D is for Dizzy, Death Defying Delight
Dear Helen, Dear John,
I had a friend who told me once that he wasn’t afraid of dying, only of dying stupid and having to explain to God why he showed up early. A similar thought altered one of my brothers’ lives once he realized that he really didn’t want his final words to be “Watch this!”
This month is an anniversary of sorts for me, as you know. Seventeen years ago my cardiologist told my parents that I would have to stop school and that I wouldn’t be able to work or based on what he was seeing, I would be dead within that year. It was the first of several grim prognoses for me over the next few years. My personal feeling is that once you’ve had the entire medical staff of the cardiac unit rush to your hospital room, anything afterwards is decidedly anti-climactic, medically speaking, of course. Subsequent visits to doctors and hospitals have made me feel like Cyrano de Bergerac in the movie I watched impatiently in my high school French class- every time you thought he was dead he got back up and continued talking until I began to wonder if he’d ever finish and just die already. I hate putting my family through all that worry, again and again. Somedays it makes me wonder if I have no follow through; others, it feels kind of heroic.
My birthday, almost here, unsettled me somewhat with the dismal feelings of dread and disappointment in myself for how little I have accomplished this year that typically accompany it. I haven’t entertained those thoughts much. In fact, I decided this year that instead of fussing about the many things that I did not accomplish I would celebrate instead- 17 years of death defying living.
I really can’t take credit for still being here. After all, you worked so hard to beat the cancer, John, and the doctors believed you would, and yet you died so quickly. I had doctors believe I wouldn’t make it two weeks after my first heart surgery, and, here I am. So I can’t take credit for the years lived. What I can take credit for though, in several respects, is my attitude.
It’s not easy to keep a good attitude through all of this, and I definitely don’t manage to all of the time, but there are a few things that help. One is being able to see the ridiculous in a situation and being able to laugh about it at the time. Like the time I had to have a skin graft and the surgeon told the techs that he was sending an abnormal to them for an EKG before the operation. “We know she’s abnormal,” he told them, “Just take the EKG.” Little did he know…
I was hooked up and ready to go and, per the surgeon’s instructions, the techs pressed the button and took the EKG. But one of the techs looked down afterwards and quickly stopped the other tech from unhooking me. “Wait,” she said. “We can’t use this one. She flatlined through the whole thing.”
So there they stood, hovering over the machine, watching my heartbeats. “Okay, it looks like she’s got a good patch coming. Hit the button- now, now, now!” And there you have it- an ethical way to doctor EKGs.
When it comes to an illness or any difficulty to be faced over a long duration, one has to develop a certain acceptance of what is without relinquishing personal responsibility and agency for what is within one’s power to do differently- not an easy task. David McCullough mentions in his book 1776 several instances where the Joseph Addison play Cato impacted the founding fathers and how they faced difficult situations. One passage George Washington quoted from often was this: “‘Tis not in mortals to command success, but we’ll do more, Sempronius, we’ll deserve it.” (1776 pg. 47)
I try to live to deserve good health, strong relationships, and joy. I’m not necessarily successful at it, but I believe striving for excellence and what is right is the happiest way of being.
It’s taken a great deal of will for me to do the ballet class. I hate that every week I struggle with a real attitude problem before, and sometimes during, class. When one ballet class takes it out of me for an entire week, it’s really hard to keep going. I mean, aren’t there more important uses of my energy and time than ONE ballet class a week? But as my mom is quick to remind me, ice skating when I could only do it for nine minutes helped build my strength and stamina over time. What started out as the energy-sucker of my day ultimately helped me to become strong enough to do many other things eventually (before massive heart episodes came- and I probably recovered faster from them than I would have because of the muscles I had been using well and developing along the way). So I’ve cried as my mom has driven me home from ballet after class when my legs wouldn’t work right, but each week, like clockwork, sometimes grumbling all the way, I’ve gone and done my best. And each week, I’ve striven to improve my attitude so that joy and gratitude can dominate my head conversations.
This last week we did a series of turns for centerwork that left the whole lot of us disoriented and dizzy. We’d turn down the room on a diagonal line and then grasp at a ballet bar to steady the inner whirl we were feeling at the other side. Then, our teacher had us jump. Not the calf-cracking up and down in first and second position kind. No! We’re talking the running, flying, leaping kind. It was terrifying, and, when I landed safely- delicious!
One of the reasons I’ve had an attitude about ballet is because I’d rather be ice skating. My current circumstances don’t allow for that so I chose an activity that I could do that would strengthen my body and help me with my skating once I can go back. I’ve missed the feel of gliding-flying. Last class, I got some of the flying back and in that moment, it was pure delight. When I can use my body well it always is.
I know full well that the chances of a full recovery are low and that the likelihood of being in bed for much of the rest of my life is high, but being willing to dare and to dream and to get a bit disoriented and dizzy in the process is how I prevent my soul from dying while I’m still living.
I love this clip about Dan Jansen’s journey to break the speed barrier in speed skating because it emphasizes why you pursue lofty aspirations that may be considered impossible by smart and well-informed people. It’s one of the reasons I keep trying. It’s one of the reasons I keep hitting my head against barriers. Because what’s the worst that happens? You discover that the barrier is in fact real- but you know in the process that you reached your potential in that area in the process. The idea of untapped, unused potential going to waste inside of me is what haunts me; not that my life, as everyone’s does, has endpoints and limits.
Here’s to an 18th year of dizzy, death defying delight,
This post is part of ABC Wednesday.