My Favorite Deficit
Funny thing about MS—a fairly hilarious disease to begin with, rendering as it does otherwise normal people to a sort of cross between Jerry Lewis and Mr. Bean—is that everyone ends up with a favorite symptom. By favorite I mean one that is most prominent, most irritating, most debilitating, or perhaps all of these rolled into one. It is a disease, after all, of many symptoms, most of them on the strange side. One may have numb feet, or spastic muscles in his legs; he may have dizziness and labyrinthitis, paralyzed hands, somnolent sex organs. Quite common among sufferers is the visual malady known as optic neuritis, where one loses the sight in one eye for a period spanning anywhere from weeks to months. I myself have not had this symptom. Yet.
My personal favorite is the cognitive disorder. It is a significant problem for anyone who needs to think or function on a daily basis. In this case the maniacal immune system has targeted focal areas in the brain, frying little bits of gray matter like worms beneath a magnifying glass. At last count there were seven incinerated foci on my brain.
One worm that got fried was my sense of direction.
Last Monday, for instance, I got lost in a parking lot. I had stopped by this particular outdoor mall to grab a Starbucks on the way to pick up my son at school. It had certainly been easy enough to drive in to the lot and park in front of the Starbucks store, yet upon leaving I found that the avenues upon which I had entered had somehow vanished from the face of the earth. Nothing looked familiar. No matter where I turned, I would end up at the door of one store or another—Circuit City, Ross, Storables, Gap.
Now this might have been a perfectly convenient dilemma for my wife, one of those shopping sprees that were just meant to be, but I had things to do, places to be. I just wanted to get out of the lot, to find an actual street with four lanes of traffic, green and red signals, trucks and buses.
Say it all you want—Oh that happens to me all the time—but I know very well that I would not be getting lost in parking lots if I did not have multiple MS holes in my brain, at least not for the better part of an hour, and not on a regular basis.
I became more and more frustrated as the minutes ticked by, as every lane looped maddeningly back to square one. Here I was at Starbucks again, here again at Ross, now passing the same two couples at the table outside the Subway Sandwich shop.
Finally I spotted in the distance a large green sign—a freeway entrance! Directing the car toward that one beacon of hope, I managed at last to escape the lot—and though this is the entrance for North to Seattle, and though this was exactly opposite from the direction I needed to go, I shot thankfully onto the thoroughfare. Anything, even Seattle, was better than that parking lot.
Another thing I have trouble with is trips to the bank. I don’t know why my wife continues to send me, given my growing record of failures.
There is apparently a specific trip to the bank focus in the healthy brain that has, in mine, ceased to function, for I have no other explanation for the confusion that ensues whenever I am given a packet of money and a mission to deposit the same.
To begin with, I will without fail end up somewhere other than the bank—the Fred Meyer store, for instance, or my son’s school, or Hollywood Video. Immediately upon arriving at the wrong location, I will pick up the envelop containing the cash and recognize my mistake. I may, at this point, put the envelop into the glove compartment for safe keeping and go into the store to pick up some bread or milk. This soon becomes my purpose, and the bank is forgotten once again.
On those occasions when I actually do succeed in arriving at the bank, I will find, as often as not, that I have left the money at home. Or I will leave the money in the car and carry in something else to deposit—say a book by David Sedaris. Though the tellers may be familiar with Sedaris, they have yet to accept him as a deposit.
I cannot count the times I have taken my son anywhere other than school on a weekday morning. Being only eight, and full of trust, he will remain silent until we arrive at this or the other erroneous destination, then innocently ask what we are doing there.
The things that are regularly forgotten—aside from direction and purpose—include car keys, cell phone, wallet, checkbook, location of car, wife’s first name, and such-like. However, at least as I have found so far, one never forgets items of his personal clothing.
It occurs to me, with an intense sense of appreciation, how lucky a matter this is. Were the obverse the case, I blush to imagine how many times I might have shown up somewhere—the bank, for instance, were I to make it that far—without a shirt, or without pants, or worse yet without pants or underpants. It would be like living one of those dreams where one suddenly realizes he is naked. Mortifying!
The mind—even unplugged—is an amazing thing, is it not? No matter how it sputters and stumbles along, doing the MS shuffle, it never loses a sense of common decency. Ever since Adam, to cover his nakedness, grabbed the nearest thing handy, so have we immemorially remembered to clothe ourselves. Adam may have started out by forgetting God’s one command, but he sure never forgot to tuck himself into that fig leaf ever afterwards.
I read once about a woman who suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. Every time she left her house and drove off in her car, she would find herself believing that she had hit either a cat, a dog, or a child before traveling more than two blocks from the driveway. Therefore she would drive back around again—and again, and again, and again—just to make certain she had not run anything over. Not surprisingly, this woman never got much of anything done, so preoccupied was she in trying to find out what she had not hit.
Now this is worse than the MS, is it not? Which of us would not rather forget a thing from the outset than endlessly remember something that never took place?
It is all relative, as they say.
In her early 40s my first wife developed type 1 diabetes, a rather rare occurrence in an older person, as this form of the disease is often referred to as childhood diabetes. Our son also has diabetes, and has had since the age of 4. Now he and his mother must inject insulin every day, several times a day; they must adhere to an extremely restricted diet; they must suffer on a regular basis from the effects of high blood sugar or low blood sugar; and chances are pretty much one hundred percent—barring the train accident sort of caveat—that they will both die from complications of the disease, given the long-term deterioration that takes place in the vital organs.
Frankly, I would much rather have MS.
Pick a disease, any disease.
My brother died at the age of 30. He died from a rare form of cancer. Over the course of a handful of months he suffocated to death.
I’ll choose MS.
My father and my mother also died of cancer, though both in old age. They were supposed to die of something by that time anyway, right? My mother handled her cancer pretty well because she also had Alzheimer’s disease and did not know what was going on anyway. My father struggled all the way out, swinging fists at the ghosts of fate, kicking and growling. The last thing he said to me, lying in his hospital bed, handing me a set of nonexistent keys, was “Go get the car, son, and bring it to the front—we’re getting the hell out of this place.”
By contrast, MS seems rather benign. It seems rather comfortable and slow. It meanders along, gives you a chance to become acquainted. It is sometimes even interesting to spend time with.
Some years ago I spent five days or so in Savannah, Georgia. I had just split up with my second wife, was still at the center of all the pain, regret, recrimination, renewal, and what I remember most through what was otherwise a blear of beers and Bloody Marys, is how I had to learn to negotiate the oppressive humidity of that deep South city.
I began, of course, with no idea of what I was up against, and attempted therefore to walk along at the brisk clip that is customary here at my home in the Pacific Northwest. Within five minutes the sweat was dripping from my head and neck, soaking my clothes, causing the fabric to stick to my arms and legs.
I had to learn to meander. I had to learn to saunter, no mosey. I had noticed along my way that the traffic lights seemed significantly longer than those found anywhere else I had been. I realized that this was because they had been automatically set to mosey time. I watched other pedestrians, those I supposed to be natives, as they ambled slowly on their way—with plenty of time to gaze about, answer the cell phone, fish in the purse, light up a cigarette, smell the flowers, admire the tall trees lining the parkway with their long webs of gray moss hanging down like gossamer robes from the highest to the lowest limbs.
And I thought to myself that perhaps it was time to amble a bit more on my way through life. Goals are fine, achievements all good and well—but we may be in danger of failing to appreciate the wonders of the process, the myriad sights and sounds, the faces and places, all the fabric and color of immersion in that which is life. No matter what else comes with it—love, joy, pain, disease—it comes only once—blades of grass one day, fuel for fire the next.