There are many things that can immediately shatter our illusions that we have any control in this life.
It’s great to feel in control. To be able to make the house payment every month, to have a good steady job, if you are a teacher, to have all of the students click, and be engaged and productive. Some people craft so that they can feel in control of their environments. Some hack (in the good sense), garden, or raise horses. You name it, we do it to feel like we are in control.
But there are forces larger than us in the world. They need only lift their heads and BOOM we realize the speck of dust in the universe that we really are.
One reason I am thinking about this right now is because of my brother. He recently got a double transplant: kidney and pancreas. He has been a type one diabetic since he was 11. Now, he is 47 and is no longer diabetic. It is a remarkable change for him – and what it will mean, we don’t know. Sure he can never have grapefruit again, but who likes grapefruit? Grapefruit interferes with the anti-rejection drugs that keep his immune system suppressed just enough that his body accepts the 25 year old kidney and pancreas.
A family lost their son – and my brother, thanks to the miracle of modern medicine, gets to live 20 more years. Helplessness magnified: tragic for the family of the donor. A miracle for the family of the recipient.
But that is only one reason I am thinking of this. I am also thinking of this because of my other brother. He was a drug addict. He never really got what I considered a fair shot at life. Eight years and an expanse of differences separated us. He was funny, sweet, kind, and dyslexic. In the deep south in the 70s – a beautiful place with beautiful people, few if any teachers knew how to handle this. Students with dyslexia didn’t get modifications. They mostly just got punished, held back and tutored, using the same methods used to teach other students, just more slowly. As a result, Ray soon recognized his weakness academically and did all he could to avoid school. He didn’t graduate high school. He was however a brilliant musician and song writer. And he was also a quite dedicated drug addict for many many years. As a family we experienced a lot of close calls with Ray that took us to the brink of losing him. But somehow he survived all of those. One day my aunt and uncle came by his house and saw the door open. They stopped, went in, and found him dead, the needle still in his arm. It was an overdose of concentrated morphine taken from a patch that killed him. I suppose no addict can be lucky forever.
Perhaps nothing makes us feel helpless as much as watching someone we love in the throes of addiction. At that point things like making money, paying for goods and being creative and productive are no longer priorities. The priority becomes saving that person. And trying to save them feels helpless. Watching them self-destruct and run to the door of death over and over again is horrifying. Ray got into the VA Center several times, after being on a waiting list. But then, he’d walk in, check in, and immediately – within days or hours or minutes – walk out. He’d walk miles to a bus stop, or he’d hitchhike or God knows what. He was a really good-looking guy. He could get people to do things like feed him, give him drugs, or even offer him a job! Absolutely insane. On the part of the family – total helplessness.
In the end, despite everything we did, there was only Ray, dead at the dining room table my parents still own, needle in his arm. And us – unable to even embalm him because he supposedly died alone*, he had to have an autopsy, and by then it was too late. We said goodbye to him when he was 31, in an open casket. Goodbye to a body that hardly looked like him. The strong jaw was collapsed, the skin sallow. Not my strapping young brother any longer.
Helplessness. It really makes itself known when dealing with addiction – and with transplants for that matter. Bobby, the brother who remains, has done well with the transplant. He has made it through. And as he sagely notes – it is not because of anything he’s done or we’ve done. Things just went this way thank God. He did all he could, and luck and modern science did the rest. Our fortune is someone elses’ tragedy. I think about the family who lost their son, and thank them and their son for the generosity and precious gift they have given my brother. We should all be organ donors – to my niece and nephew, the young man who donated his organs will be an immortal hero.
Addiction, and successful organ transplants. I agree they are strange bedfellows – but two sides of the same coin. Feeling helpless is okay when things are going well because we feel we must have done something right. We call this feeling “blessed”. The universe is on our side! Feeling helpless truly sucks when things are going badly. We must have done something wrong. Why are we being punished? We call this feeling “cursed”.
Of course neither of these perspectives are true. The reality is that if there is a plan it is far larger than any of us, and we are unable to see its ultimate logic. Any of us could be the addict or the transplant recipient. The universe is maddeningly neutral.
For now, I am enjoying a positive helplessness as my brother recovers and begins to experience the benefits of life without blood sugar highs and lows, constant blood checks, and insulin injections – oh and dialysis every other day. My father always said, “I’d rather be lucky than have good sense.” I didn’t know what that meant for a really long time. Now I do…and agree wholeheartedly.
*We believe, and my brother says he knows there were people with Ray when he died, but they fled because of fear of arrest or legal implications. They might have saved his life with a 911 call…but instead they just left. They came back the next day and opened the door to the house so that someone would come in and find him.