I opened my eyes for maybe the third or fourth time. That was a mistake. I was still in the coffin that was the MRI and when I saw, yet again, that the ceiling or whatever it was, was just inches from my mouth, it made my heart pound faster in my chest. I felt the reassuring hand of my husband on my knee.
I could not believe I was in this tube, awaiting confirmation. I could not believe that just three days before this, an expert had told me, “You have a very high chance of having MS.” I had sat staring at him, my numb leg dangling from the exam table.
“I’m sorry. I don’t want to be this guy,” he had said. I had liked him until this moment. I had been told he was the best in the field. And suddenly I hated him. Because with those few words, my life, my 44 years, were ripped from beneath me, as quickly as the ripping away of the paper on which I sat.
I didn’t cry. I had the presence of mind to ask a thousand questions. I listened. I was in reporter mode. I tried not to look at my husband who was across the room, in the same stunned shock as me. My voice cracked when I asked, “Will MS impact my longevity?” He had quickly assured me it would not.
I take care of myself. I am constantly teased at work about eating ‘tree bark and dirt.’ I am committed to sleep and exercise and hard work. But my left foot had been getting a pins and needles feeling for a few weeks. I had blamed it on the new, overpriced running shoes my husband had bought me. Then the pins and needles moved to my left hand. And then one day, when I got to work at 3:30 am, I could barely type. The weakness in my hand extended to my elbow. And then I thought about it, and my leg was pretty weak, too.
In the span of a few seconds, I connected the dots. I was left trembling at my desk. I still managed to do two hours of live television that morning, but I remember little of it, my imploding life hidden beneath a robotic smile.
We spent the weekend waiting for Monday, for the MRI that would give final confirmation. I googled and cried and prayed and begged and bargained. I never asked ‘why me?’ I’ve always been more of a ‘why not me’ kind of person. When you’ve told stories about hundreds of people hit by the randomness of disease, you know the only thing that separates you from them is the measured distance between you.
I didn’t troll for bad information online. The accurate information was bad enough. More than half of people with MS suffer cognitive issues. Half to three quarters are out of their jobs within a decade. And then there’s the mobility issues. People use canes, walkers, wheelchairs. Not all, but many.
My prayers were pitiful, almost unintelligible grunts of “help me help me help me help me help me.” I asked not to be in a wheelchair at my son’s high school graduation. I asked if the disease took part of me that it be my body and not my mind. I asked to be able to continue to write. I asked for help for my husband, who would be my caretaker. The calls to my family were met with gasps and the kind of sobs reserved for someone who has died.
Sitting in my living room chair, watching my son and daughter play with our dog, I had to remind myself to breathe. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them, and yet it was almost too painful to watch them. My disease would cut short their childhoods, forcing them into a world of sick mothers. Would they remember me as I was now? Crazy and loud and always moving. Probably not. By the time they grew up, most of their lives would have been filled with a version of me who could be a shadow of who I used to be.
I kept telling my husband I was sorry. Like I had tricked him into this, timing it to happen after two kids and ten years of marriage. He said we would get through it, that he would ‘take care of me.’ It was the most tender, devastating thing I’d ever heard him say. We held each other in bed that weekend, and when I closed my eyes I kept seeing myself floating away from him, tethered, but floating away.
I suddenly saw my life for what it had been, a series of beautiful moments strung together, like lights on a Christmas tree. That’s all I kept seeing. All the hard, worst, crap, awful, painful parts were gone. What was left to contemplate was only the beauty of all that I had been given, the bounty I had failed to appreciate every single day of my life.
It had been exquisite, my life. More than I deserved.
On Monday morning, I emerged from the deafening MRI tube after 45 minutes. “So we’ll get the results right away?” I asked the woman.
“Yes, the doctor has already looked at your MRI. He’s finishing up now.” She led us to a room to wait.
We waited for maybe ten minutes. I looked at my husband. “This is the worst moment of all, isn’t it?” Of our lives, I wanted to add. He nodded.
The doctor walked in. “You’re clear,” he said. “Your brain and spine are clear. You don’t have MS.” I wish I could remember what he said after that, but I don’t. I heard the sobbing of my husband, and then I heard my own sobs as the doctor handed us tissues and urged us to cry all the happy tears we wanted.
He used words like extraordinary and unusual. He told me I wasn’t off the hook. I had an inflamed spinal cord. Nobody knows how you get one, same as nobody knows why you get MS or most cancers or other weird stuff that steals your life away. I got a fairly large lecture about changing my life, reducing my stress. He told me I had just dodged a bullet, but urged me to live my life like I hadn’t, and to make the changes I planned to make.
Stress stress stress, he kept saying. I’m a working mother of two children. Reduce stress? It would be easier to move to Mars and colonize the planet.
The bugger is that stress makes my condition (which should heal on its own in a few months) worse. It makes MS worse. I would imagine stress makes just about everything, including after school tutoring, piano practice, and ballet lessons, worse.
I had one friend say to me, “You’re not stressed. You are stress.” That hurt. But she was probably right.
I could give you a million reasons why I am stress. I have a demanding career. People depend on me to help them. Everyone depends on me to help them. Is that not the definition of life as a woman?
But as I sat in the doctor’s office — my life handed back to me, not one of those reasons was worth it. Not one.
For the three days I had MS, I cared only about one thing.
It was why I begged and prayed. It was why I cried and googled. It was why I wanted to keep living.
It’s been three days since I got my life back. A second chance at the exact same life is the greatest gift I’ve ever been given.
I’m not going to screw it up.