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Journal

A Little Something in My Throat

When I finally coughed it up, it was no bigger than the head of a pin. It was a minuscule bit of cheeseburger that I had accidentally aspirated while polishing off dinner over Futurama re-runs. All that panic over something so small; all that terror in such a tiny package.

All day, I’d been telling myself to attempt to walk the four hundred yards to the beach. I’d been going to pulmonary therapy for a couple weeks, so I was trying to push myself physically in ways I wouldn’t have before. I’d decided to try it after I swallowed that last bite, so maybe I was rushing it a bit.

I have to pay unusually close attention when I swallow –even just saliva– because I have to time it carefully with when I breathe –to which I also have pay unusually close attention.

It’s a dance that feels increasingly fraught as my disease gets worse. Nearly every breath feels as if it’s the first one after staying underwater just a bit too long, so I don’t have a lot of time to play around if something goes awry.

Categories
Memoir

First One’s Free

‘…Almost every adult I knew smoked. Cartoon characters smoked. To complain about smoking was almost rude, like being a vegetarian.’

The America I grew up in was dusted in ash and studded with cigarette butts. Everyone smoked everywhere, all the time: hospitals, grocery stores, movie theaters, high schools  –and no one thought a thing about it.

By the end of the 1970’s, when I was a boy, the entire country was like an over-flowing ashtray that had been filling up since Prohibition. The public spaces looked like a morning-after coffee table, and people just didn’t give a damn anymore.

They stubbed out cigarettes on shopping cart handles, on grocery store shelves, on the carpeted floors of department stores, on the tabletops at restaurants and bars. Nearly any flat surface was a socially acceptable option when it came to snuffing out your coffin-nail.

Part of it was just the times. America was grubbier then. There was a sort of gray film that coated everything and the whole nation had the feeling of being worn and lived-in, like a building that had seen too many tenants.

It was completely normal to see someone answer a telephone, pick up a pencil, and start writing on the wall as if it were a notepad. People tossed garbage from car windows without a second thought. People poured used motor oil straight on the ground.

It was like we were all just renting the place.

Categories
Journal

NFQ

When I decided to start this blog a couple months ago, it was out of desperation. The sense that I was running out of time was palpable. I had butterflies in my stomach constantly and I was an emotional wreck, being crushed under the weight of impending doom. I had no hope and didn’t expect to get any.

In just a few weeks, my outlook has improved dramatically, even if my situation hasn’t.

Writing has been a big part of that. I had things inside that needed to be outside, even if I didn’t know it, and finally getting them down on ‘paper’ has really improved my mental health.

A bigger part, though, has probably been starting pulmonary therapy two weeks ago.

When I started, it had been years since I’d done any sustained physical activity, and I just didn’t think I had the ability anymore. I envisioned nothing in my future but a rapid, unchecked decline in my lung function that would eventually lead to my death.

But in just four sessions at the gym, I’ve already seen improvement. Slight, it’s true, but improvement nonetheless.

More important than the measurable (if minor) physical improvement, has been the immeasurable boost to my confidence that has come from being able to push myself past my limitations –to exceed what I believed to be possible.

That boost in confidence has given me hope and a renewed desire to keep pushing, to keep fighting, and to Never Fucking Quit.

So, tonight, I’ll watch the sun drop down into the sea, basking in the last rays of the day, and luxuriate in the beauty of my lazy little town.

Then, tomorrow, I’m gonna drive that hour-and-a-half up to Astoria, walk into the therapy gym, and I’m gonna get to work.

Categories
Journal

The Comforting Roar of Eternity

Sometimes, usually at night, when the tide comes in, I’ll be sitting here in my living room, windows open, watching TV, wondering,

“What the hell is that roaring noise?”

Then I remember it’s the Pacific, just over the berm, clawing at the beach, just like it has for 200 million years –long before any of my kind were around to hear it. It puts me in my place, this ocean.

So I mute the TV and listen to the closest I’ll ever get to eternity whisper in my ear.

“You don’t matter.” It says. “You are nothing. This is all nothing. None of this means anything. I will be clawing at this beach 200 million years from now, long after your kind are gone.”

There are people I know who would consider this discouraging, or terrifying, or even heresy or blasphemy. But for me? It is a comfort like a mother’s embrace.

“It’s all been OK.” It says. “All you’ve worried about, and fretted over, and tortured yourself because of during long nights of doubt? It’s as insignificant as beach sand. It all gets washed away, eventually.”

And some part of me wishes that it weren’t true –that I’d mattered somehow. But I’ve seen enough of death to know that the ocean isn’t lying.

We fade within two generations, often sooner. We are sparks from a bonfire: beautiful, blazing, unique, and soon forgotten.

But that’s OK. It’s OK to be a spark that is born, rises, touches nothing, and fades away. That is the cycle. That is life.

That’s the truth the Pacific knows.

And sometimes, when I mute my TV, it whispers it in my ear.

Categories
Memoir

The Runner

Dragline: You’re an original, that’s what you are! Them mullet-heads didn’t even know you was foolin’!
Luke: Foolin’ ’em, huh? You can’t fool ’em about somethin’ like that. They broke me…
Dragline: Aw. All that time, you was plannin’ on runnin’ again.
Luke: I never planned anything in my life.”

Cool Hand Luke

I’m not sure that I’ve ever made a truly considered decision. I don’t recall ever making a life-altering choice after careful research and deliberation. I have never faced a daunting challenge and weighed all of my options and their possible repercussions to arrive at the best course of action. I leap then look, and have all of my life.

On the day I joined the Army, I had awoken that morning with no inkling that I would do so. I was largely homeless at the time and needed a job –a job that would hire me, train me, house me, feed me, and clothe me. I just happened to be walking past the Armed Forces Recruiting Center when I realized this, so I walked on in. I had no real affinity or preference for the Army, they just happened to be the only recruiters who weren’t at lunch.

Categories
Memoir

Drowning On Air

I was twenty-nine years old when the doctor gave me three-to-five years to live. I had a rare genetic illness called Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency that, in it’s worst form, caused early-onset emphysema. I had the worst form. A lung transplant could prolong my life, I was told, but it was a very risky with a mortality rate of around 80%, five years after the operation, and an eventual failure rate of 100%. Not to mention that the lung transplant was far from a cure: with the associated medications, lifestyle changes, a certainty of organ rejection, and still-present disability looming over transplant recipients, it is often described as trading one chronic illness for another.

There was no possible happy ending to my story. One way or another, my illness was going to cut my life short.

It was June, 2002 –over eighteen years ago– that I had to start trying to wrap my head around that fact. My children (now grown college students) were infants. Looking back on my twenty-nine year-old self from the perspective of the forty-seven year-old man I am today, it feels like I was not much more than an infant myself. In the time that has elapsed between then and now, I lived a life and tried to realize some dreams. I had highs and lows, successes and failures, wins and losses that I could not have imagined, sitting there in the doctor’s office, eighteen years ago.

And now it’s all coming to an end.