In the Phoenix summertime, without sunscreen (it didn’t exist back then) I would tan “brown as a berry”, 1950s-style version of good health. I was six, eight, then ten. I loved moving close to the earth, somersaults & cartwheels, and I loved being airborne when I danced and did arabesques or grand jete’s. Or those glorious milli-seconds mid-dive, after I sprang from the board, and soared, self-imagined-swan, chest forward, arms extended out like wings, then hands clasped in front of me to form an arrow’s point before slicing the water. The shock of the public swimming pool’s ice cold water never ceased to exhilarate.
I thought THIS is who I am, who I will always be. A strong, healthy, physical me.
At eleven, my physical form, strength, and abilities diminished after a minor joust with the polio virus. On a summer vacation in San Diego, I’d been sick, a flu-like illness, a mysterious back pain. Months later, it was the P.E. coach at school, Coach Tamaryn, who noticed I was dragging my foot. I thought — if you could call it a thought — I was shuffling a pre-teen cool in my flip flops or flats.
Diagnosis came 3 years later at age fourteen and with it a realization I no longer belonged in dancing class. I’m sure I was grief-struck, but I don’t remember crying, or talking about it. I tried to steady and steel my mind, while worrying about my unsteadiness in recently-acquired inch and a half high heels. About my possible pitiable status as a teen-age poster child. Un-loved would be bad enough. Pitiable was unbearable. I tried to pass, a technique I’d already developed as the only Jewish girl in my genteelly anti-semitic community. I knew about passing, and shame. Being a Jew? Being lame? What was there to be ashamed of? If you believe this, we can stop right here. Shame is a thief in the night that steals a child’s soul.
I’m almost sixty-eight now, instead of eight, eleven, or fourteen. I’ve left most of my shame along the roadside a few decades back, some of it, more recently. My aging pancreas (or related metabolic processes) are having difficulties. My blood sugar has been slowly but steadily trending upward for the last decade or so. I come by this honestly, which is to say, genetically, rather than the current American way, which is through over-eating and obesity.
My grandfather had “late onset” Diabetes, and my mother’s sugars run high too, though at ninety-five, she is still in the “pre-Diabetes” range. I am still “pre” too, that is if you consider full on “Diabetes” the State of California, “pre” from Nevada to the Mississippi River, and “Diabetes Free” east of there. On this map, I live in Reno, just a few minutes over the border.
I eat healthy. I meditate. I exercise. Christ. I’m a nurse. I know what Diabetes can do to a body. It’s not pretty. I know we can control some of this by life style choices. Not eating sweets or too many carbs, and getting exercise. The body doesn’t lie. But, even the truthful and strong body ages, falls ill. Like an old car, wears down, wears out. You can (and should) be dutiful, and take it in for maintenance every six months. The car that is. The body, that’s another thing. A 24-7-how-can-I-service-this-vehicle-for-my-spirit-and-soul-while-I-am-on-Earth? thing. And, I do. (Sounds like a marriage vow. Ha! It kind of is. Til death do us part. Me ’n my body.)
I’m one of those people who is never surprised by a bad diagnosis. Polio? Diabetes? Whatever. Partly because I’m a nurse. Partly because I’m my father’s daughter. Because stuff happens. There’s no “why me?” The guarantee of a life is that it comes to an end, at some point. For me this is not morbid. It’s reality. Some thing is going to take us off the planet. To make room for the next generations. Etc. (I love how Stephen Levine talks about this in his great book “Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying”)
Also, there’s this wonderful little video of Stephen.
As an eight-year old, death felt wrong to me. To be given SO MUCH consciousness and affection for life, only to know for certain it will be snatched away some day. That realization was a crisis for me then. Now, It feels less wrong. Not entirely ok. Something I contemplate, as Carlos Casteneda suggested.
I try to find the balance, acceptance of mortality (which aging, not to mention illness, portends) and at the same time, do what needs doing. Kaiser emailed me the numbers. My doc emailed me the facts “your blood sugar remains high”. I wrote back “what can we do about this?” “Medicine” she said, “when you’re numbers are one point higher”.
Hmm, I don’t do well with western drugs. I’m like the canary in the mine. Drug side effects take me down. Being mindful, being a nurse, being a canary, I notice things like side effects. I’m hoping for alternative, health-preserving approaches. I hope to stick around awhile in the best health I can summon. “Reno” isn’t necessarily my exit ticket from the planet. Still, it gives pause. (They don’t have M&Ms, morbidity and mortality “rounds” at the hospital for nothing). The body has to, and will, die of something.
At eight years old, I first realized that. Now, sixty years later, I’m still wrapping my head around that long-impending reality, as well as present day health issues. I’m aiming for equanimity, acceptance, and yes, my old diver’s grace, if not in my body, then, in my mind. Who knows how things will go? I figure if I live and love as fully as I can, I’ll have a better chance of a graceful exit, full of appreciation. I want to leave, a fine example of Mary Oliver’s poem “When Death Comes”. I want to have been not just a visitor. I want to have been the bride and the bridegroom.
* thanks Lisa for this humorous and resonant phrase “this pesky attachment to life” and for time spent in the Delta, each of us working on our own “un-attaching”, while appreciating our lives, sisterhood, the singularity of a field daisy and a tree full of not-yet-ripe pomegranates in the community garden of Locke.
“When Death Comes”
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.