Sunday, July 17, 2011

"The Journey We Take Alone" Part Eleven

Note to readers: Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is famous for many quotes, including one about toothaches. He says: "When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is happiness. But later, when we don't have a toothache, we don't treasure our non-toothache." Writer Sandy Prisant, who is dealing with a serious kidney ailment, seems to know the treasure of a non-toothache kind of day. Thanks for this reminder that we should always treasure those days that we feel good!

By Alexander "Sandy" Prisant

Today, I feel better.

And I felt even better the day before yesterday. Not “tennis-ready” better. Just “walking-the-dogs” better. Something close to normal. Like you hopefully feel, sitting there.

For me, this is a big deal. I’m struggling to remember the last day that I felt this close to “well.” It was probably back in late January, before I took a stress test and they had to stop the machine almost before it started and then give me a heart pill to help me recover.

That was almost six months ago. Can’t remember feeling normal any day since. Almost 180 days in a row. That puts today in context.

So much of life is about perspective. How we feel about something that changes from a state we took for granted, because it was "everyday normal.” Writers remind us that all our perspective is hindsight. Thinkers note that we almost never know when we are making love to someone for the last time. There’s very little foresight in this game we play with mortality. We don’t even really know how well or unwell we ae until our conditions change. We “feel” in the present, but we also get a sharper perspective of how things were, after the fact. We appreciate the good parts of the old reality more. Much more.

Almost everything is perception and perspective. Most of us gave little thought before to our good fortune, living in the most prosperous and powerful of societies. But now, as it fades, we’re thinking about how it was and will be. A lot.

The status quo has to change for us to really appreciate what we had before. What I’ve been battling these last months -- I refuse to think of it as the new normal, but rather as a series of bumps in the road. While I’ve never stopped being aware of my condition, that has mostly been intellectual.

It had been so much the opposite for me for a lifetime. Physically I’d felt little or nothing for all these years. And because this disease has moved slowly, my body has been deploying a natural process called compensation to gradually adapt to declining chemistry, as my one kidney filtered less and less. For so long, I kept feeling nothing. For a decade I’ve been saying “there’s no medical explanation for how I am still here and feel this well.”

But now the realities of medical pathology may at last be catching up with me. Now, how well I’ve felt and how rich a life I’ve been able to live for more than three score feels just that much more so. Indeed some of that richness came from always pushing for the fullest possible life experience, because I knew the clock was ticking.

But now the clock has brought me to things like this:

I felt some soreness around my shoulder one night. Most of us would brush it off, but this was inches from the temporary dialysis port they had placed in my upper chest. Susan innocently called the doctor. Panic stations: “Go to the ER for an emergency ultrasound.” What?? “This could be a clot,” the nurse said. “This can kill you.”

I was angry. And frustrated. That trip to the ER blew up dinner and the rest of that day; it was my fifth trip to an ER in three months; or was it the sixth? It was certainly more than in all the six decades before. As often happens to people fighting to get their lives back, the fight can start to consume the life.

And then you start thinking: if that shoulder discomfort could have killed me, where does it stop? Which little niggles we all have every day are worth raising my hand about? Are we just supposed to guess when to speak up and when not to be a pest to those around us? And how many times can you go to the ER anyway? At some point the whole process seems ridiculous. How many times in a month? A year?’

This is what it must mean to be sick. After a lifetime illness, I’m only now learning about that. Before, I had seemed like a minor miracle in my immediate circle—always fighting and beating the odds in crises that I have yet to tell you about. These crises would never last longer than a month or two, usually without much discomfort.

I search for a comparison in my life to recent events. For perspective and context. And what I find is not great. The only prior point that seems to mirror this time was during the first couple of harrowing years of life. When I battled bad odds, conditions without cures and infections without antibiotics. No, not great.

But you know what?

Today I feel better.

And that's what counts most.

Writer Sandy Prisant, who worked as a management consultant in different parts of the world before he retired, now lives with his wife, Susan, in Florida. In March, he began writing a series about his chronic kidney disease. At the time, he said this was perhaps "his last writing project." Part Ten of "The Journey We Take Alone?" appeared in June.

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