Friday, October 22, 2004

... and then you die
Living is hard. Some days, it's really hard. Those up till 2 A.M. last night grading papers, waking up at 6 A.M. with a head full of phlegm and pain to face another round days especially. You can get so tired you wonder if letting the germs win would be such a bad thing. But then (if you're me) you shudder at the stacks of unfinished business someone else would be left to deal with and you drag your ass out of bed.

More then a dozen years ago, quite suddenly, my dad almost died. A few months short of his fifty-first birthday, he had a massive stroke. It didn't help that he spent more than a day lying on his office floor before anyone found him. When he was found and rushed to the hospital, the medical consensus was that he would die, or that if his body somehow kept functioning, it would be mere biological functioning and not anything like a meaningful life -- his brain would surely not come through intact. A few months of deep coma seemed to support the doctors' assessment. Even though it seemed way too early in my life for me to be losing a parent, a part of me started preparing for that eventuality.

It didn't happen. Against all odds, my dad came out of the coma. He fought to speak to us on the telephone. He went through months of grueling therapy to be able to walk again. The doctors didn't, in this instance, know what the hell they were talking about, and it's unclear just how much they contributed to my dad's recovery and how much was completely out of their control.

So, my dad still has some problems. Walking is not as easy as it used to be, and he has some problems with his vision and bits of his memory. But he has made a much fuller recovery than anyone could have predicted.

And ... every day he gets to struggle to try to get better. To get his body enough under his control to walk. To remember stuff he wants to remember. To read. His reward for not dying is the extra work of living with a body and a brain that no longer function smoothly. My mom's reward for believing he would live, when the doctors were arguing that his only remaining value was as a source of transplantable organs, is getting to nag him to do the hard work of getting better, and to take care of him in ways that he did not require care before the stroke. This, I am sure, is not how either of them imagined spending their golden years together.

If someone asked me whether my dad is better off for surviving his stroke, I'd be inclined to say yes. There are lots of important things he would have missed -- seeing his children graduate or get married, getting to know his grandchildren. But surviving hasn't been a pure happy shiny miracle. It's come with a great cost. In the normal course of things, at age 63, my dad would be dealing with very different kinds of things: Keep working or retire? Visit children or have a vacation away from family? Read a book or plant a garden? As things turned out, he's so worn out from just living that none of these choices are even on the radar.

Close as I am to this situation, it's hard to figure out what lesson I should draw from it. Should I quit my bitching about how tired my little life makes me? Probably. Should I make sure I don't see the value of my life as riding on my being able to achieve certain goals that may be put out of my reach by unforeseen events, like a stroke? Maybe. But if that's what I'm supposed to do, then I need to figure out what the value is of simply living, especially if simply living becomes very hard work.

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