Above all, keep your spirits up, I told myself. Look on the bright side.
Okay, then, here’s a bright spot in an otherwise bleak day: It had taken a ridiculously long time to position myself on the edge of the examination table, and nobody was there to witness it. Nor had anyone watched as I hobbled from the truck, across the street and up the steep incline to the medical clinic, nor had they heard me berate myself for parking so far away, or, for that matter, taking the truck in the first place. Using the clutch was an exercise in agony, but my twisted sense of manhood insisted that my wife drive the car to work. I can manage, I said, and I was wrong.
Being wrong, notably about my limited capabilities, seemed to be the new norm. Occasionally I hit the nail on the head, such as when I self-diagnosed myself with shingles, but most of the time I was as wrong as wrong could be. I’d assure my wife that I could get something out of the basement freezer, but navigating the stairs was excruciating. I’d tell her I could take the trash out but rue every step of the way. Her exasperation mounted with each groan and curse. And now I was sitting in a sterile room at the clinic awaiting substantiation over this latest issue, not at all certain whether I wanted it or not.
Confirmation came not from a face to face chat with the doctor but from an overheard conversation taking place outside the door. I heard the term “varicella-zoster” and “shingles,” followed by a bright and cheery “herpetic neuralgia.” The latter was what I expected but didn’t want to hear, so I braced myself as the door swung open.
“Not your lucky day,” the doctor said.
I called my wife when I got home. The diagnosis was nerve damage to my lower back and left leg. Though there was no cure, it could go away after six weeks, six months, six years, or, as the doctor said, never. Medication could help relieve the symptoms and stifle the pain, but otherwise it was a waiting game.
I tried to be upbeat. After all, it could have been something horrific like cancer or some fatal blood disease, so I couldn’t complain.
On the table were two vials of pills. As we discussed how we would deal with this, I glanced over the medication guides. Side effects included vomiting, dizziness, depression, drowsiness, dehydration, difficulty breathing, excessive sweating, loss of cognitive skills, constipation, diarrhea, rashes, itching, irritability and severe headaches. The medication could make me suicidal or homicidal. It could make me dead, too.
“Good grief!” I exclaimed. “Shingles makes you wish you were dead, and this stuff might grant your wish. How does this crap get approved?”
I didn’t bother to read the rest of the guides. The last thing I wanted was to provoke subliminal encouragement in a mind already growing duller by the minute.
In the waiting room I had wondered how I would take the news if it were grim. Now I knew: day by day by day.
A friend’s daughter has cancer and her husband had a stroke. Another friend lost his leg to cancer, and another her life. Who am I to complain?
A line from one of Jim Harrison’s poems keeps running through my head: “The days are stacked against what we think we are.” What an odd way to put it. Shouldn’t it be “the days are stacked against us,” as if it were personal, or retribution for some unknown slight or offense? It certainly feels that way sometimes.
The more I think about it, though, the more I see his point. The older I get, the less certain I am of almost everything, with certain essential exceptions. It’s not time itself that opposes us but our own perceptions of ourselves when faced with reality. Change is inevitable, and more so as we age and become receptive to the idea of our own mortality. The man I thought I was is no longer who I am.
And what am I? I’m still trying to figure that out, but the best I can do is this: a man who tries to find beauty in every day. Compared to the silvery Pleiades shining through a rent in the clouds or the full moon rising behind the elevator, the pain is as passing as the thousand thousand blackbirds funneling down the valley with a sound of a rushing wind, and in its own way as pure, as distilled, as perfect.