The Tree

Are you breathing? 

No. Okay, you have to remember to breathe. Take a deep breath. Good. Stop gritting your teeth. Well, try, at least. That’s good enough.

Now, focus. What’s necessary right now? Have it? No, not that. You don’t need that. You need this, this and this. Okay. Doing good. Still breathing? Stop holding it. Take another breath. Alright, progress. Stay with me here.

Let go of everything that doesn’t matter, and right now that’s everything except for these three things: breathing, getting this done, and not screaming. Okay maybe four things; keep trying to NOT grit your teeth.

You’ve got this. You’ll be fine. Breathe.

You keep forgetting to breathe.

I was auditioning for plays. I had my back to the directors – of which there were three, and was taking a moment to collect myself before I started. It was a combo audition. One audition, three shows. I had a monologue memorized and I felt pretty good about it. I turned around, smiled and launched into it. It was some spurned woman thing, it had a range of emotion in it that I thought would be good. If I remember right, I got roles in 2 of the 3 plays, but ended up performing in only one of them because of schedule conflicts. Nailed it.

It was the fall of the rheumatology diagnosis. I’d been put on drugs that weren’t necessarily working completely. My pain level was still pretty random, and the university I was attending was built on a few hills. Hills & Stairs University was its common nickname, and it was very well earned.

I’d already had my graduation ceremony, and I had 1 semester left. Because I was finishing in the winter, they let me choose whether or not I would participate in the Spring ceremonies before or after I finished. I opted to do it early. I remember ordering my robe and hoping to God that I would be able to walk that day.

“Are you going to walk?” People would ask me, when they heard I was finishing my Bachelor’s.

Good question. If only they had known how concerned I was about literally being able to walk across that stage.

I did just fine. There’s a picture of me accepting my diploma from the Dean of the school. I have a bemused smirk on my face, and an eyebrow cocked. I had been so focused on being able to walk, and just generally nervous about the ceremony, that I hadn’t noticed him until just then. I remember exactly what I was thinking at the moment. “Who the hell are you?”

HSU graduation

But that fall, walking was much more of a challenge.

There were days when my roommates would help me walk as far as I could. I’d be flanked by them, and go as far as I could handle before my knees couldn’t take it anymore. I’d focus on the cracks in the sidewalk and push myself. Every step took every ounce of my energy, and all of my concentration. I was lucky to make it to the corner and back. It took so much energy just to get that short distance, but I did it anyway.

Nowadays, I try not to do things out of spite for my own health, but in the beginning spite and anger were my bread and butter. It’s what literally got me out of bed every morning and into class. I was seeing an acupuncturist at the time who had me on the macrobiotic diet. During one session she informed me that if I really wanted to take care of myself, I’d quit school and focus on my health. I’ve never been a quitter. After she left the room hot tears of rage ran down my face and into my ears. No, I would not quit. My theater degree had been all I’d ever wanted for years. No one would take that from me. How dare she even fucking suggest it? Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.

So I took those short walks with my roommates when I could. I took the much longer walks past 2 soccer fields and up 3 flights of stairs to class. I focused on the ground as I walked. Slowly, slowly, slowly up the stairs. Sometimes someone would leave the door to one of the buildings ajar and I could use the elevator to skip a flight. Sometimes not. My knee joints ground together with every step, but I just took my time and got there when I could – the tortoise in a race with an imaginary hare.

Then there were the times when I could not make the walk. On those days, I’d be lucky to get out of the house at all. Making it to the living room was an achievement.

One night I woke up in the wee hours with a completely full bladder and knees in searing hot pain. I had two choices. Get up and use the bathroom, 1o feet away from my bed, or stay in bed and wet myself. I considered it. Could I go back to sleep, hold it until the morning? Nope. I was totally gonna piss myself. Alright. Roll over on your side, fuck yeah, that hurt. OK, now sit up. Never mind that you’re naked and you have to go out in the hallway. No one is going to see you, the roomies are asleep. Now stand.

I took one step. One small step in the dark, and came crashing down on all fours. Straight onto my knees and wrists. The pain was unbelievable. It knocked the wind out of me. I am still surprised that I didn’t pee myself right then and there. I think there must be some sort of reflex in your body that prevents you from urinating when you go into shock. It was impressive. Because I still had to go. Badly.

I crawled the remainder of the way to the bathroom in the dark, and levered myself up onto the toilet with the biggest sigh of relief.

“Oh, thank God. Oh, sweet Jesus. Oh, man. Fuck.”

I was stuck.

I wasn’t stuck in the toilet, mind you. I just couldn’t stand up. The thing that happens with an arthritis flare, aside from the pain, is loss of strength. Your limbs just won’t do what they used to do anymore, no matter what you tell them. No amount of cursing or coaxing will help, and believe me – sitting naked on that toilet in the middle of the night while my roommates slept on the other side of the wall, I tried.

I finally had to get help, or I would be there until morning. I started to bang on the wall. Each bang was more desperate than the last. I was humiliated, and defeated. It took my roommate what seemed like forever to finally come to the bathroom door to see what was going on. As soon as the door was open a crack, her eyes widened and I started sobbing. She shut the door quickly and offered words of encouragement while I cried myself out, then suggested that I grab a towel from the wall to wrap around myself and she would help me back to bed. Those 10 feet back to bed were longer than the 10 feet I crawled to get to the bathroom.

I tell this story now, and I laugh. It was ridiculous. But if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.

Later that same fall, I was on the floor in the living room. I don’t remember why – probably because the couch was too uncomfortable, but more importantly because I could not get up. Again. I could not get up and I was pissed.

I wanted to die.

It’s quite the thing to be in the prime of your life and then not able to get yourself off of the floor or the toilet in a matter of months. It makes you wonder why you’re alive at all. your friends are out partying and doing all the silly things 20 somethings do. The girls are on their backs having crazy young sex, and you’re on your back with only enough energy to stare out the window and damn God for your existence.

I can’t do it anymore. I can’t. I’m sorry. I’m not strong enough. The pain is too much. I can’t. 

No one answered. It was a beautiful day outside. The Northern Californian sunshine has a particularly shiny quality during certain times of the year. The sky is an almost absurd blue. The clouds look happy, and the breeze dances through the trees.

I don’t understand. I don’t understand why this is happening to me. Just let me die. Please, just take me. I’m ready.

I have tried to will myself to die exactly twice. The first was from an unbearably broken heart. This was the second time, and I had a lot more motivation.

Take me. I’m here. I’ll go. I want to go. 

Nothing happened.

I looked out the window to the blue sky, the happy clouds and the dancing breeze. There were trees across the street with gorgeous dark red leaves.

Give me a sign then. Tell me how to do this. I need you to tell me how to keep living. I can’t do it on my own.

That’s when I noticed my tree.

It was probably a plum tree. The blood red and maroon leaves flashed in the sunshine as the tree swayed in the wind. The wind got stronger, and the tree bent with it; allowing the forces of nature to have their way, but not breaking. The tree flexed and bowed, back and forth, letting the wind wash through it. Never giving up its roots.

As the tree danced back and forth like a waiving hand, it hit me with the utmost clarity. This was my sign. This was my message from God. This was how I could live my life. Nothing else mattered in that moment, except that tree.

I could not change the wind. I could not change life. Life would happen anyway, and I could either dance in its fury or I could remain rigid and be blown away. The pain didn’t matter, not in the long run. My anger was pointless. My body was irrelevant. It was my movement, or rather my surrender to the movement of the winds around me that mattered. How would I dance with my troubles? Clumsily? Sure. But all I was being asked to do was try.

Just try. Bend and sway, bob and dip. Try. Nothing else matters.

Now.

Are you breathing?

Good.

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