My Dad rejected the notion that he was “battling” cancer. He was pragmatic. If it was a fight, it wasn’t one he could win. But he wouldn’t let himself be beat, either. I asked my Mom once, during that last year, after the doctor told us the surgery hadn’t been successful, how they managed. She said, “We figured out there’s only now and not now. If now is being a good day, we don’t think about not now.”
Seems that once a week or so, someone will post in the Facebook/Transverse Myelitis group, “I miss my old life.” “Every day,” someone agrees. “This isn’t the life I envisioned for myself,” someone else chimes in. No, I suppose not.
I’m sympathetic to a point. I get the sense of loss. The things that I loved most to do with my body I can’t do anymore. Getting my body to do those things it still can is a painful struggle, filled with frustrations, every day.
But my “old life” had struggles, too. And which “old life” am I supposed to be mourning? Sixteen year old me spending the summer in my small town with my bare feet and my long hair and my cigarettes and marijuana and guitar playing in the park and girls as curious and frightened and hungry about sex as I was? That was a wonderful old life. But I properly grew past it and while I cherish the memories of it (and the luck that helped me survive it), I don’t miss it. Or was it the life I lived in DC, learning my trade, hanging out with the artists, being in love with my wife, exploring the museums, writing a poem each morning before putting on a jacket and tie and taking the bus to work? That was a great life, too. Left it behind decades ago. Surely it’s not the life when that marriage crumbled and what I thought was secure turned out to be illusion and I had to confront my own hubris and arrogance and blindness in excruciating detail. I’m a better man for having made my way through, but please don’t make me live that old life again!
When you were envisioning the life that you’re not living after all, did it include the depredations of age? The untimely deaths of friends or family? The inevitable disappointments that nestle themselves snugly alongside the joys and victories of even a successful career or a job you did well and loved? Or did you think your destiny was to be free of tragedy and sorrow?
Or do you just mean the “old life” you had on the day before the short circuit in your spinal cord rattled and rearranged your life plans, as if you could’ve continued living the life of that day for decades to come, as if the daily movement that makes each past day an unrecoverable old life had magically come to a halt?
There is no “old life.” There is only this life. Maybe I just never envisioned that it could be this good. When I was a boy the future terrified me. Maybe it’s the power of low expectations that makes my daily pleasures feel so undeservedly rich. If you’re taking time every day to miss your old life might you also be missing what’s glorious in the only one you’ve actually got?
I know it’s not fair of me to question what it takes for anyone to make their way through the world. People use the FB posts to vent and get emotional support. We each have our own cross to bear, or so I’ve been told. The cross that Jesus bore up Calvary carried the weight of all the sins of the world. He was God and still it nearly broke him. Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani. We puny mortals have only our own sins to carry and that’s still too much for many. Anyone who manages to walk their path carrying their sins and not doing too much damage to the people around them deserves admiration and applause, no matter what they might’ve leaned on for help.
I’m not a Christian, although I was raised Catholic. By the time I reached my early teens I’d judged the God of Christianity too limited for my allegiance. I never found faith, although I like the idea of it. I respect it, but I’ve never missed it. I don’t believe God has a plan. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe I was put here for a purpose.
I’m a human, though. And humans need purpose. We need meaning. We need connection. We need respect and we need love. We need to give it just as much as we need to receive it. For me, it turns out that the daily work of becoming the best human I can places me where I need to be. The way of Lao Tzu. I see the interconnected now-ness of the world the way the mystics among the Lakota do. I keep a slip of paper on my desk that says, “When you believe the stones are sacred, you’re careful about where you put your feet.”
I’m not at war with transverse myelitis. That’s not my battle. I don’t expect to beat it. I don’t need to. But I won’t be beat by it, either. And spending each day missing a life that was never guaranteed to me in the first place feels like trembling at the edge of defeat.
Chop the wood. Carry water. Walk the path. Make every step the very best step, even if it takes a cane and a walker and a wheelchair to get me there. Behind me the long winding trail of my footprints, plenty of them crooked or wayward. Some have been pretty damn fine. Ahead, only more path, farther into the shimmery distance than I can see. That suits me. Maybe it’s meaningless. It’s kinda glorious all the same.