“So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains
And we never even know we have the key.”
-Eagles, “Already Gone”
When I was younger, I couldn’t wait for the day I finished high school. One of my clearest memories of elementary school was sitting in third grade, daydreaming about graduation; when life would be about playing games with friends all day and eating Oreo cookies whenever I wanted – oh yes, I was confident that was what the future held.
At the time, college was beyond my comprehension. What I did understand was that I had a long way to go until I reached the magical 12th grade. I couldn’t wait for when my days weren’t spent in a classroom, adhering to schedules with regulated times for arrival, departure and even eating. With my teacher’s lesson plan playing as background music, I sat at my desk, counting fingers and realized – nine … more … years. My unofficial countdown had begun.
FATHER KNOWS BEST
So you can imagine the sadness I felt when my Dad declared, “You’ll never stop going to school”. I now know he didn’t mean it literally, with teachers, tests and report cards, but rather that I’d always be learning and adjusting to new situations in the classroom of life. To hear this as a little boy was a damper to my graduation dreams, but they were also prescient words of wisdom.
Entering the workforce, getting married, becoming a first time parent - all these special events are celebrated, but they also mark the beginning of a journey that involves learning new subjects, reciting memorized facts when required and yes, being tested … often when you least expect it. The printer breaking down before your first big presentation at work or comforting a sick child in the middle of the night, much like a pop quiz in Calculus, are just things that you really can’t prepare for.
Learning to live and adjust to being a husband, father, son and friend after my diagnosis of MS is one of those tests, although it sometimes feels more like detention and, unlike third grade, there is no countdown for that last day of school; my illness isn’t going away and there is no final bell that will ring to signify a new life, free of the chains of MS. But this story isn’t about that. It’s about how within those chains I discovered that class was, indeed, still in session.
COUNTING THE NOW
After I started my first professional job, it wasn’t long before I was pressing the fast-forward button again, imagining life in retirement: maybe traveling the country to see a game at every baseball stadium or just relaxing, with my wife, in a beach house somewhere.
I think striving for that future life is something common among many of us. The visions we have might be different, but the overriding theme is similar – surviving the now with the help of our utopian dreams guiding us through daily twists, turns, hills and valleys. And for many, this works … to a point. But I think something very important gets lost – enjoying, even relishing, today.
Instead, “the now” becomes the minutiae of our daily lives – it’s the necessary evil we begrudgingly accept, easily frustrated by challenges we believe to be bigger than they really are, worrying over things that may, but probably won’t happen. Looking back, I realize how many of those self-inflicted chains I created, all in the name of striving for that next level, where the proverbial grass would be greener and nirvana could be achieved.
NEW DAY’S RESOLUTION
Over the past few weeks my vision, already diminished in my right eye, has been flickering on and off and I’m left wondering if it’s a momentary setback or the start of yet another new normal. I don’t know if tomorrow I’ll still be able to see the beauty of my family, or even the words that I type at this computer. Beneath this reality is a vital lesson taught everyday at the University of MS - there are no future guarantees.
My Dad was right, you really do never stop going to school and through my continuous education I see the world from a new, improved, perspective. The math is different now and my countdowns have been upgraded – free of self-inflicted chains - to an ode for each new day, full of possibilities and wonder.