Tuesday, September 10, 2013
A WEEKEND IN MILWAUKEE
I have spent my entire adult life with a man whose first instinct is always to help others. It could be that our mutual attraction took root for this reason. People who have disabilities have a natural affinity for those whose first instinct is to help others, particularly for those who do it automatically, making it appear to be effortless, seldom expecting either recognition or reward. I have benefited from the attention of many friends of this type, but only one of them has made the ultimate commitment of living with me. I have sometimes thought that my life mate is his own worst enemy. His helping costs him time, energy money. I have sometimes thought that I might be his worst enemy. I like to help others also, and many of the things I volunteer to do for others end up involving him as a support to my helping efforts. It did not surprise me when he offered to help me take aquacise classes. I had a bad back that needed pain relief. He said, “It won’t hurt me either. I feel a bit stiff when I exercise at the gym. Going to the gym was one of the things he did for his own benefit, but he looked for a way that he could help me at the same time. It didn’t surprise me when he offered to drive me to classes in the Alexander Technique. I thought it would help with my bad back. But it did surprise me a bit when he said he would also take Alexander instruction. “I could probably use a bit of help with posture and balance,” he said. We have spent many happy hours exploring unfamiliar cities. Last weekend we went to Milwaukee. Milwaukee is the city of historic breweries, and the filming of Happy Days. Its streets sport the unpretentious homemade brick buildings that formed the backdrop for the simple working lives of the likes of Laverne and Shirley. We did not have time to see any of this on our visit to Milwaukee. Our time was spent at a medical conference in a suburban hotel marooned in a concrete jumble of major highways, choked off by acres of parking lot that feed entry into the malls and restaurants of the big-box era. It was the kind of conference to which I am often recruited as a speaker on hope, a collective of knowledgeable doctors gathered together by a collective of tireless volunteers to provide information on a rare disease to patients and their families. If such a conference were held at an interesting location, I would go as a speaker, and my life mate might join me as a speaker’s helper. But this conference was different for us. Nobody knew I was a student of hope. In this strange environment where every person present was a new introduction, he was a patient, and I was family. “I’ll take notes on the presentations,” I promised myself. “I’ll wait until later to think about hope.” Much of the talk was about the consequences of cerebellar atrophy—problems with balance, with stiffness, and so many other things for which the medical profession has no immediate remedy through pills or surgery. Each of us filtered the information through our own experience, our hopes, our fears, the plans we ought to make. My life mate, we observed, appeared to be among the very healthiest of all the patients at the conference. His relative health might be attributed to our proactivity in noticing change and presenting the story to doctors. It might be attributed to our audacity in attending such a conference at an early stage. It might be attributed to chance. One theme wound its way through the endless data presented by the professionals. Each one of them stressed the value of taking charge. “Do all you can. Keep yourself in shape. Prevent yourself from losing ground. Exercise. Work with your abilities.” I thought back to things that had been helpful at early stages, to aquacise, to the Alexander lessons. I thought how those sustaining therapies had been put into place before we had the awareness to measure their effects, before we had acknowledge the influence of a problem that reached beyond the limits of the decline you can expect as a result of aging. And then I remembered that these things came to him in the process of his volunteering to help me. Could it be that there are times when those with the strongest helping instincts are not their own worst enemies? How often have I met wonderful people who, in helping others, have been their own best friends? Ultimately, when it comes to hope, the part of my world that is hopeful has, within its boundaries, a lot of helpful people.