A Lesson on Joy

In the movie adaptation of my life, the climactic scene would go like this: the camera slowly sweeps up to where I am snuggling into a warm plaid blanket on a rustic porch.  The sun peeks out from where it slept behind the mountain range. The soft light on my face shows I’m at peace. I struggled throughout the whole movie with how to carry on living, but last night I found the trick. My friends pushed my wheelchair out into the meadow behind my sister’s cabin, and we stayed up all night watching the stars, singing, laughing, and telling secrets. I know now that this is the key: live in the moment, live for today, and let no adventure pass me by until I close my eyes for the last time.

That’s what dying people are supposed to do, right? It’s our bittersweet version of happily ever after.

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Hanselmann Photography

For me, though, there was no mountain cabin, no midnight epiphany. For the longest time, there was only the looming specter of my death. When I was first diagnosed with ALS, I described the doctor telling me the news by saying, “He told me I’m dying.” I used to get those two things mixed up: having ALS and dying. They do sound the same. After all, there is currently no cure or treatment for this ruthless disease. Immediately after diagnosis, I planned everything from who would get my beloved cameo necklace passed down from my great grandmother to the type of funeral I want. I imagine a ceremony around a sapling which my family and friends can visit and tend to as it grows into a memory tree. I hoped my loved ones would picnic there, and children would climb my branches.

biodegradable-burial-pod-memory-forest-capsula-mundi-3

Of course, not all of my death thoughts were so serene. The prospect of dying young fueled what became an obsession with fading into a distant memory as my loved ones grow old without me. I worried most about what I would become to my husband, Evan. I imagined being a brief chapter of his life before he meets the woman who will be the main act, the mother of his children. She will succeed where I failed, giving him the family and future he deserves, transforming me into a tragic footnote in his biography. With my mind drenched in such excruciating fears, how could I surrender to the beauty of the present?

A series of fortunate events saved me from despair. First, we moved to Portland, where I received the exact kind of care I hoped for at my new ALS clinic. I now work with a creative, emotionally intelligent doctor who is full of hope regarding treatments currently being tested. She immediately empowered me by involving me in one such trial. Finally, I was doing something to fight back, and I dared to dream that the end of my story might not be written on a tombstone.

Then, a few months later, I found the next rung of the ladder that I would climb towards joy. ALS Awareness Month crept in, and a flurry of fundraising activity swept across my Facebook feed. Guilt pressed down hard on my shoulders; I was the one with ALS, but my family was doing all the advocacy work. As a last minute attempt to get involved, I decided to write a little note on Facebook every day about my life with ALS. I didn’t expect to generate much interest, especially since I wasn’t sure how much had to say on the subject. Flash forward three days, and I was pouring my heart out to a shockingly large and invested audience. I became enamored of power those posts gave me over my experience. That power, just like the power I gained from the drug trial, gave me the bravery to fight like never before. I dove into fundraising for the ALS Association, and my doctor and I collaborated with ALS Worldwide to learn new ways to preserve my speech, strength, and mobility. As my hope blossomed, I realized I couldn’t honestly fight for a cure without spending at least as much time imagining my life after ALS as I had spent fixated on my death.

I came to understand that joy will remain a distant dream if a person can’t give equal head space to the best and worst outcomes.

Real, lasting joy pumped from my heart to every inch of my failing body when I gave myself permission to dream. Now, I imagine that Evan and I will make up for all the years we have spent bound to our home and hospital by renovating an Airstream trailer and roaming all over the country, exploring national parks, chasing northern lights, and following music festivals. I will return to writing novels because the miracle of a cure will mean that a blog about ALS will be unnecessary. Evan will play guitar in the evenings, and I’ll sing along like I used to. Everything will be beautiful, and nothing will hurt.

orvis-airstream

A few months after I started my blog, I got a feeding tube. Lying on table looking at the distant ceiling of the operating room, it occurred to me that this would be the first scar ALS left on my body. I got sad thinking about how I would never get rid of it, even if one day I no longer needed the feeding tube. But then, I thought of myself leaning out the window of the car on a sunny day with hundreds of miles ahead of me, Evan looking handsome in the driver’s seat,  our Airstream trailing behind us, glittering in the sun like a mermaid tail, and I didn’t mind a small scar at all. Some day, it will be the only reminder of what I suffered, and should I ever get scared embarking on my new adventure, I can look to the hole sewn up right beneath my heart and know I will survive.

2 thoughts on “A Lesson on Joy

  1. moxiemann says:

    “…Give equal head space to the best and worse outcomes.” That’s poetic, universal, compels
    one. Goes well with coffee. Thank you, Rachel, for your art. It really shines, exceeds.

    Like

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