Well, it’s mid-December, and so it’s time for my third annual Holiday Letter. As I write this, I’m laying in bed. My trusty assistant, Louel, is typing for me. In the last year, there have been so many losses. I now do pretty much nothing for myself. Caregivers spoon-feed me, help me on the toilet, get me in and out of bed, dress me, and take care of all manner of Carla-maintenance. Some of these things are more difficult than others to handle, but you would be surprised at which ones are the hardest. Believe it or not, maybe the worst thing of all is not being able to pick my own nose. C’mon, you all do it. You just don’t let anyone see you do it. Or at least that’s what you think. When you’re stopped at an intersection, do you really think that your windshield and side windows are suddenly tinted? I see you with your index finger deep into your nostril up to your middle knuckle digging away. My problem is I can never be alone to do that. And can’t lift my hand high enough to get my finger into my nose. I think this is worse than not being able to walk. Scratch that. I know it is. And speaking of scratching, it sucks not to be able to scratch an itch.
So, here I am, in a wheelchair, unable to do anything other than talk (with a short of breath slur that makes people ask me to repeat myself a lot), think (which I do so well I can’t get to sleep), listen (which I love except when listening to somebody stupid enough to be stupid but not stupid enough to mock), and love (a renewable resource that grows exponentially as my ability to do everything else diminishes). I’m in hospice now and it’s pretty likely that I’m writing my last Holiday Letter. I don’t mean to get morbid, so I’m going to phrase the rest of this letter in groupings of fun facts.
Losing things is important. All the major religions understand this. The Catholics have Lent, the Jews have Yom Kippur, and the Muslims have Ramadan. Voluntarily losing things or giving things up is a gift you give to yourself. Think about all of the things in your life that serve as some kind of itchy fiberglass insulation between you and your happiness. Imagine setting those things free, depriving them of their importance. Then imagine how liberating it is to be free of that dependence: just like how sweet it is to taste food after your lips have denied it.
I lose things all the time and it has made me a stronger, better, happier person. But none of these things were my choice. Religious ritual demands a conscious sacrifice, not one based on fickle fate. So I have decided to give up something that defines me. It has been the source of my confidence and my self-esteem. It has been the thing, more than all other things, that has distinguished me from the pack. I am giving up my hair, which I will donate to somebody who needs it. It’s the first voluntary sacrifice I have made since I got sick. The other night, I watched “My Sister’s Keeper,” a mediocre film with a central theme, which, while not fully explored or exploited, was worthy of a Greek drama. At a certain point in the film, the young girl who has suffered her whole life from leukemia says, “Just once, I want to look pretty.” And so her mother buys a beautiful red wig, the thickness, color, and curl of which is like my own hair (which, by some miracle, has not yet gone gray). It made me cry. And at that moment, I knew that I had to give somebody my hair.
We need to lose things to know what we have. And I have a strong feeling that when I am a short-haired person, I will be just as strong and just as loved as I was before. Plus, I get the joy of knowing that someone will have gorgeous red hair because of me. Plus, it will be much easier to puke.
As I get closer to death, I believe that religion is everything and nothing at the same time. Religion has helped people I know kick addiction. It has gotten them through dark days and unbearable losses. It has helped them create some kind of container for the unanswerable questions that whirl around a taunting universe. Religion is also nothing because it doesn’t matter which one you choose. It’s kind of like going to Starbucks. No matter which one you go to, your non-fat mocha machiatto half-caf, half-decaf with extra whip will taste the same. “Oh really?” you ask. “What if it’s at a gas station on I-5 South?” Haha! Trick question. I happen to know that there are no Starbucks between here and Los Angeles along I-5 so my broad generalization about religion stands. In your face, lifers! (That’s what I call you healthy people…) Anyway, back to religion. It is absolutely irrelevant whether you pray to the East, don’t eat shellfish, or hide festively colored eggs in tall grass. Religion and death are both everything and nothing. If I die and discover that Oral Roberts was right all along, then I believe I will still go to Heaven because I’ve done no real harm on this planet and I’ve done a lot of good. If I’m kept out on a technicality, then heaven sucks because hanging out with Oral Roberts would be the ultimate buzz kill. There’s a wonderful quote from Arthur Miller’s play, “The Crucible,” when Elizabeth Proctor is asked if she believes in witches and she says, “I say, if I can live in this world and do only good and be named for a witch, then I say there are no witches in the world.”
Now let’s say the Buddhists are right and my lack of enlightenment causes me to be reincarnated as an ant, which concerns a couple of my loved ones. I’m pretty sure that if I’m an ant carrying a breadcrumb up a hill in a line with several of my ant colleagues, I will not be muttering under my breath, “Fuck. I’m a fucking ant.” That’s the Buddhist loophole. You have no memory of your old life, so who gives a shit? If the Buddhists wanted to encourage better behavior, they would have made us remember past lives so we could alter our behavior accordingly. That’s what you get for forming a religion before the creation of any of the Back to the Future films. Doc Brown and Michael J. Fox seem to understand a hell of a lot more about inter-dimensional behavioral consequences than Buddhists. (And no, I’m not talking about Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s. He, like me, is randomly lucky enough to be born Canadian and also like me randomly unlucky with the whole slow-debilitating-miserable-fatal-illness thing.)
Finally, if the Existentialists are right, and the after life is a vast, unremitting void—a black hole if you will—a place that is, by definition, the absence of awareness, then I’m not really going to give a shit, am I? Conclusion: People take death way too seriously. It’s really the transition that’s awkward.
So there are two things already that I don’t fear: Loss and Death. I told you this was going to be fun.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a tremendous amount I regret saying goodbye to. Numbers one through one hundred are of course Maclen, Maclen, Maclen. I heard my dear Dad talking to someone about the unnatural order of a child dying before a parent, but what about the unnatural order of a parent dying before their child has grown to be a man or a woman? I’m lucky because Mac is a man and if you read his recent blog post to me you know that he is also a wise man.
Not so fun fact:
I will miss so many events in his life that would have been major memories for me. I learned something, however, by reading his blog post (http://carlamuses.blogspot.com/2009/12/maclen-muses-happy-birthday-mom.html) as well as your blog comments about memories. I realize now that a lot of big events and a lot of major rites of passage happen invisibly. We don’t even know they are happening. A walk along the Embarcadero, a blown out bicycle tire, a knock on the door from an unexpected visitor. These moments are the major events when we open our minds and hearts.
When I was younger, I used to think that people who said “I love you” all the time were somehow disingenuous. I thought those words and those feelings were like the good china, meant to stay in the cupboard collecting dust waiting for special occasions. Now, I say “I love you” all the time and I mean it. I never did get good china, but if I had it I would use it at every meal. I remember my friend Moira’s dad testing the mighty Corelle Living Ware against the wall, which later inspired me to throw all of our Corelle plates against a wall with great passion and fervor. OK, so I was drunk at the time, but it was still this momentous thing like throwing the vodka glass into the fireplace or stepping on the wine glasses as the crowd shouts “Mazel Tov!” That’s the way we should tell each other “I love you” because all clichés apply here. Our lives are as frail as the finest china but they need to be lived as though they are as durable as Corelle. (This blog is brought to you by the makers of Corelle.)
The afterlife is only a concept. The things we value are only things. I look at my world and I look back at my life and it’s not the shows or the CDs or the degrees or even the fabulous shoes that matter. It’s you. And You. And You. And all of the people who have been my teachers, my friends, my accomplices and my family. My friend Kim has often compared me to George Bailey, from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” saying I was the richest girl in town. And isn’t that line why we watch that show year after year. Isn’t that why we wonder at the way we get choked up in the same spot as the crowded living room of friends and family sing Auld Lang Syne? Arundati Roy says that "the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don't surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover's skin. You know how they end yet you listen as though you don't. In the way that you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won't. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and their magic. ..."
We watch Peter Pan because there is a part of us that mourns growing up as we would the death of something pure and we clap louder than our kids when Peter asks “Do you believe in fairies?” There is a part of us that hopes every time that Romeo finds his true love dead, she will suddenly awaken and say “Don’t take that poison you dumb shit, didn’t you read the fucking letter?” You and Maclen have been my great story and until I stop breathing, I will marvel at the good fortune I have had to know so many amazing people and to have given birth to the most amazing guy I have ever met who is not just my son but my friend.
From now on, I will tell the story of how the worst shit storm rained down upon me and how the shit transformed into chocolates and butterflies, great friends and caregivers. I will tell the story weaving in the other great stories. I will tell the story that keeps being told again and again since Lou Gehrig referred to himself as the luckiest man alive of how a very bad thing couldn’t touch a very good life. Ha ha ALS, you suck, I win!
So in the words of Romeo, “Eyes look your last, arms your last embrace” and to paraphrase Frank Capra’s ZuZu, “Do you hear that bell? Teacher says that every time a bell rings, an angel is getting laid in heaven” and I leave you with my favorite line from Peter Pan:
“To die would be an awfully big adventure.”
Thank you all for being so good to me and Mac and happy whatever-the-fuck you celebrate.
Love Carla Bailey-Pan
Ps: Buy the damned calendar! Dying request here!