There’s a book called “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”, which I love, and in the epilogue, it brilliantly describes how anything that changes you forever splits your life into two halves: Before and After.
Before, like anyone else, I had a lot of plans. I just bought a house. I had all the paint, and all the decorating ideas, and SUCH a garden planned in my head. My backyard is luxurious and I had many garden barbecue parties planned already. I had a spare room just for fostering kittens. My kitchen was a thing of beauty, I was planning amazing culinary ventures. This was going to be my forever home.
Before, my health was pretty good. I still had chronic headaches, but they didn’t really interfere with life much. I had lost a bunch of weight and was fitting into 32 inch jeans again – I felt healthy and cute, and was getting confident about my body. I wore size small shirts, and bought new clothes. I had energy, I was doing things and going out.
Before, work was reaching a comfortable zone. I had confidence in my ability to rise to whatever I was asked to do, and I saw a long career ahead. I was going to school to become an engineer and get promoted.
Before, I was comfortable in being single, I was self-reliant and independent. I could do anything by myself.
Before, I never really thought of myself as particularly important or special. I had people in my life I adored, but never felt worthy of their adoration in return.
Before, I never thought about death much. I knew academically that I agreed with assisted dying, I knew that getting paperwork done way in advance was important. I knew I should have an advance directive. I knew it happened to everyone, I knew on a high level what happens and that there’s a ton of complication and high emotion when it occurs.
A year ago today, I was in the middle of the Medical Folderol and had recently discovered I couldn’t stand on my toes anymore. A year ago today, I sat in Dr. Goslin’s office and stared at her hands while she told me that I have ALS.
After, I use leg braces, knee braces, and a cane to help me walk. When I walk down the hallways at work, I usually don’t bring the cane, but walk with one hand brushing against the wall the whole time. My social worker called it “wall surfing”. Walking a block exhausts me. I carried five empty boxes up the stairs last week, setting them on the steps, walk up a couple of steps, pick up the boxes and put them a few steps higher, repeat. I was sweating and out of breath by the time I was done. Walking the mile to the bus stop is out of the question. I carpool with an awesome coworker in his big red truck, and I know there’s going to be a time soon that I can no longer physically get in his truck. I can’t manage the one step up into my house, I have to brace my hands on the doorpost and pull myself in and up.
After, every crowded room is a minefield. Who is going to knock me over? I carefully watch my entire perimeter for unexpected people, or someone in front of me stopping suddenly. Every social interaction is a potential disaster, far and above my usual social awkwardness. There’s no more casually walking around, I have to be keenly aware of movement around me so that I don’t get tripped up or knocked down.
After, everything is a matter of energy budgeting. I wake up already exhausted, and everything is so much harder. My muscles have to work overtime to compensate for the ones that suck. There’s no more “just a quick trip down to the store room” at work. I have to plan that effort. Every little thing sends me in to a sweat. It’s super sexy. There’s no more getting a wild hair and deep cleaning the bathroom. Some weeks the bathroom doesn’t get cleaned at all.
After, my weight ballooned back up. Stress eating. Bleh. But the medical professionals encourage you to gain weight and keep it, with ALS. Heavier patients tend to have better prognoses. And you need that fat, for when you’re not able to eat anymore, like a whale living off its blubber. “Don’t go crazy, you don’t want to need a bariatric chair or anything, but..be nice to yourself and eat what you want.” Cause…fuck it, I’m dying.
After, I’m working hard to sell my house that I love and fought for because it’s becoming a physical impossibility to live there.
After, I am intimately aware of the legality and the complications of death. I’ve met lawyers and social workers and it’s more complicated the further you go. There’s nothing simple about the bureaucracy of death.
After, I know damn well how I feel about assisted dying. And I intend to exercise that right, if it comes to that, and it infuriates me that it’s not an option for Alzheimer’s patients, too. And an option everywhere. Brits should not have to take a permanent vacation to Switzerland to die in a strange hotel-like room. For a lot of money.
After, I am so, so, so blown away – daily! – by how much I seem to matter to people. By the sheer quantity of people who have stepped up to do something, even something small, to make my life a little brighter, simply because it was in their power to do so. And they love me. I thought I was insignificant, someone nice to be around, but certainly not someone who mattered much, and I’ve been told and shown how wrong I was. Constantly. In surprising ways.
After, I know how much I have impacted lives around me. I know how their lives impact mine. I know how important a seemingly insignificant gesture can become, years later. How memories define you, and can change your life without you realizing it. How important it is to reach out to people, all the time, because you never know who will show back up and be a key player when drama unfolds.
After, I know my strength. I know my calm and my pragmatism were not just theoreticals in my head, they are actual and they are real, and they will help me get through this. I know I have the grace and the quiet power that can see me through everything to come, because they have seen me through this far. I know my humor and my compassion will go far and help me survive for as long as I can.
After, I know that I’m seriously a morbid bitch. My dark sense of humor prevailed, and I’m finding things funny that would have appalled me had they been about anyone else. I am in love with a web series called Ask a Mortician, fascinated by the machinations of how we deal with death. I seriously believe we have done ourselves a terrible injury by trying so hard in the last hundred years to pretend that death doesn’t exist, it’s something that happens to other people. Because sometimes, it happens to you. And we, as a society, have forgotten how to deal with that.
After, I am intimate with the kindness of strangers. It never ceases to take my breath away, and it is so life-affirming when a total stranger gives me a kind word, encouragement. When total strangers sent me money to help. When a woman I’ve never seen before or will ever see again looks me sincerely in the eyes and says words of love and strength. And means them. It’s one thing to be told, “Good luck” or “have a nice day”. It’s another to feel someone reach out with their soul and tell you that they wish you all the best, and to keep up my optimism because it will see me through.
After, a year later, I reread my blog and see myself shift in little ways, and discover opinions I never realized I had. I see myself think about hard things, make difficult decisions, and become stronger than I ever thought I’d be. And I know that I’ll be okay.
Before, I didn’t know if I would ever have had strength and support to see me through After. After, I know love and support and strength and grace I would never have discovered Before.
After, I know that by the amazing and profound love of the people in my orbit, I’m going to be fucking FANTASTIC. And I can’t wait to see what the next year shows me.