Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Sublife: Birthday notes

When you are old and full of sleep...
Go back to bed, go to sleep.
-- William the Henry

For more than eight years I have been coping with the disabilities caused by a burst blood vessel in the left side of my brain, the part that controlled the physical movements of the right side of my body. After intensive therapy for more than six months, I was able to regain partially my strength --  to stand, to hobble unsteadily, to lift my arm, to remove the droop from my mouth, and to talk intelligibly if not intelligently. After six months the window for full recovery closed: for the rest of my life I will have to accept that I can no longer use my right hand and foot because my right extremities -- five fingers and five toes -- are disabled.

Disabled. That's how I describe myself. Not differently abled, a phrase which I hate as much as the political correctness and hypocritical politeness of this generation. As a former editor of a tabloid, I have learned to respect the integrity of words and to spit on those who disregard the precision of their meanings. To be disabled is to be physically or mentally impaired or incapacitated. In my case, my physical function is severely limited. I can no longer run, jump, climb stairs without aid, kick; my right hand has lost its ability to grasp, hold a pen, strum a guitar, draw and sketch, clap with its functioning partner. My abilities have been diminished, not transformed into different abilities. I know, though, that there are autistic individuals whose mental incapacity is compensated by astonishing feats, like extracting large chunks of information from memory -- information which enable them to recall intricate mathematical or musical combinations without effort, and without understanding. That, is differently abled. I, on the other hand, cannot do what I used to do. I am disabled.

To survive a stroke and through the years learn of the untimely deaths of friends and former colleagues bring only pain and grief, never the consolation of having outlived those good people. To lose allies, including parents, in this difficult world, is to be disabled further. Where is the consolation in that? Only the malicious and the malignant take comfort in the misfortune of other people; their moral disability exceeds my physical disability.

I live my remaining years in what I call a sublife; if I'm not careful and lose my sense of proportion, I can easily fall and become subhuman, like plundering politicians and leeching televangelists who have discarded dignity, kindness, and other values that make us human. My first taste of sublife came when I was deemed sufficiently recovered from my stroke. (Yes, my stroke. I, selfishly, do not wish to share it with others.) In the early leash of my second life, I was let out of St. Luke's, but I had to be taken around by wheelchair, because my right leg had not yet regained it's strength to support my weight. I notice that those in wheelchairs are no longer considered part of the mainstream of life. Sublifers have to depend on others to subsist, partially, as in my case, or totally, in severe cases. When you sit in a wheelchair, the average persons usually defer to you, even when they do not look at you; you are still an entity, but not complete; faceless, out of the game.

Therapy is supposed to bring you back into the rat race: to be employable again, to be competitive again with all the adjunct greed, envy, boot-licking, shoulder-slapping handshaking bribe-taking, and various contortions for positions. Or you learn to live a level down to a more quiet, sedate, comic-reading, DVD-watching, stamp-collecting existence. And sometimes type out, with the left hand, a blog of whatever runs through your mind. I remember telling a horrified therapist that the best doctors and therapists for stroke victims are those who have suffered a stroke themselves. Because then they will know exactly how we feel, so they will not call a patient lazy because the patient still refuses to stand and take the first strides to normalcy. "She is not lazy," I explained, referring to an elderly patient. "She feels she has become a burden now and she is afraid of standing and possibly falling and breaking a leg or an arm and becoming a heavier burden. Her stroke has already caused a heavy loss in terms of time and money. Her fear is not for herself but for her family." Even the fearful have courage.

Even today, I lack the sense to feel despondent. With my reckless lifestyle, I cannot blame anyone or anything else for what happened: I simply got what I deserve, and even survived to ponder and write about it. It's been a long time since I was able to shed my sense of schadenfreude: the malicious and hidden enjoyment people feel when others suffer a misfortune -- death, divorce, bankruptcy, ugly daughters, poor fashion taste, a new iPhone tossed by baby into aquarium, an expensive and mature Flowerhorn sick with indigestion. So I feel neither comfort nor consolation when, being wheelchaired to the therapy room, I pass by the Renal Section (I turn my head and look away from Oncology), where every day patients with impaired kidneys undergo dialysis to purge out the poison accumulated in their blood -- until money runs out or life mercifully ends. Former Managing Editor Fred Marquez described the process in an article he wrote for People's Tonight shortly before he died. (I paraphrase): "Dialysis is like riding a merry-go-round, you go round and round, feeling lightheaded and dizzy, until you can't pay for the ride anymore." Or the wheel suddenly stops. I can go on and on with stories of colleagues now departed, but what for? It's enough to know that the bell tolls for all. For the young, who shrugs at the fate of the old, as I once had, the Earth turns, like a merry-go-round, and the wheel stops for everyone.

Old sublifers hoard time as precious gems, so we don't count wholesale anymore. We retail day by day (but not by hours, that's for penny-pinchers). My personal math as of today goes like this: 57 years x 365.25 days = 20,819.25 days. My hair, what remains of it, has gray strays; my skin is a parchment marked by hieroglyphs of cat scratches; I walk like a pirate with a peg leg; my right arm and leg refuse to abide by the synapses. I'm worn out, jaded, a burnt-out case ready for the scrap heap, and I've lived for less what an iPad costs if each of my days is turned into a peso. Life in this context is cheap -- but still precious. I'd better stop: I'm getting morbid, and it's supposed to be a happy birthday, indeed.

Brain melted due to morbid thinking.

Before you measure the years, you measure the days.
-- Mitch Albom, "The Time Keeper"

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