April 2018

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Skinny Legs and All

When I was in high school, I was 5'8"and 102 pounds. I remember those numbers because it seemed like I weighed 102 for ages. While my friends were already dieting, I could not gain weight. I was not sveltely thin: I was awkwardly skinny. If you watch the WNBA, the women's professional basketball league in the U.S.--You DO watch the WNBA, don't you?--you've seen DeWanna Bonner play for the Phoenix, Mercury, and when you noticed her legs, you busted out, "Wow! Those legs are like toothpicks! How does she stand up? Even when the spotlight's on her, she doesn't cast a shadow...." I know she gets these comments because I got them, too.

I remember going to the library one day in high school (I was, as I still am, a geek, so I spent a lot of time in the library.) As I entered, a table of boys, who had been talking, silently watched me go by. Finally, one spoke to the others, "That girl ain't got no butt!" He intended no insult: he was merely stating a surprising truth. 

I got no sympathy from all the girls on diets. At camp one summer, I tried to gain weight while my cabin mates tried to lose it. Each day, those on diets passed me their desserts at the dinner table, and I dutifully ate them up. Once, I was so hungry that I ate 14 bright red hotdogs in their buns with yellow mustard. I don't even remember being full after that, but at least I wasn't hungry anymore. 

The weight-gain scheme didn't work. I was a camp geek just as during the school year I was a book geek. Each day at camp, I ran from activity to activity: with waterskiing and sailing, basketball and riflery, there was so much to do. As the camp director encouraged us to do, I packed my days full. When there was a "jeep ride," popular with most campers because we got driven through muddy woods going fast and then stopped for an ice-cream treat, I didn't run to the jeeps like the others. I ran to the waterskiing line which would now be much shorter and spent my hours waterskiing while my dieting cabin mates ate ice-cream.

My cabin mates were not so geekily enthusiastic as I was: some of them were even "cabin squatters," a bad word at camp for people who hid in cabins eating from other people's care packages. Each Sunday when we weighted in at the infirmary, I had lost two pounds and each of them had gained them. 

Though I was athletic, being so skinny was not good for my basketball. (DeWanna Bonner must be super-strong.) I got pushed around under the boards. My coach would yell at me, "Edwards! Stick your butt out!" and I would yell back, "Coach, I ain't got no butt!" (I would also learn decades later that I had had a brain tumor that may explain why I was always unbalanced.)

When we played a weak team, our coach would tell us before-hand, "We gon' kill a gnat with a sledgehammah." Unfortunately, sledgehammers aren't especially effective at gnat-killing, and sometimes we got beat. At one game when I was a senior and still spending most of my time on the bench, the coach didn't play me until the end of a game against gnats, though it was clear to me that I could have helped the team but wouldn't get a chance, and our team lost unnecessarily. 

The next day, instead of dressing for practice, I walked into the gym and said, "Coach, can I speak to you in private?" I held my clean and folded uniforms in my hand. "Oh no!" he said and rolled his eyes. I had prepared a speech but my throat was too tight to talk, and I didn't want to cry. "I'm done with these," I said, handing him my uniforms. I walked out as he sat there.

I might have quit the team long before, but I didn't see myself as a quitter. I lived by the mantra I often heard, "Winners never quit, and quitters never win." I learned that day that stopping something that's painful and has no promise of getting better can be more courageous (and life-giving) than persevering. I learned to start thinking about when perseverance made sense for joy in my life and when it did not. 

This lesson was both important and painful when I left a marriage that didn't promise much joy, and I came out as a lesbian. Though that leaving and coming out were almost unbearably painful at the time, my life has been more joyful because I had the courage to choose my truth over the fear of what quitting might say about who I was. 

This lesson resonated again last night when a man my age came to talk about Death with Dignity ( with our class called, "Caring for Persons with Life-Limiting Illness." Death with Dignity, a legislative act in Washington state makes it legal for people who are suffering and terminally ill to decide to end their lives. 

Last night, the executive director of Compassion & Choices, an organization in Washington State that helps support people through this process told his own painful story: in 1994, his partner was dying of AIDS and was in a lot of pain and wanted help ending his life. The state's Death with Dignity act was not yet imagined, and so this man's partner died a long and painful death. As he told the story, a story he must have told many times, his face contorted in grief, and he began to cry. "This is unresolved grief from watching someone die so painfully and not being able to help," he told us. Most of us were crying at this point, too.

He was talking about the importance of a person's right to say, "enough" to all of the life-saving technologies we have. For health care providers, he distinguished between "quitting" on a patient and respecting a patient's self-determination and dignity. For patients, he distinguished between a patient quitting and a patient dying with dignity.

Already a bit exhausted from this presentation, our class then watched a film called, The Suicide Tourist, a documentary about a man suffering with a terminal illness who left the United States and went to ... was it Sweden ... to get help ending his life in a dignified way. As the man in the film prepared to board the plane, he said to his interviewer, "My next adventure will be the adventure of dying."

This man also told the parable of a man running from a tiger who came to a cliff and, having nowhere to go, scrambled down to a bush, where he hung over the chasm below, clinging to the branch for his life. He looked down in the chasm and saw a tiger below. A tiger above and a tiger below: each waiting for him. What did he do? He saw a strawberry plant with one perfect strawberry close by, plucked the berry, and ate it. "That was delicious," he said. 

And so perhaps I'm learning from my own brush with death and from the many people I'm interviewing who have experienced life-changing health conditions (some of whom will almost certainly die from their condition and two of whom already have). Perhaps I'm learning what Walt Whitman meant in Leaves of Grass when he wrote about dying people:

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And cease the moment life appears.

All goes onward and outward....and nothing collapses,
And to die is different than anyone supposed--and luckier. 

I remember reading this passage after my maternal grandfather had passed. I remember what peace it brought me at the time.

In yoga, too, I have been learning about death. I have been practicing for it. At the end of each of the many yoga classes I've taken over the past twenty  years, we do a pose that in Sanskrit is called Shivasana, meaning "Corpse Pose," in English. For a long time, my partner Ann and I called this "yoga nap," a restful time at the end of a day when were were present and not working: we were just being. This being as we practice for not-being is always a relief, a gift, as full of life as anything I know (except maybe a hillside of avalanche lilies in bloom). As Zen says, "If you die before you die, then when you die you won't die" (quoted in article "On Being a Support Person" in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1988, vol. 20, No. 2, page 158).

My own experiences near death have made me more conscious of my mortality than I had previously been. Though death was a possible outcome from my surgery ("It is brain surgery, after all," my neurosurgeon said to me), and death was likely without treatment, I did not think it was likely that I would die. I knew it was a possibility I had to consider, partly because I filled out so many forms about giving away my organs in the case of my death, identifying the person to make decisions in my stead were I unable to make those decisions, saying that I didn't want the use of excessive force, and so forth. (And then there was the car accident when there was no time for such forms, just a rush to cut me out of the car and whiz me to the local trauma center.)

My experiences and the experiences of others at the precipice teach me about dying and about living. I want to live truly and intensely. I want my life to be a gift. I want to savor that delicious strawberry. 

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