Sunday, February 27, 2011

Live and Let Love

I really don't enjoy when I hear folks spitting out hollow and over-relied-upon platitudes -- There's plenty of fish in the sea! -- to get a point across, especially when spoken as if it were wisdom. If Yoda saying something can't make it sound wise, then no one can.

I'm here now to undo one common piece of mental fecal matter that people spout like so much diarrhea. That is this: you never really know what you have until its gone. The reality is that there are a great many things in my life that I have and I know that couldn't possibly live without them, many of "them" being people. My writing lately has tended toward the darker side of my thoughts; so this evening, I think I'll explore something to put a smile on someone's face.

My girlfriend and I have been together for two-and-a-half years, since July of 2008. She came into my life at a critical time and by a stroke of what, I thought, was sheer luck. As I found out some time later, she and my younger cousin had actually been scheming to introduce us for a while. At the time we were introduced I had stabilized some months before and was able to do a lot of things without the aid of oxygen.

She and I met in my cousins' basement one evening after I dragged my Xbox over to play Call of Duty with him and some friends. It was very dark and the whole time she had some annoying pop song stuck in here head about bees and them buzzing away or something. Because it was dark, I couldn't make out much about her appearance. In the dark basement she looked Mexican or Spanish, when she is actually Filipino; but, no matter, she's terribly cute (literally, she uses it as a leverage, mostly against myself).

We went on our first date just a couple weeks later, both of us having had sufficient time to Facebook stalk the other (don't deny that you do it too). For that date, we went and watched Wall-E at the cinema, not the ideal first date, but we were laughing and flirting so much during the film that we didn't catch a humongous portion of it (and no moviegoers were harmed in making of our date, the theater was empty aside from three sniveling girls sitting a couple rows above us).

In the weeks following that date, it became clear that this might be something that I was committed to- a situation I hadn't found myself in for several years. At this point, I decided to lay out, as plainly as I possibly could, what I was going through with my health. It came to pass a few weeks later that I was to be evaluated for my transplant, and with that came the explanation to her that this transplant was our last resort if we were to save my life. It was either transplant or die. She nodded her head dutifully and just said, "OK."

Yeah right, I thought. She was only 18 when all of this was going on. She has ambitions she wants to fulfill, parties to go to, and a lot of other priorities other than waiting around for myself, who, it should be noted, was quickly losing his ability to care for himself. Showering was no longer an option, getting to places around town required the lugging of a portable oxygen tank, which to me was like carrying a bag of bricks. I saw no way that this girl was going to be sticking around to care for some adolescent geriatric.

I pulled her next to me one day and explained to her that I understood that being there for a person in my condition was a difficult thing to grapple with, for anyone, but especially for a teenage girl who just graduated high school. I told her that if (or rather, when) she ever wanted to walk out because it was too painful to watch me suffer as I was, she could go and I would never hold it against her.

I'm not sure at what point I came to accept that she was going to stay with me. The day of the surgery, as the medical team arrived to wheel me into the OR, I leaned back (this is all from her memory, as mine appears to have been wiped by the drugs and trauma of having my chest tore into and a couple of vital organs removed) and shouted to her that I loved her.

"I love you too!" she shouted back.

During my recovery, she was there often throughout my days and nights. She helped me do things that would have been unthinkable if I were healthy. But in positions of weakness, as a person after transplant is, we have no choice but to disregard typical social rules. During this time, she actually found out that I have a penis! And she even stood by to help me stand so I could wipe after pinching a loaf.

I was embarrassed that I had to have these people --nurses, my family, and now my girlfriend -- watching and aiding me in doing things which were more often than not very private and disgusting. The thought entered into my mind at one point that what I had with April was too good to be real. How could this girl have the nerve and the affection to stand by me so closely and devotedly in such a pitiful state? That, in itself didn't make sense. But things only got stranger to me from there.

Now, as it was then, I'm back to the self I was before my transplant -- huffing down oxygen, shuffling through the halls, sometimes having no choice but to accept that I can't walk on a particularly bad day and instead have to ride a wheelchair. In this time, having April near me has become so much more important. She brings me comfort in ways I couldn't fathom before she was in my life, and especially before I nearly lost it.

Sometimes, she and I will lay in bed with her head on my chest and my arms around her. We don't have to say much, but her body demands that I not let go. Sometimes, she'll just look at me with her bright eyes and tell me how cute or "sexy" she thinks I am, at the same time I'm wiping my snotty and boogery nose with some toilet paper (Don't judge me. It's more absorbent.) and struggling to breath through my cannula. How can she possibly think this is sexy, I think to myself!?

Even when my intestine was hanging out of my gut and my bowels were draining into a bag on my stomach, to her it didn't matter.

I still can't look at myself so forgivingly. I know I can't help the state that I'm in, but I feel, so often, to be without any worth. I don't work, I've scarcely been writing. The only income I have is by way of Social Security disability, and I'm on Medicaid. Despite this, she not only stands by me, but does so proudly and with love.

Josh Harmon covering Bob Dylan's "The Man in Me":

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Eve of Destruction

It's an odd sensation being in the state I'm in. Clearly, I'm not receiving enough oxygen to function as I normally would. I know this because thinking complete, coherent and rational thoughts is becoming more difficult, almost daily. I remember back to months preceding my first transplant and how I recognized my diminished cognition as indicating it was time that I dropped out of school to focus on my health. At that time, transplant evaluation hadn't been placed on the table, but we knew it was coming, and fast. Also, judging by the ebb and flow of my breaths, how deeply my chest is reaching to catch a breath, I know it's time.

Like before, I feel like my mind and soul (whatever that may be) is diminishing more each day. I'm living in a state of limbo in regards to reality and dreaming. My memories, when I recall them to myself, increasingly take on the hazy and uncertain feeling of a dream as it's fading from your memory in the moments after you first wake up. My sleep is punctuated by brief interruptions where I have to take a moment to figure out where I am. Sometimes when this occurs, I'm still partly in the dream, and wanting to continue performing whatever task I was in the dreamworld, despite my surroundings clearly being those of my bedroom as opposed to whatever odd or fantastical lair I was inhabiting just moments before.

I've found lately that I feel a fear in my heart that recalls memories and fears I had just after my transplant. Each morning while I was recovering, some sort of machine, a street-sweeper, I'm guessing, would sweep the street seven stories below. It was a horrible, nightmarish sound to me. Normally I guess that it would have been no big deal, but around 4 or 5 AM each morning the sound would invade my dreams and torment me until I finally woke and preoccupied myself with some sort of distraction. The sound of that machine isn't around anymore, but the fear it introduced to my heart has resurfaced as the elements and circumstances of my life begin lining up to the way they were just over 2 years ago.

It is these elements that let me know that the time is coming, this week or the next, when I'll be re-evaluated for my next transplant.

Yesterday and today were particularly difficult days to function; partly because I've been sleeping poorly, but also just because my lungs are self-destructing, and bringing the rest of my body down with them.

I'm trying to decide what the proper course of action should be in this condition in terms of addressing the future, and my loved-ones who are as uncertain about my doom as I am. thus far I've been both trying to look ahead to a future where I'm still around and am living a mildly successful life, slowly fulfilling my ambitions, and also preparing myself for the equally likely scenario where I die. I had to make peace with the second scenario some years ago, and now I'm here trying to make peace with it again. The first transplant was such a slap in the face (not intentionally on anyone's part) but I feel my hopes were left so high in the wake of it, that the confrontation with reality, this time, is much more painful. I was so hopeful and was able to, temporarily, stop thinking about being dead. But the reprieve was brief.

I spent all day today dragging my feet around the house, feeling like a ghoul. On top of that, the pain my body is in doesn't make the ordeal any easier. While the meds ease my physical pain, they leave me feeling more drained and ghoulish then I would otherwise be.

In light of all this, I've taken to studying screenwriting, with the slim hope I find I'm good at it. The bitch of it all, however, is that as my body is able to utilize the oxygen it receives less and less, I find that concentrating on the information I'm supposed to be learning, becomes harder and harder to do; therefore, applying it less to the actual writing. I imagine that if I write something, it'll be one of the most imaginative and mind-boggling pieces of screenwriting ever- and a complete fucking waste of everyone's time.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Removing the Stigma From Mercy Killings

Bear in mind, the following documentary is not only contentious, but difficult to watch. It chronicles the last four days in the life of Craig Ewert, a university professor and ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's Disease) patient who chose to end his life with the help of the Swiss organization, Dignitas. The documentary shows Mr. Ewert drinking the sedative which will end his life and the moment when he is declared dead. Again, I encourage all adults to watch, whether you agree or disagree with Ewert's decision, but know that doing so is heart wrenching and difficult to bear.

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.



I don't even know where to begin talking about this topic, despite my strong feelings about it. But, what I'm trying to explore is whether people in free societies should be allowed to make the choice for themselves, with proper medical guidance, to end their lives.

Until recently, I had never really given the issue much consideration (also, for those who care, this has nothing to do with my current health situation. I am not considering this. I merely feel it to be an important topic). The inciting incident that caused me to start thinking about whether or not assisted suicide should be legal had nothing to do with humans. What started the gears turning in my head was having to put down my cat. Examining the logic and ethics of putting down our beloved pets, or unfamiliar animals that are merely suffering, has led me to the conclusion that for those who have reached a point in their life where living has become unbearable, as contentious as the act may be, it is a decision that a person ought to have the right to make.

Currently in the US, only three states have legalized human euthanasia- Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Several European states have adopted legalization, a fact which has led to the rise of what has been labeled "suicide tourism," where individuals from outside countries travel to a country that allows assisted suicide, or to a country with looser restrictions on it. Typically (I cannot speak too broadly because I just don't know if it is always the case) whoever goes through the process of arranging their suicide (along with those assisting) must clear a number of legal hurdles and undertake measures which ensure the law that the patient fully understands what it is they are doing, are competent to make such a decision, and have not been coerced or overly assisted (meaning the drug, and any other life-ending measures, must be carried out by the patient. The documentary above shows this).

For me, I can't say it took terribly long for me to come my own conclusion about the topic. In my mind, at least in addressing the question of legality, the equation is quite simple. What surprised me was that I hadn't given it more thought before just recently. Given my own health, and the horrible physical, emotional, and spiritual pains I suffered at the hands of my disease, I'm proud to say that I never gave suicide any consideration. But, as well, knowing what I know, seeing what I've seen, and feeling what I've felt, I find no difficulty in understanding why someone would consider it as a viable option, and in some cases, go through the arduous and costly expense of carrying it out legally.

What stirred me was a simple question- How come we can take our pets (or any animal for that matter) whom we feel are suffering needlessly, and without hope for recovery, in to a professional veterinarian, and with little to no need for approval from he or she, can end the life of the animal? Not only can we choose to end the animal's life under the right circumstances, we consider it to be the right and moral decision to make- to end the animal's suffering. However, when it comes to extending the same right to human beings (the right to kill an individual to ease their suffering) we, more often than not, deny them the right, and consider doing so to be immoral.

Is it because, as Craig Ewert contended, that people feel as if doing so is "playing God?" Is it because, as the Catholic Church believes, that it is a mortal sin? Maybe it's because people fear that loosening restrictions on the act opens the door too broadly for people to carry it out with reckless abandon, such as severely depressed individuals who, while suffering, could probably receive aid and continue living a good (or good-enough) life. Is human life just inherently more valuable than an animals?

In regard to the last question, I would say that many people, driven by a wide range of elements, would answer: "Yes, human life is inherently more valuable than an animal's." That is generally a point I would not argue against. Given that, as human beings, by virtue of the fact that we are the most mentally sophisticated and dominant species on the planet and are, thus, stewards of the world, we are more valuable. We have the ability (though rarely ever the will) to steer our planet, nature, and society in a better direction. However, what if an individual loses that ability, as in the case of Craig Ewert, whose paralysis was induced by his ALS? His paralysis left him crippled more than just physically. In his final days, he could no longer teach, nor barely move to even get around. The question is not to suggest that unhealthy or mentally challenged people are worthless; they are not, just look at Steven Hawking. But when a man comes to value his own life so little and when there is no hope for healing to occur, as was Ewert's circumstance, what value is this person to the world? Life for the mere sake of a beating heart is not life at all. If there is no person inside the flesh, what good is the flesh?

Additionally, before the thought enters your mind, I am not advocating killing the disabled, be they mentally or physically handicapped. But if a person with a competent mind makes it up that he would like to defy nature and choose when he'll pass, he ought to be allowed to do so without breaking the law. If he places no value on his life, or not enough to justify remaining, by what authority do we deny him the dignity of such a choice?

Are we playing God when we intervene to end a person's life before nature has dictated it? Perhaps. However, are we not similarly doing so whenever we take a Tylenol for a headache, or whenever we use modern medicine to intervene to save a life as opposed to taking it. The fact of the matter is that we have minds, and whoever or whatever has granted us the ability to apply our knowledge scientifically for the benefit of our species and the world, whenever we do so, we act as arbitrators of our own destiny, as gods. But, perhaps this is not the actual gripe those making this argument mean to make. Maybe "playing god" is not the problem, but rather choosing to end life rather than rescue it.

The issue, in part, comes down to human dignity and human rights. I do not have Lou Gehrig's Disease, but I can sympathize with Craig Ewert's position, to a limited extent. In the months leading up to my transplant, as my lung function dropped to a point where being mobile was not as easy to do, and as I continually lost weight in the battle against the multiple chronic infections raging inside my body, I began to see an image of myself as something of a shell- immobile, lying in bed at all hours of the day, unable to lift my own body weight, and dependent on others to do everything for me from cooking to cleaning my ass. It is not a life I would have chosen to live. However, I would not have given up so long as the possibility for transplant was real. Another patient who was there in the hospital at the same time as myself, and who had gone trough transplantation the previous spring, never gave up. All the way till he passed away, he maintained hope that he would be matched with a new set of lungs. Sadly, it wasn't to be. He passed away shortly after I received mine.

But what if there is no hope of recovery? What if there is no life saving medical treatment, and you know you are destined for a slow and agonizing death? I submit that the truly immoral act would be to deny that person the dignity to carry out one final defiant act so that he or she may retain some shred of dignity as well as end their pain. During my ordeal, I was forced to discard all expectations of dignity, if I was to be transplanted, that is simply how it must be. I allowed myself to be exposed to people who, under normal circumstances would never have even been allowed to see myself in my underwear, let alone naked. I received suppositories, had people wipe my ass, let them see me nude (those gowns are designed for quick and easy access to the patient's body). Making it bearable was the knowledge that it was not definitive- that episode was going to end, and I would reclaim my dignity at some point. But when that lifestyle is all that remains- suffering the indignities of not being able to contribute to your household, having to rely on others for your needs, such as bathing or even taking a bowel movement- coupled with having to bear on your heart, day in and day out, the reality that you are going to die anyway, just in a more painful and extended manner, it is right and just to grant them that last and most important of choices, without the shame of hiding from the law and becoming a criminal with your final act in this world. Denying them the piece of mind they seek is the sin.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Cat

This is my cat, Atlas. We had to put him down this past December. Having to put him down was one of the most difficult things that I've ever had to do in my life. I knew it was at the time, but I was reminded just a little while ago how much I really missed him. On occasion, I'll see something that brings back all the feelings I had from that day when we took him to the vet to be put to rest. This time it was a dream.

The dream was simple and unambiguous. He was just there, on my bed, and I called to him and he rubbed his head against mine. Dream over. I woke up, went to get a bowl of cereal, and as I did, my heart began to ache again.

We found Atlas at one of the pet adoption drives PetSmart or PetCo (I can't even remember which one) has on occasion. He was already about 3 months old when we found him there. He wasn't like most kittens who are clawing at their cages trying to get attention. He knew what he wanted, and it didn't have anything at all to do with other people. He was apparently pretty content with his present living arrangement that included his foster "parent" who was there looking for a good home for him, and her dogs (he was very dog-like).

No, unlike most kittens, he lay grumpily in his tiny litterbox that had been provided for him by his caretaker. Because of his lack of enthusiasm, it appeared the people shuffling around weren't terribly interested in him either.

I got a call from my mother who had passed by and decided to drop in because we had been looking for a buddy for our other cat, a Maine Coon, Baxter. "You have to see this kitten," she demanded with humor.

My girlfriend, April, and I looked at each other, bored, and figured that we might as well. When we arrived, there he was, curled up complacently in his tiny litterbox, not batting an eye. In all estimation, he probably didn't know what he was supposed to be doing there.

Asking the women who had brought him if I could take him out, she said of course. So, I opened his cage, wrapping my hands around his ribs and lifting him out gently. His ears were far too big for his head and hung to the sides making him look very Yoda-ish. As I lifted him out, he gave a grunt and a meow that said, "What the hell are you doing? Put me back!"

Initially, I just held him there in the air, examining him. His eyes were droopy and told me that he'd been through this before and that he just figured that it was part of some odd ritual he didn't understand, but had just come to accept.

Naturally, I wanted him. If someone had disturbed me while I was napping, taking a dump, or watching TV at his age, I would react with similar offense. The woman who'd brought him said she'd named him Atlas. This was perfect because I had already decided some weeks before that I wanted a name along those lines- drawn from mythology.

At this time, I was very ill and approaching the day when I would need a lung transplant. It was late 2008. After bringing him home, Atlas didn't take too long in getting acclimated with his new home and to begin terrorizing Baxter. Though Baxter, initially offended by his presence ("How dare you bring another Cat into my home!") he seemed to enjoy Atlas after not too long.

Additionally, Atlas and I didn't take long to bond. He enjoyed sleeping, and because I was on oxygen and not doing a lot of moving, he found comfort lying in my lap, most often when I would sit at my computer with my legs pulled up, Indian style. He was much smaller then, though, even as he grew, and outgrew the little nest he had made in my lap, he still loved laying there, despite having to hang his legs off.

As time wore on, he learned when bedtime was, and he would, without fail, push his way through the crack in the door to get at me and let me know it was time for bed, in case I had stayed up too late. If I didn't follow his command in time, he would just come and lay next to me, or in my lap until I complied. Often, he would try to keep me from reading, or playing Xbox if that's what was keeping me from bed. When I would finally comply, he would follow me in and make his bed at the end of the mattress, between my legs. I eventually learned to sleep bow-legged, on my back just so he could lay between my legs.
He would never stay all night. I would wake up the next day and he wouldn't be there. Though, more often than not, it was him who was waking me up in the morning with a little bump of his head.

It's becomes clearer to me each time something like this happens, just how important he was to me. When we brought him home, my life was in a state of great upset. I wasn't sure that I was going to be around much longer, I had started seeing April the month prior, but she was only 18, and given how grave my health was, I had no hope that she was going to stick around given that there was a very real possibility that I would be dead soon. I told her on numerous occasions that if she ever wanted out, she could go, and I wouldn't hold it against her.

Looking back on my relationship with Atlas, the fact of his importance in my return home and my emotional recovery following the transplant, is evident. I had been gone for well over a month when I came back from the transplant and I wasn't sure that he was even going to remember me, given how young and prone to distraction he was. But he remembered, and our relationship picked up as if there had been no interruption.

Losing him brought on a kind of emotional anguish that I've never felt. At first, a great deal of it was guilt- guilt that I had just killed my cat, that we hadn't done enough to treat whatever illness he had (we never found out), and guilt that, in the end, the decision, in part, came down to money. We were strapped and simply couldn't afford the five-hundred dollar bone biopsy the vet was calling for. There was no guarantee that the biopsy would provide any answers, or at least any that would salvage his life, but saving a life should never come down to finances. In this case, it's especially painful because it wasn't just the life of some random animal, but a friend. Now, the guilt has passed for the most part. I grieve now because I no longer have in my life that source of joy that I had for two and half years. People are always telling me that I made the right choice, that he's no longer suffering, and that "he's in a better place." These words bring me little comfort, especially the notion that he's in a better place. I find no reason to think that he is. I wish it were true, and that I might reunite with him again sometime in the future. But just because I wish it, doesn't make it true. So, please don't try to comfort me with these words. I know I made the right decision; however, it doesn't change the fact that he's gone.

Call me silly. I know many will feel differently, but I cannot bring myself to value my affection for Atlas, or Baxter for that matter, less than that which I feel for my human companions. Why should our relationships with them be considered less? Don't we feel similar feelings of pain and loss when they go? Why do we consider it odd (though heartwarming, nonetheless) when we see two other animals, who normally wouldn't be friends, sharing their affection with one another?












Why should it be odd? Because their minds aren't as sophisticated as our own? Clearly, love, friendship, and devotion are not uniquely human traits. Why do we think we're so special? Clearly, mutual self-interest drive any relationship; but, in the course of getting what we want and need, our selfishness turns to altruism. Examining this, I find the notion that animals don't practice morals, and that morals must necessarily arise from the supernatural, unconvincing.

I love my cat. I consider the love I feel for him to be as important as that which I share with humans. He was pivotal in bringing me back, both in my heart and mind, from the trauma of near-death. To make light of that would be as wrong as if I were to disregard the importance my family, especially my mother and April, played in my healing. For those of you with pets whom you love, how much happiness and joy have they brought to your lives? How unfulfilling might your unhappy and lonely days have been without their presence? Can you place a price on the pure, unconditional love they provide? How many other relationships do you have that ask so little of you in return for their love?