It was the end of September in the fall of 1973 when I discovered I was vulnerable. It was this particular fall, like no other season, I was suddenly forced to believe my body was not invincible and I was merely mortal...a fragile human being walking on the egg shells of time.
On a mildly warm fall day, I was playing tag football with my best friend on the farm, when I gradually began to feel "weak"...I was having trouble standing without fatigue and the game drained all of my energy. It was only a few hours later my mother picked me up and took me home from our slumber party...I didn't really want to leave, but I felt strange and very tired.
Over the course of the next 24 hours, I developed what my mother thought was the stomach flu...in 1973, my family not only didn't believe in using modern medicine, they simply couldn't afford it. So, I was kept at home feeling very ill and vomiting anything I ate...mother still made me go to Sunday school that day, thinking I was only feigning illness to get out of paying my respects to the Baby Jesus. After all, I HAD faked illness before and successfully been allowed to stay home from church.
The next day, I was allowed to stay home from school because my temperature "didn't feel right"...in the days of the old mercury thermometers, my mother still felt the back of her hand was a more reliable gauge of fever than science. EP (my father) had a short business trip planned to the city 100 miles away, so my mother loaded me up in the van and we all drove out of town...still believing the stomach flu would pass as quickly as it had set in.
By the middle of the afternoon, with my parents in a store while I rested in the van, I suddenly had a strange sensation something was terribly wrong in my body...and I was frightened. I needed to find my mother to let her know I was becoming sicker, so I tried to walk into the store, collapsing at the front doors. Someone alerted my parents to the lump of flesh balled up outside and my parents came to scoop me up...rather than stopping at a hospital in the city, they drove the 100 miles BACK to our farming village to consult with the doctor in a nearby town...I heard my mother put the phone down and try to tell EP calmly the doctor had said to take me to the hospital...and then I passed out again.
I recall being quite alarmed when my father/EP, who was not known for affection, lifted me out of the car at the hospital and carried me into the emergency room practically running...I remember being relieved I was not asked to walk in myself. The doctor met us at the ER, took one look at me, poked my abdomen causing me to nearly pass out again, and uttered the words, "Prep her". I had no idea what those words meant, but I could sense the fear on my mother's face. The last thing I remember is having my arms strapped down out to my side in a strange crucifix fashion while staring into bright, hot lights above...I was screaming loudly, but it was as if no one could hear me...or perhaps the screams were only in my mind.
When I eventually recall being conscious again, I could hear the hum of some sort of machine beside me, and saw my mother crying in the chair across the room...I vaguely remember hearing the doctor telling her somewhat sternly, "Another few hours and she wouldn't have made it". A nurse was adjusting an IV line over head and, with what seemed like surprise in her voice said, "Oh, you're back!" She then very gently smoothed my hair away from my face and turned to tell the doctor I was "awake now"...it was so strange receiving such a gentle caress from a stranger.
I had narrowly survived a ruptured appendix and the ravages of septicemia that had infected my body over the prior 48 hours. Over the next 3 weeks, I would remain in the hospital, receiving IV infusions of various antibiotics, and trying to come to terms with my near death experience.
At the age of 9 years old, I was forced to embrace my own mortality. I remember the exact moment in time the realization of impending death shadowed my thinking...I remember touching upon an understanding that shattered my innocence: I was merely mortal. I could and would die some day and I would cease to be. Illness could overcome me at any time, any place. My body was fragile and unpredictable. It seeped into my thinking quietly, yet with the force of a strong undercurrent, washing away my young foundation.
I believe it was this experience that continued (and continues) to color my view of life as I know it. And this very experience has remained always present in my unconscious, teaching me to be cautious because illness is unpredictable and Life is fragile...the experience shaped much of my adult life and how I have viewed and approached illness (and wellness) in my body, particularly my initial response to being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
The day I was diagnosed with MS, I embraced my mortality. Words like "fate" and "punishment" and various other themes of demise salted my thinking. I was angry and I was sad, sometimes dipping into all five stages of Kubler-Ross grief in a matter of hours. I recall believing I would most likely end up being in that 5% of the MS population who becomes wheelchair-bound in their first 5 years of diagnosis. I was terrified I would end up a ward of the State tucked away in some dingy nursing home and become either too disabled mentally or physically to *pull my own plug* so to speak. I did everything I could think of in my ultra-organized, anal-retentive fashion of thinking to "prepare" for the inevitable...I exercised every option available to make proper preparations for my eventual demise - from Living Wills to savings accounts - all to embrace my mortality.
Interestingly enough, what I have finally begun to learn in 45 years of walking on this earth and 6 years being diagnosed with MS is this: In embracing my mortality, I have neglected a key component necessary in preparing to die. I HAVE FORGOTTEN HOW TO LIVE.
These past several months while I have been away from this blog/the computer/email, I have been retraining my mind and body in the simple act of LIVING. In a world where the Grim Reaper has always been felt breathing down my neck, this has been no easy task. I remain rough around the edges as I continue to try new paths, new tasks, and learn new LIFE skills. But slowly, I have begun to feel the grip of MS and the squeeze of mortality loosening...I am beginning to feel as though I may once again fill my mortal lungs full of breath without worry the air may be the last I inhale. I am learning that, although the physical body is mortal, LIFE is eternal and will continue on long after my physical being ceases to exist...this notion has nothing to do with religion or heaven/hell/Karma, but everything to do with being present NOW...LIVING my life as though I am immortal.
As we turn the wheel of the seasons yet another round, I am keenly aware of the animal instinct to take stock in our bounty for the winter. Fall is always a time to begin looking toward the dark winter of our souls as we prepare for that quiet stillness. I feel comfortable moving into this new season, knowing this summer, I have harvested all I need to survive the chill of my unconscious being.
I know that I am merely a mortal...and I am CHOOSING to live life like there is no tomorrow. I am CHOOSING to live immortal...