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Life in the shadow of Death... And Thank You

Posted Nov 05 2012 10:05pm
Every day on the news you see stories about people dying young--hit by drunk drivers or flying tree limbs, drowned in a hurricane, murdered. Even in the modern age, people still die of infectious diseases, and some are just unlucky enough to be born with genetic problems that shorten their lifespans. My own father died of a stroke when he was in his thirties. He had high blood pressure, and an aneurysm in his brain ruptured. I was only two, so the memories I have of him are either vague, or perhaps entirely manufactured from what I've been told about him.

I don't mean to depress anybody, just to state a fact: People do sometimes die young. I'm twenty-nine years old. People much younger than me have died. And sometimes I think about what would happen, if it happened to me--if I wandered into the road and got hit by a car, or got a particularly untreatable strain of my family's near-inevitable breast cancer early. Odds are against it, but it's not like it doesn't happen. I worry, sometimes, what would happen to my cats. My mom doesn't particularly like cats, and doesn't think it's a bad idea to let them outside. My first cat died of FLV, and my second was killed by a coyote, because they were outdoor cats, and I couldn't do a thing about it. I worry whether my mom would be too squeamish to donate my organs, if it happened to be possible.

I used to worry about whether there was really an afterlife, whether God really existed, but it's funny--nowadays, I don't, really. It's not that I don't still wonder; it's more that I've learned to accept the uncertainty, and come to understand that love is more important than faith... loving God, even if you're not sure he's there; loving others, even if you're not sure whether it matters; loving the whole world, even if you have no idea whether there'll ever be a reward in the uncertainly-existent hereafter.

I'm a scientist. I question everything, including the afterlife. I'll never have perfect faith. That's just the way it is.

One thing I thought of today was that if the unlikely did happen, and I did end up squashed under a car or something (or, let's face it, overwhelmed by depression and dead by suicide--though, those of you worrying whether I'm suicidal can be reassured that I'm not)... I realized that there are so many people I haven't thanked. I don't naturally connect with people nor keep in touch with them. Even my most treasured friendships fade because I don't really bother to call or write. It's not that I don't care... it's just totally counterintuitive for me to initiate social contact.

There are my grandparents--the people who first treated me like I was capable and valuable and worth spending time with. My grandmother made sandwiches and counted out the M&Ms exactly so that my sister and I got the same number. She hated neighborhood cats digging up her rose garden and used bone meal fertilizer anyway because it worked so well. She introduced me to music and taught me to sing. My grandfather took me on long walks and explained things to me about the world, about philosophy and religion and life; he didn't mind that I disagreed with him sometimes, and listened to what I was saying even though he knew much more than I did. We collected cans to turn in for recycling. I remember we found a dead nestling bird, and buried it, and said a prayer over the spot. My grandparents still send me birthday gifts and Christmas cards, and sometimes I even remember to write back.

There are the people who, somehow, looked past my obvious oddities and decided they wanted to be my friends. There were two girls in the sixth grade who used to talk to me. I didn't know what to do with them, but it was still nice that they didn't mind me. I used to show them how to do English assignments. There were the two girls at summer camp who taught me how to put my hair in a ponytail even though I hadn't showered in a week, and the boy who didn't mind my chattering at him about black holes, and was smarter than I was and could do math like nobody else I'd ever met. There was the English teacher who used to be an editor, who taught me how to write and wasn't afraid to mark mistakes on my grammatically perfect assignments because she knew I was ready to learn more than grammar. When I finally left home and went to school, there was a woman who was maybe five years older than the other students, with an eccentric personality, who first taught me that it was okay to be myself.

When I was struggling in school, now with a diagnosis of depression and PTSD and unable to stay afloat, some people looked past my insanity and scratched-up skin and decided I was worth trying to help. There was an assistant dean who let me stay in the empty dorms when I had no place to go during the summer and couldn't go home. She used to take me out for hamburgers and conversation and I think she truly saw me as an equal. There was the woman on staff who was also struggling with mental illness, and who gave me some tips on how to survive and took me to the hospital when I was in crisis. Above all, there were the people who called themselves "Insanity Unlimited", the school eccentrics, who introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons and became my first true friends. There were three girls I was especially close to; we wrote Lord of the Rings fan fiction and went to each others' dorm rooms for coffee. We went to renaissance faires together and I sewed my first Renaissance-era dress. You could see us around campus, wearing cloaks instead of coats. And when I was finally hospitalized and expelled for being "a danger to self or others", they visited me in the mental ward. That takes courage.

I have some professionals to thank, too. There's the nurse-practitioner with the autistic son who first thought out of the box and mentioned the possibility of autism to me. There are the people at the vocational rehabilitation office, who didn't dismiss me as unemployable. And now, back in school, I feel like I have an entire staff of people who are working to keep me enrolled and able to get my degree. The disability services office staff have helped me find solutions for my mental quirks, helped me connect with my professors, even let me sit in their office and cry without looking down on me for it. They argue with the government that I'm allowed to have an apartment and medical care, even when the government tries to throw a sticky web of bureaucracy over all of us. Lately, I've been assigned an aide who has helped me find ways to keep up with schoolwork.

There are the people in the labs where I've done internships... Me, totally fascinated but totally new to everything; them, letting me work on their research even though I could mess it up. Telling me what it's like to go to graduate school and what I have to do to get in myself. Patiently explaining graduate-level science to an undergraduate and not laughing at me when I inevitably get it wrong. Recommending journal articles I can barely understand, and then congratulating me when I show I do understand them, because they knew all along I could. When I worked in the lab I was almost a part of a community. They threw a party when I became a naturalized citizen, and my mentor went along to the court appointment and seemed even happier than I was.

I have friends again, too. We hang out and play role-playing games. The guys drive me home so I don't have to walk in the dark. I bring potato chips. We laugh at each others' bad puns and argue about game rules and comic books, and sometimes about philosophy. They don't seem to mind my particular brand of crazy. I'm better at communicating now than I have been.

I know I'm forgetting quite a few people. There was the guy who paid for my groceries when I couldn't remember my PIN to use my debit card, and the woman who ran a fast-food place and used to give me free hamburgers; there's the counselors, psychiatrists, and group leaders at the counseling center, where I go to a disabilities group and we get to spend an hour and a half a week in a place where disabilities aren't considered scary and foreign for once. I'm a part of a huge community--so many connections, so many bits of help. I couldn't do anything but survive, if I were alone. With other people helping me, I can give back to the community. Maybe even change the world.

We're all like that--all dependent on each other. You don't have to have a disability for that to be true. Humans are social creatures; we naturally empathize and naturally help each other. Yes, even autistic people--we may have trouble understanding other people, but we care just as much once we get the information. Forget all that survival-of-the-fittest crap; humans have never won out by being the strongest and most savage. It's our flexibility, specialization, and interdependence that gets us places. The fact that I'm here--alive--mostly sane? I'm living proof that connecting and helping each others is what humans are built to do.
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