Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Algebra of Courage

When I talk to people about how I have Parkinson’s they often loosely throw around words like courage and hope and other things.  They talk about faith and being brave, and how I should never despair.  On the Easter after I first found out that I had this thing in my life I went with my family to church.  I liked our senior pastor very much and wanted to hear what he had to say. He talked about courage but the way he described it was in terms only of people who are seriously struggling.  He referenced people who are addicted to drugs, down on their luck financially, have marital problems, and a multitude of other challenges that make it hard for them to live their lives but make it work anyway.  

I thought the message was good and important but I also started thinking about some of the essential elements of courage.  I’m not sure, but I think courage is something we all possess no matter our circumstances. Everybody has to go out and face this crazy world of ours. Even in the safest spots, people deal with things that require courage.  Relationships, jobs, houses, politics, religion…you name it. Even if they are not awful situations they require a certain amount of courage to deal with, don’t they?

I like words, so I started focusing on the words I had been hearing lately.  I am no mathematician but I started developing a semantic algebraic equation about what I think courage is really all about.

I immediately threw out the term “Bravery”.  I think bravery is a term that must be reserved for people like soldiers, firefighters, EMTs, and policemen who go into situations where they are not sure if they are going to come out alive but do it still. It is a word reserved for all the people who put their lives on the line to make sure we are all safe and that we have what we need.

So what is courage?  Here’s my algebra:

Courage equals
Despair divided and diminished to near zero
By hope
Which is fueled exponentially by faith in something
In anything (religion, science, nature, your family, your friends, your doctors)
Minus fear

As I say, I am not a mathematician so I don’t know how to express this, even semantically, as a true equation.  I am pretty sure I screwed it up, but I don’t care.  As I put it all into order in my mind what helped most was watching my daughter.

This is the story of the worse day of my life.  My daughter was home sick.  We thought she had mononucleosis.  My wife took her to the doctor and just as I was heading into a meeting I received a call from her saying, “You have to come home right now.  Meredith is going to the hospital.”  A co-worker and friend of mine, named Janice, said “I have a car, I will drive you.”  She got me there as fast as she could.

When I got there I found my little seven-year-old with all kinds of tubes coming in and out of her.  My wife took me out in the hall while the doctor and the nurses were working on her.  I asked what happened. My wife said, “Apparently she is diabetic, she went into shock.  No one figured it out because it is not in either of our families.”

I sat down on a bench and started running my hands through my hair. The doctor came out. He said “That was a close one, but it’s how I get a lot of my patients.”  I asked him how close and when he showed me I didn’t like the size of the ring of his fingers.  I asked him, “What now?”  He told me she would have to be there for awhile and then she’d have to start the insulin routine. I thanked him and asked him what was the best thing that I could do. He said, “Just talk to her and help her to understand that her world is going to change a lot.  She basically has a non-functioning pancreas.  We’ll get her on shots at first and then we’ll get her on a pump.”

I went into the room where Meredith was lying.  I climbed into the bed next to her. She looked so small and thin. She said “Tom, I don’t want to this.” My daughter has always called me Tom.  I said, “Princess, we have two choices here. You can either listen to what the doctor says you need to do or you can spend all of your time in this hospital.  Which one do you prefer?”  When Meredith got out of the hospital, she followed everything she was supposed to.  A couple of times she had me prick my fingers or gave me shots of saline so that I would know what it was like to go through that. Her condition became the new normal in our life.

My daughter, Meredith, is now nearly sixteen.  She was award-winning soccer goalie when she was younger; she rode horses; she swam competitively and played water-polo, and she danced. She recently went to New York City to sing.  She is a talented actress. She makes cupcakes that you can’t even tell are cupcakes. Her dream is to open a cupcake shop in Seattle because she thinks people in the rain would like a good cupcake and a cup of coffee. Despite all that she continues to wear her pancreas on her hip.  There is nothing that limits my daughter and I love her.

I think she is the true inspiration for the “Algebra of Courage.”  She wakes up each morning without despair.  She has hope that people will find a cure for her disease, but doesn’t obsess over it. She has faith in her friends and family, and how she thinks about God. She fears few things…only the things every fifteen-year-old girl does.  Sometimes she is shy and sometimes, depending on the setting, she is incredibly outgoing and funny.  Aren’t we all?

Meredith has helped me a lot as I have adjusted to my new normal. I think what I like best about her is that sometimes, when I am getting too much in my head, she comes out into my studio with her ukulele and makes up silly songs about me…just like I did when she was a little girl, putting her to sleep.  It gives me great comfort.  I can do a lot of deep thinking about concepts like despair, hope, faith, fear, and I probably will continue to do so, and I’ll also probably write about them.  When it comes to courage, though, I just try to think about the algebra and Meredith. Then all is right with the world.