I’m not even talking about being touch-starved because of COVID, either, though that is also certainly a thing. I’m talking, full body contact, chins on each other’s shoulders, arms wrapped tight, feeling each other’s heartbeat hugs. Rhythmic syncing of breathing hugs. Every thing in the world is going to be okay because I have you. Here. In this moment. Hugs. Swapping body heat and comfort and love hugs.
The good shit.
I’ve been told I give great hugs. I didn’t used to. My household was not a hugging family at all. No touchy. In junior high, I’d watch the girls hug each other hello, even though they’d seen each other scarcely two hours ago before lunch, and think: I want that. So over time, I let myself do that. And I confirmed what I’d suspected all along:
HUGS FUCKING RULE.
I miss them so much. I miss the touch. I miss the ritual of it. I miss standing in front of J and throwing my arms around his neck, him wrapping his arms around my ribcage and squeezing until my spine popped. I miss the kind of hugs where the other person runs their hands over your back.
Proper hugs are another thing ALS took from me. You can not hug someone properly from a wheelchair. You get a cheek touch, clumsy arms around your shoulders while you try not to stick your face in their cleavage. Awkward. They’re still good because they’re still hugs! But they’re not GREAT hugs.
Being in a chair is lonely. Being in a chair in a pandemic is hell. I miss hugs.
If you can, today, give someone a hug for me. Get you some of that good, good oxytocin shit. Aww yiss. Hugs fucking rule. Have one on my behalf and improve your day.
I was recently asked if I would be willing to speak to a group of people about the good work that the ALS Association does. My answer was an immediate and fervent HELL YES I WILL. I’ve expounded on their virtues before, and they will certainly will do again, it occurs to me that I have never devoted a post solely to that purpose. It’s long overdue. So here it is.
I was introduced to the ALS Association the day I was diagnosed. I was immediately given a phone number and a contact name, with promises they’d be able to help me along my newfound journey with a terminal disease. I waited a couple of days to call them, of course, because I needed time to let things settle. But once I did call them, within only a few short days I was sitting with a social worker in my living room. I liked her immediately, as I’ve come to like every single person I’ve ever met who works for the organization. The social worker was kind, patient, and definitely knew her stuff. She offered her sincere condolences for my diagnosis, and introduced me to the ALS Association and everything it could do for me.
So, as she introduced me, I introduce to you – what the ALS Association does for me.
INFORMATION: They had a wealth of information for me right out of the gate. She came with a stack of booklets on what to expect from various aspects of the disease; feeding tubes, ventilators, dietary needs. Even as she was handing the booklets to me, she was quick to point out that I absolutely did not have to look at any of this information or even think about it until I was ready. If I didn’t even feel up to taking the booklets, I did not have to. They had information about coordinating the care I was going to need, with solid advice on how to arrange it, or more appropriately – how NOT to arrange it, how to designate a primary person to manage all of that for me. I was given a book for that, too. I was given information about biweekly support groups. I was given information about hiring an elder care attorney to get my affairs and estate in order. In the space of one afternoon, I had every question answered, including questions I hadn’t even thought to ask yet.
SUPPORT: the biweekly support meetings are not only a place to support and commiserate, there is usually some kind of a presentation. How to select a caregiver, and how to know when to start that process. How to use a Hoyer lift with demonstrations. That sort of thing. I’ve only been to a couple, but in every single one of them I have felt heard and cared for. It introduced me to the ALS community at large, which is a subject for another blog post soon to come. In addition to the support groups, during my quarterly clinic days one of my appointments is with my social worker and a check in to see if there’s anything else they can do for me. They put me in contact with other people in the community who had resources I need, and set me up to be a penpal with other people in need of support themselves. They joined me on my house hunt. They helped me look for a van. They found me a lawyer. The annual Walk to Defeat ALS is a huge event that raises a lot of money, and is the single greatest ALS community event, hands-down. I cannot begin to describe to you how it feels to have such a horrible disease, and to show up to one of these events and see the LITERALLY THOUSANDS of people who have showed up to support me and those similarly afflicted. It awes me every time.
RESEARCH: the money raised by the ALS Association goes to fund research, along with everything else. Very important research. The ice bucket challenge raised literally millions of dollars for this endeavor. Research is the only way we are ever going to find a cure for this disease. The ALS Association funds research that leads to clinical trials, like the clinical trial I’m currently participating in. This research WILL ultimately save lives. Until then, it is helping make lives less miserable day by day.
FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE: twice a year, I am eligible for a $500 grant from the ALS Association to help me cover my expenses. Last year that grant paid for my medicine. And raised toilet seat. And wrist braces. I don’t even need to tell you how expensive it is to have ALS; I’ve said it before, and I’m sure you can imagine. One of my meds (for which I received a separate grant thankfully) costs $19,000 out-of-pocket. A month. Anytime you tack the word medical on top of something, it’s price goes up three times over. The cupholder on my wheelchair costs $60. The $500 could never hope to cover all of my expenses, but it is such a tremendous relief to have. A break. And all I have to do is ask for it.
EDUCATION: the ALS Association has a class in mindfulness that I was able to take. In times to come, I am very much going to need that skill, to get out of my own head when things get horrible. It was a good class. The ALS Association also hosts a research symposium, which features speakers on all of the latest research and medical trials happening. There’s always a QA session after the presentations, and I have never failed to learn something new and exciting.
PURPOSE: through the ALS Association, I’ve been able to participate in a number of extremely fulfilling projects. I’ve been interviewed for newsletters, I loaned my picture to fundraising efforts, I’ve been connected to people I can hopefully help. The moment I was diagnosed I knew I wanted to help in some way. I have been dealt a poor hand, but I can do something with it. I can help other people. Through research I can contribute to science and help find a cure. My life and death will mean something on a grander scale. The ALS Association has helped facilitate this. I cannot possibly be more grateful for that.
EQUIPMENT: the ALS Association has a wealth of equipment that they are happy and eager to share. Every single time my doctor has suggested some new piece of equipment, the ALS Association was quick to offer to loan me one. I mentioned in clinic that it was getting hard to stand up in the shower; they loaned me a shower chair. Then a shower bench when I could no longer step into the tub. They loaned me a cane. I had trepidations about graduating to a wheelchair when the time came, they loaned me one so that I could get used to being in it and try it out with no pressure. They offered to loan me a power chair to get used to it and see what kind of features I wanted. When I begin participating in clinical research in San Francisco, I was extremely nervous about having the airlines handle my wheelchair; the thing costs $47,000 and is my freedom. I was super paranoid about it getting damaged. The ALS Association loaned me a power chair for the express purpose of traveling in it so that my own chair was not at risk. The airline has managed to damage wheelchairs I was using four times in the last year and a half – I cannot even imagine what I would’ve done if that damage had been done to my personal wheelchair. I would be completely…well, screwed. They knew that damage was a risk and still very happily loaned me the chair. Because that’s what the ALS Association does. They help.
Let me be perfectly clear here: NONE OF THIS HAS COST ME A DAMN THING.
Life with ALS often feels insurmountable. With the help of the ALS Association, I feel less alone in this struggle. I feel less lost. I feel like maybe there’s a little hope for us.
Seven years ago today, I had just started cleaning and painting my new home. I’d had keys for a scant two days and there was a lot to be done. Seven years and two days ago my dream of homeownership had finally come true. It was pretty much my dream home. Huge backyard, a shed AND two car garage for storage, five bedrooms, huge kitchen. I had such dreams for that house. I was going to convert one of the bedrooms to be a kitten room and foster kittens. I was going to install baker’s racks I my kitchen and get serious about patisserie in my spare time. My office was set up for studying for my computer science degree in the works, a spare bedroom-slash-library for guests, my bedroom with a ceiling like the night sky. It was gonna be a giant garden in the back and a haven for the snakes I was delighted to learn lived there. I was going to install bat houses.
Six years, eight weeks and one day ago I received news that changed everything.
One of the first things to hit me, after the whole “holy shit, I have a terminal disease and I’m going to die” thing was “oh no I have to sell my house.” My new dream house was two story you see. I was beyond crushed, I was devastated. I hadn’t even had it for a year and now I was looking at having to give it up. And unfortunately giving it up was not a question. I tried every scheme I could come up with. There was no way to put a master bedroom downstairs, no way to expand the downstairs bedroom to encompass a roll in shower, no way to put a lift in to get the wheelchair upstairs. The hallway was just too narrow. The layout was just too open downstairs. The only aspect of choice I had was, do I sell it now? Or do I wait until I’m physically forced out of the place.
I chose option one. The thinking was, I could get out of this house and purchase a new one while there was still ability in me to decorate the new place. If I waited until I was wheelchair-bound and had useless hands, I wouldn’t be able to make the new place my own. So I sold it pretty much right away, at a nice profit, even. It wasn’t even on the market a week. I had owned my dream house for just over two years. I rented an apartment as a temporary measure, because I knew it would be a little bit before I could find the perfect place. The new place had to be single-story, had to be wheelchair accessible or at least have the bones to renovated to be so. And crucially? It had to be affordable on what I was going to make while on disability. I had estimates of what I was going to be earning, and at the time Danielle was going to move in with me so I would have help with the mortgage.
It has turned out to be a nigh impossible task. The economy recovered in spades, and suddenly I couldn’t afford literally anything in the area. People were coming from California and other places with cash to purchase homes and I simply could not compete. Real life then conspired to interfere, Danielle and I split as friends, so I was suddenly going it alone. Jay decided to move in with me and so all of his needs also needed to be addressed in the house search. My stepfather passed away, leaving my mother unable to afford her home, and so I moved her in with me in my 2 bedroom apartment and we weren’t sure what was going to become of that, if her living with me would be a permanent solution or not. My needs became very, very complicated, my buying power dwindled to almost nothing thanks to the booming house market and the pittance you earn on disability, and my “temporary” apartment became more of an unwanted permanent fixture.
Staying permanently in an apartment was never an option though. I need a roll in shower. Apartment complexes tend to frown upon you doing demolition in their units, so installing one here is not an option. Ideally I wanted to stay in the same-ish area so I could keep near my support network. Leaving Portland metro, thus leaving the care of Doctor Goslin, was NEVER an option. I need a bedroom big enough for my bed, wheelchair, and a lift to eventually get me out of bed into the wheelchair. This place simply does not have that much space; I play a stupid game of Tetris with my wheelchair, walker, cat scratcher, and closet door every time I get dressed. And even after the economy recovered somewhat, and even though Jay was willing to commute up to an hour each way to work every day so I could extend our search parameters to include BanjoLand (where our neighbors were GUARANTEED to hate our liberal asses), there was simply nothing out there for me. Everything we found was falling apart, or the master bathroom wasn’t even big enough to get a wheelchair in, much less turnaround in, or the side bedrooms where J and my mother would be staying were closets.
Quick shout out here because credit where credit is fucking DUE. My real estate agent Christina Griffith is one of the most patient people on the face of this planet. I half expected her to give me up as a client at any time. It was frustrating for us both, but she never quit on me. I didn’t have an option to quit and she did, and I’m grateful as FUCK she did not take that route.
All I wanted was a place to live until I died, one way or another. My last breath in my own bed, with my cats beside me. No more transition housing. A place I could get around in my wheelchair, with place to store all of the necessary equipment (like a huge-ass Hoyer lift) that will become part of my life as the disease progresses, with space for the people taking care of me. (And the option for grocery delivery because I’m in a wheelchair and mom is blind and J can’t do everything.) I didn’t care what kind of dwelling it was. House, condo, manufactured home, as long as it was accessible, and affordable, I could literally give a shit. It has been the single greatest stressor in my life ever since I was diagnosed. No hyperbole. All I want is a place to just be and be allowed to die in and not have to worry about my belongings getting packed up and my cats transitioned a to new environment separate from me while I still drew breath. The actual disease and its effects have actually been secondary to all of this. My life has primarily been all about finding a home.
It’s taken five years.
One thing I’m definitely grateful for is all of the people helping me look. My realtor is amazing, as I said, (seriously if you’re in the Portland metro area look her up) and I had lots of friends and family keeping an eye out for me, as well as automated searches on places like redfin. This lead came from my psychiatrist of all people. He’d been keeping an eye out, but most of the places he found were way out of my price range. A client of his was sadly transitioning to a care home, and his wife had to sell their home. It was a depressing thing for them but could be a godsend for me – it was already ADA set up. Ramps to everything, even the backyard, doors wide enough for a chair in every room. He gave me the owner’s email address, and I didn’t have high hopes to be honest, because there was no way I was going to be able to afford this place. I contacted them anyway, and the wife turned out to be a total peach. She answered all of my questions gracefully, but sure enough their asking price was $50,000 more than I had been approved for. I told her thanks anyway. She said hang on. let’s talk. It meant a lot to her that we’d been introduced through my shrink, and she really wanted the accessibility features to be of use to someone. Let’s have me look at the place, she said, and we can discuss it.
I didn’t get my hopes up. I didn’t dare.
We toured the place, and it was such an awesome feeling to be able to actually go into a house I was looking at purchasing, and wheel around freely with nothing off-limits to me. Typically when we go to look at a house, I stay in the van while J and Christina go inside and then report back to me. All I’ve had to go off of was their opinions and maybe a video tour taken on Christina’s cellphone. But here, here I was able to see for myself. And here I was able to see myself living in this space. This could be My House. The space was big enough. There are already ramps everywhere. The shower even was already a roll in shower. It was not quite perfect, the other two bedrooms were still kind of small. But with a little renovation we could make things work. So not daring to get my hopes up, I checked with my bank to see if maybe I could get approved for just a little more money. It still wasn’t what they were asking, but it was all I could afford. The bank said OK, and I presented an offer tens of thousands less than they’d said they were going to ask, fully expecting a counteroffer or flat-out refusal.
They said yes.
I get the keys tomorrow.
It’s been a very fast roller coaster ride, having to scramble to get all the paperwork together, and proving that even on SSDI I can make the mortgage (thanks ENTIRELY to Intel’s retirement plan), getting everything coordinated and submitted and 10,000 signatures on triplicate and witnessed by two rabbis and a chimpanzee, but it’s all sorted. It’s taking literally everything I have saved and my 401(k) and what little stock I still owned, but we’re doing it. There’s gonna be some work to do, we need to move a wall to make one of the bedrooms a livable size for J. There’s painting of course, but that’s just cosmetics. My fondest wish is to see what putting in central AC will cost, because the placement of the windows are not great for the window units that I have and I am a huge baby when it comes to heat and it’s going to SUCK when I’m too hot and unable to push the covers off. I’m not sure I’m going to be afford AC, but it’s a dream I have. Buying a house is incredibly expensive and there’s always going to be one more thing to purchase that you never thought of. I have to hire movers. Not that I don’t have a squad of willing volunteers, but for one – COVID is still very much a thing, even though America has seemed to decide that it’s boring now so we’re just not gonna quarantine anymore – and for two, most of my friends are willing but not necessarily able. I’m 45 years old and most of my friends are around the same age bracket. We can’t just haul shit around willy-nilly anymore. And my adjustable bed weighs a ton and I’m not subjecting people I love to that nonsense. So I’m doing what I can and praying that I am able to afford it all. So hey, if you ever thought about dropping a dime into my GoFundMe, now would definitely be a good time.
I called all of the utilities today to transfer them into my name, and every single one of them wished me congratulations on the new house. It’s a magical phrase. My new house. I was sincerely beginning to despair it was ever going to happen, and I would be relegated to sponge baths in my bed until I needed to be transferred to a care facility. I’m so happy it was wrong. I’m so happy this finally happened. I’m so glad I get a permanent address at last. I wish it hadn’t taken so long, and I’m no longer able to do all the decorating myself, but I can be a damn good supervisor and project leader. My friends are amazing and they will help me. I will have the space worthy of dying in, at last.
I had a stray thought last night that it had been a couple of weeks since I’d updated the blog and it was probably time. I checked my blog and saw that the last post was on April 8 and I had a little baby crisis of time – holy shit it had been almost a month! It was longer than I thought! I had better get on this. I resolved to make a post the next day when I woke up, and went to sleep. Now that I’ve opened up my blog to post a little something, I’m actually awake enough to do the math and realize it had been only 12 days. Hardly a month. Calm down, past me. We’re fine.
I have absolutely no concept of time anymore, apparently.
To be honest? I started losing it when I was officially unemployed. Whilst working, it was a key part of my job to be keenly aware of what day it was, what week it was and how it relates to the rest of the workweeks, what financial quarter we were in, even. After little time away from my job, the days kind of started to blend together. It does that when you’re unemployed. The days of the week are the first thing to cease meaning anything. Or more precisely, weekends are the first concept to go. Everyone else is celebrating because it’s finally Saturday and you’re here thinking… Yeah okay, and? The days of the week all blur together eventually. And then the months. There is no clear delineation anymore between the months of the year. January? That was like a week ago wasn’t it?
Quarantine, of course, has brought the entire world to that level. Except for the “essential workers” being martyred on the altar of capitalism, a lot of us simply don’t know what time it is anymore.
And let me tell you, that is a really weird way to live when you know for a fact your time on earth is limited. “Hurry up and wait” has taken on such a different meaning. As I touched on in previous posts, there’s a part of me that feels very much like I am wasting precious time by sitting here and doing nothing. And there is that part of me that thinks if I had a complete choice in the matter, sitting in bed petting my cat and playing on the Internet is pretty much what I’d be choosing to do anyway. So imagine that… with an underpinning of urgency. There are things I really need to have done, and soon, and they’re not getting done. Now, when I have all the time in the world until I suddenly don’t. I have a will to file. I have an inventory of all of my belongings to document and set up for disposition for after my death. Holy FUCK do I have a lot of belongings. I’ve been trying to buy a house for the last five years – I should probably be starting to think about packing up. (Moving. Yeah, that’s its own post.)
Of course I need to be a little kind to myself, and realize that my capability is limited. I’m not who I used to be, I can’t just get on a tangent and sort and refile all of my paperwork in an afternoon like I used to. I can’t just decide to reoragnize and pare down my cosmetics. I have the time, I just don’t have the ability anymore. Unfortunately, I do still have that inclination. And so many afternoons I sit here in bed looking around and thinking about all of the things that need to be doing that I could do if only my hands worked. It’s not like I’m being lazy and not getting things done, I just don’t have the capability to do them myself.
I also need to give myself a little bit of shit; because while it’s true that I cannot do these things myself, I have a whole lot of friends who would happily come over and help me do exactly those things. Friends who would happily hang out with me for little while and put my stickers into albums for me while we chit chat about everything and nothing. I had a friend come by and completely clean out and reorganize my pantry for me, therefore I know these people are available and willing, I just need to ask. And I am so very bad at asking.
Obviously right now quarantine doesn’t make asking for help possible. So I have the inclination, but not the ability, and not even the ability to call for help. My only possibility is to sit here, and feel time slipping away from me while none of this gets done. I have so much to do, and so much time to do it in, and I just can’t. Time and I have a very complicated relationship right now. Someday, sooner than I’d like to think, time will run out. And there’s nothing I can do about that. There will definitely be many things left undone. I am guaranteed to not have as much time as I think, much less as much time as I want.
So in the meantime, I spend my too much/not enough time petting my cats, and playing on the internets, and stressing about everything I still have to do. I think right now with quarantine, a lot of people are feeling some version of this. And we all need to be a little gentle with ourselves right now. A little forgiving. A little softer. Not all of it’s going to get done and were going to have to be okay with that. We are all in trauma response mode right now, and for me there’s a weird sort of calm that comes with this disaster pandemic. I feel like the playing field is little more even between the world and me. Like, a lot of people understand where I’m coming from now that simply didn’t have that capacity earlier. And we all sit, and wait, and feel like we should be doing something with our time and not doing that thing and feeling incredibly guilty for it when really? We shall be congratulating ourselves for just existing right now. Things are hard. Time is its own thing, and it’s going to do whatever the hell it wants to.
I hope regardless of what’s happening in your too much/not enough time, you’re being safe and being kind to yourselves. And patient with each other.
Yesterday began quite poorly. The tube going to my catheter’s drain bag popped out during the night, and apparently I slept hard enough I didn’t wake up until you could wring out my pajamas like a washrag. Thankfully I sleep with a mattress protector so it wasn’t a total disaster. Unfortunately my port is accessed right now, so I couldn’t take a shower and had to make do with washcloths and soapy hot water.
Fortunately I have a J. He’s more amazing than I could ever tell you and OH HOW I HAVE TRIED. He’s working from home, so he brought his work laptop over to monitor work requests and emails and changed out my bed. Best. Friend. Ever. While he was putting things through the wash, he asked me where a particular soap was.
“I don’t fucking know,” I told him, exasperated and in a bad mood. “Why would I know? I haven’t done laundry in TWO YEARS.”
The universe did a record scratch and the words turned to ash in my mouth.
“Thaaaaaaaaaaaat was not a happy thought,” I said quietly. A gross understatement. I haven’t done any real cleaning in my apartment in about two years. I can’t push a vacuum cleaner or wash a window. I can barely even wash my own hands. If I didn’t have my mother living with me to bring me food, I’d be screwed.
I know I am not just worth my productivity. I know I’m worth more than what job I can do, what tasks I can perform. But sometimes it’s so easy to forget. It’s easy to feel worthless when you have no tangible contribution to make. After a lifetime of hard-won self reliance, losing that control of my own destiny is a hard lesson I’m still learning.
And until I do learn – if I do learn – then every self-awareness moment like this is going to continue to punch me in the guts. All I can do is try not to let it under my skin so much when it does.
Meanwhile, I have a J to help me wash the sheets. Even if I don’t know where the soap is.
I came into the new year at a handicap – no pun intended. The holidays weren’t particularly kind, it feels a bit like I didn’t get a proper Christmas and with my Christmases so limited I really felt robbed. The new year was particularly rough. It was a prime chance to feel incredibly sorry for myself. Everyone was reflecting on the last decade, which forced me to do so as well, primarily reflecting on how much the last 10 years took from me. I lost my romantic partner. I lost my best friend. I lost my house. I lost my health. And then everyone started talking about the new decade, and all of the marvelous opportunities it was going to present, and I’m just sitting here thinking I don’t GET another 10 years. It is supremely unfair.
So yeah, not a great start. And then the world just conspired to keep everything as shitty as possible. The idiot in charge nearly started World War III with his playground bully behavior. Australia caught fire. And now this pandemic. Everything’s going wrong. It’s very easy to feel helpless and hopeless.
At the risk of sounding like a motivational poster though? I’m in a uniquely privileged position right now. Terminal diagnosis aside, I have a LOT to be grateful for. I’m very worried about COVID of course, but not in any immediate way. I know damn well with my already hindered breathing, catching it would basically be a death sentence. But I’m smart. I’m careful. Those people I physically interact with are also careful. I worry about it in a vague way, but all of the day-to-day concrete problems that are affecting most people aren’t touching me right now and I am incredibly grateful.
I don’t have to worry about losing my job, because I’m already medically retired. I don’t have to worry about keeping my job or finding a new one when this is all over. I don’t have a job to force me to interact with the public on the daily.
I don’t havr to worry about making my rent, because I’m on a fixed guaranteed income. Until they take away Social Security and disability benefits, I am secure financially. These stimulus checks everyone’s talking about would be nice if they happen? But I don’t NEED it in a strict sense. I have savings. Granted, they are earmarked to buy a house, but if things went seriously pear-shaped I can float us for six months. This pandemic has not been a financial hardship for me.
I don’t have to worry about cabin fever, because I’m an introvert by nature. I’ve always been self entertaining. Being pretty much bedbound for the last year or so has honed my skills to a sharp point. I have a lot of things to entertain myself with. Though of course now that I’m told I can’t socialize, I’ve been wanting to. I’m not an introvert or an extrovert apparently, I’m a jerkivert. I’m more like a cat than I thought; I do crave interaction but only on my own terms. And if you tell me I must remain away that’s when I want to be around. Meow.
I don’t have to worry about supplies, because I’m naturally the sort of person who buys groceries for 12 people even though there’s only two of us. Right before all this went down, I had bought a case of toilet paper and paper towels. There is food literally overflowing my pantry, I have a freezer outside in my storage unit chock-full of food. We are well stocked for a couple of months of absolute isolation if we had to be.
I don’t have to worry about emergency supplies either, because I have so many incredible people in my life who have made a point of asking me if I need anything. I’m already well acquainted with mail order, so that’s also been a blessing, but if I needed anything in emergency I can think of six people off the top of my head who would go get it for me. I am safe and secure and well positioned for whatever needs arise.
I don’t have to worry about a support network, because I already have the best one. We keep each other safe and protected and loved and secure. We do kind things for one another whenever we can, and I quite literally do not know how I would survive any of this without them. This includes you also, dear reader. I’m reminded time and time again that the kindness of strangers is a very real thing. You keep my faith in humanity alive. You give my optimism a serious reason to exist. There’s definitely precedent.
And so until – or IF it even happens – until myself or my loved ones contract the virus, this whole pandemic thing hasn’t fazed me, really. I’m in a good position to deal with this. I’m actually in a pretty good position to support others who are going through it, and that’s a massive blessing. Or stroke of luck. Or happy circumstance. However you want to view it. Things aren’t that bleak right now. It could have been so much worse for me. I’ve said it before, I will say it again, probably 100 or more times on this blog even – I am a very lucky woman.
I’m so fortunate to have what I have.
So how are you folks holding up? Anything I can do to help you?
Five years ago today, my life was split in two. My life B.C. (Before Crisis) and A.D. (After Diagnosis)
Five years ago I was told I was going to die. Pretty horribly. My prognosis wasn’t great. ALS typically kills you in 3 to 5 years. I had a feeling I had a few years – my progression was pretty slow. Six months after exhibiting any symptoms, I was still on my feet with no assistance, no degradation in my hands, breathing was excellent, swallowing and speech still perfect.
Only ten percent of people with ALS live longer than 10 years. I optimistically vowed to be among them. (….as if I have any control.)
It’s five years later, and I’m still doing pretty well, all things considered. I may make ten years yet, though I don’t think so, honestly. I’m definitely showing signs of wear. I can no longer stand, let alone walk, without assistance. When I try REAL hard, I can still sliiiiightly move the big toe of my left foot sometimes. My hands are near useless garbage meat noodles, my posture like a T.Rex . I can curl my fingers in but not flex them out, the only digits I still have some control over is my thumbs. I type with the knuckles of my index fingers. Bladder control is completely a thing of the past. My breathing is getting shitty, but it’s nothing I need assistance with, yet.
This last month, I’ve started to exhibit bulbar symptoms. Mannnnnnnnnnnnnn it’s hard to admit that. I’ve been biting my tongue in my sleep, but luckily I already had a night guard so it’s not a problem. No choking or drooling or slurring yet, but my tongue sometimes gets a little tired if I’m eating something really chewy or hard.
It’s not the end of me, but I’m starting to think I can see it from here.
Not sure I’ve got another five years, but I’m going to try like hell. I’m pretty confident I won’t make it to fifty years old. (..This disease sucks, man, don’t get it.)
I have outlived the average. Some folks don’t even get one year. I’ve gotten FIVE. So far. It’s been such a rare privilege to make friends with my own death, to know what’s coming and have a chance to plan for it. My employer had amazing benefits and was completely understanding. My friends, my circle, they have my back in ways I never would have dared to expect. I was already death positive and prepared to think about my own demise in very real ways. I am doing SO WELL, all things considered. I was positioned to handle this with some grace and lots of support.
This sucks, but it could have been so. much. worse.
Tonight, instead of mourning my life that won’t be, I can celebrate the life I’ve had so far. Old school – I’m throwing a freaking pizza party to mark beating the typical prognosis. It’s going to be great to be with my planets, to eat and have some laughs and be grateful for five years of life so far. A very full life containing an amazing cast, fantastic sets, a very interesting plot. I will have hopefully been a source of light for someone, a sliver of kindness, maybe a laugh or two. I have cool tattoos and cute cats and enough stickers to have my own boutique. I am eating delicious things with the best people.
When people ask how I’m doing, I tell them “so far, so good”.
And I really, truly mean it. My life, she don’t suck, you know?
Here’s to another five years. Let’s see where this road leads.
We pulled up to the parking lot, slid into the disabled spot, and J activated the ramp. (Common. Rote. Standard.) He unfastened all of the tiedowns connecting my chair to the vehicle, and stepped back so that I could navigate my exit. (As usual. Like always.)
This time however, we had a witness. I mean, we often have a witness – the van makes a lot of noise when it deploys the ramp and the sounds tends to attract gazes. This witness was just vocal. (Uncommon. Nonstandard. Weird.) Our witness that night was parked beside us and made herself known by exclaiming how wonderful the van was and how lucky I was to have it. It was so cool, she said, the way I could just drive my chair right up inside and park up front. I agreed with her, of course; commenting on the marvelous freedom it affords me, and we spoke for a little while about how it was important to me that I was able to ride alongside the driver seat and not have a rear entrance van – making me effectively cargo. We spoke also about the minor problems I have had with said van (this was before the brakes melted), about the lengths I went to in order to purchase it in the first place, but mainly we had a pleasant chat about the marvel of modern engineering that this man was and how much freedom it afforded me. She then turned to J, beaming, “and you’re so lucky to have a good husband to help you.”
…We get that a lot.
I didn’t correct her. We never do.
To be fair, he used to be my husband. Now he’s my best friend. Because of that, there is a very easy intimacy between us, a lack of distance that typically exists even with the closest friendships. He hugs me a lot, we have excellent non-verbal communication between us, and it’s easy for an outsider to mistake our relationship for that of a married couple. We live in a touch-starved society, and here is this guy who can so casually rub my shoulders or hold my hand when I am in an emotional crisis, who is cutting my food for me and escorting me everywhere, so OBVIOUSLY he must be my husband, right?
But yes, I agreed – I am so incredibly lucky to have him.
I am jealous of people who get diagnosed with ALS who have a spouse, if I’m being fair and honest with myself. Although intellectually I understand that no relationship is guaranteed, and sometimes marriages don’t last through a terminal disease, most of them do. Till death did they part. Having someone that intimate with you, that connected with you, and consistently present for you – I am so incredibly jealous of that. You have a built-in partner through all of this bullshit. Not a guaranteed slave at your beck and call or anything, but the security of having someone who will of course be there to fetch you a glass of water when you need it, to help you to the toilet when you’re at that point of helplessness.
((I absolutely know to the core of me that if I had been married when I was diagnosed, I would totally have given my partner the option to walk away forever and pursue a different life without dealing with me dying – even though I know there’s no way they ever would. Probably. I gave all of my friends the same option. Some of them took it, but most of them didn’t. Dealing with a terminal disease sucks for everyone.))
Even though your primary medical caregiver should never be your spouse, there is a lot of automatic care that is assumed with being married to someone with a complicated disease. I don’t have that built-in automatic assurance. I don’t have someone sleeping in the bed beside me who can help me turn over at 3 AM. I don’t have someone sharing the same space as me to whom I can turn for petty little things and I do not mind asking, because they are already around and the thing I need is so minor. Instead, I live with my blind mother who can’t tend to a lot of those stupid little things I’d like done, such as to open the window blinds for me or light a candle or move these five books to a different bookshelf. It’s kind of a major undertaking for her, and impossible for me. I can call her into the room to take a dish away, but I’m lacking someone who would be sitting beside me anyway and would automatically be taking my dish with his or hers. A built-in partner to help me navigate all the fuckery.
What I do have however, is this amazing human being who has stepped up to provide a lot of the day-to-day shit that needs doing, without needing to be asked. When my planned caregiver left me, J stepped in with no complaint and an easy grace. And I am very very lucky in that, since we used to be married, I am very comfortable with him and have a built-in intimacy that I simply don’t have with any of the rest of my friends. I’m not embarrassed at the end of the day when he drops me off at my apartment to ask him to unhook my bra for me before he leaves because it’s very simple for him to do, very very difficult for me to do, and the dude has seen me naked a lot so who even cares. Eventually I won’t have a choice but to develop the same intimacy with us a lot of people, be they friends or paid caregivers. But for now, he is the one I turned to when I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get out of bed to pee fast enough and suddenly needed someone to change my sheets. After I spent the rest of the night sleeping on a towel because it was 4am for fuck’s sake. I was embarrassed to ask, of course; it’s not an easy thing to tell another human being that you, a grown-ass woman, wet the bed last night so thank God for mattress protectors but could you please change my bed for me? But since he is my ex-husband, that intimacy already exists to a certain level (I mean, the man held a bloody barf bag for me after I had post-tonsillectomy nausea soooooooo everything else is easy-peasy after that, surely), and it was very organic for us to slide into this new development together. It is much easier to admit weakness to someone who has lived with you for 10 years and seeing you already go through some serious shit. We survived divorce; dealing with this terminal disease together is practically a piece of cake compared to that.
I am so lucky to have him.
I love him more than… Probably every other human being on this planet if I’m being honest. He is the best one.
As of this last Valentine’s Day, it was 10 years ago we were married. I’ve known him nearly 20. He is my best friend, my primary caregiver, my confidant, my buddy, my chauffeur, my personal assistant, my first and true love. I am a very, very lucky woman to have him in my life, to have been able to maintain this level of friendship even after our romantic relationship fell apart. I personally don’t understand being able to have an intimate relationship with someone for 10 years of your life, and then just walk away from it when that relationship goes wrong and never speak to that person again. It’s unfathomable to me. Literally no one on this planet knows me as well as he does. Not everyone can do that though, let go of the sense of failure and hurt and maintain a positive relationship afterwards. For me though, there was literally no other option. Even though the romance part of it didn’t work out, I love him to the ends of the earth and with every fiber of my being. That love is just different now.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that J is pretty neat. I like him a lot.
I just felt like I should state that for the record.
…First and foremost I apologize in advance, because this is going to get very exclamation point heavy and rambling. I can already tell. I know the gist of what I want to say, but not quite how I’m going to get there. I’ve spent a lot of the past four days completely speechless. In the best way. In a way I never thought possible.
So I guess I will start with reiterating that I am – and have always been, and almost to the level of naivety – an optimist. Even on my way to the appointment in which I was diagnosed with a terminal disease, I felt to my core that things are going to be okay. On my way home from that appointment, I still felt that way; although my definition of okay had changed. For all of my life, and especially for all of this shitty journey with this sucky disease, I knew – KNEW! – my tribe would rally when I needed them. My anxiety lies to me every day, and it lied so much harder and longer when I was younger about the tribe I had; or specifically, that I didn’t have the tribe I thought I did. I knew I was loved, of course, but my anxiety loves to tell me that I don’t have the level of love and support that I would like to think. Once I was diagnosed, that particular anxiety has fucked off forever because my faith in my tribe was swapped for concrete proof. People I didn’t even know very well showed up out of the woodwork to help. People it never even would have occurred to me would show up, did. In full force and with open hearts. When I had to leave my house and cram my life into a much smaller apartment, the core optimist in me knew I would have some help when I asked for it. Concrete proof arrived in the form of 14 friends showing up that day.
I am loved and I knew this. I am loved and you proved this.
I’ve kind of always been a mom friend. Caretaker. I considered it my job to make sure that my friends were okay, basing so much of my pride on my own self-reliance. I am the helper, not the helped. I knew I had people I could rely on for help, but I focused so much of my life and energy on proving to myself and to the world at large that I didn’t need them to. That has been the singular hardest part of this whole stupid disease so far. Admitting that I do in fact need them to. Will in fact increasingly rely upon them to. Will be completely unable to do anything by myself, at all, at some point. My life will become nothing but relying on other people. That’s been the worst part. Not losing my ability to walk, not being unable to control something so basic as my bladder, not losing my job, but knowing that I am going to be completely, utterly helpless. My strongest personality trait, my core sense of identity and pride, taken from me. It’s suuuuuuuuuper shitty.
In the early days of my diagnosis, I had Danielle. Thanks to her, in the early days I didn’t have to ask for anything because she asked on my behalf. We both knew that everything about this disease was going to be expensive, and she set up a CrowdRise fundraiser on my behalf. She organized my garage sale amazingly. Seriously, we had complete strangers complementing how well organized that sale was. It was really pretty amazing and made me a fair bit of money. Money used for moving expenses, and then lawyers fees, and then we stashed the rest away for the next inevitable crisis. Eventually CrowdRise kind of went defunct and became nonprofit only, and that account got closed. Over the last year or so, a few people have asked what happened to it because they had wanted to donate and were unable to. I could never quite bring myself to reopen that account because it was… You know, asking for help. It was something I always meant to do, and knew I probably would someday, I just needed to ask for help with it.
HAHAHAHA ASK FOR HELP. HOO-BOY.
Six days ago on Facebook, I made a post about these amazing mourning bracelets I found online. In the post I said that I was budgeting to hand these out at my funeral. And I am! Because they are amazing and important and you should totally check out that link. But in the comments for that post, along with many of my friends agreeing that the idea was amazing and awesome and worthy, a friend I’ve known forever mentioned again that I really ought to have some kind of fundraiser going. I’m budgeting for my own funeral, and they would like to help. Several friends chimed in to agree. My amazing friend Megan, who had taken over the account from Danielle when that relationship broke apart, hit me up to ask what I would like to do about it. She was happy to set a new one up for me, but she’s in Seattle and I’m in Portland and she would feel much better if the account were handled by someone locally. Which makes a lot of sense; I agreed with her that if some disaster were to befall me (like, as I explained to J later, my van breaking down and suddenly needing hundreds of dollars in repairs, for instance) I would need money right away and couldn’t necessarily wait for a bank transfer.
(In retrospect, I jinxed the fuck out of myself with that one, huh?)
We looked at local laws, and disability regulations, and Medi-Cal requirements and came to the conclusion there was really no reason for anyone to handle any aspect of the account but me. So, Sunday I went about resurrecting an old bank account that had sat idle since my mortgage payments. That took a lot of doing, as they’d put a hold on the account for lack of use, and apparently I had not changed my address with that bank and they have been happily charging me five dollars a month since April 2016 because my mailing address was wrong. Even though my account is paperless? And literally has always been? And they made no effort to call or email me to tell me they were charging me for having the wrong address for all the shit they’re not mailing me anyway? I’m in the middle of arguing with them about that one. Banks suck. Regardless, the account was now open and free to use, all I had to do was set up the actual Gofundme and post a link somewhere.
Yep. All I had to do.
So easy, right?
Just… Create the account. Post a link.
Ask for help.
And you know, that’s probably where it would still be sitting if my van hadn’t blown the fuck up. On my way home Monday night in the back of a medical transport unit, unaware if my van was going to require $200 or $2000 worth of repairs, or if it was repairable at all, I knew I had to set up the fund. That night. So I did. I created the fund, updated the link here on my blog, and then posted a link to it on my Facebook page with the words “Okay. It’s set up. Do whatever you like with this information. <3 I love you.”
Within one hour, I had three donations and 18 shares.
Within 24 hours, I was halfway to the arbitrary goal of $5000 I had set. I bumped it up to $7000. 24 hours later, I was halfway to that, too. Within an hour, I had my first donation containing triple digits. In three days, I was getting donations from complete strangers because my friends had shared the link. Yesterday, a very good friend I’ve made through a perfume decanting group of all things shared the link in that group, generating at least five donations just from that. Several friends with birthdays this month shared the link with their friends and family asking for donations on my behalf instead of birthday presents. (seriously you guys should have held out for a pony or something) Relatives of my friends who have heard my friends speak highly of me have donated. As it is right now, the generosity of my friends has netted me over $4000 and 450 shares.
In only five days.
This. This is where the exclamation points are about to happen. This is where the proof versus faith happened. I knew I would probably get some help once I was bold enough to ask for it. But this.
I’m not the sort of person who happy cries much. In fact, every single time I have done, has been directly because of some show of grace and generosity and love related to this disease. The kindness and love of my friends has brought me such emotional satisfaction and security, the likes of which I never would have known had it not been for this stupid disease. My faith said that if my life should turn to shit, my friends would have my back. Circumstances have proven that faith accurate and just – time and time again. But this.
This is been so much more than I ever could have anticipated in my most optimistic of dreams.
I could fill the rest of this blog for all time with just the phrase “THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!” over and over and over, and it would hardly be sufficient to express my gratitude. My love. My faith, absolutely justified. My awe at having so many amazing people in my life. My feeble attempts to somehow live up to all of the amazing and kind things people have said about me in their shared posts.
This is my blog, but tonight I lack proper words to put in it.
My life is so fucking magical.
Thank you all so much for your love, your generosity, your jokes, your grace, your friendship, your very existence in my orbit.
That’s it. I don’t have any clever way to wrap this up. I will now resist the temptation to copy paste “THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!” a million times.
Today started early. I had a 9:45 AM appointment in Portland, and if you don’t think that’s early clearly you are not familiar with my 3 AM standard bedtime these days. I tried going to sleep at a sane hour, but my overly active brain had other ideas. In fact, my 4 AM conversation with body and brain almost resulted in its own blog post; I just knew that if I got up to write it I wouldn’t get any sleep at all. And I need sleep. I like sleep. Even before all this nonsense, it was my favorite hobby. ALS just gave my lazy ass an air of legitimacy.
I have recently made a crucial step and actually have started asking my friends for help. I know, I know! I was just as impressed as you are with myself. It was not at all an easy thing, as you can well imagine – especially if you know me. But I have doctors appointments to get to, and J is amazing but cannot be my sole source of transportation – particularly when I own the van and it doesn’t actually need to be him driving it. So I had put out an all call on my friends list for someone to come drive, and my friend Matt stepped up for today. Matt is also the storyteller for my Wednesday games, and as mentioned before is an all around good guy and excellent person to have in your corner. As we were driving to my appointment this morning, talking about video games and commercials and marketing and the abyssmal real estate market, the van’s brake warning light came on. It had done before, and usually came on and went off seemingly randomly, and we had previously resolved the problem by simply topping up the brake fluid. It it started doing this again recently, and despite repeated mental notes to ourselves, we had just failed to get more fluid in it yet. I wasn’t terribly worried. It didn’t seem like that big a deal.
…You can probably see where this post entry is going, yes?
By the time we were done with my appointments, and filled the gas tank, and got home, I’d forgotten all about it. That afternoon was my biweekly therapy appointment, which J was available to drive me for. As we were driving the 20 some odd miles to my therapist, the warning light came on and stayed on. And then, halfway there as we stopped on the freeway for a traffic snarl, there was a God awful smell of burning rubber and when we looked behind us, a bit of smoke. We weren’t entirely sure it was my van? But the presence of the smell and the light made us resolved to put more fluid in the van as soon as humanly possible. For some stupid reason we had taken the brake fluid out of my van and brought it into my apartment, so simply pulling over and adding more fluid wasn’t an option at the moment. Traffic started moving again, then came to a crawl again, and as J put the brakes on, more smoke. Something was obviously not right in a big way.
Fun fact! I have a debilitating phobia of breaking down on the freeway. When I was really little, our car broke down at night on the freeway and I remember vividly my father moving around outside the car trying to figure out what was wrong, while traffic screamed by us in the dark and I just knew in my little kid brain that any second now some car was going to hit him and splatter him up all across our vcar. I shook in terror waiting for my father to die. He did not, of course, but ever since then, any time there is a slight possibility of something going wrong with the vehicle I am in, it creates an instant panic attack. That’s the problem with phobias. There’sno reasoning with them.
Jay was talking, making plans of dropping me off for my appointment and then going to some auto parts place to get more brake fluid and I would make an appointment the next day to take the van in for proper repairs. I didn’t really hear him over the blood pounding in my ears, and my brain was already busy trying to figure out what to do when I vomited any second now. And then we got off the freeway, and I felt safer for a split second until Jay told me that the brakes weren’t responding properly. I just needed to get the van safely somewhere, and then…
… And then, what exactly?
My van is not exactly easily interchangeable with another vehicle. It is a proper medical device. Ever since I got the fucking thing I have been paranoid about getting into an accident because it is not going to be simple and easy to replace it. And if something should happen while I am away from home, I am completely screwed. Stranded. If I were in a manual wheelchair I can get into normal car, but the SS Opportunity weighs 400 pounds without me in it and is a God damn behemoth in her own right. I can’t just get another vehicle. I can’t just call a taxi for a ride home, anymore.
That uneasy feeling turned into outright fear when we parked in the lot of my therapist and the smoke just kept coming. I couldn’t see anything on fire outright, but something was smoking in the rear passenger wheel well and I literally did not know what to do about it. I texted my little brother – because let’s face it – that’s what I always do when I have a car problem because what the fuck even are cars they are magical beasts whose language I do not speak. Not only does my little brother speak cars, he is a professional tow truck driver so even in the worst situation he can bail me out. And has, in fact – when Jay got sideswiped by a probable drunk driver on Christmas in 2017 and the driver took off, it was Justin who went out to get him and help him figure out the next steps. When my brake error light initially came on, it was Justin who told me what to do about it. So when he didn’t immediately respond, and some minutes passed and smoke was still rising from somewhere in my van’s guts, and I wasn’t sure what we would do if we started seeing flames, I called him. He had been taking a nap and listened very patiently while his sister panicked at him over the phone about cars and smoke and I don’t know what to do. He told me to hang tight and he was on his way because he is my hero.
He was some minutes away, and so I went ahead and went inside and had my session with my therapist which was now all about my current crisis. J stayed outside to wait for Justin, and would come interrupt the session when my little brother got there. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I wasn’t sure what I even could do. Even if he could tow it somewhere, what the fuck was I going to do in my wheelchair and 20 miles from home? Again. You can’t exactly call a taxi.
After my 45 minute session, we went outside to find my little brother arrived in his giant tow truck, lights flashing, working on my van. Because again, hero. J came over and explained what had gone down so far, which is that Justin had pried the tire off the side of my van and had a look inside and formulated some theories. Apparently the brake line was leaking somewhere, as the inside of the tire was coated with fluid, and the passenger side rear brake had had to do all the work by itself and so had heated up red-hot and started smoking and had finally in the 34° weather cooled down to an oxidized white. He was going to tow the van to Les Schwab, and drop off the keys for them to take a look at in the morning, as they were closed by now. He offered to load me up in the van and transport me in it as he transported the van, but that was of course in his own words “illegal as fuck”. And you know, dangerous.
So we had a plan for the van, but I was still effectively stranded in Lake Oswego. My local public transportation service Tri-Met has a wheelchair transport service, but it’s the sort of thing where you have to get a special ID to qualify for it, and you schedule your pickups in advance and allow for a two hour window. The Lyft app on my phone has a wheelchair accessibility feature I had discovered some time ago, but I had literally no idea how that even worked. It was apparently time to find out. I requested a wheelchair lift, and the app cheerfully told me my ride would arrive in 45 minutes. After a moment it updated to 15 minutes. My ride was going to be courtesy of a local ambulance company, please look out for a white medical transport vehicle, license plate blah blahb blah. And just over 15 minutes later, fuck me if a wheelchair transport van didn’t pull up. It had totally worked.
We finalize things with my little brother to drop off my van, and for me to expect a call from the mechanic in the morning with an estimate before any work would be done. The wheelchair transport vehicle was a fucking sweet ride, the driver was completely awesome, and I found out that wheelchair accessible Lyft requests get priority even over his company’s scheduled patients because they are fully aware anyone desperate enough to need a wheelchair ride without a plan beforehand is obviously going through hella circumstances. And so I got a ride quickly, and my ride ended up costing me 10. Fucking. Dollars.
Not only that, but my driver was an hourly medical transport driver and so I didn’t even have to tip him. I asked if I could, and he refused.
SOOOOOOOOO in review, my peesashit van broke down today, after standard business hours, in a very dramatic way. And yet, I have an amazing brother who was able to rescue the van and provide me with the next steps, and then I was able to get safely home for a very little amount of money. And I learned that Lyft access is absolutely a viable transport option now. I am home safe and warm with useful information and a solid plan. I have another appointment tomorrow which I’m going to have to cancel, and when I contacted my friend who had offered to drive me for that appointment and told her I needed to cancel and why, she told me her brother is an actual mechanic and as is actually not very far for me. So even after I get the brakes repaired, I have a plan to contact him and get my van checked over thoroughly to make sure I am not going to have any more nasty surprises coming up. Tonight things completely went to shit, and then the universe conspired perfectly to make things as best and as smoothly as possible. Everything could have been so much worse. I could have been completely stranded in Lake Oswego waiting hours and hours in near freezing temperature for a wheelchair transport taxi service to find time to come get me. I have a AAA account so I would have gotten the car towed regardless, but I literally would not have known where to take it. And we could have been waiting for hours for them to have the time to show up also. Instead my brother was there in minutes. With a plan. And a free tow.
Repeating in my head tonight is my favorite quote from painter Bob Ross, who explained light and shadow theory in painting with a profound slice of life advice.
You need the dark, in order to show the light.
My life is as bright as the fucking sun, and it is only these moments of absolute panic and misery that prove it to me. I am fortunate beyond compare. Even when things are chaos around me, the universe conspires to take care of me in a perfect way because of the people I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by. In my most dire circumstances, I am never alone and never without hope.
I received a happy box in the mail yesterday! Something very cool was inside of it and I wanted to tell you about it.
Occasionally, I get random happy packages from certain friends. My friend Jim particularly, he sends me random boxes of completely bizarre things that he finds and thinks of me. Anything from Pez dispensers that have no head, to creepy little trinkets he finds in thrift stores, to snippets he cut out of a magazine. Lots of chicken related things. I adore getting random packages in the mail. I think everyone does, really. Something like 10 years ago, I did a happy box exchange in which I invited my friends to participate, and I sent out a box full of things that made me happy to each of them. I burned CDs of music that I like, made little packets of cake sprinkles and stickers, made happy little finger puppets from IKEA into refrigerator magnets. I included a note on everything to explain what it was and why it made me happy. Why it was important to me to include in that particular box. The idea was for it to be in exchange, and once they had received my package, they would send me a box of what made them happy back. Not everyone sent me a box back, but many did (with a couple notable people going way, way overboard above and beyond), and I adored every single one of them. Satou-chan was one of those who reciprocated (in spades).
I’ve known her for many, many years. She’s one of the very first people I ever met online and forged a real-life friendship with. We bonded over a common love of Japanese culture, writing, and a particular manga called Fushigi Yuugi. I flew all the way from Oregon to Atlanta, Georgia to attend my very first anime con with her and Holly, our other anime obsessed writer friend. It remains one of my happiest memories. I’m grateful every day that we kept in touch. She wound up moving to Arizona, and I was lucky enough to be sent there for work sometimes, and on one happy occasion we were able to sync our schedules and meet up in person again. That, also, is one of my happiest memories.
Satou-chan just sent me happy box.
She had texted me to let me know it was coming, and to confirm my address, and to apologize for the length of time it’d been since we last spoken. I truly wasn’t worried about that last thing, because communication works both ways and I’m just as guilty about not keeping in touch. I honestly don’t get offended when people go long periods of time without contacting me, because I am absolutely awful at it myself. My most cherished friendships are the ones in which I usually don’t speak to them for months, sometimes even years at a time, and when we do pick up it’s right back where we left off like no time at passed at all. My friendship with her is one of them.
Inside the box were many truly happy things. Including one of the most amazing cards I have ever seen in my entire life – it was a paper craft tray of sushi. Inside, she’d written all sorts of almost embarrassingly praising words, letting me know how much she cherished me and my friendship. The sushi card was because one of her favorite memories was of our Ariona hangouts and going to sushi together. I won’t lie; I totally cried. She also sent me stickers, because duh, and some happy fairy sparkly things, a glorious pair of socks, and probably the sweetest children’s book I have seen in forever. She said it was her favorite, and it reminded her of our friendship. (Yeah, I cried reading that, too.) Everything in the box was wrapped in tissue paper, separate little packages for me to unwrap and reveal surprises within. Every little packet had a note on it, explaining why she was giving me that particular thing, or what was on her mind when she bought it, or simply “This box contains tiny dinosaurs. I am sending them with love. <3 “
I loved every single gift, every single note, every single thought.
But the one that stood out the most, and the one that is probably my favorite thing in this whole entire box, was the note attached to a little bundle of things like lip balm, a keychain, and a little (freaking ADORABLE) notepad: “So… I realized early on that a lot of the stuff I bought for your happy box might be hard for you to use. (One reason I didn’t send.) Then I realized I had no business deciding that for you, and decided to send them anyway.”
And THAT, my friends, is how you be a fucking ALLY.
J likes rabbits. A very specific rabbit aesthetic, mind you. Get those Hallmark Easter bunnies out of here. Victorian rabbit dolls, like The Velveteen Rabbit, Albrecht Dürer’s Hare wood cut. When I see these kinds of rabbits, I think of him. If it’s something online, I share it with him through Facebook or text message. When I see these kinds of rabbits, I think of him and smile.
My brother Gecko likes birds. When I see something funny related to birds, I think of him. I forward bird jokes, and bird memes. When I see something funny about birds, I think of Gecko. Birds make me happy, because they make him happy.
Danielle liked manatees. I mean – I imagine she still does. She likes them because they were chubby and round and adorable. When I see something about manatees, I think about Danielle. I can’t share those things with her though; she’s no longer in my life. When I see things I know she would enjoy, I am reminded of her absence, and it hurts a little even though I like that thing. I enjoy manatees a little more than I might have otherwise, because they made her happy and I loved seeing her happy. But now they also make me a little sad because they remind me of her, and she’s no longer around and seeing manatees makes me miss her.
Sometimes I wonder what associations people have with me, and what sort of currently happy things will become bittersweet once I’m dead. Marshmallow Peeps, I’m pretty sure. Stickers and things with googly eyes maybe. Mister Rogers. Probably all of the things that people currently forward to me on Facebook and email, silly little jokes and references that make them think of me and smile; and knowing I would enjoy them also, send them along.
Sometimes I think about the time that will come, when there will be that thing that reminds someone of me, and I won’t be here to forward that thing to. Some cool fact, or happy little thing that someone will want to share with me, but they can’t. Because I will be dead. When some currently goofy thing becomes bittersweet.
What happy things I am going to taint with my absence?
It’s a pretty fucked up legacy, ruining something quintessentially silly. To be able to fuck up stickers for somebody. Stickers, for fuck’s sake. Happy little adhesive pictures. Someday, someone is going to be at a craft store minding their own business, and their eyes will wander to a happy display of delightful little sticky images, and they’re going to get really sad. Because they know how much I love them. Loved. It’s a completely ridiculous thought. An adhesive cartoon octopus is going to have the power to make someone cry.
We don’t truly possess the power to control how we are remembered. We can only try to steer the shape that our selves create in someone’s memory. A vague outline, to be filled in with the colors of experiences and emotions and perceptions beyond our control. I hope to be remembered first and foremost as kind. Death positive. My almost unhealthy obsession for cats, Mr. Rogers, stickers, googly eyes, nature documentaries, Halloween, spiders, cartoons, marshmallow Peeps, swearing, Bob Ross, Skyrim, Pokemon Go, etc etc etc etc notwithstanding, I really hope kindness and death positivity are the first things people think of when they think of me. I’m okay with those two things being a little bittersweet. I’m comfortable with someone coming across an article about green burials and thinking how much I would’ve approved and appreciated it and getting a little bit sad that they can’t hit that forward button.
Those other things, though, are all really happy things and I hope my death doesn’t ruin them too much. At least, not for very long. Marshmallow peeps have no business being maudlin. Sometimes I almost regret liking shit that is so silly, so fervently, because the thought of an adorable cartoon bat making someone tear up a little is really fucking depressing. It instead would make me very happy to think that someday one of my friends is going to slap a sticker on their laptop and think fondly of me without sadness coming in and fucking it up. Because stickers are awesome.
Obligatory 2018 retrospective post coming right up!
This last year seemed particularly unkind. I honestly can’t recall another year in my life in which I was so tightly wound, all the time. My stupid disease actually seemed like the least of my worries. I distinctly recall thinking on many occasions, “please can this bullshit be over so that I can just focus on actually dying?” Our current political climate was a massive source of stress, every day, all the time. I had set up filters for my Facebook and other social media to automatically purge all mention of that asshole currently terrorizing us via the White House just to maintain some shred of sanity. Even still, it intruded too much of my reality, too often. I lost entirely too much sleep just panicking on behalf of those I love, and myself, and total strangers. Too many nights spent in abject fear as I watched my country descend into absolute fascism. In our last session together, my therapist actually told me that his wish for me in the coming year is to stop giving a shit. I can do literally nothing about any of this, and I would be so much happier if I could just let it go.
But then, he conceded, if I did somehow managed to pull it off he wouldn’t even know who the hell I was.
January I got my new wheels. She is named the SS Opportunity, because even before I get in that chair it weighs almost 400 pounds, and so if you do not get out of my way when I am in it you will have an opportunity to experience being in a wheelchair for yourself. I didn’t start using the chair right away, primarily because I had no real way to transport myself and the chair to places I needed to be. I needed a wheelchair van first. I also got a new boss at work, my sixth in 10 months. He came with a bold set of new ideas and new plans and promptly set about firing all of my techs and replacing them with new guys. It’s a given at that company that every time there is a new leader, they have to put their fingerprint on everything. It was a lot of shakeup and stress I really didn’t need.
February was particularly ugly. There was a very abrupt end to a very young life that fucked with me more than I can tell you. It’s not my business to tell you. I questioned a lot of things. My mom had a heart attack. Fuck February. The end.
March. I had my first clinic day of the year, my hands were officially decreed garbage as they registered nothing at all on the grip test. My estranged father, whom I had not spoken to or heard anything about in 20 years, died. I paid for his cremation. That’s all I have to say about that. Stephen Hawking died, and so ALS lost its one celebrity.
April was my fourth Sadiversary. I also had my 43rd birthday. We road tripped to Arizona to buy a wheelchair van, because they averaged five to $10,000 cheaper there. The road trip was entertaining, we learned a lot about how ADA regulations are apparently just a suggestion in Arizona, and no one who writes the rules actually has any fucking idea what it’s like to be in a wheelchair. Spoiler alert: a grip bar behind the toilet is absolutely useless and in it self does not make for an accessible bathroom. The van was at the mechanics within the month for a door closing issue. However, thanks to having the van I was able to start taking the SS Opportunity to work. She makes everything not only easier, but sometimes possible at all. I had gotten used to doing without a drink at work, or waiting until I was nearly peeing my pants to use the bathroom and planning what else I could do while I was up, because of the effort required to do those things with the walker. With the chair, I could just… Get up and go whenever I wanted. Wherever I wanted. It’s kind of nice to be able to put in a full day’s work and still have a little bit left of energy at the end of the day. I had forgotten what that was like.
May was blissfully uneventful.
In June, I put in notice at work. I lost a lot of sleep over that decision, and popped more Ativan than I’m probably comfortable admitting. My manager was kind of the opposite of devastated, which cemented in my brain it was absolutely the right decision to make. I gave him almost 3 months notice, and set to work making sure I did everything I could to keep the wheels at my job turning after I left. I was asked many many times why I bothered, and towards the end I started asking myself the same question. I freely admit though, to enjoying heaping spoonfuls of schadenfreude (I am fucking amazed that this program knows schadenfreude) when the CEO of that company was ousted for unethical behavior. I watched an amazing, very positive and life-affirming concert, and a burlesque show. June was pretty all right.
July saw me making official announcements to coworkers about leaving, and many many things happening at work that cemented it was a great idea to be leaving now. Which is not to say that I didn’t obsess and stress and freak out about it anyway. So much of your identity is tied into what you do for living, and I had – am having – a really hard time letting that go. The world at large collectively lost its shit over plastic straws. It had been quite a long time since I had seen so much ableist garbage on my newsfeed, so I guess we were overdue. I spent a good chunk of time educating idiots on exactly why plastic straws are a literal lifesaving device. I also got the bill for my wheelchair this month, and was eternally grateful yet again for the health insurance my job provides. I could have bought a very, very nice car for what this thing cost. I got angry again that the insurance company does not consider the lift feature to be necessary when they refused to pay for it. Still, I’m very glad I opted in for that anyway. I use it probably every time I sit in that chair, and it makes everything so much easier. It’s rather nice to be able to look people in the face when you’re talking to them; you really do become invisible when you sit in a chair. If you’re not eye-level, people forget about you.
August was when I stopped actually reporting to work. August 31 was my last official day, with three weeks of vacation to follow. So much angst. August was also when Jillian happened at me with her rotten cabbage juice bullshit. It takes a lot for me to get that angry. It was nothing however, compared to the anger of all y’all. That was a delicious thing to behold. I am grateful for you every day. I will never, ever doubt that you all have got my back.
September was the end of my working career for reels. It still doesn’t seem like a thing that genuinely happened. I had my last clinic day of the year, and my breathing was officially rated problematic. So that was fun. I had a team walk with me in the ALS Association’s walk to defeat ALS, and that was a very uplifting experience. As usual. And again, if I ever had any doubt that I have a tribe that supports me, that doubt is gone. I am loved and supported, and I will never forget that.
In October, I gave a death positive talk at an art show. It is probably one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. I’m genuinely proud of what I wrote for that show, and hopefully I convinced some people to fill out their advanced directive. Death positivity continues to become a mission in what’s left of my life. Halloween is my favorite season of the year, and we did a whole lot of celebrating and shopping and buying delightfully useless decor and stuffed animals. October is also Jay’s birthday, and I simply don’t have words to convey how important that man is in my life, and how grateful I am that he remains my best friend and my strongest ally and my chief supporter. I literally do not know what I would do without him.
November. Elections. Just… So much. I don’t think I really slept at all in November. It was the start of a pretty serious slide into depression that I am still fully immersed in. Hence my silence. Having nothing to do is waiting very heavily on me, but I also don’t really have the energy to do anything specifically. I’m not ready yet to look for volunteer work or anything. I bought a new laptop. That was pretty cool.
December has been spent desperately attempting to make something of what my brain has fixated on as my last proper Christmas. Also be around for the next one, but my hands won’t be able to open presents, or wrap gifts, or bake a fruit cake. Leaving my bed much less my apartment has become an ordeal. I fully realize a lot of that is the depression talking. But most days, things seemed pretty dark. Because they are. I have a terminal disease, and sometimes I just can’t find that sense of humor about it. Most days I can. Some days, it’s even actively hilarious.
Today marks the new year. Even if I die in the next five minutes, there is one number higher on how long I’ve lived. I have no fucking idea what the coming year brings. All I know for sure is there are a couple of concerts I have tickets to. In September, my short-term disability runs out. I really, really, really hope I have a permanent place to live by then. At some point during the new year there will be a post all about that I’m sure. Meantime, I have some eggnog and some snacks and a warm bed and very cute cats and no plans to do anything tomorrow but sleep and play video games. Can’t complain. I will take 2019 as it comes, and simply pray that it is kinder to me than last year was. I hope that for all of us.
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.
When I was very young, barely old enough to even know what death was, I saw a show on PBS about the (still very new to the public at the time) AIDS epidemic. I don’t remember anything else about the show, but there was one segment that stuck with me for the rest of my life.
A man, in a hospital gown, sitting in a wheelchair. He was emaciated, very clearly capital-D-Dying. And he made eye contact with the camera, and then sang a very jaunty song about his own, very eminent demise from the disease. I remembered clearly three things: that it was basically about why you should be kind to him as he was going to die soon (particularly a phrase “forgive me when I’m mean”), a quirky little instrumental break during which he tap danced while sitting in his wheelchair, and the chorus phrase “cause I’ve got less time than you”.
And it stayed with me. I was…let’s see when this was released….ooh. I was 13. I remember clearly thinking that the song was funny, and not being sad for him at all, even though I knew he was going to die, and I knew that he knew it, too. The emergent Spooky Kid in me delighted in how morbid the whole thing was, and i loved the twisted sense of humor, but what resonated with me 30 years later was not the morbidity. I actually admired him for knowing that he was going to die, and having made peace with that, he was able to be so forthright with his needs. Since he knew there was literally nothing he could do about it, he decided to have such a wicked sense of humor about the whole thing. It was a quiet, desperate, dare you not to look away from it strength. LOOK AT ME, I AM DYING AND THERE IS NOTHING ANYONE CAN DO. NOW LAUGH WITH ME. He saw his own pending demise, and owned it. I wanted to be like that, too, if I could. Strong, unafraid, and funny.
The image of the tap-dancing dying man never left me, and indeed after my diagnosis, any time I prioritized my own needs over those of someone with a muddier, less terminal future, the chorus would pop into my head. I justified inconveniencing people (whether they actually felt inconvenienced or not was irrelevant to my broken brain) with a jaunty internal chorus of “cause I’ve got less time than you”.
I finally remembered to look for it online, not really expecting to find it. It was (exactly!) 30 years ago, pre-internet, and all I had to go on was “man in wheelchair AIDS song less time than you”. But I did find it. It took some doing to find an actual video (especially one that wasn’t an impossible-to-understand audience recorded live version), but my Google-fu is strong. His name was Rodney Price, and he died two weeks after filming this. He is my role model to aspire to while dying today, and he was my very first Death Positive Hero.
((I suppose I should be grateful. Instead of spending all day freaking out about tomorrow being my last day of work ever, I spent all day in a blind seething rage. It was a nice distraction, I guess, from the depressing AF thoughts that would otherwise have occupied my thoughts today. I knew halfway through this whole thing that 1) I was definitely going to blog about this, and 2) it was going to contain ALL OF THE SWEARS. You are hereby warned about ALLLLLLLLL of the swearing and anger contained in the following post.))
Today I am going to tell you about Jillian Mai Thi Epperly.
Maybe you’ve heard of her. If you haven’t, well, you’re in for a video treat in a moment. If you have, then this is NOT going to be the rant you expect. Oh no, it’s so much worse.
I met Jillian in fifth grade, at Faria Elementary School in Cupertino, California. She is one of the few girls I remember, because she was one of the few kids who actually was my friend back then. I was very strange little kid, and thanks to my genetic mutation I looked strange as well, and kids are horrible little monsters, so I didn’t really have a lot of friends. She was one of the few who actually spoke to me on a regular basis. I think we bonded a little bit, back then, because she was a super Asian kid with a white girl name, and I was a white girl with the super Middle Eastern name, and we just didn’t match peoples’ expectations. So we kind of matched each other.
She found me on Facebook a few years back. It was ..really strange to hear from her. She asked if I remembered her? Of course I did. You don’t forget a Vietnamese girl with a name like Jillian, especially when she was one of the few people who was ever nice to you in grade school. She said she remembered me, because when we were kids I had told her that the strange weather we were having was a result of El Niño. She told me she always thought that was the funniest thing. I was a little confused at that remark, since um…yeah, El Niño totally WAS the cause of a lot of weird weather we’d had? Why was a huge storm affecting weather patterns so funny, I don’t get it? But okay. I accept your friend request. I quickly learned that Jillian had become a rabid anti-vaxxer, and quickly blocked her from appearing in my feed but remained friends with her and honestly…kind of forgot about her. This was a couple of years ago, and I was a lot more generous and patient towards anti-vaxxers and pseudo-scientists back then. (Not anymore. SERIOUSLY VACCINATE YOUR FUCKING CHILDREN YOU GODDAMNED MORONS. PEOPLE ARE DYING OF PREVENTABLE FUCKING DISEASES WE HAD ALL BUT ERADICATED. WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU.)
In my personal Facebook, I chronicle bits and pieces of this ALS bullshit journey, and post a link anytime I update this blog. Overall though, I purposely try to keep my Facebook page very light because the world at large is a fucking depressing place and I will drive myself crazy if I talk about nothing but politics and everything that makes me angry. So instead, every month I choose a theme and post related pictures. Usually it involves some kind of pun like Janusweary, with pictures containing foul language, or Gaypril, pictures of LGBT+ positive images. This month’s theme is Awwwgust, and I’m posting lots of pictures of adorable things.
This morning I posted an adorable picture of a kitten that looks for all of the world like it is smiling. It had not been posted for five minutes when I got two comments from Jillian (after not interacting with her for months and months, mind you). The first was link to her website, with a…sort of unhinged screed containing a lot of marketing language along the lines of “Are you tired of the cycle of dependence on drugs, supplements, and herbs spending thousands and thousands of dollars and you are still not feeling better 100%? ” I sighed inwardly, it was a lot of marketing babble clearly trying to sell me on whatever snake oil she was passionately involved in and wanted to evangelize about. The second comment, though, was this: “Remember I told you I’d find something for you well I created a protocol that could give you the opportunity to reverse your condition and I hope you’re open enough to read my book or at least my website before you buy the book”
I just sort of…stared at the screen for a second. Did she just…?
Really? This is what’s happening?
I typed up a reply, deleted it, started to retype, and just…got…so ANGRY. I debated deleting her comments and blocking her for real and moving on with my life, but I am emotionally fried right now for obvious reasons and I was feeling petty as fuck and..kiiiinda wanted to see my friends happen at her. So I allowed her comments to stay, and let them let her have it. And they did, in spades, because I know some VERY SMART and VERY SNARKY people who, as it turns out, are very, very protective of me, and took great delight in dragging her ass, but that’s not what this post is about.
((I love my friends so much I can’t even tell you.))
I decided to respond before anyone else could, though, juuuuust in case I was misunderstanding. The comment I eventually settled on was, “…you’re seriously trying to *sell* me something you think might cure my terminal disease? What predatory fuckery is that??”
And then my friends were all up ons, having a fucking FIELD DAY with her, and that’s when I found out that she was actually a little bit of A Big Deal in the pseudo-science community with tens of thousands of followers in a self-described (!!) “poop cult” and had appeared on Dr. Phil to defend her aforementioned “protocol” cure. Now, I’m not here to talk about her miracle cure “protocol” of fermented salt water and cabbage. That’s not at all what this post is about, and aLOTofotherpeoplehavealreadyexpoundedonthatsubject. Each of those words is a different link that will open in a new window. Enjoy that light reading for later, if you feel like it. Though I WILL include this video link right here for you to watch:
((That man is very smart, and swears like a sailor, and is my new best friend. Because he is smart and swears, yes, and we have the same Bob Ross shirt.
His videos are Good Stuff, but his research on Jillian is amazing.))
Her response was, “Wow vashti wow all I’m trying to do is help you out because of your condition knowing what you’re dealing with but that’s fine if you don’t want to have an opportunity that’s fine you can stay sick and let your friends keep you sick good luck to you” and then, “Because you deserve better than what you have right now if you don’t think you deserve that then you deserve to have whatever you want”
An. Opportunity. To give her money? For information she thought might SAVE MY LIFE.
“….you’re asking me…as a FRIEND with a TERMINAL ILLNESS…to GIVE YOU MONEY to cure my disease. I DO deserve not to be sick. And I ALSO deserve to not be taken advantage of in a vulnerable state. Even if I believed for a SECOND that fermented cabbage water would cure me, it’s unbelievable that you are telling me to give you money in exchange for this information. I don’t give a shit if it works or not; if I honestly believed I could cure anyone’s death sentence, I would hand it over in all quickness. If I could cure a friend’s cancer I would carve out my own kidney for free before they even asked. You’re not trying to help me. You’re trying to make money off of me and that is fucking reprehensible.”
After sanctimoniously telling my friends, “I will let vashti block me I am not going to be bullied by any of you people because I’m trying to help and if you guys want to stay in your little environments with no hope and all sickness then fine”, she responded to me, “And I expect a lot more out of you vashti considering you and I went to school but it seems like your sickness really took you over and made you a very hateful person and I’m sad for you”
“And I expected you to be a decent human being,” I told her, “and not try to take advantage of dying people but WHOOPS guess we were both wrong today.”
And then she blocked me.
There are not enough swears and throwing things and table flips IN THE WORLD to convey my anger. This woman is an absolute piece of shit. Again, NOTHING to do with whether or not her ‘cure’ works or just makes you shit forever until you literally die of dehydration. Just. As a human being. This woman looked at me, a woman she called a friend since fifth grade, saw my debilitating terminal disease, and thought to herself, “this is a perfect marketing opportunity.”
And then after blocking me, she crawled back to her facebook cave and wrote this, which a friend was kind enough to screenshot:
I…she… She felt it was acceptable to try to SELL a theoretical CURE to a DYING FRIEND, because…I am “still well enough to buy things on the internet”.
AS LONG AS SHE’S STILL KICKIN’ WE CAN GIT SOME MONEY OUTTA HER YET, BOYS. YEEEHAWWWWW!!!!!!!!!!! SADDLE THE FUCK UP AND LET’S GIT ‘ER PAID!!!!
what the ACTUAL MOTHERFUCKING FUCK.
THIS WOMAN IS AN ABSOLUTE GARBAGE PERSON MADE OF DOG SHIT AND FIRE.
It’s not bad enough to sell false hope to dying people just to make a quick buck, and that is some REPREHENSIBLE SHIT, believe me, but – lady, YOU KNOW MY NAME. WE WERE FRIENDS IN GODDAMNED GRADE SCHOOL. YOU KNOW MY NAME AND MY STORY AND THE HORRORS OF MY FUCKING DISEASE AND YOU SAW THIS AS A MOTHERFUCKING SALES OPPORTUNITY. And then when that BACKFIRED in a frankly GLORIOUS WAY, thanks to my friends, you crawl back to your page and act like YOU ARE THE VICTIM??? YOU WERE ONLY TRYING TO HELP ME?? BY MAKING ME PAY TO BUY YOUR BOOK AND SUBSCRIBE TO YOUR WEBSITE?
You absolute PIECE OF SHIT.
I said just in my last post that I would never wish ALS on anyone, but holy FUCK is she coming close to a candidate. Cause not only allll of this, she is ALSO a goddamned hateful human being who thinks her bullshit will “cure” gays and trans and autistic people. BECAUSE SHE THINKS HOMOSEXUALITY IS SOMETHING THAT NEEDS TO BE CURED WITH SEWAGE. So. Yeah. In the name of science, I hope she DOES get ALS. It will be a scientific experiment. If it works and ALS goes away, we have a cure and she can have a goddamned Nobel prize. If it doesn’t, then the world is rid of a predatory batshit waste of human tissue who spent her final days shitting out her own stomach lining.
Two more days. TWO MORE DAYS. And then I’m done with my working career. Three weeks of vacation as a formality. The rest of my life is a blank book, with ALS having already written in all the margins.
A is for Atrophy.
My muscles continue to waste away as ALS kills the neurons transmitting signals to them. My legs are meat stilts, capable of minor movement only; walking on them is a matter of mechanics and getting my knees to lock properly so I can balance ON them rather than WITH them. My hands are curling up into claws of uselessness. My mouth still works, to the detriment of some, and my brain always will. My body is wasting away into the meat shell it will eventually become.
A is for Avoidance.
Most days I don’t really think about it all, except as an abstract idea. Sure, I’m going to die. I have that roadmap. In my day-to-day life, though, the Big-M-Mortality idea makes way for the general practices of getting through life. ALS intrudes in all things, of course; drinking a soda is now a two-hand operation and I can never even pretend that my life is normal again. All of that, though, is background radiation anymore. It’s amazing what can become normal, given time.
A is for Abbreviated.
My life has a shortened length. For some ALS folks, this throws them into a fervor of living as much life as possible in the time they had left. I didn’t go that route. I’m far too pragmatic to have abandoned my job and traveled the world while I still could. I focused my efforts on making my future life more comfortable, and that meant working as long as I could. If we had universal healthcare I wouldn’t have had to worry about it so much.
A is for Adjustments.
The disease progresses, and whatever I could do a month ago, I can’t necessarily do today. Life is a constant series of micro-adjustments and new behaviors, new rules and limitations. I learn of these new limitations, often the hard way, and another compromise with life is created. The new normal evolves.
A is for Afraid.
Just cause I’ve accepted death, doesn’t mean I’m ready. I’m terrified of what this disease will continue to do to me, and what it’s going to cost my loved ones. What it’s already cost them. I hate that I’m so reliant on everyone around me, and it’s going to get so much worse.
A is for Advance Directive.
Seriously, you have to have one. Fill it out today. If I have one positive impact on your life, let it be that I inspired/coerced you to do this one thing. It’s a hard thing to think about, I know, but your family needs to know what you want. They can’t know unless you tell them.
A is for Assisted Suicide.
I don’t know for sure that I’m going to go out this way. But I’m grateful every fucking day that I have this option.
A is for Anger.
I don’t think I’ve ever questioned “why me” so much as outright stated, “It is pretty fucked up that this is happening to me.” No one deserves ALS. (There are a few people I would like to have it temporarily though. It’s a short, sharp lesson in humility and reliance on others.) I’m angry that this disease exists at all. That we know next to nothing about it. It’s brutal and unfair.
A is for Allies.
It’s absolutely true that you don’t know who your friends really are until disaster strikes. I’m grateful in a perverse way for this disease, for showing me what grace actually looks like. I knew my friends were awesome before. I didn’t quite understand the enormity of that power they have. I do now; I am witness to it every day.
A is for Alive.
For now. I continue to breathe, and so I will continue to write and think and feel and rant and swear. And as long as I am alive, I can bear witness to the ravages and the comedy and the love and the struggle and the disaster my life has become. Al of it, often at once. And so long as I have the best medical care team on my side (I do!), the support and love of friends (check!), and a sense of humor about it all (absofuckinglutely), I’ll be okay. Even when I’m really not okay. And when I die, you will know that it was all okay, too. Somehow. Someday. You’re going to be okay.
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.
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: