them would always be corrupted and untrustworthy. The doctor who delivered our news violated these basic ethical considerations. He delivered the goods, but he did it in such a way as to leave us sicker than the original diagnosis. My ghost of Christmas past would have me go back and speak with him to help him to understand the harm that he caused us.

Physically and spiritually, I have progressed far since that day three years ago. In December 2010 I walked in under my own power. Today I need someone to place my hand on the joystick of my wheelchair. While my body is still present, it no longer tolerates the logistical preparations requisite to the places that I would love to go. But my heart has learned a new presence, a new compassion, a new transparency, a new fearlessness that could only come with ALS as my teacher. My progression has been inexorable both physically and spiritually. I have learned relentlessly, and I do not begrudge the learning. The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future continue to engage me with their lessons and carols of simple complexity.

Like my father-in-law, I have sought to take my own trauma and turn it toward some good, to squeeze every moment out of life, to love and to listen and to teach as best I can. I have tried to be a better father, a better husband, a better friend, a better leader. But my inability to stand up to something so wrong, knowing full well how harmful it was to the person who I love more than life itself, who I would never knowingly harm, will always haunt me.

On December 6, Dickens’ story holds new meaning and unresolved regret.

Endgames

Perhaps you have noticed that I haven’t blogged for nearly 4 weeks. There are reasons for this. My physical ability to write is more and more compromised by my lack of strength to pull up to the computer and my lack of stamina to stick with the writing once I am there. Of more significance is the fact that I have chosen not to put up two separate blog entries. It isn’t that I am afraid to share how I am feeling, especially when my feelings have to do with grief and loss. It isn’t that I am in such a bad space, that I’m afraid no one will like me anymore. It has more to do with the constant existential awakening that comes with dis ease, with this seemingly infinite process of winding down, yet moving at the speed of ALS. In the past two weeks, I have allowed myself for what seems like the very first time, the question, “Is this the beginning of the endgame?” What a question to ask, as if the moment of birth is not the beginning. But we aren’t conscious at the moment of birth like we are in the bloom of our adulthood, so the question takes on meaning even if it borders on the rhetorical.

My French muse Francis Cabrel sings the angst, “J’avais des rêves pourtant.”

Raising the question of the endgame is significant for me. Before, it felt like an academic exercise, one that fulfilled my need to stay ahead of symptoms and losses in a way that gave me the illusion of control. But as I look back on my control rituals, it is clear that they lead to this point: The endgame is coming, I don’t know when, but I can have faith in its presence now in my life, a new phenomenon for which to prepare. And in preparation it is useful to stop, to take stock, to recite the poetry of grocery lists and ledger sheets that account for gains and losses, mumbled psalms of what is in my capacity and what is not, utilitarian self-pity, borderline whingeing, yet keeping ahead as best I can, even though I know I am seriously falling behind.

The loss is easier to share than the litany.

I cannot help but feel robbed, not of immortality, but of the 30 years of healthy old age that I honestly thought was my future. ALS provides the perfect corrective to the best of plans. She grants knowledge that our imperfect physical envelopes in which we place so much importance, given to us for such a short time, always fulfill their design destiny and break down utterly and completely. There are so many ways to shorten our lives, and when you consider how many ways you could go, how easy it is to experience catastrophe, how unremarkable is death, then dying before one’s so-called time should probably be seen as more the norm than the exception. The 30 or so years that I like to believe would have been mine were it not for ALS are so minuscule in the scheme of the universe, that it is tempting to diminish their importance, to believe they are meaningless.

But they are my 30 years, and I had dreams and plans.

I planned to sleep in the arms of my one true love, to be awake, so very awake to her presence in my life. I planned to be there for my boys and their true loves and the children that they would have. I planned to cook birthdays and anniversaries, Thanksgiving and Christmas, three-day weekends and one night chili cookoff’s, holidays and holy days. I planned to be the husband and father and grandfather of legend. I planned to bring a rational voice and compassionate love to the education of children, the emotional healing of people, the design of systems. I planned to be the best friend anyone could ever have. Before ALS, I could see those plans opening into limitless vistas.

I am cured of planning, at least for the moment. Now, I pay attention to the losing – hand dexterity, back strength, neck strength, vocal presence – all of these to go along with the legs and arms and torso already gone. And with the losses, I have struggled to play catch-up and turn to new ways and old ways that I now realize are just barely ahead as the losses pile up behind. And yet, I am not cured. I still have plans – final words, time spent, memories, music.

I plan to end in a better space, always a better space.

If there is anything that I have learned from ALS, it is that the bad times are like changeable weather. If you have patience, things will begin to turn around. There is no big event, no one thing that turns me away from feeling sorry for myself toward that person I want to be. In spite of my whingeing, I work hard for spaces devoid of soul-killing feelings – deep resentment, crushing bitterness, prolonged anger. It isn’t that I don’t own major reserves of these feelings, but grim feelings have no payoff, they depress colors, muffle sounds, numb the touch and leave me hopeless in dis ease. So I do my best to acknowledge them, communicate them, concentrating on things that bring me back into the here and now space where the beauty of living is so much clearer, even if it feels shortened by circumstance.

Listen! Grimness is legitimate. Despair is normal. Helplessly hoping is most human. But I can handle it, we can handle it, it only overwhelms my body. My soul still sings. My spirit breathes.

So many people offer time and companionship, keeping me from loneliness, caring for such small yet important items as straightening my fingers and helping me adjust in my chair, providing thoughtful company, bringing bread. The times I can get out to church, to yoga, even to a wheelchair tuneup are a blessing, for the people whom I love touch me with their strength, and I feel better in spite of how fatiguing the logistics can be. The unconditional love of Ev and sons and daughters–in–love, of friends and colleagues, strengthens me for the eventual time to come when I know that ALS will overwhelm me, and the decisions we make together will be like pouring joy’s waters through the clarifying filters of sadness.

And of course, there is Hypatia – pure granddaughter.

In a funny way, the endgame opens a panoramic view. Quiet and starlit, soft and peaceful, waves and wonder, I just need to breathe into it, to open myself to its beauty, to not worry about the plans or the timing. I understand now that the plans I made were not so much about me but about everyone else whom I love. The love will find its own way if I will allow it the space. And I will be able to move through this no matter how hard it gets, if I will just stay open to the epiphanies and revelations on the horizon and right before me. “J’avais des rêves pourtant.”

And the endgame is just one end, opening new beginnings.

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.