Back in August, I read a novel and it gave me, almost by accident, words that I’ve been searching for. The words were, “It was a condition he’d need to get used to, or to tolerate never getting used to—not exactly the same thing, more’s the pity.” Gregory Maguire wrote them about Liir, the son of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West and his loneliness, something I haven’t had to deal with in years. That freedom is a sublime joy that I’ve gotten very used to. The words apply to me when it comes to the brain damage and chronic fatigue that come along with MS.
The words express my problem. The reason why this is hard is that I keep expecting that I’m going to get used to it—that I’ll get over the loss. That’s the trick. You don’t get over it. That’s what makes it real loss. My difficulty in adapting has resulted from the fact that my goal for psychological healing has been too ambitious. This year of progress results from the fact I am learning to tolerate that I’ll never get over the loss.
Anthony Swofford said, “There is a wreck in your head, part of the aftermath, and you must dismantle the wreck, so you move it around and bury it. It took years for you to understand that the most complex and dangerous conflicts, the most harrowing operations, and the most deadly wars, occur in the head.” I didn’t understand it when I first read Jarhead, but I get it now.
This sense of loss will always be my companion. I will never be able to reflexively imagine myself as I am, to curb my ambition to my present capacity for achievement. I will always need to scale back and control as best I can for the disappointment entailed in always falling short of my ambition. I will do this for the remainder of my life. The pain and the shame are gone. But the sorrow will always linger. This is now my psychological baseline, my normal. Whatever else I will feel (and I will feel much, make no mistake, I am not giving up on life), this sorrow will underlie the texture of my emotional life. It is by no means all of me. But it will always be part of me. Though I did not choose it, it has become a fundamental part of my identity. So much for Schmitt’s assumption of existential identity—it turns out choice hasn’t much to do with it—at least not as much as we might like to think.
I now understand that those things that give meaning to our lives must perforce one day bring us to sorrow, for life is ultimately a matter of loss. Nonetheless, I am no longer depressed or dejected. To remain in such a state would be an immature response to life. Rather, I now understand that sorrow serves a purpose in the divine economy of our emotional lives. It brings awareness and vitality to our joy. I did not know to cherish the experience of power while I had it, while I could change the world around me and be productive, creative. I was too young to know loss yet. Yet the sorrow I feel for this loss, if I am committed to life, awakens me to my present joy. It reminds me to cherish what I have while I have it. It reminds me above all to cherish Craig while he is mine to love, before Death comes, for Death is coming.
When I was younger, this thought would have filled me with fear and desperation. It does no longer. For if I can fill my senses with love for him and truly cherish what God has given me in my partner, then, I know I will have sucked the very marrow out of life (even Henry David Thoreau has his uses, apparently). And my memory of him will be as full as possible and it will lend me comfort in my waning years. For if I am Christian yet, I know that love never dies. And if I have fallen from grace, the fullness of this memory of life lived in love remains the greatest thing I can achieve. My sorrow awakens me to what is most glorious in life. And whether my soul is immortal or not, it will have been beautiful. And mortal that I am, I cannot ask for more and so am content.
Because of the brain damage, my life is always accompanied by alarms set on the stove or my cell phone to remind my poor wandering mind to do things like take the laundry out of the washer and place it into the dryer, to take my medicines, turn on the broccoli streamer just before dinner. The alarm bells drive poor Craig crazy. It makes good thematic sense that God would give me another alarm bell. This sorrow, when it swells in my soul, is one more reminder to cherish Craig while he is mine to love. I who was once so distracted by the future needed this reminder to cherish my present and my partner. I have lost my formidable sense of focus so that I would focus on what was truly important before it is too late.
And so I am grateful. I hope I can carry this feeling with me as well. This must be my discipline.