Sunday, March 20, 2016

King of the Nile

(The flip-side to my other post about dying with dignity)

I have a senior friend that I absolutely adore. “Jerrold” and I get along so well that it feels like he’s become a part of my family, and that’s the way it should be with friends that you love. We take walks together a couple times a week and talk about everything from politics, weather, senior care and our respective health challenges. Despite what we’ve been told about the outcomes of our long-term wellbeing we still push ourselves to walk, read, think and do the best we can to manage our symptoms.

Recently while we were hiking in the desert, Jerrold asked, “Other than a river in Egypt, what does denial mean to you?”

I had to laugh. I hadn’t heard that reference to the Nile River in at least a decade. I thought for a moment and answered, “Well, in a rational-thinking person, one that has all his or her faculties, it’s to have all the data and yet still believe in something impossible. I don’t mean believing in a miracle (miracles do happen and that’s what makes them unique) but counting on something despite all the facts, like thinking you can fly off a balcony when you don’t have wings, something like that.”

I took a few deep breaths as dull pains moved their way up my calves. We walked past a golf course and I asked, “What does denial mean to you?”

“People keep telling me that I can’t do some things, but I do them anyway. I know my disease will get worse, but I keep walking anyway. I try to get better.” Jerrold hadn’t really answered the question, but I understood what he meant.

After a while, I added, “People don’t always think rationally. Some, like patients that have dementia, live in their own reality. Little children have their own reality, also. To them, if they say they can fly, they jump off of a pile of dirt and give it a try. Then they fall and learn not to do it next time – but look at the Wright brothers, they kept trying to fly. They kept building a better flying machine and eventually got off the ground. If not for them we might not have airplanes. Rational thinking can save our lives but denial of reality and thinking beyond what is real makes us better individuals and more interesting, don’t you think?”

Jerrold pondered this. We were getting closer to the pool where we planned to rest. “But I’m told that I’m in denial. I will never get better. I could just sit and wait at home to die. I think about moving to Oregon or another state that has assisted suicide.”

“Robin Williams had the same prognosis that you have. The same one! He gave up too early and broke all our hearts.” I silently pondered the joy that Williams had given the world with his wit. Then I remembered the heart-ache I felt the moment I heard about his suicide. The world seemed to tip just a little off its axis and things just haven’t been the same. I pleaded, “You can’t do that, please, don’t give up. You need to keep moving and getting better day-by-day!” Of course, Jerrold knows this already and that’s why he walks until the very day that his legs will no longer carry him.

We passed a pond at the golf course. It was being drained. I decided to throw Jerrold a life-line. “Like any river, the water in the Nile flows higher in the rainy season. Sometimes it’s lower during a drought, but it always flows. Reality is, if you’re in the middle of that river, you could drown. It’s still the same river despite the weather, yet we all face the power of that water in our own way. Faith is like an inner-tube. Are you going to swim? Are you going to hold on to that flotation device or just give into reality, let go and drown? What a rational thinking person does is hold onto that ring as long as he can, despite reality, yet he knows that he’s going to die! It’s like that with so many things. It’s a balance between reality and faith and it’s a balance between our own reality and everyone else’s reality. Just keep pressing forward and don’t give up.”

Reaching the pool, Jerrold said, “I like the way you think.”

Sitting there we spoke not another word and watched bathers enjoying themselves. The sounds of the lapping water were soothing. I thought about Don Quixote riding a broken down horse, battling a windmill with his lance. We all have our monsters to fight: disease, poverty, PTSD and doctors who tire of us patients asking for cures and treatments that don’t yet exist.

Maybe denial isn’t rejecting reality. Maybe denial is giving in. We know that today’s truth was yester-year’s miracle! Tomorrow’s reality is what we dream and hope for now. We have jets, cell-phones, computers, treatments for stroke, life-saving operations and transplants that were just someone’s impossible dream mere decades ago.

My friend caught his breath, stood up and was ready to head back to his home.

“Jerrold,” I said, “you can be the King of Denial. You keep dreaming and, who knows, you might outlive all of us.”

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