For a long time, I've been age inappropriately conscientious of optimizing my health. Who reads Prevention Magazine when they are twelve? (Me.) In middle school, I became a vegetarian, I guess mostly because animals are cuddly, but honestly, I was also very pleased to know that I was significantly reducing my risk of heart disease. I'm not, and wasn't then, the candy bars and soy burgers sort, either. Oh, no, baby, I maximize my nutrient density. Don't even make me talk to you about antioxidants and B vitamins. When I worked at a greenhouse as a teenager, I refused to apply the pesticides lest I increase my cancer risk. In college I toted hot herbal tea in a glass jar which usually managed to leak all over something. No tumblers for me: plastics offgas, especially into hot liquids, and I was concerned about those compound's influence on my long term reproductive health.
All of this does make a little bit of sense when you consider my mother is ill with a chronic immunodeficiency disorder which varies widely in how well it responds to conventional medicine. Excersizing regularly and eating well are central strategies for managing her health.
I just found out that a dearly beloved friend has terminal cancer, albeit in remission. This is the woman who taught me to cook. She is a macrobiotic chef, the most conscientious eater I know. No one in existence is kinder to their colon than she has been; where does it get off turning on her now? Another friend, a marathon runner for god's sake, is living with not dying of the same disease. What the hell is going on, universe? People who take exemplary care of their bodies are not supposed to get sick like this. Why else did I spill so much milkthistle tea all over my goddamn books?
I saw the movie Rent a few weeks back and was struck by the line, "living with living with not dying of AIDS" (Notice how I alluded to it up there. No, not plagiarized.) Living with not dying: reminded me at the time of my mom. True, there are times when she can't get out of bed, when she runs a fever of 105, when she is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, but most times, she is fine; full of energy and ability. A stranger wouldn't know that she is sick. She looks so healthy on her good days that associates resent her nonnegotiable need to cancel superfluous commitments when she has a bad one.
Turns out I know quite a few people who are living with not dying. Catastrophic diseases assail our beloveds, without sense, without reason or cause. It is fucking unfair, and I am enraged almost beyond obscenities.
Even more nonsensically, these folks get up again to stand blinking in what might be the eye of the storm or it's departure, who knows, and find themselves, of all things, living; maybe with renewed appreciation or wisdom or some other crap, I don't know. From where I sit, though, it doesn't seem like being sick changes a whole lot one way or the other. I like this better than imagining disease as a penance or a purifying spiritual journey.
Living with not dying: it's a possibility, but not an unmanageable one. There is hell to pay, to be sure; I'm not claiming to know from physical pain first hand. But c'mon, we've all read Buddhist texts during one existential crisis or another: life is suffering, is it not? Our hearts break of loneliness or rejection or betrayal, our grasp on widely experienced reality crumbles under inexplicable weight, and our bodies fail us in malicious untimely ways. We are neither damned nor made sacred. The fates shit on us and we handle it the best we can, which, wouldn't you know it, is the perfect way for us, and all the while, there life is, spectacular and ordinary and profound. Snow falls beautifully, siblings fight, the light hits the water just so, dinner burns. God is in the details. This moment, the only thing we ever own, opens and lasts. We live with not dying.
My mother's illness, Rheumatoid Arthritis, is hereditary. Her diagnoses came when she was 24, the same age I am now. For a few months I've been having mysterious pains in the fingers and wrist of my right hand. RA can begin this way, aching in the joints of your digits, a weakened ability to make the twisting motion required to open a jar. I am not fatigued the way she was during that first undiagnosed year, though. Maybe I have just been typing too much in a bad chair, or riding my bike too long. Not that it matters. Being without health insurance means I can neither confirm nor deny such suspicions. Splurging out of my own pocket for an appointment won’t even help because if a doctor does find anything, besides not being able to afford treatment, I will then have a preexisting condition on the chance I ever do get insured. As if a chronic degenerative disorder wasn't occasion enough for warm friendly conversations with one's health management professionals.
I've always assumed I would inherit my mother's disease. This is slightly irrational, because though I have a greater chance of developing RA than does the general population, the numbers still sound a strong probably not.
Varying amounts of fear rise to meet the thought of my presumed fate. Influenza or even a bad head cold can reduce me to incoherent sobs: I hate body aches I hate them I cannot handle this I cannot handle a lifetime of dull throbbing pain everywhere and constant exhaustion and side effects and the loss of mobility and wheelchairs and hospitals and surgery. Other times, like now, getting sick is just a card I might be dealt: bad, but inevitable. There are others in my hand. I'll live.