A life-threatening diagnosis like ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), cancer, or any of a number of fearsome health challenges can bring forth the best of our humanity — or cause us to react with anger, bitterness, and resentment of healthy others. Most often, it is a combination of the above. As a breast cancer survivor, I’ve been there, and as a psychologist and pastoral counselor, I’ve companioned others as they traveled that path.
Facing the possibility of death or a drastic change in one’s life puts one at a crossroads where the choices are not just left or right, but also the possibility of creating a new direction to our lives – a path of greater awareness of the gift of a day. Surprised by illness’s sudden entrance into our lives, we are often stripped down to the essentials of what is really important, whom we really love, and how we can live so as to make each day meaningful – because we know, now, that our days are numbered.
Lest you think I’m waxing melodramatic, I’m not . . . well, maybe I am. The reason is that I’ve just seen a powerful music video that moved me to tears. I stumbled across it on the NY Times website during my Saturday morning laptop ramble.
Although I had not heard of him before, Eric Lowen and his sidekick, Dan Navarro have been a musical item as a singer/songwriter duo for 20 years. Lowen was diagnosed with ALS in 2004. Lowen wrote the song Learning to Fall, inspired by his experience with ALS (and a book by Phil Simmons Learning to Fall: The Blessing of an Imperfect Life).
Some of Lowen’s lyrics:
I was young and knew nothing, now somehow I know even less . . .
Forgive my foolishness.
It’s so simple now, I’m sure what I like, who I love and who I’m gonna fight . . .
As long as there’s time on my hands . . .
I’ve had to run, I’ve had to crawl, be rich as a king, had nothing at all.
Still raising hell, tearing down walls, I know where I stand, I’m learning to fall.
It’s beautiful how new blessings unfold in ways
I could never have known,
I’ve still got some time on my hands …
Lowen recorded the song in 2008 (available on iTunes) with a group of ALS patients and families. The lyrics are sung with deep feelings — children and adults, some in wheelchairs, some standing, swaying to the music. ALS is a disease that inexorably steals every shred of dignity and independence we take for granted and leaves its victims unable to move, speak, or swallow. Yet, Lowen, who admits to facing “a scary prospect,” observes that life with ALS “is pretty much like regular life, just amplified.”
And that is the “gift” of illness that so many people remark on as part of the package of challenge and loss that life-threatening illness brings: the “gift” of a clearer vision of what is important, keener recognition of everyday miracles, an amped up sense of gratitude for love and friendship, and an appreciation of the thinness of the veil that separates this world from the next.
In the midst of my fight with cancer, I found myself drawn again and again (still do) to the psalmist’s words, “So teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Ps. 90:12). Lowen’s lyrics reminded me once again, and I am grateful.