I got a voice mail the day after that last post from my awesome nurse. “Hi, I read your blog, and I have some ideas about the AVAPS.”
Uhhhhh..hi there. I forget that people read this, sometimes. I have the best freaking care team ever, you guys. I got contacted from three different folks to ABSOLUTELY ASSURE ME that the machine would get paid for, the rules are more bendy for folks with ALS so please don’t stress about it. And then thanks to Nurse Awesome, I was contacted yesterday by Providence Respiratory to adjust my settings remotely to ramp that sucker down.
OMG SO MUCH BETTER GUYS.
It had previously been forcing air down my throat so hard my ears were popping. Seriously. I can handle it now. I might even get compliance on my own without my awesome peeps having to argue for leeway. It’s still not exactly comfortable, but it’s so much more manageable.
Thursday was noooooooot a good day, there were a million things going wrong, including hurting myself by trying to lean over in the chair to pull something out from under my wheels. I felt and heard something go POP, and owowowowowow. Not a crack, though, and breathing was still ok, so I just rode it out and after a few days’ soreness I’m alright. Then Thursday night someone said something a bit unkind and I kinda completely lost my shit for awhile. Occasionally there’s a trigger and I mourn the person I don’t get to become. Five years ago, I had my very own house, I had just lost a lot of weight and was fitting in all my cute clothes again, I was going to school to further my career, I had all my shit sorted out and my life was pretty fucking great, actually. Thursday night I let myself grieve for her, because that future is dead, and I let myself be angry at people who say really stupid shit.
Friday I had the distinct displeasure of taking the sodding van in for repair. It cost me $919. I’m extremely grateful to Intel for their short term disability benefit easing me out of the workforce, because fortunately I HAVE that money. For now. Although now the brake light’s coming on. So that’ll be fun.
Saturday I did nothing but sleep and fuck around on the internet.
Sunday I did something SUPER COOL but is not my story to tell, so just believe me when I say it was amazing.
This morning my cat woke me up because I could hear him chewing on plastic. When I located him, he had a huge long piece of cellophane coming out of his mouth, and was choking on it a little. I could not get him to come to me for ANYTHING, and when I stood up and tried to get to him, of course he backed away. I took another step towards him and fell right on my ass. It didn’t hurt, even though I’ve kinda got no muscle in my ass to cushion the fall anymore, but it knocked a bit of breath away.
And then since I was on the floor, my fucking cat decided to come check me out and I was able to get the plastic out of his mouth.
The fall didn’t hurt, but getting off the floor did. I wound up sitting on my foot rests and using that wheelchair lift feature to get myself up off the ground, but even with the grab bar on my bed, the chair to push off of, and my walker on standby, I wasn’t able to get over up on the bed. I had to lower myself back to the floor and let myself catch my breath before I tried again, and was very, very grateful to the Depends company for their fine product and my forethought to start wearing them to bed otherwise I’d have exacerbated my situation by having to catch my breath sitting in a puddle.
Welcome to the TMI Show.
Now, I have my awesome watch, so I was never stranded. I always had options. I’m just stubborn as fuck. I texted J but he was not immediately responding, so I tried the wheelchair lift again, and used it to ALSO steer myself right up against the bed this time, and was able to get in bed. And then after catching my breath, getting up to go to the bathroom to change my disposable shorts. I cried for like half a second, but realistically I know this is definitely going to happen again. Probably not the cat part, but there will definitely be another fall, and next time I very probably will not be able to get myself up. It’s twelve hours later and even though I’ve been in bed all day I’m still exhausted from the ordeal. So that sucks. If I hadn’t had such a huge meltdown Thursday, it would have happened today.
So that’s my life, this last week. Kinda a shit show, but there were definitely some good bits in there.
Also I wanna restate that my care team is amazing, especially my nurse. <3
My friend and insanely talented artist and compassionate person Tamara owns a cute shop/art gallery called Redux here in Portland. She occasionally has art shows at Redux, and occasionally those gallery shows are to benefit a good cause, like for the Cat Adoption Team. She asked if I would be interested in in a show she was planning about Death Positivity. I said OH HELL YES PLEASE. She asked if I would mind it being a benefit for the ALS Association. I was all kinds of verklempt and said I thought that would be amazing. She asked if I would like to read something at the show. I said I would be honored, and I would try. This is what I wrote, and what I read tonight.
There’s a lot they don’t tell you about dying. I mean, it’s not as if terminal diagnoses come with any kind of handbook to begin with, but there are a few things one usually expects, typically to do with your specific disease. Spoiler alert: with ALS you stop being able to walk really well, or at all. You may also expect to lose the ability to speak and swallow. They tell you what kind of trajectory your disease is probably going to take, and they can usually give you some form of a timeline.
No one tells you though, how profoundly, emotionally tiring it is. I had to learn that on my own. There is a physical exhaustion that typically comes with whatever ails you, of course; hell, it’s usually one of the symptoms that told you something was wrong to begin with. But no one can properly prepare you for how soul crushingly exhausting the whole business of dying is. How the psychological process of navigating your own death saps what little energy you have to fight the physical troubles before you. How…lonely, this whole business is.
Here’s something else I had to learn for myself: it absolutely doesn’t have to be.
This is a hell of our own devising.
It’s a hell born of ignorance, paranoia, and good intention. It’s a hell that comes in slices, tiny slices of death denial force fed to us from a young age. When adults use phrases like “gone to sleep” or “gone to Heaven” to explain why Grandma isn’t going to be coming over for Christmas this year. When our beloved old pet goes to some imaginary farm to live out their twilight years. When we get older, and we learn what death is, hell is fed to us in new rules: you’re not allowed to say DEAD. Ever. They have gone to the Lord, or passed away. It’s not a dead body laid out in a coffin, their earthly remains lie…in repose. In an obscenely expensive burial chamber. Undertakers become funeral directors, graves become memorial sites, corpses become our dearly departed. A whole lexicon of mortality is denied to us, with harsh social consequence if we ever dare say BURIED instead of “laid to rest”. We cheerfully eat this poison, we send ourselves into fits of delusional paranoia as though merely mentioning someone is dead is some sort of invitation for disaster, to brush death under the carpet and never talk about it in polite company. As a society we have decided that this is healthy behavior.
But it isn’t.
Because let me tell you, this culture of death denial makes it REALLY, REALLY HARD to *be* dying. It is impossible to deal with the practicalities of the matter when no one will say it out loud. Any time you mention the D Word, you get uncomfortable silence and furtive glances and abrupt subject changes, or you get laughter and even more obvious subject changes. People are so worried about offending my delicate feelings that I am not allowed to express those feelings at all. Some have swallowed the belief that if you don’t talk about it, it magically can’t happen, or the other inane idea that thinking positive will fix everything! OH SHUSH DON’T TALK LIKE THAT THEY ARE GOING TO CURE THIS YOU WILL SEE – THE ICE BUCKETS WERE MAGIC. THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS ARE PANACEA. SHUT UP WITH YOUR DEPRESSING DEATH TALK. It is profoundly frustrating. It makes it difficult to plan what’s to become of my cats, or ask what earthly possessions would someone like to have, if they just hand wave and assure you that you have plenty of time to think about it. Later. Much later. Or never. That works too. Let’s deny that any of this is happening and just spend time together ok? Without talking about ..you know. It’s just so…morbid.
Instead, you’re expected to shut up about it, and bottle it up, and in the end you’ve spent your last days spiritually exhausted from having to pretend you’re not dying all while secretly dealing with all the emotional, physical, and bureaucratic nightmare of actually dying. And then of course it’s too late for those conversations, you’re capital D-Dead and all of your favorite things go to some charity or yard sale instead of the people who might cherish them for their history and their sentiment. Your stuff in the garbage, instead of a friend’s home, your social media accounts deleted instead of put in memorium, memories gone forever and your favorite dishes gone to your greedy aunt who will be selling them off for profit instead of your collector friend who’d actually appreciate and use them for what they are, and love them for whose they were. The letters you carefully wrote as goodbyes tossed into the recycling instead of delivered because you couldn’t tell anyone where they were. Who you are, your legacy, written over without your control or input simply because no one could look you in the eye and say “You are dying and that sucks, and since neither of us can do jack about that, I would really enjoy your cook books when you are gone.”
Death positivity is the cure for that hell. We’re going to die. That is okay. It is normal, and proper, and natural. Death positivity means understanding that, and even though it ABSOLUTELY SUCKS, not letting that get in the way of your daily business. Hell, it can do nothing but improve your daily business. Ever have a brush with death? Then you know this already in your bones. Mornings seem so much brighter when you almost didn’t have another one. Flowers smell so much sweeter when you know someday you will have smelled your last. Time becomes so much more precious when you understand there is a finite quantity. Marketers understand this and bank on it, or else “limited edition” would mean nothing.
Death positivity means understanding that YOU are limited edition.
“Repose” has another meaning. A lack of activity, a calm and composed manner. At rest, but alive. At peace with what’s to come, without need for euphemisms and coverup language. Call Death what it is, and fear it less. Talk about it openly, and remove some of its bite. Let me tell you what I need in order to die at peace without dancing around the reasons why. Ask me the questions you need answered, without fear of awkward silences or recrimination. Death is weird, be curious about it. Enjoy the time we have, because it’s limited. Make plans and understand why those plans are necessary. WRITE YOUR ADVANCE DIRECTIVE. Make sure your loved ones know where it is and what’s in it. Make peace with the idea of your own death, because it is going to happen and it doesn’t have to be a nasty shock when it does. We’re all going to die. It doesn’t have to kill you before you get a chance to stop breathing.
Build a better relationship with your own pending demise. Use the words DEATH and DYING, normalize it, and maybe, just maybe, we can all have some repose before we are In Repose.
Clinic was Monday! Let’s break down how it went, shall we?
PT/OT: My hands now no longer register ANYTHING on the strength test. Fuck. My arms are still plenty strong, though. My biceps are a force to be reckoned with from essentially doing push-ups on my walker every day. I have an appointment to follow-up with Deb the Awesome to reimagine my spider hand braces, since my wrists droop badly enough now they’re not helping much. It doesn’t do a lot of good to keep my fingers propped up if my hands as a whole are curling under. My finger joints are doing great though, still a lot of flexibility in them so I’m not going to be clawhands any time soon. Yay!
Dietician: (Hi, Kelly!) My weight remains stable, so I’m to keep doing what I am doing. I need to keep mindful of feeding myself while I’m at home, now, since I don’t have the routine of work to set that schedule for me. My mom doesn’t know to bring me food unless I ask her because she’s old as hell and eats like, a tic-tac a day and calls it a meal. (Hi, Mom, love you!)
Nurse: I forgot to ask her what my chair weighs. Dangit. It’s written down somewhere in my chart and I’m curious what that thing weighs without me in it. Combined, we are 627 pounds of geddafuggoutmaway. She arranged my appointment with Deb, and I didn’t otherwise have much for her. I rarely do. That’s a good thing.
Social Worker: Have I waxed poetic lately about how amazing the ALS Association is? Because damn. Single-handedly saving my sanity more than once, and saving my ass multiple times. We arranged for them to pick up equipment that I’ve borrowed (FOR FREE) that I no longer need because my disease has progressed beyond their use. We then spoke about some other situations that are stressing me out, like the lack of social services for my elderly disabled mother, and she promised to dig up what resources she could for my mom in our area. She sent me an email not even a day later with a bunch of places to check out. THAT is how amazing ALSA is. My mom’s not even on their roster, but because helping her would help ME, they were totally on it. I LOVE THE ALS ASSOCIATION.
Neurologist: Usually I’d be seeing Dr. Goslin, but today I met with her new partner. I’d seen him talk at the ALS Research Symposium, and I’d been given his bio before when I was asked to write something up for him explaining why the ALS Multidisciplinary Clinic was such an awesome thing. It was nice to meet him, and the dude has one of those old-school doctor bags that J wanted to steal. Plus for geek. It was a general get-to-know-you kinda appointment.
Speech: These appointments always go fast because I’ve got no symptoms at all yet. Puff up cheeks, move your tongue, eat this dry-ass graham cracker so I can watch you swallow. NBD, nothing to report.
Respiratory: Yeeeeeah this is always my absolute least favorite, not least of all is because it’s actually HARD. I’ve actually been noticing decline here, and since this is the part of ALS that actually IS going to kill me, I don’t like having a concrete measurement of how shitty my disease is. And yet. I want that measurement, so that I know, so that I can plan, and manage expectations. I came to this appointment knowing my breathing has gotten a bit worse lately; it’s taking a bit longer to recover when I exert myself, and there’s been a few times I wake up in the night because my breath is a little short. I also had to report that my CPAP machine (which I am now supposed to use every night) is busted, doesn’t power on at ALL. We are going to get me a new machine, called an AVAPS and I have no idea what the difference is because I keep forgetting to look it up.
“Noninvasive mechanical ventilation with average volume assured pressure support”
That tells me nothing. 2 secs.
…Oh. It’s…basically a non-invasive respirator. So it’s hardcore. OK then. That’s…intimidating. But I had the choice between getting my CPAP replaced or getting this new hotness, and since I still have Cadillac Intel Insurance for another year, I really want to get the expensive stuff now.
With that out of the way, we did all the usual tests. First they stick a rigid plastic thing in my mouth and I exhale as hard as I can to make these little indicators move; it measures cough strength. Cough strength is still normal; it was down ten points from last visit but she wasn’t worried about that at all. The next test involves a soft plastic mask over my nose and mouth and inhaling sharply; I always ace that one by going beyond what it measures; I guess I’m really good at..sucking…? Monday was no exception. The last test is the worst. Both in what it portends, and the work it takes to perform. My dudes, it is HARD. It blew goats even when my lungs were as strong as ten oxen. It involves inhaling deeply, plugging your nose, and then blowing out as hard as you can, for as long as you can, while getting encouragement shouted at you to GO GO GO MORE MORE MORE MORE and then when you can’t possibly exhale anything else and you feel like you’re going to pass out, another sharp, fast inhale.
Do that three times.
It actually makes J a little uncomfortable to watch, because it’s so obviously hard. It’s intense, it feels like hell, and at the end you have a number that represents your average lung capacity. When I started going to clinic, my scores were over a hundred percent – a very strong set of lungs. Over the last year, I’ve watched that number go down. She wasn’t concerned, really, even 80% was still really good! and she had no recommendations for me except to continue with the breath stacking exercises, which is where you inhale as much as you can and then use a balloon and tube to squuuuueeeeeeeeeeeeeze more air in. and hold. and release. And when you’re no longer light-headed, do it again. And again. I often describe it as reverse drowning, because that’s what it feels like. I do that, but not as often as I should. Six months ago at Clinic I hit 70% and she was a little less cavalier about me not doing them every day. 3 months ago on Clinic day, the machine was busted so I was spared. She wasn’t worried about it though, as my other tests were about the same as last time and she expected the same for this test, too.
I knew it wasn’t going to be the same. I feel a difference. When I eat too much food, I can feel that it’s harder to breathe – not that I’m short of breath, exactly, but I feel that when my lungs don’t have proper room to expand, there’s less strength in my diaphragm to bully the rest of my guts out of the way, maybe. It’s not harder to breathe, exactly, but I notice that I am breathing. And I was keenly aware that the breathing test this time was the hardest it’s ever been. I could feel veins on my forehead. She told me the result.
I’ve gone down 10% in six months.
I am now to do breath stacking twice a day, and sleep with the AVAPS every night, once it arrives. Next Clinic maybe we’ll do the respiratory early; having it be the very last thing in the day might have fudged my numbers a bit since I’d be tired. But somehow, I didn’t think that will matter. I didn’t take it well at all, and was in a shitty mood the rest of the night, and spent pretty much all day Tuesday crying or sleeping. I feel better now, hence why I have it in me to post tonight, but it kiiiiinda cemented something I’ve been thinking the last few months, something that I haven’t said out loud or posted or anything because I don’t want panic, either from myself or from any of you.
I am pretty goddamned sure I don’t have another 4 years.
I mean, it would be nice? But I’m not going to live to 50. I know that. I’ve been really fucking lucky to make it 4 years, and still be able to be on my feet awhile and wipe my own ass and everything. Some people with ALS don’t make it through ONE, and I’ve already had four, officially diagnosed, and probably closer to six since symptoms first appeared. I’m so, so fucking lucky. I get to see my death coming and plan for it. It was just rude as fuck to see that imaginary timeline become somewhat ..truncated, from what I was telling myself. But now, the part of ALS that will kill me has officially begun to kill me and I don’t have as much time as I thought.
You know what though?
It really is. This is how ALS goes. This is normal. It’s okay. I’m alright.
Tonight, I am sanguine. There will be more freaking out; count on it. (See you at 3am, stupid brain) At this exact moment though? I have a clarity most people will never, ever experience. I see a world in 5 years without me in it, and it’s a good world and those I love are doing fine, in that long-term place. There’s a delicious release that comes with knowing so far in the future is officially Not My Fucking Problem. Today though, I am making many short-term plans. Hangouts with friends. An art show opening. The Walk to Defeat ALS on Sunday. A zoo trip with family. Neil DeGrasse Tyson – TWICE – in November. I still have a future to plan. It may be abbreviated, but goddammit I have SOME time. I get to make plans. It’s a fucking privilege to tell someone I’ll come to an event in April and know I can. After that. Who knows. My timeline is finite, truncated, and not guaranteed, but I have one. I can see what’s coming and make peace with it before it happens. I get the rare and amazing privilege to become friends with my own death.
Three weeks, one day. And God knows how many times more I have to repeat this conversation:
“So what are your plans after you leave?”
“Well, for the first two weeks of vacation, I plan to sleep. I’m purposely planning to do absolutely nothing for those first two weeks. It’s going to be GLORIOUS. After that, I’m not really sure. I will probably volunteer somewhere. I will go absolutely crazy with nothing to do for too long. So I’m not sure. I’ll figure it out.”
“Well good luck to you.”
Cue uncomfortable undertones, awkward silence, shuffling to exit the conversation. In reality, here’s how I would like that conversation to go:
“So, what are you going to do after you leave?”
I mean, that is what is going to happen. That is why I’m leaving. I can no longer work because I’m going to die. But because we suck at conversations about dying and death, because our society is so uncomfortable with the mere mention of the D-WORD, in polite society I’m not allowed to say that. Even though we all know it’s true, and no shit, right? Medical retirement; I am leaving because I have a medical condition that is debilitating and ultimately, sooner than we want to admit, terminal. THIS DISEASE IS GOING TO KILL ME DEAD, IS ALREADY KILLING ME, I AM NOT LEAVING BECAUSE I WANT TO.
And so instead, I am forced to have the same inane conversation. And even though they know the real answer, the true answer, I go through the motions and come up with some stupid answer that denies my own impending mortality. I mean, what are they honestly expecting me to say? “Oh, you know, I figured I would take two weeks in the Hamptons. After that, perhaps pursue my scuba certification and do a week in the tropics. Learn a new language. Take up waterskiing maybe. Maybe learn a new vocation. Maybe finally get my baking business off the ground.”
For fucks’ sake. No. I’m going to continue to get my affairs in order, and eventually I am going to fucking die. I am going to keep losing abilities you take for granted, like feeding oneself and scratching your nose and breathing and not peeing your pants. In the meantime, I am going to continue to collect stickers, watch cartoons, and pet my cats until I can’t, and then? I am going to die.
Because ALS is a motherfucking terminal disease.
Three more weeks and one more day of this bullshit conversation replaying itself over and over. Three more weeks and one more day of pretending I’m leaving because I want to, and not because this disease is forcing me to. This has made me extra specially grateful for all of the people with whom I can actually have that frank conversation – the ones who don’t pretend not to notice that my hands are no longer working. The ones who, if they actually asked that question, I could out right tell them “die”. But they know better to ask. Because they already know. So instead they ask how my cats are doing (they’re good!), if I’ve found a house yet (not yet! The housing market in Portland sucks major ass), how well does SSI pay out (not well, but my job has awesome supplemental disability benefits)? Better, more important questions.
Death positivity kids. It’s sorely needed. I crave it like sugar and hugs. I want, I NEED to be able to have these conversations without feeling like I’m intruding on someone’s fragile psyche. Instead of what do I plan to do with my time, like it’s some summer vacation, I would rather people ask me if I have my affairs in order? (Almost!) Do I have a living will? (Yes! And a POLST form!) Do I had support I need the time I have left? (I think so!)
Three weeks and one more day. Before I can get on with the business of dying, instead of pretending like I have some plan for my future.
Because I don’t really have one, anymore.
And you know what? That’s okay. It’s normal. Not everyone gets to see 50. It sucks and it is sad, but it is normal.
Unlike this stilted-ass conversation I keep having with y’all.
If the cube move happens on schedule, which I doubt, ten more in-office days.
And then two weeks of paid vacation.
The rest of my abbreviated life, I suppose. The real work begins to find the home I’m going to die in, to make it a place I can live in until that happens, and then finally – FINALLY – my immediate life can be all about just dealing with my symptoms as they come. To deal with my abilities as they go. To actually live the rest of my life until I’ve had enough.
Some not-insignificant part of me is grateful to have an Out of the workforce. It’s a forced retirement, but it’s an escape from the 9-5 capitalist bullshit that has eaten the prime years of my life. The prime of yours, too. I’ve always been a damn Liberal, but more than ever, I am seeing the absolute stupidity of the 40 hour workweek. The need to work, to justify your living with a paycheck.
And it IS a justification.
I’ve seen sneers turn into surprised respect when I tell people what I do for a living. Yeah fucker, this weird-haired, pierced and tattooed bitch has a real life respectable job that requires actual smarts. I earn more money than you, asshole, surprise.
And with the surrender of my employment comes a surrender of that piece of me, that legitimacy in the eyes of strangers that should mean fuck all and yet…it does. It really does. I wish it didn’t. I know it doesn’t mean anything, not really, but our fucking capitalist society has keyed so much of our identities into our paychecks – and who provides that paycheck – that it is going to be really hard to let that go. From being respectable to being a goddamned leech on our social security system even though I HAVE PAID INTO IT MY WHOLE WORKING LIFE, YOU ASSHOLES, I DESERVE THIS BECAUSE I PAID FOR IT AND IT IS MINE. I paid to let your grandma afford her groceries, would have paid more, gladly, as I earned more, to share what I have. That’s what social security is FOR. That’s why we have it. And yet now that it’s time to cash in, even though it will be a very limited time, I feel less than deserving. Am made by much rhetoric and many conservative motherfuckers to feel like I deserve nothing.
Believe me, fuckers, I’d rather be working instead of dying.
One more month of being valid.
Four weeks plus five days plus two weeks vacation.
One more month of being a job instead of a person.
Ohh MAN my friends had some salty words about my last post. I love you bitter people. Your Machiavellian minds delight me.
The best suggestion was to go ahead and make reservations somewhere and then just not show up. Instead? I have devised a better, a saltier plan. You guys want guilt? You want to play the emotional blackmail game? FINE.
Here’s the invite to my official retirement party:
holy fuck I can’t believe I just sent this. I have officially given notice to my job, and will cease working on August 31st.
With regards to my unfortunate medical difficulties, we’ve previously discussed potential timelines for my final day at Intel, with loose plans being made. I promised you a final answer pending my clinic appointment on the 18th of June. Given my current rate of decline, and my remaining quality of life, I’d like to officially submit my final day with Intel to be September 16th, 2018. It will be my 10th anniversary at Intel, and seems a good time to go.
I have vacation days I’d like to use before then, so with your permission I’d have my last working day to be August 31st, with medical leave to begin Monday, September 17th (WW38.1). Our cube renovations will have begun by then, so my final in office date would be August 22nd (WW34.3), office visits to return equipment notwithstanding.
As you might imagine, this is not at all an easy decision. I will do my very best to document and transfer every scrap of knowledge I’ve gathered in my time here, and to hopefully train my replacement in the next ten weeks. It has truly been a pleasure to work at Intel, and I am genuinely sorry to end my career – for reasons above and beyond the obvious. Please accept my thanks for your guidance, and my eager assistance in making the transition as painless as possible for you and (team).
Everyone dies. To know the mechanism of your demise, though, is a terrible and powerful thing. Oh, certainly, something else might kill me before ALS squeezes the breath from my body, but there is now a subtitle to my timeline, a definite path. The future is a language tainted with exceptions and qualifications.
I took the news and buried it deep in my chest that day, taking the bus home alone. I don’t remember what I was thinking. I remember tripping over a curb walking home from the bus stop. I remember wincing internally, absolutely certain that was going to be the catalyst for the meltdown to come. It wasn’t. I picked myself up, and thought to myself, “There will surely be much more of that.” I got home, looked around the house I had just bought, the house I would no longer get to keep, and wondered how the ever loving fuck I was going to break it to everyone.
My life is a timeline of things lost, now, a perverse sort of baby book in reverse. Vashti’s last unaided steps. Vashti’s last time putting on makeup one-handed. Vashti’s last time dressing up all by herself. Vashti’s last time feeding herself. Vashti’s last words. Vashti’s last breath, someday.
For now, I can still speak, and breathe, and feed myself mostly. I need help cutting food these days, a job my friends do graciously. It’s very sweet, even. Walking with a walker is still possible, but exhausting, and it feels more precarious than ever. I stay in the wheelchair when I can. I have the motorized one now, but no way to transport it (but I’m working on that!). My hands are just about useless; I type with two fingers that have very little strength left in them. I need two hands to lift a soda can to my lips. I bought a hand strap yesterday to put eating utensils in because I’m almost unable to grip them. Bladder control is almost completely a thing of the past.
But you know what? Fuck this disease. It doesn’t own me. I have to make allowances for its dumb ass, but it’s not who I am. I am still going to eat at all the fancy places. I am still hanging out with my friends. I am still working. In one week, I will have another birthday. I am still planning for a future, even if that future has heavy caveats.
Because fuck that shit.
Even four years later. Even knowing what it’s going to take from me. Even though it would seriously be so much easier to end it now, before it gets REALLY hard. Fuck that shit.
My saddiversary has come around once again, and it’s one more year I can give this disease the middle finger. It doesn’t fucking own me. Even after I’m a non-speaking, drooly, pees-my-pants useless lump of meat, it won’t own me. Even if I decide to take my own life before it gets that far, it doesn’t win.
Spoiler alert: I don’t really like children. I’ve never wanted them, I don’t generally like being around them, they are messy and loud and completely irrational and they trigger my social anxiety like woah.
Disclaimer aside: I fucking love how brutally honest and open children are.
They can, as Fred Rogers said, spot a phony a mile away, and they will call it exactly as they see it. And a quality I’ve come to adore: they will ask questions. Adults will stare and make a point of NOT staring, and talk about anything BUT what they want to ask, and dodge the subject so thoroughly you’d think it was a game everyone is playing but you. Don’t Mention the Wheelchair, the worst party game ever.
But kids? Kids will come out and ask and feel no shame, and it’s refreshing as hell.
We went to dinner tonight, at a place with a LOOOOOOT of stairs. There’s a secret elevator entrance way in the back, but you have to have a host/hostess escort you because it’s seriously a maze and you have to go through a business building’s security desk. So tonight, when J wheeled me to the front counter to await seating, it was understandably baffling to a little girl how someone in a wheelchair was going to get up all the stairs she’d had to navigate to get in.
She couldn’t have been older than four. Adorable little thing in sparkly shoes and pigtails, and she turned to her mother when she saw me rolling up. Asking in that louder-than-normal-voice-whisper that kids have, she asked, “How’s she gonna get up here?”
To her credit, her mom was unembarrassed and handled the question honestly. “She’s not.”
“There’s a back way,” I told her.
The girl asked her mom, “Why’s she in the chair?”
“I don’t know,” her mom answered. To my delight, she did NOT try to hush the child up or make a big deal about it. When parents try to silence their kids’ questions, it feels like I’m some sort of shameful thing that has to be swept under the carpet. And hey guess what, when you skirt the issue? You pique the kid’s interest. Oh I’m NOT supposed to talk about this? GUESS WHAT WILL BE OUR TOPIC OF CHOICE TONIGHT. I *can’t* say those words? Well then BUTTS BUTTS BUTTS FART DOODY oh hi Grandma! Today I learned FARTS!
The child then, sensibly, turned to me. “Why are you in that chair?”
“My legs don’t work,” I told her honestly.
“How come your legs don’t work?”
“I have a disease. It makes them very weak. I’m not very strong anymore.”
“Oh.” She considered this new information, and then very logically continued, “well *I* am.”
“I can see that! You look very, very strong.”
And she flexed her little arms for me, beyond proud.
And that was the end of that. We shifted the topic to her shoes, which were very sparkly and lit up when she stomped, and she danced her own little disco until our table was ready and I was wheeled away. Hopefully, she will retain that honesty and people in wheelchairs will remain something normal, to have frank discussions about, and hopefully her parents continue to raise her well and when the answer is “I don’t want to tell you why I’m in this chair” or “It’s private why I only have one eye”, both parties deal with it with grace.
I see it as a continuation of all the conversations I’ve had with children, “Why is there earrings in your nose” or “how come you got purple hair” or “why did you draw all over your skin forever”. I enjoy those conversations because of their complete lack of judgement, their total curiosity. Not, “ewww you are weird and that’s bad” just “why are you different?” It’s an honest, open conversation and the world needs more of that.
So that’s the story of a completely charming child I spoke to last Sunday.
I had a 3AM epiphany after watching one of many, many, many nature shows. I’ve been on a Carl Sagan and Brian Cox kick lately, having completely exhausted all things Sir Attenborough. My mind latched on to the idea and wrestled with it rather than letting me sleep: people are like volcanoes.
No wait, stick with me.
Our outer shell is a hard rocky thing, but internal emotions are a seething, writhing mass of potentially deadly stuff. Some people bottle that up and become a tall cold stately thing, very impressive to look at but not all that interesting. Some people let emotions seep out all over the place until they are thin, flat, and stretched out to a similar on interestingness. Most of us though, keep it bottled in until it can’t be bottled anymore, and there’s an explosion. Sometimes there are signs for months or even years before the event that an impending irruption is eminent; irritability, depression, reclusiveness the equivalents of smoke and the occasional ash plume. Sometimes the eruption is sudden and violent, and nothing around it is ever the same. And once the eruption is over, we may become a stark hellscape of stripped trees, chartered earth, and acrid air. Or, we may become an amazingly fertile landscape of lush vegetation, the ash of emotional eruption fertilizing our lives afterwards. We can either be scarred by the experience, or renewed by it. And we can, if we are lucky, even use that emotional lava to build something new.
I suppose I saw it coming for weeks, this latest eruption. I had a serious bout with Sadbrain, to the point last Wednesday while having dinner with J, he repeatedly asked me if I was okay, because I clearly wasn’t. I didn’t know what to tell him. Of course I wasn’t. I’m never going to be “okay”, not ever again, but I can be okay with what’s happening. Occasionally. Right now, in this moment. Naturally sometimes are going to be rougher than ours, of course they are, but Sadbrain is another beast entirely. It’s born of, but not entirely created by, current events of course, but there is an insidious undercurrent of malignant chemistry in the mix to make things even worse.
He and I had had a chat about suicidal ideation lately, I don’t even remember how it came about. I told him I’ve never been properly suicidal, never really wanted to commit suicide, to which he immediately scoffed. I corrected myself that of course I’ve thought about suicide, everyone does, even if only in a sort of philosophical way. But I’ve never actually thought about killing myself. “I don’t want to kill myself,” I told him, “but …sometimes I just don’t want to be alive anymore.” Being alive is hard, and often it would be so much easier to just …not. I don’t have the impetus or the energy to actually end my life, and I would never want to, but I can’t help sometimes to just… not want to exist.
And, this is the space I was in. Everything seemed unnecessarily difficult. My job had thrown a bit of a curveball at me, physically of course things are continuing to decline, there was drama with my cat, bad things happening to the people I love, horrors occurring daily in the world which I keep failing to protect myself from hearing about, and my continued search for a living situation is so desperately difficult it deserves its own post. Which, I may or may not get up the emotional fortitude to create some day. And so, two days ago, I completely erupted.
I was working from home that day. I had a role-playing game session that night planned with my friends, and was kind of freaking out about just not wanting to deal with the outside world. Not that I didn’t want to see my friends, and it’s not that I didn’t want to play, but that the concept of existing I any capacity in the outside world seemed untenable. Jay gave me an opportunity to decline to go, but of course my social anxiety and sad brain told me that if I couldn’t even manage to go out and have fun, then I was truly worthless. I was determined to make myself go out, even if I didn’t feel like it. I was watching Cosmos with Carl Sagan while I worked that day and I listened to Sagan talk about our thousands of nuclear bombs and how one of them is the equivalent destructive force of the entirety of the destructive force of all the bombs used in WW2. And then he wistfully pondered how we could wipe out the entire world population in the space of “a lazy afternoon” instead of one small corner of the world over 6 years and I just …totally lost my shit and started bawling.
The next 30 to 40 minutes were spent sobbing like a heartbroken thing, wailing into my hands, hyperventilating, or staring at a space on the wall with tears spilling down my cheeks. I can’t even articulate why I was crying, or what I thought it would help to rub the scratchy hand towel into my face until it hurt instead of blowing my nose, or why it just seems natural to rock my body back and forth or hold my fists in front of me and just shake, but that’s what I did. For almost an hour. There was no one sore spot, no one trigger, just that everything was terrible and I was broken and I wanted more than anything to just… Not have to exist.
Needless to say, I did not go to game that night.
Instead I took more than my usual dose of Ativan, put on a nature show that had not a shred of social commentary in it, cuddled the hell out of my cats, and eventually tried to sleep. Eventually I succeeded. I guess that’s one blissful thing about mental and emotional breakdowns, they leave you so completely exhausted that it’s easier to get to sleep.
I feel that this particular eruption is not quite over, there’s still a little hiccups that keep happening. I came across an image today, posted below, and I kind of lost it again. Just for a minute. Molly woke me up at 5 AM this morning to be petted, and I’m probably projecting but she seemed frustrated that I can’t quite had her properly anymore. And this is the first post I’ve ever cried while dictating. Sad brain has a lot to do with this, but of course there are legitimate underlying reasons for all of my distress definite geological pressures to go with the mystical phases of the moon and planets aligning just right. I wish I knew what drugs to take, how many virgins to sacrifice, to prevent these eruptions from happening again, but I know they’re going to. For as long as I am physically able to draw breath, and think, and feel. All I can really do is monitor the seismic activity of my emotional state and declare a state of emergency when I feel interruption is pending. And do my best to mitigate the damage when these eruptions are sudden severe, and catastrophic.
And try my damnedest to make sure this results in a verdant forest instead of a hellscape.
It really doesn’t take much to tank a mood when you’re already predisposed to depression. I’m pathetically prone to frustration, as well, so it really doesn’t go well when I try to do something and am thwarted. Especially when it’s something simple, and I really ought to be able to Do The Thing, dammit, only Godzilla Disease says “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAnnnnnnnno.” I’m getting better with accepting physical limitations, but I’m still having a really hard time with accepting that I just don’t have enough mana to do a lot of things anymore. Like..the strength is there, but the exertion makes the thing impossible, or damn near. Or makes it impossible to accomplish anything AFTER Doing The Thing.
This comes up today because I was gonna do a video for you (really, honestly I truly was), but there were certain “beauty” regimens I’ve been completely neglecting and I’m FAR too vain to let y’all internet strangers see me with no hair extensions in and no makeup on. So I was doing stuff, and I wore myself the hell out even getting READY to take care of things, and then I got really frustrated and headachy, and my mood tanked. So rather than cry and feel sorry myself and sulk for the rest of the afternoon, I’m posting instead.
So here’s a list of things that wear me the hell out, that didn’t used to, and it’s frustrating as all get out.
1. Walking to my desk from the car when I go to work.
2. Restocking my minifridge with sodas.
3. Taking a freaking shower.
5. Feeding the cat AND getting food for myself in the same trip.
6. Putting on tights.
7. Shaving my head.
8. Going to more than two stores in one trip, even if I use the stupid little go-cart things that never work well.
9. Petting a cat for even half as long as they want me to.
10. Any stupid little repair/decorating thing like putting the poster back up that Molly knocked off the wall because she is a bitch.
Godzilla Disease is hard because it removes your ability to do things, but slowly, and gradually, so you can’t even get used to your new limitations because they are constantly changing. Which is DUMB and stupid and frustrating.
Anyway, that’s why you don’t get a video today. Soz.
I’ve only ever been – at best – ambivalent towards the holiday. I don’t generally like pranks, because usually what I see aren’t so much as pranks as people being complete dicks to an innocent person. It’s a really mean-spirited holiday. I believe in open communication and trust, and this holiday celebrates being awful to people. The general rule is, “if it’s not at least as funny to the victim, it’s not a prank.”
Three years ago, April fools became something else to me. It became Diagnosis Day. Sadiversary. Three years ago, I sat in a doctors office, and was told I was going to die. Horribly. I had previously joked about having this appointment on this holiday, joking on Facebook that regardless of the results of this appointment, no one was going to believe me. I now tell people that my diagnosis was the un-funniest April fools prank ever.
Three years later, I’m taking stock of everything I thought since then, and everything that has become. I knew that no matter what I thought was going to be the problem, my real troubles were likely to be things that never occurred to me. I was mostly correct. I’m a pretty smart person, and observant, so I saw a lot of my troubles coming. I’ve surprised myself with how well I’ve handled some things I thought would destroy me. The loss of my hands. The death of my 23-year-old cat. And, predictably, some things surprised me by how intensely I reacted to them. Or, as has usually been the case, how little I reacted to them. My first fall. That was kind of a, “well that sucked.” Instead of a nuclear eruption of emotion. Often times a completely excusable meltdown has instead been met with, “yeah, okay, there’s that.”
Tuesday, I had my second semi serious fall. As is mostly usual I can’t even tell you exactly what happened to make me fall. I can tell you that’s a major contributor is that I OUGHT to have been holding onto something, and I wasn’t. That would’ve helped. Instead, I went down like a ton of bricks and somehow twisted my knee. It hurt badly enough that I was nauseous for a moment, and had to lie there a moment to catch my breath. I can tell you exactly how I managed to twist my knee, but I did so. Just so. And so for the last few days, I’ve been having a taste of what it’s like to be immobile. I’m used to being able to walk around my apartment, simply leaning on the walls for support. I couldn’t put any weight on my knee at all. And living alone meant that in order to get to the bathroom, I had to swivel myself onto my Walker and push myself around the apartment with my good leg. It was really…
I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting helpless, and frustrating, certainly. But it hasn’t really been the helplessness and being bedridden lately that got under my skin so bad. I’m a very independent person, and will fight to hold my own, on my own, until I am actually dead. It wasn’t really that I wanted help? But it was just as when I’m sick. I just wanted someone else around. Had I had a roommate at the time, I would have completely ignored them. As usual. But sometimes it’s pretty awesome just knowing someone else’s around. Especially when you’re hurt or ill.
Three years ago, I was completely able to stand up out of a chair on my own. Without using my hands, without even thinking about it. And now, when I try to get up off of the toilet I can’t even remember how my legs did that. How my body was able to just… Stand up. How I was able to run up a flight of stairs. It’s not even depressing so much as bizarre to me, that I have completely forgotten how to do simple things I used to do without thought. I expected frustration, anger at my ability to bend over, balanced on one leg, to pick something up off of the floor being taken away from me. But I find myself staring at whatever it is on the floor that is vexing me, baffled at how my body used to Do the Thing. Without will, without thought. Unthinkable.
It’s been three years since I was officially diagnosed. Self-inflicted injuries notwithstanding, I’m still on my feet. This is amazing. A lot of people with ALS would be dead by now. I’m losing the use of my hands, which is why I’ve been using voice dictation to create this post, but I can still do the basics. I can use the toilet by myself. I can go get myself a drink from the fridge, as long as I’m careful carrying it back. I can still pet my cats. For now. My progression is still very, very slow. And I am extraordinarily grateful.
I still hate April Fools’ Day. I can’t really blame the holiday for my diagnosis, or even the timing, because I was given the option to have this appointment on this day. I knew in my gut what this appointment was going to be about, by virtue of having been given the option to move the original appointment closer. I could’ve waited two days. But I already hate the holiday, so why taint any other perfectly good April day with an anniversary such as this?
Regardless of how you feel about the holiday, please treat your fellow humans with respect. Make sure your prank is funny, and not just you being a dick.
I know, you all are alerting the media right now. OH MY GOD REALLY!? DID YOU ALSO KNOW THAT WATER IS WET? IT IS TRUE!!
I’m getting better at it I swear. I will give the soda bottle one good try and then hand it over to someone for opening. I allowed friends to help with cleaning my apartment. I’ve brought jewelry out to the car on our way somewhere, for J to help me put it on rather than just not wearing it. I trust folks to help me up a curb without feeling like I’m going to pull us both down to the ground. It’s hard, and it’s definitely going to be a continuous work in progress until I no longer have the OPTION but to let people help, but there are definitely areas that I have a harder time with than others.
Like the cat box.
I don’t know why that’s such a trigger. Because it’s gross? Because my cats are not technically part of ME and so admitting I need help caring for them when they are not a medical necessity seems …frivolous? Even though I would literally rather die in a house full of shit than live without them? Because my cat Parmesan is 22 years old and shits wherever he wants and right now my front room is so absolutely goddamned GROSS that I am mortified at the thought of someone else having to deal with it?
But I have to.
I got a notice of inspection when I came home Tuesday; they’re coming in to check the fire alarms. No big deal. But yesterday I had to clean the cat box area, because that’s the first thing you see (and smell) when you come in to my apartment, and it needed doing. I’ve got puppy pads spread out all over my dining area, because Parmesan does what he wants and I can’t stop him and I love him enough that it’s a price I will pay for his company. The carpet is …unhappy with its lot in life, at this point. And that’s a fair part of why I had laminate floors in my house, because once a cat pees on something it is RUINED FOREVER. AND EVER. Cat owners know this. No amount of Nature’s Miracle will ever completely get rid of the smell. And so I just lay out the puppy pads so that hopefully Parm pees on them and then Ianto will NOT try to bury it and drag them all over the place trying to scratch over it, exposing the carpet where Parm will inevitably pee again. J steam cleaned the carpet not long ago, but it needs doing again. Until then, the spotbot and puppy pads will have to do. It’s not easy for me to do this, because I can’t just bend down to pick up the soiled pads, and crouch down to scoop the box. I have to get on the floor, which is less like “getting down on the floor” and more like “a controlled fall”. Then, pulling out the tray from the litter robot (SERIOUSLY BEST THING EVER), replacing the bag, collect all the pads, put out new ones, scoop out the other box, somehow get up off the floor, heft the heavy bag of used litter into the trash can, and then put it outside.
It didn’t used to be a huge production. Twenty minutes, tops.
Last night demonstrated that I can’t do this anymore. I couldn’t carry the water tanks for the spotbot without dropping them. I couldn’t effectively scoop out the boxes. I had the worst time opening and levering a box of cat litter to refresh the boxes. My hands wouldn’t uncurl after grasping the puppy pads. I had to use two hands to spread them out instead of the casual flick it used to take. I almost was unable to get off the floor when I was done, and I was out of breath and dripping sweat.
I can’t do this anymore.
I had a really, really hard time telling myself this last night, as I cleaned myself up and waited to stop sweating. And I don’t know why I’m so stubborn about this, but it seemed like it was the end of all things. I know it’s not. I’ve had friends volunteer, cheerfully, to come over and help with the cat boxes. It just seems like a special brand of failure, to no longer be able to do this. When I adopted my cats, I promised to love them for all time, and to be responsible for their care. I feel like I’m failing them at it. I am losing the ability to give them head skritches, to play with them, and to give them a sanitary place to do their thing. And it’s the worst. I am failing at Cat Mom, and it bothers the fuck out of me.
I have always been a spooky kid. From a young age, I have been fascinated by the aesthetic of death, the graves and skeletons and ghosts, and later Victorian memorial photography and mourning jewelry. I was peripherally aware of death, of course, my whole life. We all are. It wasn’t until Jack Kevorkian came into the American consciousness that I learned that I had Definite Opinions about capital D DEATH as an absolute, as well as an aesthetic. I found that I strongly believe we all ought to have control over our own mortality, and had my first real experience with how afraid society is to discuss the subject at all. Later, when going through the Diagnosis Cha Cha, I experienced my first profound frustration with peoples’ willingness – and even their ABILITY – to discuss it at all.
Today I attended my first Death Cafe.
You can learn about them here: http://deathcafe.com/ It’s essentially a safe space to talk freely and openly about death, and it’s meant to be a really positive experience. I first found out about them through the Order of the Good Death; I’ve fangirled about Caitlyn Doughty and her Ask a Mortician video series before. I finally worked up the nerve to sign up and attend one; my hesitation was not at all about the subject matter, but about, you know…that whole show up and talk to total strangers. This is what I do here, of course, but in a more one-sided capacity. It was a space to get to know other death-curious people, exchange ideas, and finally -FINALLY – be allowed to talk freely about this whole ‘death’ thing.
We had a wonderful facilitator at the table, who was warm, inclusive, and knowledgeable. There was a young woman who had older parents and didn’t know how to talk to them about death, a wonderful older woman who had the same frustrations with being unable to talk to her loved ones about death, and an artist who works with the dying to design their own crematory urns.
FUCKING AWESOME, RIGHT!?!
…Damn right I got her contact info.
We all spoke for about two hours, about everything from death acceptance to memorial services and keepsakes to death-positive media. I learned about POST/POLST forms (a beefed up Advance Directive that is hot pink and you put it on your fridge so the ambulance folk know what you want). I got a very warm and supportive hug. I taught a delightfully sweary old woman the phrase “lalochezia”. I learned about support groups that aren’t support groups at all for the recently bereaved. We talked about how America doesn’t really have its own death rituals as a culture, and so when it comes to death, we are all at a loss as to what to do. I mean, wen someone dies, you show up with a casserole, but then what? We don’t have societal rules and custom for how to treat the dead, besides paying total strangers to come deal with it and sweep the whole thing under a clinical rug. We’ve become divorced from Death, and it is a damn shame.
I will definitely be attending more of these. It was a pleasant afternoon of drinking tea, eating cookies, and having a chat about things you don’t normally get to talk freely about. I highly recommend you seek one out in your neighborhood. The more we talk about this, the more normal it becomes, and the more healthy our attitude towards death as a culture becomes. And this is a good thing. It helps the dying to not feel so alienated. It helps the grieving to not feel so alone. It helps us all to know what to do, how to have these conversations while we still can.
Knowledge is power, indeed, and by talking about death, we destroy some of its mystique and its terror. We make it normal, and we help each other through impending loss – be it even our own departure. I want to be able to have these conversations with my loved ones, but until that becomes normal and okay, I can have these conversations with strangers.
To be sure, this has ALWAYS been true. I like sleep, more than I like anything else. I find it hard to convince myself to get out of bed even to do things I like to do, because bed is comfy and warm and there are cats there. Bed understands me.
But what I ACTUALLY mean is that it is now physically hard to get my ass out of bed. No leg strength to push out of bed with, nothing to grab on to and pull myself out, a 22 year old cat that absolutely INSISTS that he needs to be on me, on my chest specifically, pinning me down, and all this equals me flailing in the morning like a turned-over turtle to get myself upright. It’s not dignified, or pretty. Probably hilarious though, for the first couple of minutes until you realize why it’s hard and then you get sad and hate yourself a little for laughing at me, you unfeeling jerks. Erm. Sidetracked. I mean, getting out of bed is becoming a herculean physical challenge, when I already emotionally and mentally don’t wanna.
And this, my dear, wonderful people, is where you came in.
My main babe Danielle had set up a Crowdrise account for me. You might remember that; it’s over there on the right. It was set up to collect funds against helping me with affording things related to my disability and bucket list. And now the money, money that YOU have so amazingly, kindly donated, money that Danielle worked very hard to raise on my behalf, has gone to buy me the most amazing bed ever. One of those awesome Old People lifty-adjustey-even-has-a-massage-function beds. To top it all off, my friend Jenn happens to be a sales manager at Sleep Train and got me this amazing, jaw droppingly good deal on the whole thing. I don’t know how much this normally costs, but I know I’ve got this bed for a STEAL. It’s going to help me SO MUCH. And when getting out of bed on my own is no longer an option, it’s going to be a VERY nice place to hang out with my cats.
They deliver it Monday. I’m beyond excited.
And I am so, so, so grateful to all of you for making this possible for me. This is going to be such a great help. And every night, when I lower the head of the bed to sleep and turn on the massagey function, I will think of all of the people who loved me enough to make it happen, and I will dream the sweetest, most grateful dreams.
I have been granted the singular privilege to bear witness to her grief.
My friend had her father ripped from this earth, eaten alive by cancer while everyone helplessly stood by. Cancer’s a motherfucker like that. Especially it seems, with men; men of an age too stubborn to admit Something Is Wrong until it’s too late, and pride stops them from accepting all of the treatments, all of the chances. Her father was like my grandfather, that way. My grandfather died of prostate cancer, and had refused potential treatments and surgeries because they’d make him ‘less of a man’ or some bullshit, but he fought on his own terms. It was his decision to make. And her father’s.
He had lived in South Dakota, and she had to return, to disposition his estate. She invited me along, because it’s beautiful there. I said yes, because goddammit someone needed to be there while she walked through her father’s place and went through his things. And because I’d never been. And she needed an ally. I went with her in the mindset to be as helpful as possible, to make this transition as easy as possible, to shield her the best I could from the inevitable shitstorm that happens when someone dies.
We had many, many conversations about grief, over the six days we spent together. I’ve always found, and I’m not alone in this observation, that grief brings out the absolute worst in people. Normally loving and trusting people are suddenly quibbling over who gets grandma’s Jell-O mold, and Brother X is angry that dad only left him $20k, but Brother Y got the house, even though Brother Y moved his whole family and job and world to be close to Dad to help him when he got sick and Brother Y never even called who cares because it should be split equal. Meanwhile Aunt Fran is going through the medicine cabinet and the liquor, and Neighbor Q has claimed that heirloom quilt even though you’ve never met her before she INSISTS that she came over like, ALL THE TIME to help and he said she could have it and starts crying, and they let her have it even though we’re all pretty sure Grandma made it for him when he was sick with measles when he was 12 and maybe she’d like it back, to keep her warm at the nursing home while she mourns the son she somehow outlived.
I have my theory that it’s because of a cosmic sense of entitlement. My one true, real, and serious beef with the Universe, is that it doesn’t stop and let you catch your breath when something horrible happens. So out of nowhere, my grandfather died, and I wasn’t allowed to catch my breath at all, I was suddenly thrown into funeral arrangements and visiting relatives I’d never met, and holy GOD, people can you LEAVE ME ALONE, my GRANDPA just died. And the thing is, they’re going through the same thing. Holy shit, my FATHER just died. My BROTHER just died. And we all walk around with this gaping hole in our souls, and it feels like the goddamned universe owes us something for the incredible injury it just caused. And when the materials are settled, you feel entitled to it all, because Jesus God, that was your GRANDPA. The Universe just took your Grandpa, you deserve that fucking stereo of his, something, a piece of him, a memory of the times you were laughing and frustrated trying to teach him how to USE the thing, and the dance party you had to his old music when he finally got it. And next to you, your uncle is thinking, holy fuck, I just lost my DAD. The universe took my Dad, the LEAST it could do is give me his stereo, that I bought him for Christmas that one year. Everyone is bleeding, mourning, thinking that no one else in the room has the slightest fucking CLUE how badly this hurts.
And they don’t. They can’t. Just as you are blinded to THEIR pain, by yours. Everyone is hollow and aching, and scrambling for what they believe the world owes them. In the process, their grief causes harm, the worst comes out in people, and the ending of a life all too often proves to be the ending of relationships. Arguments over funeral arrangements cost friendships. Dispositioning the estate has torn families apart forever.
I watched this process from the outside, flavoring it with my own experiences, because her father and my grandfather had VERY much in common. It was impossible not to draw parallels. Two very strong, hardworking men, good with their hands, generous to a fault, loving, open hearts, strong faith and strong backs. And very easily taken advantage of by unscrupulous people. It was hard watching her have to be The Bad Guy, because she has no record of ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ and no, she wasn’t about to give up two thirds of a property just because they were friends, and it just didn’t seem to get through peoples’ heads that yes, this all belongs to HER now. They’d lost their friend and felt entitled to things, but she was his DAUGHTER and he entrusted her to take care of his estate.
I helped her go through his things, and decide what to donate, what to throw away, what to keep. It was like tiptoeing through someone else’s life, all at once mundane and profound. You get a secret glimpse into someone’s private life, and it feels like sneaking and prying, though they’re not there to mind it. Dirty dishes still in the sink. Half packs of gum on the kitchen counter. Mundane. A shelf of books, a peek into the sorts of things that entertained him. Profound. Clearing out the bathroom of half-used toiletries. Intimate. A total stranger, putting a dead man’s clothes in a bag for donation. Invasive. Every new thing a question for his daughter, “What would you like done with these?” Overwhelmed.
And through this, I gained incredible insight.
I had gone with the express intention of helping her through some serious shit, and provide happy distractions while she showed me around the very beautiful places, but I wound up with a concrete and valuable reaffirmation of a lesson I had already learned. A solid restatement of something I already knew to my core.
DO NOT PUT OFF SETTLING YOUR FUCKING ESTATE.
WRITE YOUR MOTHERFUCKING WILL.
Decide what you want to do with all of your shit, BEFORE you die.
He didn’t want to think about it, and I don’t blame him, really. In his case, settling his affairs was outright admitting he didn’t believe he could beat cancer. Not at ALL because he didn’t love his daughter and didn’t want to make things easier for her, but just because he was afraid. So even though she asked the hard questions, and he knew he should answer them, he couldn’t. He couldn’t face that fear, that pain, that reality. A friend of mine failed to settle his affairs and left his wife in chaos because he didn’t want to think about it. I haven’t sealed up my things because I am lazy and believe I still have some time. There’s a thousand excuses why not to, but it comes down to, it’s boring and depressing, and you’ve told yourself you’ve got time to think about that.
But maybe you don’t. That’s why NOW is the time to settle your affairs. You need to have a Living Will, at least. Those cost nothing. But you should have a plan, a document that lists who’s in charge of your bank accounts, your online accounts, your healthcare decisions, who gets your shit. You should have that settled NOW, before you know your clock is ticking. Because it still is, even if you don’t hear it right now. Everyone should have a plan for what becomes of them, their things, their feelings should be known. Even 12 year olds. Who gets your diary and your band posters?
I realize, more than you know, that it’s really hard to think about. It sucks. A lot. Your brain goes all staticky because you don’t want to imagine that world you no longer exist in. I believe it is literally impossible for the human brain to fully grasp the concept of your own death. It’s too big an idea for your brain to hold. But you have to make this plan. You have to make your wishes known. You have to write down somewhere, how to access all of your accounts. You have to decide who is going to have to be burdened with making sure your will is known and carried out.
Because the alternative is making your wife collapse into tears because you have so much fucking paperwork to sort through and you never talked about what was important and where your passwords are. The alternative is some shifty relative making off with your sewing machine even though you meant for it to go to your sister, but no one knew that because you never fucking wrote that down anywhere. The alternative is someone accidentally donating that book to Goodwill that you had hollowed out and stored ten thousand dollars in. The alternative is your wayward child completely fucking over her siblings because you didn’t SAY who should settle your estate, and your children are too buried in their grief to care as much as they should. The alternative is causing your loved ones a world of hurt and unfairness, on top of the aching loss of YOU, because you found it too depressing to think about. Only now they’re drowning in that depression, and you’ve left them no handholds.
The alternative is my friend, buried up to her neck in funeral arrangements and memorial services and going through her dead father’s belongings and trying to determine what’s valuable while fending off opportunists. Too busy to allow herself to grieve, unable to let herself fall apart, because her father didn’t want to have those conversations while he lived. And so now she lives in a state of suspended grief, unsure when it will all come crashing in, willing herself to keep it together just a little bit longer. When it’s not fair that she HAS to. This was her FATHER. She loved him with her life. She took care of him in his final moments, and the Universe owes it to her to let her mourn.
But the Universe is not fair, because it doesn’t allow us to catch our breath when something important goes bad.
The Universe is an asshole. You don’t have to be. Do your best to not add insult to injury and get your shit together BEFORE you need to.
Check this out, it’s all wrapped up for you with guides and checklists and shit. I’m even going to put this on the sidebar.
So I haven’t posted for awhile. Not that things haven’t been happening. Things being thought, that I ought to write down. Feelings to document, frustrations to record. Things. But it’s hard to write, when you feel bad. There’s a bullshit self-imposed rule of “if you can’t say anything nice”, when the whole POINT of this was to record the good and bad. The funny among the fucked up, the grace between the grief, the other alliterative things that mean shit happens and sometimes it sucks and it’s all valid and okay.
There’s been a vast lack of energy, both physical and spiritual, lately. I spent the entire weekend in bed. Sleeping or playing video games. Safe to say I’m in a depressive streak, and things are hard right now, but good stuff still happens. I have a lot in my brain. Work is stressful as shit, and that’s its own post, one of many that I feel I owe you, this place, this blog, my future self. One of many. It’s harder to type and that makes me not want to do it. I am tired. I am lazy. I would rather be escaping into virtual realms, the Commonwealth, the biome I call my Minecraft home, Discworld, anywhere but here. I am squandering the time I have left and the ability I have to do things with it, and I can’t bring myself to care, most days.
But I have things to tell you. And I shall. I’m sorry to myself, and to whatever audience here, and to the universe in general for not being a diligent reporter, for not allowing myself permission to post even the bad days, when the bad days aren’t funny. It’s just easier to sleep, instead.
*cough* Hi. Um. *taps mic* is this thing still on?
Yeah. Sorry guys. It’s been very nearly a month. I haven’t had much to report, for the most part, and I FREELY admit that I was hiding from everything on April 1st. Diagnosis Day. My second Saddiversary.
Two years ago, I sat in Dr. Goslin’s office and stared at the carpet, nodding slowly, repeating the words, “definitely a motor neuron disease of some kind, and very likely ALS.”
“In a nutshell,” she’d replied.
At the time, my hands were unaffected. I could still stand up without assistance, and walk unaided. I couldn’t stand on my toes, but I could stand on one leg. My breathing was fine, speech was fine. I had periodic muscle twitches, mostly in my thighs, and sometimes harsh cramps in my calves. I could still slowly wiggle my toes, though my mutant ability to wiggle my left pinky toe was gone. I weighed 175 pounds, up from the 160 I’d finally managed to hit when all these troubles started.
I was devastated, of course. No shit, right? But I had a fierce optimism about it all. It didn’t really matter, I knew to my core that I’d be okay; it’s just that OK was going to gain a new definition. Someone else’s broken and busted is someone else’s awesome mobility day. I had amazing people at my back, I had a NAME at last for what was wrong with me,and with that name came a roadmap. As long as I have a name, I can have a loose plan. With good people on my team, and a discovery of a whole organization of people dedicated to help poor bastards like me cope as best as we can for as long as I can, I had this thing in my pocket.
Two years have come and gone, and they’ve taken my ability to stand without assistance. They took my ability to stand on my own without leaning against something. They pretty well chewed up my hands by now. I’m losing the ability to wiggle my fingers independently, which KILLS the joke when I try to make sarcastic air quotes. I no longer type as fast. I no longer fit in my cutest clothes, because I’m now 200 pounds. Still eating and breathing fine, though, so again – the things that will eventually kill me have not yet begun to kill me. They took their toll on my energy levels, which is the second worst part of all of this I think. I can cope with being able to type with difficulty, I can cope with relying on a cane to get around, but doing any of these things just completely WRECK my energy levels for the rest of the day and probably the day after. It’s getting hard to get out of bed both because my energy levels say no, and part because hauling my now 220 pound ass out of the bed is not an easy task. Specially with a cat who just will NOT GET OFF OF YOU but he’s 22 so I have to be super nice and NOT toss him across the room. I fall sometimes, occasionally because I forget I’m not a normal person and can’t multitask walking AND adjusting my backpack. My cats are three obstacle course experts, and they drag their toy obstacles in new configurations every day. To keep me on my toes. Except the little fuckers don’t seem to get that I can no longer stand on my toes, and if I fall, we are ALL gonna regret it.
Those two years have seen some relationship changes, too. Surprisingly, mostly for the better. Amazing people have come out of the woodwork to support me, I hear stories about me that I never would have known, heard the effect I’ve had on people that I never realized. That part’s been awesome. And some people have gone, for many different reasons, mostly that it’s just really fucking HARD to be around someone with a terminal disease. You know the relationship is doomed. It’s difficult to watch someone you care deeply about struggle so much. And THAT is the worst part of having ALS. Watching how it affects those I love.
I watch you watch me struggle, and I feel your helplessness coil off of you in tentacles that hover and sway as you debate coming forward to ask me to let you help. I watch panic burst from your chest like a gunshot wound when you witness me fall, and you bleed in little droplets of ‘what do I do what do I do’ while I assure you that I’m okay, and scan my surroundings for ways to get myself up. You do a little “I wanna step in and help but I don’t know how” cha cha at my side, tentatively reaching down with those useless tentacles, hands offered but of no use to me. “Unless you can deadlift 200 pounds,” I warn, “you’re not going to be any help to me.” I can’t help you help me, you see. It’s not simply a matter of grab my hands and help me to my feet; there are no longer muscles to flex and bend and counter my weight. Getting off the ground is a matter of leverage, I have to find a solid footing and something sturdy and tall like a chair that I can use to wedge my legs into straight lines, and then lift myself off of the chair. My legs are stilts, made of useless skin and fat; the muscles are out back protesting. And so here we are in an incredibly awkward situation in which not only did you have to witness gravity force itself on someone you like, being able to do nothing, but now you have to watch as I humiliate myself by exerting an insane amount of energy to belly up to the chair and lock my legs in position behind me, shakily lifting my body upright, hissing to myself “come the fuck onnnnnnnn just stand up. STAND UP.” and when I get up, swaying and panting,k we are all of us worse for the experience. My humiliation and out of breath sweating will stop, though. You, you never really stop feeling helpless. And I see that knot of internal pressure, maybe it’s rage at the unfairness of the situation, maybe it’s fear that something might happen to you. You have a lot of reasons. Just as I do, watching my friends in situations I can’t control. It’s the worst place to be, and I don’t blame people for realizing they can’t handle it and stop coming around.
Hell, I actually respect you for recognizing your limits and putting your own health and life first. I WANT that for you guys. I appreciate everything you do, and I love you for who you are, and that includes knowing your boundaries, setting them, and keeping them. It’s hard to make those decisions. And keep them.
I’ve..lost track of where this post was going. It’s been two years of actual factual ALS. Life proceeds, as it always does, and so many things have become the new OK. Humans are amazingly adaptable, and I’m still having enough good days to make sticking around worth it. Having the world’s best excuse for not getting out of bed at ALL on a Sunday, nested in cats and blankets, playing video games with no guilt. It’s a recovery day/I woke up with no mana/I just don’t want to Adult today and this “I’m Dying” card says I don’ t have to. Having amazing friends who will bring me dinner, to my bed, because I don’t want to expend the energy to dislodge the cats, pull back the fortress of blankets and pillows, wriggle out of bed, and wall surf to the front door to meet you. And I’m not even dressed.
So that’s pretty much what I did on April Fool Day. Poisson d’Avril. Diagnosis Day. Saddiversary 2: Electric Boogaloo. I hid. And I cried, and I distracted myself with cats and video games, and slept a lot. And then it was okay. I’m still figuring out the new Normal, cause that keeps changing on me.
I really am sorry about being quiet. I do still have things to tell you, and things to show you. I was just being all Emo McCryface for a little bit. I hope you guys are having great days. I love all y’all.