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For those of us here in The States, this past Thursday was Thanksgiving. Although it's always been one of my favorite holidays, like everything else in America, Thanksgiving lately seems to have become supersized, and has been transformed into little more than a homage to gluttony. To put it mildly, turkeys aren't the only things getting stuffed on the last Thursday in November.
To advertisers and marketers, Thanksgiving has become the starting whistle to the holiday shopping frenzy, which starts the very day after with "Black Friday", an event that has created a new holiday tradition: breathless news reports of crazed consumers lining up before dawn, trampling over each other's overstuffed backsides in a frenzied scramble to get their grubby mitts on discounted 50 inch flat screen TVs.
There was an interesting piece that ran in the New York Times earlier this week, which pointed out that through much of this nation's early history, the Thanksgiving feast was preceded by a Thanksgiving fast. People would deprive themselves for a day or two, and follow-up that deprivation with a huge feast. The Taoist in me loves that notion, it seems to me to be in keeping with the Yin and Yang of things. There can be no day without night, no peaks without valleys, no happy without sad. Why not no feast without fast? As a society, but also as individuals, we seem to have lost sight of the double-edged nature of reality. We are all for the "gain", but want nothing much to do with the "pain". It's all about the easy fix, but for those of us dealing with chronic illness, there is no such thing.
Despite my best efforts at staying in the moment and keeping myself centered, I had a hard time mustering up much to be thankful for this year. My MS continues to progress, well, if it even is MS, and everyday tasks are getting more and more difficult. On top of that, my recent cataract surgery has left my eyes all wonky, and I think I'm going to need further surgery to correct the mistakes of the initial surgeries. In the parlance of World War II, it's all just a big SNAFU (Situation Normal, All Fucked Up). The eye thing has been especially frustrating, as I'd convinced myself that taking care of the cataracts would be the first step on some kind of road to recovery. Well, that first step has been a doozy...
As I contemplated my situation, I thought back in the spring of 2006. At that time I was still working, and didn't even need a cane or ankle brace to walk. I certainly was no Fred Astaire, but I could at least limp for a half block or so, which now seems incredible, given my current state of affairs. I'd recently undergone sinus surgery, which sent my neurologic crap into overdrive. Even though it was a minor procedure, I had a really hard time getting over the surgery, and my neurologist decided to pull out all the stops in an attempt to slow down the progression of my disability. He ordered a 10 day course of IV steroids, and had me spend a week at the Helen Hayes Rehabilitation Hospital for some intense physical and occupational therapy.
The steroids had a dramatic effect, and although those effects were relatively short-lived, I did temporarily recover function that had been lost to me for the better part of a year. Unfortunately, the massive dose of steroids led to my developing avascular necrosis, which I've complained about in other posts, so I'll refrain from doing so again here. My time at the Helen Hayes Hospital was life-changing, though, in ways that went far beyond the exercises and techniques that I was guided through by the hospital's crack staff of nurses and therapists, angels all. What really struck me, and has stayed with me to this day, were my fellow patients.
The people I met at Helen Hayes were of all different ages, races, and educational and economic backgrounds. I met one man in his early 50s, who had been a top corporate lawyer. He had suffered three strokes, and was trying to relearn how to do the simplest of things, to use a knife and fork, to turn the pages of a book. Another patient was a woman in her 40s, a biker chick that had "kissed the pavement" (her words), and had been in a coma for more than three months. Her progress had been amazing, and when I met her she was just about back to normal. Then there was Steve, a kid in his 20s, who every day told me a different story about how he had suffered his head injury. On Monday it was a boating accident, on Tuesday a fight, on Wednesday he told me he fell off a wall. I asked a nurse about him, and she told me he had in fact been in a car accident, and as a result of his injuries he had completely lost his short-term memory. Each morning he made up a new reality for himself. He had to be led back to his room after each therapy session, as he couldn't remember the way.
Though we were all very different, and were at the facility for very different reasons, all of us patients had one thing in common. None of us had ever expected, had ever had the slightest notion, that we would someday end up in a rehab hospital. At some point in the not-too-distant past, we had all been simply living our lives, consumed by the details of the day-to-day, concerned and sometimes overwhelmed by problems that now seem almost laughably trivial, taking the fragility of what seemed mundane completely for granted. But an errant blood clot in the brain, a slippery stretch of pavement, or a tiny patch of sick nerve cells were all that it took to completely demolish everything that used to be. Given half a chance, each of us would have eagerly leapt at the opportunity to exchange the problems from the worst of our "well" days for the ones we were now facing.
Funny thing is, three and half years later, I would now leap at the opportunity to be in the same condition that seemed so debilitating to me back then. In retrospect, even what once seemed like a curse can look like a blessing, and if you've woken up on this side of the grass today, that alone is reason to be thankful. If you are healthy, or only lightly touched by disease, rejoice in your good fortune, regardless of whether your present circumstances are what you wanted or expected. You have within you the infinite power to change those circumstances. If you're dealing with considerable disability, try to find the determination to focus on the here and now and all that you still can do, rather than dwell on what you've lost. Easier said than done, I know, but that which we take for granted today might seem quite precious tomorrow.
And everybody, well or unwell, happy, sad, or indifferent, embrace all who you love and who love you back. Tell them how much they mean to you, if not in words then in actions, your family, your friends, your dogs and cats, even those who might not be aware of your affections for them. Tomorrow is an iffy proposition, yesterday is an illusion, today is the culmination of all you have been and the beginning of all you ever will be. In the now there is the inestimable power of the universe, there for you to use or risk of losing. Celebrate the ordinary, celebrate the extraordinary, celebrate everything in between, because in the vastness of time, this short life, this briefest of ticks on the universal clock, is all you've got, so ride this sucker hard, and bring it back to the barn wet (how's that for some cowboy talk from a city boy?). Go fast, my friends, even if your fast is slow.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. And please, try not to get crushed to death at your local Best Buy.