This past week, America and the world lost a brilliant and inspirational figure in Dr. Charles Krauthammer due to cancer. He was a Harvard trained psychiatrist, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for his posts in the Washington Post and a conservative commentator on television. He was brilliant, mild in his quiet approach and always well-spoken and well versed. It is said by those who knew him and worked him, when he began to speak whether in an interview or on a panel, everyone paused to listen.
Charles was born in New York in 1950, brought up in Montreal and reared in the Jewish faith. His father, Shulim Krauthammer, an Austrian/Hungarian, his mother, Thea was born in Belgium. The couple met in Cuba. His parents were interested in all things and taught Charles to always explore, discover, investigate and learn. Charles went to McGill University and Oxford where he met his wife, Robyn. They had one son, Daniel and Charles was utterly devoted to him. They both are still living and it is said his son looks exactly like his father.
When Charles was a first-year medical student at Harvard, he and a friend decided to go for a quick swim before playing tennis. When he dove into the pool, he hit his head on the bottom of the pool, breaking a critical cervical vertebra and severing the spinal cord. As it happens, his class was studying the nervous system at the time and he knew, immediately what had happened and knew, in that moment his life would be changed forever; as he lay on the bottom of the pool. His friend, assuming he was “fooling around” took a minute or two to realize something was terribly wrong, before diving into the pool to pull Charles out. As fate would have it, there were two books laying on the side of the pool with his belongings. One was “The Anatomy of the Spinal Cord” and “Man’s Fate” by Andre Malraux. One must question if this was Charles fate or simply a tragic accident? For those of us who live with the ongoing results of chronic suffering, pain and disease, is it our fate or just some random act of choice by the powers in charge of this thing called life? Does it matter? Would anything change if we were to find the answer to that question?
Charles, with an amazing determination and indomitable spirit, insisted on finishing that year and medical school. While in the hospital, lying on his back, he had the nurses and his friends place two medical books above his head in a holder so he could read them. He explained later, in an interview he had them place two books so the nurses wouldn’t have to come in to turn the pages as often. Stubborn, determined, inspired and immediately facing the reality that was to be his life, he completed medical school and became a doctor of psychiatry. He spent the rest of his life confined to a wheelchair with only partial use of his arms and hands. He drove a specially designed car and it is said, he scared the life out of everyone who rode with him as they clutched their arms rests.
He always had the philosophy while growing up as a Jew and a scholar, he did not like to stereotype others and did not. After his accident, he was determined he would not be defined by a wheelchair. In an interview for the Post he stated, “I don’t like when they make a big thing about it and the worst thing is when they tell me how courageous I am. That drives me to distraction. That was the one thing that bothered me very early on. The first week, I thought, the terrible thing is that people are going to judge me now by a different standard. If I can just muddle through life, they’ll say it was a great achievement given this. I thought that would be the worst, that would be the greatest defeat in my life—if I allowed that. I decided if I could make people judge me by the old standard, that would be a triumph and that’s what I decided to do. It seemed to me the only way to live.”
He quickly discovered psychiatry was not for him. In an interview in the Washington Post in 1984, he stated, “Everything I’ve gotten good at I quit the next day to go on to do something else.” He went on to have a brilliant career in journalism and politics, writing about them, being a critique when necessary but always forging ahead. When in medical school, majoring in the field of psychiatry, he was required to attend several weeks of psychoanalytic, personal assessment. He refused to go because he did not believe in the procedure and did not think he needed it. His professor told him, due to his accident and condition, he was in denial. Charles replied, denial was a form of coping and was working out well for him. He only went to a few of the required sessions.
I love that about this man. Personally, I love and use denial as a form of therapy. If I had to face the harsh realities of the four diseases I live with daily, the storm that is raging in my body, I would be mentally paralyzed. If I let myself worry about the consequences of metastatic breast cancer, if I stayed awake nights worrying about the choking complications and eye destruction of Sjogren’s syndrome, if I became disheartened over the joint destruction of relapsing polychondritis, what kind of a life would that be? Certainly not any kind of life I want to live.
As an RN and a writer, I have communicated with thousands of individuals over the years who suffer. They suffer loss of bodily function, the ability to do their former work and often their marriages and friends. Millions of folks in America alone suffer from debilitating diseases and disabilities. Crippling, chronic pain can cause such confusion, derangement of thinking, loss of social life and depression, that alone can be enough. Now many of us are constantly faced with ignorant, heartless physicians, other doctors who have been put into a pinch because of the illegal use of opioids and we are being denied help. Whether they take the form of disease or accidents of fate, adjustments are thrust upon millions as they were and continue to be thrust onto me.
When we realize our bodily engine and outward form which moves us from place to place has been altered, life stops. It stops. One’s mind is a whir of confusion, anger, doubt and question upon question. When we realize it is forever, it makes inconsequential all those people who approach you or reproach you by saying, “Are you feeling better yet?”
I am always tempted to say, “No, and I never will be.” I know this is a statement most people cannot understand and unless they are a person who is meaningful in my life, I usually offer some polite, positive reply like, “A bit, thanks for asking.” Eventually, we realize choice is ours. The choice to be as happy as possible. The choice to seek the best medical care possible. The choice to surround ourselves with beauty of every form we can find. The choice not to be bitchy. The compromise becomes less bitter and if we can reach a place where questions of the circumstances we’re in no longer matter, we can look forward to each new day. I am free when I realize my choice in life are in my hands and in my hands alone. The opinions of others don’t matter because I try not to let them. I don’t judge them and hope they don’t judge me. Ignorance is rampant in the world and one cannot escape exposure to it whether it is from a relative, an acquaintance or a physician. It’s sort of like the flu. Every once in a while, you catch it.
I’m a person of faith and believe in a loving God. I don’t blame him for the state I’m in because I trust His plan for my life. This kind of belief allows events in my life to occur that I like to call “God moments.” They are gentle whispers of reassurance that He cares for me and watches over me as He watches over a single sparrow hopping on the branch of a bush. Last week my husband and I decided to take a trip out to our new Walmart. We are a small county and have not had a Walmart previously, although in other areas where we have lived we always liked them. I knew it would be difficult for me, but I, long ago decided, one can’t sit at home all the time. I took a pain pill, half of a muscle relaxant, grabbed my purse and my cane and we were off.
My eldest granddaughter is a camp counselor in Texas for the summer and I wanted to send her some “goodies” to eat and enjoy. It’s always fun to get a box in the mail when you’re away from home. I decided on baking brownies and seldom make them from “scratch” any longer. I had two boxes of my favorite brand, Ghirardelli in the cupboard. When I made out a short shopping list I added another box of them to my list, to replace those. Well, the new supermarket combination everything you can imagine store was huge. It was interesting but much walking was required. I told my husband I was tiring and my legs, ankles and hips were all beginning to throb and I needed to go. He told me to go to the car and he’d check out our items. I decided to stay with him because although exhausted, I wasn’t sure I could find our car in the immense,new, fully packed parking lot in which the rows had not yet been numbered. As we were standing in line, I said, “Oh dear, I didn’t get any new brownie mix. I’m afraid one of mine at home might be outdated. Oh well, I’m hurting much too much to look for one now, so it will have to be fine.”
As you know, in all markets, folks often dump an item or two as they get up to the check stand because they change their minds or their children have placed an item in the cart the mom doesn’t want. As we progressed toward the checker, and it became our turn to check out, I looked to my right, and there, on the counter next to the magazines was a box of Betty Crocker brownie mix. I picked it up, with a smile said to myself, “Thank you Lord,” and put it into our cart.
That night after resting a few hours I went down to mix up the Ghirardelli brownies I had in the cupboard, yes, both boxes. I wanted to get them in the mail to arrive before the weekend so they would be fresh and load up my grandchild and whoever she shared them with. Two full pans went into the oven, I didn’t think to set the timer and went upstairs to lie down. I laid down on my heating pad, turned on my laptop and got busy. A half-hour after they were supposed to come out of the oven I glanced at the clock in our bedroom by our TV. I let out an expletive, indeed I did, and got downstairs as fast as I could, which isn’t speedy. All I could smell in the air was delicious chocolate, perhaps a bit overdone. There they were as I pulled them out of the oven. Two pans of my beautiful Ghirardelli brownies looking lovely but a bit dark, refusing the insertion of a knife except for the middle of each pan which, by morning were bricks of a chocolate persuasion. I almost broke the kitchen window the next morning getting them out of the pan and finally settled for the soaking method. Sitting on the counter before me was one item I had not put into the cupboard after shopping and it was a nice new box of Betty Crocker brownie mix. Another moment with that tiny tap on the shoulder which reassures me life is good, someone is watching over me in even the smallest ways and most especially in the large ones.
I know many of you, as well as I have had those moments when we are thinking of a friend, and the phone rings and it is that person. Life is full of these tiny mysteries and if we tune into them they turn into blessings as we travel along this trail we’re on, called life. My friends, don’t dwell on your miseries and misfortunes but instead, live each day to the fullest and many blessings will be yours. Mysterious moments will become habitual and life will be fuller and more joyful. Look for them.