Hamster Wheel

Monday morning, 4:18.

Rolling over to adjust my pillow, I hope I can get back to sleep. If I wake anytime between 2:30 and 4:30 a.m., that’s often a futile quest. Tonight is no exception, thanks to a dying battery in our smoke detector that prompts intermittent chirps—undoubtedly the reason I woke in the first place.

With Al’s help, the battery is disconnected and the house, peaceful once again. He falls back to sleep within minutes. But the dark side of my mind is on full alert.

As I lie in bed, I tell myself to stop worrying about a fire, now that the smoke detector is disarmed. This takes a while. I know it’s ridiculous, but it’s the anxiety witching hour.

My mind reviews the past day’s events. I had spent much of Sunday afternoon cooking a dinner that Al and I delivered and shared with friends, a couple we hadn’t seen in a long time. We’d been meaning to visit for months. The husband is a physician, recently returned home after spending many weeks in rehab after a freak accident damaged his spinal chord, leaving him mostly paralyzed from the shoulders, down.

Sharp as ever, he is reflective, soft-spoken, pragmatic. He can maneuver his electric wheelchair with a joystick and use a tablet and computer with adaptive tech tools. He intends to return, eventually, to teaching and practicing medicine. The couple’s courage, humor, strength and resilience are inspiring. We left feeling hopeful.

But as I lie in bed, trying to sleep, all I can think about is, What if?  What if I could no longer take care of myself? What if I could no longer get around on my own? What if that happened to Al? How would we cope?

I try to talk myself off the hamster wheel, but my mind won’t settle. Prayers, meditation, nothing works. I’m just too rattled. I think about how I’ve had the advantage of a slowly progressing chronic disease, which has enabled me to learn gradually how to readjust. Our friends’ lives were undone in an instant. Life is fragile. Change is the only certainty.

Hours later, after I finally get just enough sleep to be able to function, I discover a well-timed blog post in my email about the importance of living each day fully. It’s the obvious answer to the night’s fears.

Terrible things happen to good people who don’t deserve it—accidents, disease, loss, trauma. We can anticipate, maybe prevent, maybe avoid some of the worst; but, ultimately, there is no way to predict the bad stuff. The only way to contend with life’s inevitable risks is to live each day well.

Sunday evening, after our friend’s aide finished feeding him the spinach cheese casserole I’d baked, he turned his head to me and said, “That was wonderful.” Whatever fatigue and hand soreness I’d felt from working in the kitchen evaporated in that instant.

I share this not to brag, but to emphasize the point: The only way to contend with life’s inevitable risks is to live each day well. Sometimes that means just appreciating the fact that you can get up on your own in the morning, even when you haven’t slept soundly. Other times it means cooking a meal for friends who are going through a really rough time, even if your own hands don’t work the way you want them to—or simply savoring the food on your tongue, however you’re able to eat. Ultimately, it means being fully present, in your own life and for others, making the most of each moment, each hour.

I’ll try to remember that, next time I can’t sleep.

Photo Credit: Lewaedd-Q via Compfight cc

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

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