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Lost in space

One of my most deep seated irrational fears is being lost in outer space. Being lost, alone, surrounded by this vast expanse of loneliness – that is the fabric of my nightmares.

“If you die in space, your body just keeps moving until something hits it. Then the pieces keep moving. It doesn’t decompose,” I remember my middle school science teacher telling me. My revulsion was immediate and visceral. It seemed so unkind that space didn’t even offer this last kindness, the ability to disappear and be forgotten. You would be all alone, with no chance of help, and when you die, your body will memorialize this helplessness and despair, forever.

It feels hollow and soundless when I think about space – the ultimate loneliness. Sometimes when masto is too much and I am tired of living in a world that isn’t safe for me, I hide in bed with my feelings, and they are hollow and soundless, too.

A woman I sort of knew killed herself this morning. She had a young son with mastocytosis, and I knew her in the way I know many masto parents – I answered questions for her. I knew very little about her or her family or her own poor health. But her death has started a larger conversation about support that I think needs to be had, and I think we owe it to this woman to have it now. Because even if lack of support was not the reason she ended her life, it is definitely the reason many people in our community have contemplated doing the same.

Let’s pretend that you, my audience, are healthy. Let’s pretend you don’t have any chronic health issues. You’re walking down the sidewalk one day, listening to music on your Iphone and get hit by a car. You are taken by ambulance to the hospital and are relieved to find out that while your leg is broken, you are otherwise okay. Your leg needs some surgery and a cast and you will be good as new soon. You have your surgery and you go home.

Except what if eight doctors looked at your xray and told you your leg wasn’t broken but you could feel the bones shifting? What if you couldn’t bear weight on it, if your pain was excruciating, but they insisted you were fine? What then? What if you went home and stayed off your leg until you could figure out why it hurt only to be called lazy and lucky to be able to stay in bed all day? What if your spouse was upset that your leg hurt too much to move around the kitchen and cook dinner? What if your family members told your kids that your house was dirty because you were lazy and making up the pain in your leg? And what if you find a doctor who sees something on your xray and agrees to work with you, but your family tells people this was all your fault for going for a walk that day or listening to music or being outside? What if the people around you not only denied your condition, but actively refused to support you? What if they made you feel guilty not being unwell as if your sickness was your fault?

This is what life is like for a lot of mast cell patients. I hear from patients all the time that their spouse doesn’t believe they are really sick. I hear that their mother told their kids that they are lying. And for parents of sick kids, I often hear that one parent won’t acknowledge or learn about their kids’ disease. It is discouraging and horrifying and dangerous. Because just like ignoring a broken leg won’t make it heal, pretending someone doesn’t have mast cell disease won’t make them any less sick. It will just make them more alone.

I’m fed up with watching people I care about struggle with family members, friends, coworkers, etc, who feel that acknowledging and accommodating their disease is too much to ask for. I’m tired of my friends crying for support when they are alone in the ICU, going into shock in their home, because their family members won’t help them. This is abuse. No one deserves this.

To everyone who has a chronically ill person in their lives: If you are not helping, you are hurting. When you tell us we are faking or being dramatic or exaggerating, you are chiseling off little slivers of our being that we will never get back. You remind us that we are not worthy of help and sympathy in your eyes. You force us to stop asking for your support, until sometimes it becomes too much. Sometimes when you scream for so long and no one cares, suicide can seem like a relief.

I am very lucky to be well supported now, but I know the pain of begging someone to take care of you. It feels like a great dark expanse, weightless, silent and endless.


World without end

I have absolutely no idea what I did on July 8, 2011.  I’m sure I did mundane things and stayed up late.  I didn’t write in my journal.  It’s funny that I don’t remember this day, one of the fault lines along which my life split. 

At the same time that I was ambling through a normal day, my cousin was climbing over his futon to hang himself outside of his bedroom window.   Almost an hour later, first responders took him to a hospital.  He was resuscitated after such a long time that meaningful recovery was impossible.  
My cousin and I grew up together, less than two years apart, but drifted apart once we hit high school.  There was never any animosity, we just didn’t really see each other much anymore.  We still knew each other in the way you only can if your mothers are close – we heard about each other, all the highs and lows, but had little actual contact.  It had been years since we had seen each other, lots of hauntingly near misses.  I regret deeply every one of them.
My mother called me early on the morning of the 9thand told me what had happened, that he was in the ICU.  I called around to mutual childhood friends until I found someone to grieve with.  There wasn’t much to say.  Together we went up to the hospital that night. 
There were a lot of people in the waiting room for my cousin.  He had a lot of family on both sides, a lot of friends.  We ran interference with the staff while his mother smoked in the courtyard.  At his mother’s behest, I grabbed his chart off the wall by the nurse’s station and flipped through it.  I explained the medical terms, a hollowness expanding inside of me.  And then, when there was nothing else to do, I went into his room to visit with him.
He looked fine.  The fact that he looked fine made it much harder.  He literally looked like he was going to open his eyes and start talking.  There was a bandage covering the thin red line encircling his throat.  His neck wasn’t broken.  The rope had compressed the vagus nerves, cutting off communication from his brainstem to his vital organs.  It had probably happened in less than a second.  He had probably been dead in just a few minutes. 
I talked to him for a while.  I reminisced for a while, shared funny memories with the otherwise empty room.   I thought about how long it had been since we were children.  I thought about how long it had been since he was truly happy. 
My cousin lived for 13 days in the ICU.  It was awful.  We all knew he would never wake up, but it felt like not hoping was a betrayal.  So we carried this sharp and dangerous hope inside of us, and it tore everything around it.  I wish that he had died on July 8, that I had never had to see his body shudder with artificial ventilation.  I wish that I could remember him as he was, all of it, until that day.  I don’t want this ugliness to be part of his story.
Late on the night of the 20th, my friend called to tell me that my aunt was ready to let him go.  I went to the hospital.  I opened his eyes to see them one more time.  I checked his non-existent reflexes out of habit.  I told him that I would see him again, somewhere in that world without end.  I told him that I forgave him and I went to go get drunk with his brother. 
On the morning of July 21st, I opened my eyes into a world in which my cousin was no longer alive.  My sister and our friend, my cousin’s best childhood friend, drove 80 miles to the campground we all had gone to every weekend and all summer long for most of our formative years.  We drove slowly down the dirt roads, the air thick with nostalgia.  We swam in the river and lay on the beach, smaller than I remember. 

Our friend climbed high into the rafters of one of the sitting areas and wrote my cousin’s name in thick bold lettering.  He wrote dates below it, just numbers and punctuation, and the time they spanned felt short.  It all felt very wrong.  Watching him write, I knew that we were too old to be here, in this place where we had grown up. 
But in that moment, my memory stretched back 15 years, to the summer of 1996.  I could see all us running over the packed dirt and concrete, doing cartwheels over picnic tables, laughing.  We were all young and plotting and exploring.  He was having fun.  He was happy and safe.
I like to think that heaven is a lot of things, the best moments of your life played out over and over again.  I like to think that everyone who was present in those moments is present for real in heaven, because it’s the culmination of all things in which all boundaries are lost.
In one part of heaven, I will see this: a big group of kids at a secluded beach at the bottom of a steep dirt hill, jumping off a dock and swimming in the river.  This is the story I want – the one where he never left that summer.  He is still 14 and he never finds drugs or depression.  And in this story, I remember clearly that we were all happy once.  For a brief moment in time, we were all happy together.  That is what I want to remember.