Friday, January 08, 2016

On memories. And sandwiches.

Apparently I was feeling a tad masochistic last week, because I decided to watch the documentary that a group of talented Poly students produced during my last year of teaching (the 2011 – 2012 school year). That a group of senior high school students wanted to make a documentary about me was at once flattering and deeply embarrassing; I was touched that these students (the majority of whom I had never taught) were aware of the hardship associated with my commitment to teach in spite of this disease, but I was by no means enthralled with the idea of capturing any of this hardship on film. Regardless, when they approached me with the idea in September 2011, I immediately said yes – how could I say no to a group of aspiring teenage filmmakers? (Although in the spirit of honesty, I was secretly hopeful they would change their minds.)

So amidst an emotionally and physically tumultuous final year of teaching – a year punctuated by monthly infusions of chemotherapy, extended periods of sick leave, and the constant frustrations associated with sharing my classes with a "co-teacher" – my struggles were intermittently captured on film. That said, I suppose it should be obvious that re-watching the documentary would not result in a happy stroll down memory lane. Quite the contrary, it stopped me in my tracks, but for reasons I did not expect.

If you are interested, the link to the documentary is attached. I somehow doubt it will have as profound an effect on you as it did on me. (Health Interrupted) The kids named the documentary after my blog, and they did an amazing job. They even won an award for excellence in documentary making, received $200 and donated the money to my caregiving needs. You wonder why I miss my job!

I remember so clearly, lying in my hospital bed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in April 2012 and reaching the conclusion that I could no longer teach. All of my resources, every last one – my money, my emotional fortitude, my determination and any remaining physical strength – they all went into my career. At that particular point of the school year, I had already hired four different live-in caregivers, I paid someone to escort me to and from school, I still paid Kristen  (my first and best caregiver) to accompany me twice a week to Kennedy Krieger for physical therapy in their open gym, I depleted 100% of my sick days within my first few months on chemotherapy and relied upon "the sick bank" to pay my partial salary when I was unable to attend school, and I was a veritable physical and emotional train wreck. Lying in the Hopkins hospital bed, I mulled through all of these factors and concluded it was time to raise the white flag. Although reaching that conclusion immediately lifted an elephant sized weight off of my shoulders, it resulted in an elephant sized hole in my heart. Everything that raced through my mind in the hospital during those 10 days is now firmly associated with the memory of the dark hospital room eerily illuminated by the green lights of my IV pump. There have been significant hardships in my life with this disease, but the 10 nights I spent in the hospital wrestling with the knowledge that I needed to retire, were the darkest and most hopeless I can remember.

So why would I choose to watch a documentary that spanned nine months of my life that I'd rather not remember? I wanted to see my old students. I wanted to see my old classroom. I wanted to see if I still missed it as badly as I think I do. I do. But even that is not what catalyzed my funk. My funk was caused by something seemingly insignificant – eating a sandwich. Seriously. About halfway through the documentary someone filmed me eating my lunch and I was astounded, I could feed myself. You could tell it was not easy, but the sandwich made it into my mouth, which seemed, to me, miraculous. I actually thought, holy shit, if I could still feed myself why the heck did I need to retire? Given how much I couldn't do at that point, I knew that thought was sort of ridiculous, but it definitely ran through my head. My next thoughts turned ugly, if I have progressed so significantly within the last 3 1/2 years, what is next?

I thereby entered into a funk. It occurred to me that I very naïvely believed that when I retired in April 2012, the progression would stop. I had raised the white flag yet the assault continued. Isn't that considered a war crime? That this disease continues to ravage my body in spite of my complete surrender, seems plainly unjust.

Fast-forward to my latest disease-inspired concern: driving my wheelchair. I currently rely on my left hand to operate the joystick, and increasingly my left hand has become completely unreliable. I have a number of examples that highlight its unreliability, and many of them are actually comical in retrospect. Basically the tone (extreme and involuntary muscle contractions) in my body has become widespread and unrelenting. The tone used to be confined to my legs, but as the ravages of this disease have spread upward, so too has the tone. Certain things are catalysts for an impending muscle spasm, these things include, but are not limited to: any type of physical sensation, cold weather, wet weather, yawning, sneezing, laughing, feeling tense, stressed, excited, frustrated, happy or angry. The risk when I am driving my wheelchair is that the spasm will occur on my left arm, thereby causing my arm to straighten and push on the joystick. The straight-arm spasms have led me into more than my fair share of pickles, many of which were incredibly dangerous. Worse still, once I lose control of my arm it catalyzes a number of the aforementioned emotions that make my arm virtually unbendable rendering my pickles very difficult to resolve.

A number of these "pickles" occur on the ramp outside of Kelly's house. For whatever reason the threshold of her doorway causes enough of a physical sensation to cause my arm muscles to tense, the tension elicits panic and the panic elicits a straight-arm spasm that frequently lands me off the ramp and in the lawn (or, depending on the weather, in the mud or the snow). A few months ago we reached a breaking point and Kelly, as she attempted to extricate my 400-pound chair from the mud, said something along the lines of, "enough is enough, you need a new way to drive your chair." There was absolutely no ill intent behind her words, but they hit me like a cattle prod to the heart. Kelly's point was simple: I need a way to drive my chair that doesn't elicit 600 negative emotions on top of an ever increasing number of perilous pickles. So why, one might wonder, did her words hurt so badly?

Her words stated the obvious. I have gotten worse. Again. This was not a surprise. This was as predictable as Ithaca's interminable winters. And once again I will need to make yet another modification to the way I navigate the world. The progression didn't stop when I moved home, and it's making no promise to do so anytime soon. I cannot digest this truth, I cannot even so much as accept this truth and sometimes it literally robs me of my ability to breathe.

Nevertheless, the following Monday I called my wheelchair vendor, and the week before Christmas he and two other wheelchair guys came to my house to teach me how to drive with my head (they were remarkably poor teachers and I ended up putting a foot-long hole in the kitchen wall). Nonetheless, I am grateful, truly grateful, that alternative options exist and I will still be able to drive myself without the constant assistance of others. I am grateful that Medicare will cover yet another expensive piece of equipment that I do not want but absolutely need. I am grateful that – once I get used to the new contraption – I will not find myself in pickles that inspire negative emotions, put me in danger or necessitate my girlfriend to lift a 400-pound chair out of the mud. But, to put it bluntly, it still sucks.

And all the while I am stuck on this: just 3 1/2 short years ago I could feed myself a sandwich.