Painted photograph: Jill Watts
Torpedoed into the realm of illness. Shock permeates your vision. Then you deny it has happened to you. After all, for almost 60 years you have been a robust, vibrant man who, whatever your faults, still could physically navigate your environment, even one as intense as New York City. But slowly, you begin to realize you are diminished. You no longer can keep up with the tide of life. You withdraw from dreams, hopes and desire. Your relationships whither and your partner is furious with your biology's betrayal. You are dazed by your new station of life. Life's shadow veils the sun.
That is what happened to me. Overnight I was barely able to walk or breathe, yet I continued commuting to work. Every step became a strategy. How do I board this bus, that train, where are the escalators? Elevators? The slightest inclines became Mount Everest. I was not heroic. I just moved. Throughout these last six years, people have told me how much they admire my courage. I am a coward. There is courage immersed in DNA. And there are many who quietly drink from that well. I am not one of them. I am like a dog. I love dogs. When dogs get hurt, wounded, sick, they continue anyway. They don't need a reason. They just do. That is me. I would see a dog with three legs and he embodied bliss. He would roll around in the earth with a big smile ear to ear. At least that's what it looked like. Well the truth is I was always a canine. I desired no bigger pleasure than to roll around in the mud, grinning.
In the beginning of my descent, after two years of being challenged to inhale, I accepted the possibility I might be sick. My partner finally succeeded in getting me to a doctor. Everything became clear. I was permanently damaged. What wasn't said was that I now had a shelf life. Four years later, I asked my doctor how long could I live and she gave me a definitive answer. My expiration date was a year away. I've passed that epoch and I'm still typing.
Moving through twilight unveils the daily heroism of others. Once, while trying to get to my job in Manhattan, I saw a man with no limbs propelling himself on a skateboard, suited up, going to work. He was fueled by joy. He remains an inspiration. Life is inspiring. There are so many of us moving against a tide, whether for ourselves, our children, spouses or just because we are dogs. Being this sick transmutes time. Solid borders are liquefied. As such, I am honored to witness the masterpiece of other lives.
I now live on an island, a small community. I lived here as a young man. Today I am old. I am fortunate. I am able to live in a beautiful environment on a small fixed income. The safety net embraces me. Life is kind. One of the things I do is conduct a discussion group at my local senior center. The people who come to these conversations represent all levels of society. Some participants are economically privileged. There are others who struggle. There are those who have successfully created careers and others who have worked all their lives "downstairs" serving the wealthy and famous. A few are well known in their pursuits, while most remain anonymous. We talk about everything. Recently when we met, the first subject that came up was love. A writer at the table said that was his interest and his topic of the day. Although we didn't dive right in, that word, feeling, became the tide of all floating syllables. Love was the ghost at the table whether we discussed the humiliation of the Earth or kindness we encounter despite the apparent demise of civilization. The ages ranged from 40-something to 92. Three participants spoke about their personal experience with unconditional love. What was fascinating is that although these people hardly knew each other and they related experiences that had happened many decades ago, they all shared similar feelings when relating to moments of universal love. "I loved everybody," arises again and again when speaking of these profound moments of simple elegance. Its music ascends from poverty, wealth, destruction, peace, war -- any part of life you can imagine. Despite all odds, we love. It is our nature. Even when we encounter opaque, dark curtains.
Being chronically ill is learning about love. Whether I believe I can recover or not, I am blessed. I find myself steadily detaching from life. As I drive around this transcendent island I look at people jogging, walking their baby carriages, laughing, waiting, eating ice cream and I say to myself, "Good for you!" Children are unaware of peril. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy, until your heart has squeezed its last drop. Most believe we circulate blood throughout our corporal being. That is merely a muscle. Our true heart, our soul, thirsts for delight. That is what enlightens our sight.
Once, after being violently ejected from my life, solitary, mired in grief, a stranger offered me refuge. She was a woman who had traveled through the cosmos of desire to arrive at a destination of grace. She managed a manor, a center of healing on the Long Island Sound and she knew I had no money and needed a place. She gifted me with sanctuary. I was adrift. One day, some people came to look at the mansion for a possible function they were planning. I showed them the way inside and told them to take their time and look around. When I turned away from them to walk towards the water, I was suddenly happy. I was immersed, floating through lightness of being. Walking towards the water, I said out loud, "That's it, Jack! This is what being healthy is about. Happiness." No reason prompted my transformation and it didn't last. But once you feel this you never forget. Living is joy.
I may not be able to make whole my broken body, but what I can do is choose delight. We are all capable of this, no matter our circumstances. I work out at our local YMCA. I see people missing limbs and exercising. Their faces warm the sun.
When I was 19, I had a vision. I was lying on my side and I saw a translucent black veil suspended in front of me. I so much wanted to know what was on the other side. Suddenly I heard a gentle voice clearly say, "No need to move. One day you will be the other side." Every time I witness life's triumph, I am the other side. And I have plenty of company.
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