Fortune’s Fool

When I was sixteen, a fortune teller at a fair predicted I would meet and fall in love with a man who would physically take care of me. At the time, I didn’t understand what she could possibly mean. Would I rely on my husband for money? I was hungry for independence and therefore a bit insulted, but most of all, I was bewildered. I needed more time with the fortune teller in her enchanting red silk tent, but she looked pointedly at her watch, then tapped the cash tray. My empty wallet made me unwelcome.

When I asked about the man I would marry at the beginning of our session, I did not imagine the ten minutes I paid for would pass so quickly and end so mysteriously. I wondered about her words for more than a decade, right up until my ALS diagnosis twelve years later. That day, I finally got the answer I sought. Doors slammed in my face. All around, clock needles spun backward. My end crept forward in every shadow.

Now, I rely on Evan to bathe, feed, and dress me, to keep me steady when I use my walker in the bathroom, even to wipe me after I use the toilet. He holds all the crumbling pieces of my body tight in his hands, as though trying to keep them safe until the miracle pill that can put me back together again finally arrives. My marriage looks nothing like it did when we were twenty-one or twenty-five, or even last year. Playtime is over, and we struggle daily to survive.

However, I realized as Evan delivered medication into my body via my brand new feeding tube, that what really matters remains unbroken. Even after all we’ve lost, he still loves me, and I will always love him. That knowledge is the bedrock of my existence, and it has yet to crack. Together, we chase happiness through a tangle of feed lines and IVs, not ready to surrender to how we live now. Side by side, with white knuckles and bloody nails, we crawl forward.

Benvolio: Romeo, away, be gone! Stand not amaz’d, the Prince will doom thee death if thou art taken. Hence be gone, away!

Romeo: O, I am fortune’s fool!

Romeo And Juliet Act 3, scene 1, 132–136

Leaves in My River, Stars in My Sky

I hate crying – it’s an uncontrollable language of pain, and I lack enough control as it is – but I was crying tonight. I’ve heard that no single emotion is inherently good or bad. We should acknowledge them all, pick each up like a leaf from a stream, think, “It’s just sadness,” then put it back down and let the water take it away. However, I like to pick up the Sadness Leaf, crush it, and bury it in the dirt. Out of sight, out of mind.

Scrolling through my Facebook feed after dinner, I found myself thinking about all the people who stopped speaking to me after my diagnosis, and tears, undeniable evidence of sadness, came. Mostly I stay positive. My doctor and I believe I will survive long enough for a treatment or cure to be developed. That possibility and the love of my friends and family keep me fighting. Still, the deafening silence from people I grew up with, celebrated holidays and birthdays with, listened to when they were troubled… it hurts enough to make my throat clench and my eyes sting. It starts a rush of unwelcome memories of staying up late on the phone, talking a friend through a divorce. Then I recall walking down the aisle preceded by bridesmaids who have faded like ghosts from my life, existing for me now only in photographs. Friends I traveled the world with might as well have stayed on the other side of the ocean; they are that distant from me. These people I loved drifted away like debris on a beach in the first high tide after a tempest.

In the quiet after the storm of my diagnosis, my old life washed away, and I learned the truth about those I love. People who are far away or have been out of touch resurface, and I realized that for all the people nearby who are too weak to support me, there are others, scattered like stars on a winter night, who have been glowing for me this whole time.

There is the college friend I met so many years ago and now only speak with occasionally, though we once talked every day. He was the one to hear the news and call, crying. No words, just sobbing because that said it all. I cried under cover of his tears, safe because I couldn’t hear my own.

Then there is the woman I knew only for one summer back in California when together we learned to cook like adults, follow a recipe, peel a mango. She flew to me in Oregon, made her super secret special cake, and promised to stay with me until the end and hold my husband’s hand at the funeral, whenever it may come.

Seven years ago, I met a girl in a karaoke lounge in DC, and we sang Britney Spears (ironically, if that’s what you need to believe to keep reading this post). We both moved, sometimes to the same cities. We campaigned together, hit all the vegan restaurants we could find, and lounged in parks with a pile of books. She stayed up late for a month after my diagnosis to answer my desperate 2 AM phone calls. She’s coming to visit this weekend.

Last month, my in-laws moved across the country to live five minutes away. My mother-in-law feeds me pills in yogurt so I don’t choke on water and helps me clean my teeth. Then there’s my father-in-law, who brings me desserts several times a week to keep my weight up and once spent a whole day assembling my hospital bed.

And last in this post but not in my life, the aunt and uncle who surprised me by sending a box full of starfish. They live at the beach where my family went on vacations. They must remember how I couldn’t end a week at the beach without bringing a starfish home. I brought a starfish with me when my husband and I moved 3,000 miles away to remind me of my childhood, but one night Malka ate it for reasons we cannot fathom. Receiving these new starfish reminded me that I and my precious past are not forgotten.

Allowing my mind to linger on these winter stars introduces some happiness and gratitude to my swirling thoughts. They are more leaves in my river, floating alongside and softly nudging the painful ones. They make it easier to unclench the fist I made around that first sour leaf, to let it go and trail my fingers in the water to feel whatever the current holds. It drifts on, benign and unremarkable.

After all, it’s just sadness.

Wheels

My enunciation is getting rough. The letter “s” is my particular nemesis. I slur and lisp so badly, I have stopped using plural forms, and I avoid contractions. This afternoon, though, my sloppy “s” saved the day.

By 4:00, it felt like everything that could go wrong had already happened. A scheduling error left me without a caregiver, Pickle threw up after eating too much of the food that our parrot Jasper enjoys tossing to him, and the taxi I had booked way in advance never arrived to take me to a doctor appointment.

However, I didn’t want to end the day this way. I simply refused to let the sun set on this note. You see, I have a mindset that has led to me being labelled naive and unrealistic, but I can’t seem to shake it. I suffer from a relentless optimism, a belief that it is never too late for things to get better. Maybe that really does make me naive, but I like to describe myself with such words as “resilient,” “resourceful,” and “dauntless” instead.

Consequently, when my new cab arrived bearing a kindred spirit, I was delighted but not surprised. Every day holds some shred of happiness if only you remember to look for it. Doju, my driver, also had a rough start to his day. The cab he usually drove was out of commission, so his boss saddled him with the taxi outfitted as a wheelchair van… a vehicle full of equipment Doju had never seen before.

Anxious not to mislead me, as soon as he parked at the curb, he confessed, “I’ve never worked with a wheelchair van. I don’t know exactly what to do.” His anxiety aggravated his speech impediment, and I could tell he was now embarrassed on multiple fronts.

“That’s OK,” I replied, not bothering to hide my slur over the contraction; you have to be willing to give if you’re going to get anywhere important. “Let’s figure it out together.”

And we did. Rather quickly.

We fell right into conversation once we hit the road. His stutter grew less pronounced as I waited with patience to hear him out. He got the hang of my own impediment, and then it was easy to talk and listen. We shared chocolate chip cookies I had in my purse (welcome to my life in the Clinic weight maintenance program; must love calories), and relaxed into one another’s company. It ends up Doju has a wicked sense of humor.

“Rachel, you are just great. Here’s my card. Call anytime,” he said.

“You are so sweet!” I replied, taking his card.

“Oh, no, you misunderstand,” he grinned. “You may call me anytime, but I never promised to answer. I think I will see your number fill my call log and just click delete, delete, delete…”

It ends up both stuttering and slurring disappear in laughter.

Stuck in traffic, I learned he had been born in Tibet, but was whisked away so quickly to a safer patch of earth that he cannot remember his home. Despite this, and knowing he can never return, he chose not to tell his story as a sad one. Instead, the tale he shared was about love and accepting loss. I was amazed, not for the first time, at how deeply our most distant brothers and sisters can speak the language of our own messy hearts.

Traffic crawled, and I knew I would miss my appointment by a half hour, but the day was still salvaged in my eyes. As we sat on the glimmering hot road, Doju marveled at the brilliant sunshine after such a rainy spring. I pointed out the riot of colorful flowers spilling out of gardens lining the street.

There were so many words neither of us could manage to say, but still, we chose to speak to each other. We chose to see roses.

Love and Dirty Dishes

It’s scary to show people just how sick I am. I let visits go way too long to avoid cutting people off or kicking them out, then end up exhausted with worse speech than ever the entire next day. I feel so guilty cancelling plans; after I do it enough times, I am sure I’ve become too unreliable to deal with. There are some people, though, worth being vulnerable for if it means keeping a friendship going and growing. They make it safe to be weak.

I knew I was feeling awful when I agreed to a cooking date with my friend Brandi last night, but I had already cancelled on her a few times and I hadn’t seen her in 2 weeks – the longest we’ve ever been apart since meeting last year. She came in, hugged me, got to work chopping, and I reclined my wheelchair while she updated me on her latest adventures. I ultimately could not eat the amazing food she made, but that was fine. We talked about books and listened to music while I dozed on and off.

Part of me hated that she was seeing me droop in my chair like a wilting flower too weak to speak, but the part of me worth listening to focused on the sounds of dishes gently clinking in the sink as she tidied up. It was so normal. This is my new normal. I am not the one washing dishes anymore, and I feel some shame over that. However, I have learned there is beauty in vulnerability. I know now that love can sound like familiar, gentle hands scouring a dirty pot.

Brandi, this song is for you.

woman-woman

Woman, Woman by AWOLNATION

Loud Mouth

I have a big mouth. I wasn’t always this way. Somewhere along the line, though, I learned to talk back, something I’m especially good at when sticking up for loved ones. Even though I’m in a wheelchair and my voice is fading, I just had to say something when a man catcalled my sister Laura from his car and made her incredibly uncomfortable. As loud as I could, I let him have it in what Laura later called a “fun mix of feminist ranting and light swearing.”

Suddenly, the man drove off and Laura grabbed my wrist. “Rachel, the volume is all the way up!” she cried. I must have looked at her blankly, because she tapped the microphone at my mouth and scrambled to turn down the sound on my brand new ChatterVox voice amplifier. I totally forgot I was wearing it, and with the sound up so high, I might as well have shouted through a megaphone!

We hid by a big hydrangea bush and laughed so hard while families heading to the park and people coming home from work looked around for the crazy lady broadcasting obscenities up and down the block. I was just catching my breath when Laura said, “Well, you’re definitely still a teacher… I know those kids just learned some new words.” I started laughing all over again. She was right; I never could pass up a chance to give a vocabulary lesson.

Someone to Watch Over Me

Our dog Malka has always been a mama’s girl, but my illness has made her much more attentive. Lately, she can even preempt when and where I am about to roll, and if I hit the “help button” on my power chair, she sprints to my side. I was about to accept her new ESP powers and take her on the talk show circuit when I realized she has been learning the different tones my power chair makes when I press various commands. My wheelchair is training my dog! I am touched by her love and comforted to know that even as I lose my voice, she finds ways to connect with me.

The Kingdom of Childhood

For some reason, this lovely spring weather makes me remember all the things I love about teaching: morning meeting and yoga, book club and literature circles, zumba and dance breaks every half hour to keep our energy flowing, writing workshops, and of course, just being with the kids. Listening when recess ended in tears, geeking out over Harry Potter, eating lunch together…

Maybe it’s rushing back to me because this is science fair season. I have so many memories of wearing my very best “thrilled and impressed” face for hours during the fair. Then there were the months beforehand when I was a test subject for at least five experiments in which I learned I am not colorblind and I do like chocolate chip cookies.

I miss it all. How lucky I was to spend my days this way before ALS stole it all away.