Monday, June 11, 2007

Precious Things

Behind a non-descript door in the basement of our 200-year-old house sits a big black Victorian safe.

There’s only one problem with this big black safe: It can’t hold any of my precious things.

Mechanically, the safe works perfectly. Multiple keys, which we have, are needed to lock its many compartments and thick door. The heavy door, which could easily amputate a finger, is impressive. Inside the safe, there are several different-sized compartments and drawers in which to hold valuables.

So while the safe can easily store valuables, even though it sits empty, it can’t hold the thing I deem the most precious in my life: the good health of me and my family.

The importance of that simple thing—good health—came into sharp relief for me last November when I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. I was only 37 years old.

It was a long and painful road to that diagnosis, involving five doctors, four X-rays, one MRI and countless consultations during most of 2006. In the end, the correct diagnosis came from Google, the Internet search engine. I decided to try a consultation with Google after a medical study showed it was excellent resource to figure out hard to diagnose problems. Dr. Google came up trumps, later confirmed by two doctors.

Up until then, I took my own good health for granted most of the time. Why did I need to worry? I was in my 30s, I completed the London Marathon in 2005 and the only times I ever stayed in a hospital were when my sons were born. I never seriously thought I’d have to worry about the preciousness of my own good health.

My father, an eternal optimist, is fond of saying, “At least we have our health,” when things don’t go according to plan. In our family, that was always the fallback statement to make us feel better when things went wrong. When my father was made redundant, we said it. When I didn’t gain acceptance to the university of my dreams, we said it. When my brother got divorced, we said it.

But there have been times when the statement was no comfort at all. When my father was diagnosed with lung cancer when he was 48, we couldn’t say it. When my brother was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer when he was 40, we couldn’t say it. When I was diagnosed with arthritis when I was 37, I couldn’t say it. Our good health was the one thing we could always depend on when things went wrong. But once we couldn’t say, “At least we have our health,” we painfully understood how important and precious it was.

Last week, just as I was going to step into the shower, my mother called and said she had some news. As I could sense this was going to be a long call, and I was clothed only in a towel next to our front window on a busy street, I told her I would call her back.

By the time I did return her call, I had spent the previous 15 minutes pondering what the news could be. I worried that it could be news of a recurrence of my brother’s cancer. I worried that it could be news that the medical tests she just took revealed an undiagnosed serious problem. In short, I worried that the news was really horrible.

“We had a flood,” she told me, when I called back.

My first reaction was relief, but she was quite upset. A confluence of meteorological events meant the ground around my parent’s house got completely waterlogged, which led to more than 18 inches of water in their basement at the end of two days.

They lost many things that seemed precious but really weren’t: old records people hadn’t listened to in decades, boxes of my childhood schoolwork, love letters from my high school boyfriend. What broke my mother’s heart was the loss of hundreds of pictures, documenting our family’s history, and what she considered to be most valuable.

“But at the end of the day, it’s just stuff,” I told her. “It’s sad to lose it, but I was imagining news much worse than that.”

For good measure, I added, “At least you have your health.”

Because, like all precious things, good health is something you take for granted only until you lose it.

Editor's Note: There are many things I wanted to write about-- the Cutty Sark fire, our trip to Italy, the return of my running routine, but I'm short on time. Instead, I pasted above an essay I wrote for the Arthritis Care foundation for its writing competition. The only requirement to enter the contest was to have arthritis. The theme was "Precious Things."
"Result!" I thought. "Finally a perk of having arthritis. I've got it AND I can write. I"ll win for sure." As it happens, I didn't win, but I got a nice letter from them today saying that I was on the final shortlist, which makes me happy (though it would have been better if I'd won.)


RandomReality said...

"Psioriatic" sounds like a scary word. Eek.
My sister found out she has arthritis in her neck from that car accident years ago. Eek.
But if you don't have your health, at least you still have your wit and perkiness.


Mike Stapleton said...

This was a great article, the best one, but I do have my health. The cancer is only temporary. It's not like it's for an eternity.
Thanks for the 15 seconds of fame in your blog. That brings me down to around 9 minutes remaining of my 15 minutes total.