The Curse of the Calendar, & the Beauty of Hot Words.

Logically, I think we are each of us aware we don’t really get life-time guarantees. Not when it comes to health or longevity. No true guarantees on life, or on the time we get to live it. There are expectations…there are anticipations…there are possible outcomes that can be effected by our actions. It’s not exactly a crapshoot, because we can choose to avoid or to participate in healthy or not-healthy activities. We can balance the not-so-healthy things with cleanses and flushes and purges and therapies. We can justify, or not. We can rush pellmell into crazy habits or hobbies or advocations and do so with the understanding that whatever it is, it includes–and is ideally worth–a risk to life and limb. And everything has risk. Everything. It’s on a sliding scale that varies from one person to the next, but it’s all the same. It is simply a fact as soon as we’re born that at some point we will no longer be alive.

How we exist with that knowledge also varies from person to person. Some folks live to cheat death. Some do their best to tempt it. I think most probably avoid the subject all together until they have no choice but face it either because of a personal health issue, or the health of someone on their immediate radar. I say, go with whatever helps you get out of bed in the morning. Because we are fragile creatures. It seems we’re not, what with all the crazy things we do to our own and to each other’s bodies, but…. Sometimes you drop a glass and it bounces. Sometimes it shatters into a hundred pieces. People are just like that. If I were a physicist or a person with medical genius I could go into a lengthy explanations about force and pressure and long-term exposure, etcetera. But you all know what I’m saying without the explanations. I wrote at the beginning of this that life is not exactly a crapshoot. Which is true, but’s it’s also not exactly not a crapshoot.
Sometimes we get sick. Sometimes we get hurt. Internally or externally, sometimes we bounce. Sometimes we shatter. As the saying goes, such is life.
Life expectancy in America has been on the rise. Especially since the Baby Boomers began to really face their looming mortality in earnest and began to direct their accumulated wealth at postponing inevitability for as long as possible. I think we can all agree when the largest generation of this nation started to turn 50-ish certain previously taboo subjects began to enter the mainstream vernacular. Depression, colon health, erectile dysfunction, to name a few…. A laundry list of conditions the Boomer’s parents and grandparents would have found terrifically inappropriate or gauche began to pop up all over the media. I am not complaining or kvetching. With knowledge comes power and loosening those conversation constraints has led to myriads of early detection methods for a schlew of diseases. Has surely saved or extended countless lives. Certainly, 30-second spots for breast exams or Lexipro™ are more useful to the common good than the Summer’s Eve™ commercials that used to make my father leave the family room in a huff. And here we are…all of us potentially living decades longer than citizens were at the start of the preceding century. Good for us! There’s a lot more to it than television marketing, of course, but I’m saving my rants on the crucial protection of the Clean Air and Water acts for another blog. indicates my life expectancy as a woman in America is about 79 years. I took a crazy “Life Expectancy Calculator” quiz and it announced I could hit as high at 89 years, but I’m not going to hold this Dr. Perls character to anything. Crapshoot and all that.
But there’s a thing that’s been really gnawing at me. When Husband and I met with Dr. Villegas back in November last year to discuss my MRI and the radiological indication of Multiple Sclerosis, Dr. Villegas did his steady best to be soothing and optimistic. As well he should. An MS diagnosis now absolutely does not mean what it meant fifty or 20 or even 10 years ago. Dr. Villegas believes in candor (thank heavens) and said that yes, MS does alter a person’s life expectancy. “But only by 10 or 15 years,” he said. That ballpark number is supported by my neurologist, and also by Dr. Brian Weinshenker in the Annals of Neurology, if you’d like to read more.
Ever since that afternoon, I’ve seen this dialogue bubble floating around randomly while I go about my days. I see it in the mirror. In full narcissism, I imagine flashes of it over the heads of different people I see on the street. Any person who happens to look me in the eye…that comic book image pops up above their melon, “Ten or 15 years…” ala Doonesbury. It’s a thought bubble for Sofie the Cat, of course, since she continues to mock me by denying her ability to speak clearly. But it’s there.
Ten years, give or take. All because my immune system has decided to start synthesizing its own version of crack and is freaking out on the only thing an author really has going for her…. The brain. Which sucks. It seems the crapshoot just got even crappier. And so did the narcissism.
But wait. It’s okay. I’m serious. I’m weepy while I type this because I know it HAS to be okay. What choice is there? For anybody? Whether it’s MS or lymphoma or a bullet or a drunk driver or heart disease? We have to live knowing eventually we won’t get to do it anymore. So, the surprise is really only what death we receive. Some of us get glimpses or perceived promises, but…. Even that isn’t a “known known” until it happens. And in the interim we get to consider the calendar. How to make our days achieve whatever quotas of productive, creative, honest, restful or exhilarating we choose. How much of the calendar we want to spend being resentful, or filled with deceit. How many hours we want to spend with our family, our selves, our pets or our therapist. With wisdom and foresight (and more than a little luck, I think), we could manage to outweigh bad with good. Smiles could take up more time than grief. We can embrace the calendar instead of cursing it. It’s our choice. Choice. Which is a hot word. It’s a word that does not suck. In fact, it empowers.
Hear me out. The running theory is that MS has shaved an approximate decade off my life. By comparison, I stalled and prolonged and agonized about my writing for more years before finishing The Farmer’s Story than MS is allegedly taking from me. Years I don’t get back post-diagnosis just because of  my longing for a do-over. For that matter, I originally started writing Standing With Buffalo almost fourteen years ago. More time I don’t get to recall. And, since life is the aforementioned crapshoot, I have no idea what my initial “Sell By” date was, and therefore no idea if I’m in my waning months and years, or if I still have lots of time to master the Italian, German and Irish dialects. Maybe I’ll have plenty of time to watch the nieces and nephews have their own pumpkins and I’ll be christened “Aunt Cake” many times over. How can I know? Would I know my future end if my brain was perfectly unscathed and Multiple Sclerosis was never something I dealt with beyond the occasional bike ride fundraiser? I would not.
With or without MS, like most of the world, I won’t know my life’s length until I reach the end of it, at the hands of whatever natural or unnatural disaster…whatever freak accident…whatever sudden aneurysm or heart attack might take it from me. Having Multiple Sclerosis doesn’t change the fact I have no guarantees when I’ll die, or how. Just like most everyone else on this big green-ish ball.
I do, however, feel a heavy responsibility now. Heavier that I’d have thought possible a few years ago. I don’t feel like I’ve had a near-death experience exactly, but more like I just found out the shadow on the chest x-ray was a thumbprint and not a tumor. I feel I must take both the calendar and that word “choice” very seriously. My having MS is as much a crapshoot as being struck by lightning on a clear day. It happens, but no one really knows why. Having that reality thrust upon me means I must choose to make the most of my time. More than ever before in my life I’m pretty painfully aware of how precious it is. I have to take the disease into consideration, of course, and probably shouldn’t go join a high-wire act in the circus…but I can be productive in other ways. I have good days and bad, true, but at least I’m currently still participating.
None of us–whether we have an illness or injury or whatever–should be paralyzed by the unknown. No one should be cowed by fear. We can choose to be as prepared as possible for contingencies. We can face challenges and responsibilities with a sense of humor. We can decide to spend more calendar days than not feeling encouraged we even woke up that morning. Waking up is the first thing that matters. From there…it’s up to you. You get to choose. It turns out, death and taxes are not our only guarantees. They are death, taxes and choice.
And that is such a hot word.

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