In October, 1966, one of my all-time favorite TV shows, the Halloween classic “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, was first shown on American TV. Featuring Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Snoopy, and the rest of the Peanuts gang, the program’s storyline revolves around Linus’s heartfelt belief that every Halloween a legendary character known as The Great Pumpkin rises out of a pumpkin patch to fly through the air delivering toys to all the world’s children.
I was three years old when the show first aired, and my mom was so taken with it that for several years after, much to my delight, some shiny new toys would appear in my bedroom every Halloween, delivered by The Great Pumpkin. They’d always be there when I returned home from trick-or-treating in our apartment building, going floor by floor in my costume, knocking on doors and collecting goodies in my trick-or-treat bag. The thrill of trick-or-treating and then finding new toys in my room made Halloween one heck of a holiday for the little me. Lots of sugar and brand-new toys, what kid could ask for more?
One part of “It’s the Great Pumpkin” has the Peanuts gang out trick-or-treating, going house to house collecting goodies from their neighbors. That is, most of the kids receive goodies; our hapless hero Charlie Brown is always tricked rather than treated, like so:
Yep, when the other kids delightedly look in their bags and announce the candy goodies they’ve received, poor Charlie reaches into his and displays his joyless bounty, glumly stating, time after time, “I got a rock.” This heartbreaking little scenario sums up life for poor Charlie. Despite being a kind and gentle soul, more often than not, when the fates hand out their tricks and treats, Charlie Brown almost always gets stuck with a rock.
At the time of my diagnosis, Charlie’s lament, “I got a rock”, immediately sprang to mind. Just when things finally seemed to be coming together, when the trajectory of my life was in a long anticipated ascendancy, the very foundations of my existence were torn asunder by a big demyelinated lesion at the base of my brainstem, a great big rock thunking down right in the middle of life’s goodie bag. I’m sure everybody else who’s ever received such a diagnosis knows the feeling all too well. That damned stone was so heavy that it knocked me off balance even before the disease itself would upset my physical equilibrium, and its unruly weight grows ever more difficult to wrestle with as the disease progresses with the passage of time. For sure, I got a rock, as has everybody else stricken with a chronic disabling disease.
As I became more disabled and forced to the sidelines, I watched, slightly dumbfounded, as the rest of the world simply went on without me, never even skipping a beat. Certainly, my illness has rocked (pun intended) the lives of those closest to me, but outside of that small circle, it’s almost as if I simply went “poof”. I don’t begrudge my former coworkers and acquaintances their successes, and I’m truly saddened to hear when one has met with misfortune, but the acute awareness of my absence from these goings-on is something I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to. I’m now stuck on the outside looking in, constantly grappling with a great big rock that somehow landed in my goodie bag, while most everyone around me continues collecting treats, even if those treats often go unrecognized.
MS itself has definite geologic properties. Certainly, my weak and spastic limbs have become as if made of stone, uncooperative ballast that makes accomplishing previously simple tasks maddeningly impossible. The overwhelming fatigue that has become my constant companion has me feeling as if I’m playing the role of Sisyphus, a character forced in Greek mythology to forever roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again, over and over again. Intellectually, I always understood that tale to be one of perpetual frustration, but now, physically, I’ve come to fully empathize with the exhaustion that must’ve plagued old Sisyphus. He got a rock, too, quite literally, only he was a right bastard, cruel and deceitful, and his fate was justice meted out by the gods. I certainly was never anybody’s idea of an angel, but I’m pretty sure the heft of the rock I’m lugging around far outweighs whatever transgressions I might have committed.
Yes, I got a rock. Although this stone is a heavy burden, I try to keep in mind that getting stuck with a rock need not be a purely terrible thing. Surely, having a rock can even sometimes come in handy. They’re good for throwing at people you can’t stand, for instance those who say things like “but you look so good” or “I have MS but MS doesn’t have me”, or to stone some of the self-righteous jackasses who with distressing regularity have “MD” after their names and the insensitive clods that often tend to them. It's also fun to lazily skip stones over the surface of lakes and ponds, a mental metaphor I use to remind myself that I actually never really liked working, and being forced to “retire” has allowed me to pursue interests and cultivate talents that might otherwise have forever been neglected.
Remember too that the pyramids of Egypt are made of stone, as is the Cathedral Notre Dame, and Michelangelo’s David. The rock that has so disrupted my goodie bag has led me to meet many fine people and make friends with folks I otherwise would have never gotten to know. It’s made me re-examine my priorities, bringing into crystal-clear focus the precious little in life that is truly important. That damned rock has given me an understanding of how downright miniscule were so many of the trivialities that I used to consider problems, slight bumps in the road that I could neurotically conjure into mountainous obstacles to endlessly fret over. It has also inspired me to write words that have, much to my astonishment, been read by so many people in so many places, and perhaps, if even in just the smallest way, somehow helped some of them.
The Great Pumpkin hasn’t left toys in my room for about four decades, but that’s okay, I’m grateful that I was ever on his list. Charlie Brown might have only found rocks in his Halloween bag, but he was the hero of the Peanuts stories, not the kids who got the candy. Though he had to suffer a beagle who liked to make believe he was a World War I flying ace, a best friend to couldn’t be without a security blanket, and the indignity of often being called a blockhead, in the end Charlie’s simple humanity always seemed to save the day.
Would I give back the rock that was forced upon me, despite the insights and understanding it has led me to realize? You better believe it, and faster than you can say “pumpkin patch”. Being sick and getting sicker sucks, but I have no choice in the matter. I do, though, have a choice in what I do with my rock. I can let it crush me beneath it, or I can at least try to reverse places, to stand on top of it and take advantage of the view. Given the polarity of these two alternatives, as long as my life still has life and is not merely an existence, there’s really no choice at all. And who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll find that some fine chocolate has displaced that rock. It may be the longest of longshots, but stranger things have happened. After all, I’m the only real life person I know who got presents from The Great Pumpkin himself.