Sunday, December 10, 2006


Not to be melodramatic, but I honestly think this is the worst I've ever felt. And that says a lot, because I don't have the greatest luck in the world to begin with.

I need to vent. This is not a proper blog story where something beautiful happens and I realize that I'm loved and blessed and just generally at peace with the universe. I'm still all those things, but I feel like shit.

I don't know if the aforementioned sentiments are a direct result of health concerns/fears, or if this is all a result of coming off the Paxil, but I currently feel about 2 millimeters away from falling into a waterless gorge. When I discussed this "edginess" with my primary care physician, he responded with:

"Well Kate, you have a lot to be angry with and upset about, the way you're feeling makes a lot of sense. Maybe you should accept the possibility that you might need an SSRI to keep your biochemistry in check..."

I seriously thought about choking him with his stethoscope. Fearing, though, that such a rash reaction would further fuel his conviction that I'm certifiable, I opted for a different approach:

"With all due respect Dr. _____, I will never take an SSRI again. I think Paxil is the devil. I fought my neurologist for 4+ years regarding antidepressants and I cannot adequately express how much I regret giving in."

(Then, naturally, just to add validity to my proclamation of sanity, I started crying and my words turned all gurgled and shaky.)

I continued, "You need to believe me, Dr. ______, I was never depressed. I never had the urge to stab a student in the head with a fork, or rip out my own arm hair with my teeth before the Paxil, so I blame these extremely irrational feelings on the Paxil (or lack thereof). How long will this last? Just someone tell me, how long will this last?"

He didn't really answer. I don't think he knows.

Anyway, so now it's 4 days later and I'm slightly less dizzy/disoriented, but I still feel like unmitigated s-h-i-t. I just turned on Extreme Makeover Home Edition while I was eating dinner, took one look at the woman in a wheelchair getting a new house, and started crying into my veggie lentil soup. So I turned the TV off (lest I see a Hallmark commercial and lose it entirely), finished my soup, folded my laundry, and sat down in here to write.

Really, though, this is all I want:

- A freaking back massage. I think my back muscles are slowly turning into hardened challah bread because I cannot seem to relax.
- Even a small improvement on the MS-front. Just a hint that things might get better post-Zanapax. I'm not asking to run a bloody marathon, but it'd be nice to shower without pulling the towel-bar out of the wall and ending up in a crumpled pile of dripping naked limbs/hastily grabbed towels/metal towel-bars etc. on the floor of the bathroom. That would be so nice.
- Someone to share this with. No. I actually don't want that, because I'd feel so guilty. Or I'd spend all of my time trying to convince the other person that I'm okay and end up feeling exactly as shitty as I do now (maybe even, as history suggests, shittier). But I'm lonely I guess. I really am. At the very least I'd do almost anything (within reason) for the aforementioned back massage. Hmpf.
- Oh. And I'd love to get through a day without crying to Anique, or wanting to roll myself out of my third-floor window during 7th period. Those kids, bless their hearts, are making me want to chug gin at 1:15 everyday, and that would be highly frowned upon by my department head...

There's my diatribe. Advice can be directed to myself and prayers can go straight to God. My faith's a little shaky lately (which actually trumps all of my other concerns right now). I think I need all the help I can get.

Yeah. Blech...

Monday, December 04, 2006


I haven't written in so long that I actually forgot my username - never a good sign.

The truth is, though, that I've struggled to see the positive aspects of things lately. I write to feel better about stuff - to write myself out of a funk. Lately, though, whenever I pick up a pen (or sit down at the keyboard) I write myself into the exact same place that I started: a little too deep below the surface to see the flowers or the fertilizer around me. This place is dirty and dark, and whenever I climb a little closer to the top, an unforseen swine takes a dump on my head.

I saw my neurologist last week. He confirmed what I already know: things aren't going the way we planned. So I got an MRI to see if there were new lesions on my brain or c-spine (whatever the hell that is), and there aren't. That sounds good, right? - no lesions = no new symptoms. Or so I thought. But the truth is that there are new symptoms. And while I manage to pinpoint an immediate catalyst to blame for every new physical malfunction, the catalyst ends and the deterioration doesn't. I've lost a little coordination in my left hand now (previously my only symptom-free limb), and my right foot and calf have started to go completely numb whenever I swim. Last week I tried to cook while in my wheelchair (I managed to burn pasta), and tried to vacuum on my knees (equally ineffective). Curious as to why I have these new problems and no new lesions, I emailed my doctor a hastily written diatribe of my confusion.

This morning he wrote me back:

Kate - MRIs are only sensitive to inflammation as occurs typically in relapsing MS, I believe that your worsening without change on MRI points towards axon damage from chronic demyelination as is seen in secondary progressive MS.

I guess I knew that already. Lord knows it's been a good seven years since my last "remission", but somehow seeing the words secondary progressive written stung a little more than I thought they would. I rested my chin on my hand and stared at the words on my laptop until my 2nd period students began to trickle in. Then I swallowed the lump and all the other things that threatened to come out of me, and taught for the rest of the day (with a little less patience than usual).

I finally weaned myself off the overly-numbing antidepressant last week.

My timing sucks.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Why I go to Church

Jim and I broke up over a year ago, and in my aggressive attempt to be okay, I made myself list all the reasons why I, Kate Hooks, was better off without him. I was very proud of myself upon creation of this list, and did all but publish the eleven reasons in the City Paper. I read it to my friends, re-read it to myself, hung it on my fridge etc. One of the most compelling and real reasons at the time, was that Jim didn't inspire me to be a better person. I underlined that reason and buried it deep inside me - right between the left ventricle of my heart and my internal moral high ground. At the time I was more than a little bit certain that my predilection for beer and my irrational irritation with the string bikini clan at my gym was not caused by my own character flaws, but by Jim. Like I said, my attempt to be okay was somewhat aggressive.

I told my friend, Taylor, about my epiphany. I was so matter-of-fact, so wise and so completely non-judgmental as I relayed my most recent revelations to Taylor; I explained that Jim would be an excellent person for someone, but clearly not for me. I had grandiose plans to be a fabulously selfless individual and do regular physical therapy exercises and eat healthily and start a righteous revolution to improve city schools, inspire urban youth etc. My diatribe culminated with the exclamatory statement:

"See, Taylor, Jim wasn't inspiring me to do these things. He didn't make me want to be better at anything! He obviously wasn't the one..."

There was dead air on the phone for a second, and then my agnostic friend (who, incidentally, I met through Jim) responded:

"Kate, you're Christian. Shouldn't Jesus inspire you to be a better person?"

It was seriously such an innocent question. I could tell that Taylor was genuinely curious; he wanted to understand my quirky walk of faith a little better. But I still wanted to reach through the phone and lodge my cuticle scissors into his ear. I hate it so much when other people are right. I felt like I did when I was six and carved my name into the back of my dad's (new) car and got caught. I was so blatantly wrong and defenseless and six years-old, that I couldn't even offer an explanation. More than twenty years later, I found myself in the same predicament. But Taylor was on the phone this time, and I felt reason # 4 in my quest to be okay dislodge itself from my left ventricle along with my internal moral high ground.

Naturally, I stammered through a weak response to Taylor, and changed the subject.

The thing is - and this is the God's honest truth - as recently as a year ago, Jesus was just some esoteric concept to me. Jesus was someone I grew up with and actively rejected during my high school years. He was someone I ignored in college, and was angry with after getting MS. He let me down. Not only had he let me down, I wondered how anyone could watch the news on a somewhat regular basis and attempt to explain Jesus as a benevolent, loving and living God? The world seemed like a giant, mortally wounded mess.

Six years ago, though, despite this mortally wounded world, I started to think about Him a lot more often; I prayed to Him at night, talked to Him in my car, wrote about Him in my journal, and even started a non-committal tour of Baltimore churches. I slowly let go of my high school-inspired rejection of God, and (even more slowly) of my MS-inspired anger. It was like plucking in-grown hairs, though: almost impossible. Because my anger and resentment and cynicism were as deeply embedded in my personality as my thankfully resilient sense of humor. I pried and prayed and dug and scraped and waited until the answers started peeking through cracks in my calloused skin. The answers came in all shapes and sizes and some came much, much later than I'd hoped for. Eventually, though, I found pieces of myself, and the pieces - not to gloat -were beautiful! They were raw pieces of hope and courage and honesty and faith that were much stronger and enduring than their resentful and angry predecessors.

Like I said, though, this was a slow process. For a while I'd think I was fine and centered and very deep, and then I'd realize that a piece of anger was still hanging around, preventing me from solving my internal rubix cube. I think this is why I was waiting for a person to inspire me. I wanted some faith-filled hero-type to swoop down and rearrange my inside bits until I was all grace and courage and strength. This hero would naturally manifest himself as my boyfriend and - along with his supernatural capacities - would help me with my laundry and would clean my kitchen for me without even asking. With expectations like these, it is glaringly obvious that Jim was a disastrous disappointment. I guess it's also obvious why Jesus remained an esoteric concept who I purported to believe in, but who I neither knew intimately nor aspired to please. Sure, Jesus was responsible for the good pieces inside of me, but I wanted a person to bring these pieces to the surface permanently. Jim didn't do it, my friends didn't do it, my family didn't do it, and even the half-dozen churches I'd visited fell short.

And then, through another friend who I met via Jim, I found New Song. This concrete-constructed building is so un-church-like that it makes the bare-walled Quaker building I attended look elaborate. There are no stained glass windows, or wooden pews. There are no tiled mosaics of Jesus and Mary, or marble bird baths filled with holy water or intimidating "stations of the cross". It's just a hastily constructed cream-colored concrete building in the heart of Baltimore's most "mortally wounded" neighborhood. There are broken cars in the parking lot with their hoods permanently opened, cracks in the pavement in the sidewalk outside and occasional empty bags of UTZ potato chips floating by in the adjacent gutter. But when I went into the church last summer, it was the first time in my 27 years that God was literally palpable.

For me, God is Jesus, but no matter who or what God is to you - even if you don't believe in Him at all - I think you'd feel this too. In fact, I'm positive. There are kids who come without their parents, and Lord the kids are gorgeous! There is this incredibly diverse body of people who are commonly united in a struggle for something. Mostly it's just the struggle to be okay; to recover from their own lives or addictions or loss, but inside this church the struggle to heal is collective, which - in my opinion - makes it so much easier to do. There are a lot of people in the church whose hurt runs deep enough to give even the best scuba divers the bends, and there are others who wade through occasional mud puddles, but inside the building everyone is united in hope and perseverance and - not to sound too cheesy - love. It is seriously the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful thing I have ever seen.

It is inside the walls of this church that I felt Jesus nudging me - ever so slightly - to be a better person. It was the first time in my life that a church-inspired nudge wasn't accompanied by an undertone of guilt. There are no hell, fire and damnation sermons about fixing your life at New Song, just a constant reminder that Jesus loves us all so much, and that the most radical thing we can do in return is to be honest and true to ourselves and to give as much as we can to the people around us in need. The pastor's adopted daughter even gets this. A few weeks ago I cried myself through the two-hour worship service (a hormone-inspired melt-down of sorts), and resorted to paper towels to keep the mess of myself relatively contained. After the service, as I deconstructed my wheelchair to put it into my trunk, she sauntered over to me.

"Miss Kate, why were you cryin' so much?"

I told her that I really didn't know. Just that I was a little sad sometimes.

Her dimpled brown cheeks and warm eyes looked up at me, and her eight-year-old self sheepishly uttered,

"Well, I love you."

(Which of course made me cry again.)

So I guess Taylor was right: I shouldn't want to be a better person for my boyfriend. I shouldn't wait for a hero-type to enter my life and spoon-feed me perseverance and patience and selflessness. Instead I should feed myself (with Jesus' help) and share everything I can with the people at New Song who silently hold me up - week after week.

There are times when Old Angry Kate bubbles to the surface and I feel myself internally lamenting the bikini girls who get in my way at the gym, or I say bad words to no one in particular when my wheelchair breaks at inopportune times. (Both of which happened just yesterday, in fact.) What I finally understand, though, is that I am forgiven and loved in spite of these things. And even when I feel forsaken and forgotten by Jesus himself, I am never really alone in this mortally wounded world.

Which is exactly why I go to church.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Line

I know teachers aren't supposed to have favorites, but I definitely do. Kevin is my favorite. He has an identical twin who writes a little better and is quieter in class, but there's something about Kevin that I've never been able to pin point. He and his brother transfered into City from a vocational high school in the neighborhood, and while I'm skeptical of the decision that removed two 17-year-old sophomores from a reputable vocational school to a college preparatory high school, I cannot imagine this year without them.

From the second week of school forth, Kevin has tested "the line" with me. He pokes his head into my classroom on a regular basis and adds insight to my history lessons. His insight usually comes in the form of loud, pseudo-musical utterances of "Baby, baby... UGH!" Then he closes the door behind him and saunters off to the bathroom. He says I walk like a duck, and when I showed my students a picture of me running in college, he responded with, "Wait, why didn't you run like a duck?" I guess he conveniently forgot my introductory spiel in the beginning of the year when I told his class that I'd gotten MS when I was 19.

One day, earlier this year, he told a few of his peers about watching me push my wheelchair up the steps, and I felt him encroaching upon the esoteric "line." He was laughing and his classmates were laughing and, in an effort to take myself less seriously, I was probably laughing, but I'm horribly self-conscious sometimes, and I hate thinking about what I look like to others. I got the class settled and told Kevin - in a barely audible tone - to stay after class. Slightly shaken by my suddenly serious demeanor, he uttered, "Am I in trouble? You callin' my mom?" I reassured him that he was neither in trouble nor about to receive a parent phone call, and reiterated that I only wanted to talk to him for a second.

When the bell rang, his 27 peers charged out of the room, and Kevin remained seated, his already large eyes stretched wider than usual. He watched as I wheeled over to his desk and parked myself two inches away from him.

"Kevin, you're not in trouble, but there's something I want you to understand... I have a really good sense of humor - about pretty much everything, and especially about my MS. But I want to make sure you know that there are thousands of other people with disabilities who aren't anything like me. I'm one of the only people I know that laughs at myself and jokes about stuff that is actually kind of serious."

He looked away. "I know, Ms. Hooks."

I continued, "I mean, I don't want you to start making fun of someone someday, expecting that they'll laugh like I do, because -

"I know, Ms. Hooks. My dad's in a wheelchair."

I tried not to register a look of surprise on my face, and continued the conversation, "Really? And is he in his wheelchair all the time?"

"Yeah, he got shot."

"And do you joke around with him like you do with me?"

"No. Definitely not."

"Well I guess I just want you to know that as ridiculous as I act all the time, I don't want to 'duck walk' around this classroom and push my wheelchair up the steps every morning, okay? You can still joke with me, just -

"I got it Ms. Hooks. I'm sorry."

And with that, Kevin grabbed his Nike backback and left. He still pops his head into my room during just about every period, and he is still the center of attention all the time, but at this point - at least to Kevin - the duck-walk is dead.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Height and Humor

It is my second year teaching high school in Baltimore, my third year teaching with a wheelchair, and my eighth year with Multiple Sclerosis. I don’t use my chair all the time, but my school is close to the size of the Pentagon, and my balance is slightly worse than that of a two-year-old child’s. Consequently, in order to avoid any MS-related humiliation and/or unnecessary fatigue, I use my wheelchair while I teach my 9th and 10th graders American Government and United States History. This also enables me to wildly gesticulate with my hands while I’m teaching without knocking myself off balance mid-lecture.

During the first two weeks of school, I used my wheelchair at all times. I like to set a precedent – I am a teacher with a wheelchair. And while I get my students used to the idea of a rolling teacher, I also try to convince them of my supernatural powers that compensate for my neurological disease. Namely I like them to believe that I have x-ray vision that enables me to see notes, candy and cell phones hidden inconspicuously beneath their desks, coupled with the unique ability to know when they're lying to me about incomplete homework or class work). Unfortunately for me, all 180 of my students saw through the supernatural power fa├žade before October.

During the second week of school, I stood up during my last period class. I was apparently so excited about the foundations of American government that I could no longer sit still. Grasping the desk to my left, I locked my knees and continued talking. I then noticed that my 7th period class was unnaturally quiet. Not only were they quiet, they were staring at me, and off to the right, Ashley’s mouth appeared to be hanging open. Mid-sentence I started to worry that something was on my face, or that I had a bizarre chalk stain on my boobs. I paused to ask if everything was okay.

Jasmine was quick to respond, “You’re standing, Ms. Hooks!”

I briefly reiterated that I can stand; but I can’t walk very well, and continued with my lesson. Mid-sentence, another hand shot up, and Stephanie asked how long I could stand for. My lesson seemed to diverge from the daily objective. She raised her hand again as I attempted to get the class back on track.

“Wait, Ms. Hooks Kevin’s in the bathroom, right? Can you stand ‘til he gets back and see what he thinks when he walks in? Maybe he’ll think we cured you while he was out.”

While rationally I know that playing practical jokes with my students during the second week of school is not a highly recommended teaching strategy, I couldn’t resist. A few minutes later I heard the door open and Kevin shuffled in nonchalantly. The rest of the students were watching him, waiting for a reaction with bated breath as he sauntered around my empty wheelchair and back to his seat. When he was properly sitting I felt his eyes look down at my feet and move all the way up to my eyes. Then, without raising his hand he interrupted me –

“Ms. Hooks, you are so tall!”

Top Ten Reasons why MS isn't that Bad

1. If you play your cards right, you could end up spoiled. Not only will family members lavish you with gifts, unconditional love and support, but society will spoil you as well. If you are disabled enough to qualify, you are privy to:

- Unlimited free parking in metered spots and preferable parking in general
- VIP-type seating at concerts, sporting events and other entertainment venues
- Preferred treatment on airplanes as well as discounts on Amtrak trains

2. Undisputable excuses to get out of anything you do not want to do. Examples include:

- Participation in costly, stressful and otherwise laborious weddings
- Attendance at potentially awkward family or coworker gatherings (this might also high school reunions)
- Barbeques or picnics during oppressively hot summer weather or otherwise unappealing conditions

3. A convenient scapegoat for pretty much everything you do wrong. MS no longer stands for Multiple Sclerosis, rather my scapegoat. It comes in handy if you are ever:

- Chronically late
- Occasionally forgetful
- Too lazy to finish something you start
- Too tired in the morning to realize that your socks don’t match

4. An occasional right to entitlement. This does not mean that you are entitled to life as a bitter, irritable human being, only that when things are not MS friendly, you are entitled to small temper tantrums or short-term pity parties. These, while never enjoyable at the moment, often develop into very entertaining stories. You are entitled to a fit if:

- People pity you
- You use a wheelchair and you live in a completely inaccessible city
- It is too hot to properly enjoy the summer without melting your myelin
- You can no longer do something that you really, really loved doing

5. Increased potential for heroism. After an MS diagnosis, you will likely live your life in much the same way you did before. You will exercise, work hard, raise your family, attend social gatherings and maintain your sense of humor. You will not, however, be able to accomplish ordinary goals without the risk of inspiring others. People will likely note your achievements with the added: and she has MS! This is, of course, demeaning and potentially maddening, but will doubtless bring you positive attention and occasional accolades. My advice? Enjoy them.

6. A marked increase in self-esteem. You will develop confidence in who you are, rather than what you do. (Unfortunately this often comes at a heavy price; there are days I was just fine defining myself as a runner.) Post-MS, you will come to know and appreciate who you are with or without the things you do.

7. A legitimate excuse to never wear high-heeled, platform, or pointy, stiff and unforgiving dress shoes. You will rejoice as you save hundreds of dollars on practical and comfortable shoes rather than expensive, trendy and bizarrely uncomfortable shoes.

8. An increased ability to relate to those around you. MS makes you more sensitive and compassionate. This is (unfortunately) a result of increased vulnerability and fear, but it nonetheless turns you into an empathetic person who friends will soon regard as selfless and wise.

9. A genuine appreciation for unconditional love. Eight years after my diagnosis, I am now positive that I have no casual, obligatory acquaintances. My close friends and family members are willing to help me with countless inane tasks – from grocery shopping to cleaning my bathroom. My best friend in college even attempted to run a lap around the track with me on her back, just so I wouldn’t “forget what it felt like to run”. Despite the fact that we both ended up in a heap on the track (I am 5'10"!), her effort was valiant.

10. A well developed sense of humor. Even if you weren’t able to laugh at yourself pre-MS, you will inevitably learn to take things much less seriously. You’ll have to. And when you do, you will find that all the drama and stress of day-to-day life seem a little lighter and a little easier to handle.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Inspiration (?)

I don't write often enough. This is a problem (albeit minor) caused by:

1. Not having enough time. This, I acknowledge, is a bullshit-type excuse. Sometimes on the weekends I find myself lying leisurely on the floor, staring at the ceiling. I'll roll to the side and my eye might catch my wooden memento box so I'll investigate old letters, poems, cut-outs from my college alumni bulletin etc. I usually find something entertaining or awkward and call my mom to share. While I'm on the phone I might notice the dust that has accumulated on my (old roommate's) TV, or my $35 IKEA desk, so then I clean. I tend to my plants. I vacuum. I do laundry. At the end of a perfectly "free" Saturday my most productive feat is generally some inane household task or a trip to the gym.

2. Feeling a perpetual need to do work. When I was writing my (yet unpublished, so secretly non-existant) book, writing was my "job" so I made it a priority. Now it's just a luxury that I afford myself after my lessons are written, my papers are graded and my students' parents are contacted. I put writing beneath several activities on my personal priority scale: the gym, clean clothes, bills, teacher work, etc. I've come to realize, though, that I will never do enough work to satisfy my job requirements (or my department head) - my lesson could always be a little better, a few more parents could definitely be contacted and the pile of papers really should diminish on a daily (weekly?) basis. That said, I should include writing into my personal job description/priority list. But I don't.

3. A general lack of inspiration. I do not like my job lately. All the beautiful things that happen on a daily basis (and yes, they really do happen!) are shrouded by other bigger and uglier things. Since this blog is not anonymous, I shouldn't elaborate, but since I'm sort of seething, here goes:

- My job, though definitely better than being dragged across hot coals face first, is no longer preferable to Chinese water torture. And while never formally enduring either, I doubt that statement contains much hyperbole. I no longer trust anyone I work for, and while I used to shrug of administrative incompetency and focus strictly on my students, the former is starting to greatly interfere with the latter. Let me elaborate:
  • I was placed on a Performance Improvement Plan because I taught my United States History students about the genocide occurring in Darfur, Sudan. This led to a highly awkward meeting between my department head, other administrators, my union representative and myself. I was forced to sign a paper acknowledging my own incompetence and inability to adhere with Maryland's "core learning goals." That my students kept pace with the other US History classes was ostensibly ignored. A lot of things were ignored, actually: their midterm grades, the quality of their Darfur essays (in many cases the ONLY writing assignment a few of my students have ever turned in), or their genuine motivation in an educational activity I still characterize as both authentic, relevant and important.
  • During my scandalous teaching of the first genocide of the 21st century, my students produced posters geared to educate the school and the community. The posters were the greatest things I've ever seen in my 6 years as an educator - graphic and accurate yet hauntingly appealing to the eye. Other teachers came into my room praising my students. One teacher was even crying because what the posters represented is so gruesome and real, and our government is so paralyzed and incompetent and self-involved to do anything about it. Don't get me started. A week or so after I painstakingly hung the posters in the hall, I came into my classroom to find approximately 25 posters in a giant pile on my desk. It made me want to do something rash and loud and violent. It made me want to cry. It made me want to eat my shoes. My students were incensed - especially since the packing tape had stuck the posters to each other (and to the mouse poop on my desk) and their work was - for all intents and purposes - destroyed. I waited until my diaphragm allowed air to properly enter my lungs, and casually rolled myself into my vice principal's office. There, I used my sweetest, fakest voice to ask, "Who took my kids' posters down and why?" The answer? "Ms. Hooks, you are simply NOT allowed to tape things up in the hall. It removes paint... [blah, blah, blah]" I was still violent, but, as ridiculous as her reason sounded at the time, I believed her. I reassured my students that their posters could be rectified and that the tape was ruining the (lack of) aesthetics in the hall and tried my best to forget anything had ever happened.
  • Which became increasingly difficult last week when a different (tenured) teacher in our school approached me about the genocide in Darfur and asked me help her launch a miniature Save Darfur campaign inside our International Baccalaureate school. As I volunteered to be the 1st floor's representative, this teacher had students hang posters outside of my classroom. (Right next to the Student Government Association's campaign posters and adjacent to the AP/IB testing schedule.) In case you were wondering, the posters are currently taped to the wall.
  • I was written up for allowing a student to "race down the hall in my wheelchair during the instructional day." This is, I must point out, an egregious lie. Especially she is a self-proclaimed documentation specialist, and the date she cited was a day when I was sick. God bless my journal.

Time out. More soon...

Thursday, March 02, 2006

My Brother

I don't know if I'd characterize myself as a "good sister." My brother Patrick is three years younger than I and we have nothing in common. While I was dressing my stuffed animals and preparing them for make-believe photo shoots and dance recitals, he was playing outside, running around with the neighbors, catching frogs, or watching cartoons. I was bizarre and aloof and inexplicably indignant, and he was warm and acquiescent and eager to please. So eager to please, in fact, that I could occasionally coerce him into Saturday afternoon doll recitals, or even, when I was really lucky, a festive day filled with brother dress-up time. I turned him into a turkey with place mat wings on Thanksgiving, Santa with a stuffed gut and a red turtle neck on Christmas, and an old man with a felt-taped mustache during an interminably long car ride. As I grew up, my taunting games elevated to new levels. I invented the highly entertaining game of "shove and throw," where we'd disappear into the basement after dinner and smash into each other until one of us was unable to get up. I, a foot taller, never lost. He, still eager to please, was always willing to play. We played bloody knuckles on car rides or occasionally just hit each other as hard as possible in the back seat for fun until my dad would yell at us to stop. During all of these games I was the perennial winner, and he the perennial good natured participant. It was something I took entirely for granted - having my own personal punching bag with amazingly resilient human emotions.

When I reached middle school I stopped playing games and turned my chronic pre-teen angst against my brother. My best friend and I would make radio mix tapes in my room and talk about how much we hated our respective families or create master plans to find proper relationships, and my brother would knock on the door to see what we were doing. A typical response:

"Get out of my room, genius boy. Can't you see we're busy? Go get me some juice."

And he'd trot down the stairs only to come back a few minutes later with a glass full of juice. It wasn't until my best friend looked at me and asked, "Kate, why are you so intolerant of him? He'd do anything for you", that I realized she was right, so I changed.

Like any personal metamorphosis, though, it wasn't perfect. I found myself occasionally relapsing into evil big sister mode. For the most part, I tried to put down my anger and redirect it at an equally undeserving recipient, my mom.

I went to high school, got my license and started driving him around. I taught myself how to have civil sisterly conversation: about relationships and sports and our parents. It was my duty, once I was a mature teenager, to impart my wisdom upon my brother (presumably the only person alive who believed I was "wise.")

I went to college and left him alone to tend to our parents and to grow into his own person; a person I was too busy at college to worry much about. We saw each other on holidays and during my breaks from school. Occasionally I could still convince him to do things with me - go for runs or out for ice cream or to jump my car for me when the battery was dead. It was interesting, too - the person he grew into during my absence wasn't bad. I actually liked the guy. I started to think that maybe all of my pre-teen misdirected anger might have had something to do with jealousy. It was possible. My brother was, after all, popular and athletic and funny, and he didn't have pimples or ugly feet like I did. Plus, I used to think my parents liked him better. Yes, I think I was jealous.

The summer after my freshman year in college, I was diligently training for the upcoming cross country season, and asked him to go for a run with me. He said no, he had a lacrosse game later that afternoon and he didn't want to be tired etc. I, unwilling to take no for an answer, bribed him with a post-run swim in a nearby gorge. I told him I'd drive to Cascadilla Falls, we'd go on a short, slow run together, and then go swimming. Hesitantly, he agreed.

We ran our four miles together, and hiked from the road down the rocky, uneven steps to the swimming hole. He'd never been there before. I had. Once again feeling the need to impart my sisterly wisdom upon my impressionable brother, I boldly walked to the edge of the water's rocky edge, and attempted a swan dive into the murky water ahead. My effort at grace was thwarted by a sharp crack as my nose collided with another level of rock beneath the surface. The only thing I remember thinking was, 'get out of the water.' As I pulled my head out of the water, I awkwardly turned around and faced my brother. It was then that I knew something was about to change. The blood rushed out of his face, and, with an expression of sheer horror he mumbled,

"Kate, you are seriously messed up."

That's when I looked down at the pool of blood in the water, and asked him to hand me my white tank top at the water's edge. He did, and I jammed it against my lacerated nose while the two of us began an unsteady ascent to the nearby parking lot.

My brother and I reached my mom's car, and I noticed the blood had soaked through my wadded-up tank-top. I'm sure my brother was talking to me, but I remember nothing other than the pulsating of my entire face. The two of us drove home at approximately 60 miles per hour through winding small town streets, and we picked up my mom. She met us in the driveway, ice in hand, and the three of us drove to convenient care. To make an excruciatingly long story short, I waited a long time, never had my lacerated nose cleaned-out, and ended up with stitches, a broken nose, and a fairly hideous scar. Unfortunately, due to the lengthy wait and the aforementioned "murky" water, I also ended up with three serious bacterium that procreated beneath the stitching and caused a 10 day infection. The infection resulted in hospitalization, fevers, IV drugs etc., and that, in turn, led to Multiple Sclerosis. I guess my immune system went into overdrive - it didn't stop at the nose infection, it attacked my whole nervous system and began diligently eating away at the myelin that coated my nerves. Secretly, while a little misguided, my immune system kicks ass.

So that was my last run with my little brother. Actually, it was one of my last runs ever. I was diagnosed with MS a few months later and my days of "shove and throw" in the basement were definitively terminated (as was my running career).

Shortly after I was diagnosed, I pulled away. From my brother, from the rest of my family and even - to a certain extent - from my friends. I biked when I couldn't run, swam when I couldn't bike, and wrote in my journal when I couldn't do either. I stopped talking to my brother because he couldn't make me feel better, and directed my anger elsewhere. I studied until my eyes yearned for contacts, and then studied more. No longer a runner, I defined myself as "busy" or "stressed." I was too busy to talk to my parents, listen to my brother, extend myself socially, and most definitely too busy to confront the actual cause of my stress. All the while I developed a serious case of resentment. And while my resentment was effectively masked, it took a toll on my relationships. Especially with my brother.

Pat and I spoke occasionally after I got MS, but conversation seemed strained. We continued to have little in common and I was too impatient and angry for inane conversation. When he wouldn't ask about my health, I'd get mad. I defined him as superficial and self-involved in my mind and lumped him into the category of "Those who don't understand."

It wasn't until my 23rd birthday (four years after I was diagnosed), that I stepped outside of myself for long enough to let go of the anger. After years of complaining to my mom or my roommate about his apparent disinterest with my life or my health, I got a birthday card in the mail. It was one of the strangest cards I've ever received, with a giant picture of old people about to sky dive on the front, and the cheesy phrase, I just know something wonderful is out there waiting for you, on the inside. It wasn't the card itself, though, that made me abandon my internal resentment, it was the words he wrote. Scratched in manner of hieroglyphics was the following:

Dear Kate,
I got you this card for numerous reasons. First of all, how funny is the picture on the front? Second of all, is sky-diving with old weird people supposed to be considered something wonderful? Third of all, and truthfully, I do see many wonderful things in your future. Not only may you someday sky-dive with geriatric retards, but I think you may win the Pulitzer for your novel. Seriously, though, you are kind of like my hero, and I know that no matter what you end up doing, you will have a positive impact on a significant amount of people. Thanks for being a great sister and helping me grow up. I looked up to you my entire life, and I idolize you now more than ever. Happy birthday, Kate.
Love, Pat

I read the words, checked the return address, and read the words again. Yes, the card was definitely from my brother. It was from the same brother who I'd intentionally injured in my parent's basement and bossed around for over a decade. It was written by "Genius Boy" who obsequiously got me juice whenever I asked, allowed me to dress him up as a turkey, and begrudgingly accompanied me on runs before lacrosse games. It was from the same brother who seemed oblivious to my MS and who, to my knowledge, didn't even know I planned to write a book. He called me a "great sister"? The whole thing took me a while to digest.

Wisdom has nothing to do with age, I guess. Wisdom, I think, is the ability to do what you can with what you have and Pat might be able to do that better than anyone else in my life. He doesn't necessarily ask about my health, and he'll never properly "understand", but he's the only person alive with the ability to send me a card with "geriatric retards" on the front that can still make me cry.