Accepting the Unacceptable

I recently saw a documentary called Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me (Flooks, Lichtenstein & Tempest, 2018), about the life and death of Teddy Pendergrass.  For those of you who don’t know, Teddy Pendergrass was a soul singer who became popular in the ‘70s. But at 31, at the height of his fame, he had a bad car accident that made him a quadriplegic. Fortunately, he was able to breathe on his own, talk, and raise his arms half-way.

Understandably, he fell into a deep depression. Can you imagine? He went from being a famous, successful star to suddenly becoming some guy in a wheelchair; hardly able to move. He hadn’t invested his money well and didn’t have much to support himself and his family. Talk about changes in identity!

            He ended up going to a therapist who was also in a wheelchair. Session after session, Teddy showed up, but finally came to the conclusion to end his life. His therapist told him that he had a moral obligation to tell his family his decision, and Teddy agreed to have one last session with all of them there.

            When the time came, his family begged him not to take his life, but Teddy was adamant he was not going to change his mind. On the way out the door, he said to his therapist, “Well, I probably won’t see you again, so good-bye”.

            His therapist hung on to the word “probably” and then suggested the most surprising thing: that he set up a time for his family and close friends to get together and stage a funeral for him, during which time Teddy would be covered with a sheet. He was not to say a word while everyone spoke about him as if he were dead.

            After everyone finished, the sheet was lifted and he said, “I want to live”.

            He then concentrated on building up his strength and because he was able to lift his arms, he could exercise his lungs and was eventually able to sing.

            His therapist, who hadn’t been in a wheelchair that long himself, said, “saving his life was like saving my own”.

            I love this story. Not so much because he went on to find fame and fortune again, but because he took his suicidal thoughts as far as he could without actually playing it out. This unorthodox ritual is finally what it took to turn him around and give him the inspiration he needed to find purpose in his life again.

            I wonder what his friends and family told him that changed his mind? What would I say to a loved one in a similar situation? Why hadn’t their desperate pleadings in the therapy session make a difference, but what was said in the funeral did. What would I want to hear if I were playing dead?

            What would you need to hear to help keep you going in the worst of times? Can you tell yourself these things now? How do we accept the unacceptable in our lives? What abilities do you still have, and what can you do to continue to develop them? Can you find purpose and meaning in your life just the way you are? What do you value about yourself? Can you ask your loved ones now what they value about you, what it is they would miss if you were dead?

            This movie, too, reminded me of the book Tuesdays with Morrie, a true account by Mitch Albom (1997). Morrie was Mitch’s mentor who ended up having a terminal illness. Morrie decided that he wanted a memorial service while he was alive, so that he could hear what it was that people loved about him. His thought was: why wait until I am dead when I can’t hear what they say?

            Would you want to do the same thing?

Would I?

Envy

I am seriously envious. My sister just came back from China. She went to a huge Chinese wedding. She climbed a mountain that looks just like the pictures you see; swirling fog at the base of the mountain, steep inclines, wild orchids growing on the side of the cliff. She hiked the Great Wall. She ate exotic foods and met all kinds of people. My sister is 52 but has the energy of a 20-year-old. She lives in Massachusetts and in five days will fly out here to California for 5 days!

I’m bright green with envy. Glowing. You can see me from miles away. I want to travel too. And often. And go just about anywhere. She sounded upbeat and as full of enthusiasm as a puppy. I told her “I wish I had about 1/3 of your energy!”.

I grew up in a family where travel was our middle name. We lived in California 9 months out of the year and 3 months on the east coast. Before I had problems with seizures and severe sleep deprivation, we went to Europe: Denmark, France, Italy, Greece. I went to Jamaica with my parents and Trinidad and Tobago. Guatemala and Honduras. Traveling is in my blood. And now? Now I don’t drive outside of my hometown. If I go anywhere else, I have to have a caregiver take me, and then usually for a doctor’s appointment a half-hour away. I did manage a trip back east last year with two caregivers, but it was brutal getting there: I felt like I had to slay a few dragons to get there.

In my fantasies, I’d like to live back east part of the year. I’d like to travel to Asia – Bhutan maybe? Thailand, Nepal? I’d like to go to Africa, too, but I’m not sure which country. Europe: pick a country, any country. I’d like to go to Alaska and see the Denali National Park. I’d like to go to Nova Scotia – just ‘cause. Costa Rica for sure. Australia and The Great Barrier Reef. Tahiti. The Caribbean. I want to see the Taj Mahal. Machu Pichu. Findhorn. Stonehenge. Victoria Falls. I’d like to hike, swim, zipline, snorkel, scuba, snowboard, hang glide, surf and kite surf.

So… I’m just a tad envious.

Which brings me to the topic of complaining. As someone with chronic illness, I feel like I’m not supposed to complain too much. There are always others worse off than me. So, I should be grateful for what I can do. As a society we love the “super crip”- the differently abled people who not only never complain but are able to do extraordinary things. Someone without legs managing to run a marathon with prosthetics. Someone who is blind who climbed a mountain. Someone who has Crohn’s disease becomes a medical doctor. These are all commendable achievements to be sure, but what about the rest of us who don’t accomplish such feats?

Personally, I think for most of us, it’s a feat just to make it through the day. For someone who suffers from depression to get out of bed. Another to walk from the bedroom to the living room. To get through one more day of pain without thoughts of suicide. To be able to balance a check book, make a meal, sweep the floor. Hold down a job.

 In the middle of writing this, I took a break and walked outside. It’s been raining lately, and everything is so green. There’s the dark green of the pine trees that line the driveway, the ends of which are lighter from new growth. Cattails below the house shimmer a soft green that sometimes darkens when clouds pass by. The tall grass in the meadow is a shiny lime green. Green is a beautiful color with so many shades.

So, are there various shades of human emotion: fear, irritation, rage, excitement, sadness, and yes, envy? It’s human to have and feel emotions. To get stuck in them and have them eat a hole in your stomach or heart is something we want to avoid.

When I came back from my short walk, I felt something inside shift. I sat down and listened to the rain that started falling – a beautiful sound. I glanced at my cats who were sleeping peacefully. And I sat with my envy, green and glowing. It’s a beautiful thing too! A human thing.

And so, when my sister comes to visit, I will hug her hard, and squeeze her hands, and ask her more details about her adventures and look at her pictures on her iPhone. And I will be happy for her. And I will be grateful I have a sister who I love and loves me back.

And I will probably bring with me a touch of green envy. Emerald? Perhaps ivy? I’ll decide then.