Lot's Wife and Vinegar Chips

Terry Pratchett is not well. Hasn't been for some time. He has Alzheimer's.

My grandmother had it too. She spent years watching her mind leave her inch by inch before she died. Before she was too far gone to know what was happening to her, I imagine it was a private, bitter hell. My relief at the news that she'd passed was likewise bitter, but it was relief.

She met her illness with humor. It's a family trait, one that I don't possess as strong a measure of as I would like. My dad will tell you funny stories about the Vietnam war. My mom will tell you about sitting by his side at the Mayo Clinic, trying like hell not to lose him to renal cancer, and howling with laughter.

As for Grammy, there's the story of her adult daycare. On winter mornings my aunt would usually dress her in a sweater that she had knitted for herself back when she could still do that. Then she'd take her to daycare, where they would be greeted by a woman who was so far gone that she introduced herself every time.

At some point this woman would point to Grammy's sweater and ask where she got such a beautiful thing. Grammy would puff up her chest and answer that she'd made it. Her new friend would express astonishment. They did this every single day. Grammy indulged it. She was kind.

One day Grammy showed up and her "new" friend came up to introduce herself. They chatted, and then the subject of her sweater came up. "Where on earth did you get that?" she asked. "It's beautiful."

"I made it," Grammy said.

"How on earth do you do something like that?"

My grandmother thought on this, and thought. And thought.

"Well," she said. "There was a time I could've told you, but right now I'm about as goofy as you."

That's how she faced losing the knowledge of one of her great loves. She cracked wise. I cannot fathom this.

Yes, I'm glad it's over for her. Grammy was sweet and loving and one motherfucker of a seamstress, and I miss her, but I wouldn't wish what she endured on even the most monstrous of men. Certainly not on Pratchett, a man who has given me laughter and delight.

He nearly died last month. I haven't made up my mind about how I feel about that. I want him around, but I don't want him to endure this any longer than he must. I hate it more than I hate cancer.

The gospels declare that storing up treasures on this earth is an evil worthy of eternal damnation. I get where Jesus is coming from on that, but if the Almighty will permit a little criticism, I much prefer the Buddhist view: evil maybe, but certainly it's futile, even ridiculous. Because here's the thing: you don't own a goddamn thing of this earth. Until you know that in your bones, you'll never stop hurting yourself.

That's a harder pill to swallow when the treasures are our minds and bodies, but it's no less true. Regard them as being on loan. Regard them as a heartbeat from gone. They don't belong to you. Maybe that's how Grammy could laugh. Maybe she knew that. God, I hope so.

Last Wednesday was a right good pigfucker of a day. The last shreds of hope I held for Big Scary Job Opportunity evaporated with one speech from a member of the senior management team. So it goes.

So it goes, but I had trouble letting go of a thing I never had. I ditched the office potluck, went home and scarfed some leftover Hoppin' John, made an iced coffee, and hightailed it out to the UAMS biostatistics computer lab to finish up some work and chafe.

Chafe I did. I was sour with the two young women behind me who chatted when I wanted peace. I was sour with my coworkers who stood in the boss's office doorway chatting about nothing right outside my cube. I was sour with my own children.

I didn't want to go for a run that evening, but I knew I had to. I took my headphones but kept the podcast off, ran with nothing but my thoughts and the occasional speed and distance report to keep me company. My toes went numb on the 40° pavement. I told them to piss off and pushed harder. I hit my nine-minute mile.

It was on the cool-down walk that I turned my eyes up toward Jupiter and remembered that there are other things than my troubles. It was in the shower that I, returning feeling to my feet and worrying over my left Achilles' tendon, realized the gift I had been given in that meeting. I was given possibility.

Granted, right now those possibilities seem like a buffet of greater and lesser evils. Sit in a greybeige cube cranking out assembly-line code for somebody else's bottom line? As unlikely as it is unpalatable; I haven't written a line of object-oriented code in five years. Sit in a greybeige cube doing something something health IT something? Seems more plausible and less unpalatable. Chuck everything, learn the harmonica and hit the road with a blues band? The inevitable divorce would be pretty good fodder for blues songs.

Something else? Something else would be nice. But something. That's a gift.

I don't want to wrap this up with anything as trite and trodden as "gather ye rosebuds", but in an entirely self-centered way, last Wednesday left me envious of Pratchett. Not of what he's going through now, of course, but of what he did with his time before and is doing with it now. He always knew what he wanted, and he pursued it with all his strength. He used what time he had to develop his gifts and create delight. Just read this comment, for God's sake.

A friend of mine once said that he'd choose a life that ended with a shotgun in his mouth if it meant leaving behind a legacy like The Old Man and the Sea. I don't know if I'd go that far, but if you told me the price of leaving behind something like Terry Pratchett's work and touching millions of lives would be one day watching your beloved brain degrade in front of you, I'd take it. I'd take it in a heartbeat. And I fear it more than death.

So. I don't know where I'm going from here, beyond keeping my eyes open for opportunities. I will, for a change, allow myself to be just a teensy bit optimistic about what may come. The hard part will always be letting go of what was, but that's because it's the important part. Nobody ever made tomorrow come by giving a damn about the past.

Grammy and Mr. Pratchett never belonged to me. I got them on loan, same as my legs, same as my dreams, same as my mutinous hair. I hope the day will come when I can digest that truth without it choking me on the way down. But I think it will. It gets easier the more you lose the things you love.

Incidentally, if you're one of the poor sad sacks who hasn't heard of or read Terry Pratchett, I recommend Good Omens, still my favorite of his. If you're not familiar with my grandmother, well, here she is as a young woman, singing with a gospel group:

I still have her voice. With a trumpet! Neat, huh?