Gretchen Lowe, age 35 at the 90’s midpoint, was not dying, as she was at pains to point out more frequently than she would have wished. She had muscular dystrophy, a distinction often lost on those who equated strength with muscle mass, consciousness with cognition, and worth with productivity. A growing chorus assumed this would be her preference, death before disability, rather than the indignity of grappling with that terminal condition from which the chorus-members, themselves imperfect, suffered: life that is both enviable and bleak, and always, always unfair in distribution of the same.
Like so many of her friends, Gretchen had swapped one coast for the other after college and she left DC, a city of increasingly impossible winters, lawyers, and three years of an uninteresting technical proofreader job, and moved to San Francisco, a city of manageable weather, bike messengers instead of lawyers, and apparently no editorial jobs. Five years in, she was the administrative director of a small free clinic for women and had cycled through four shared flats before the Recluse, her boyfriend, gave up his Pacific Heights studio and moved in, more or less, to Gretchen’s two-bedroom flat on a quiet street in Cole Valley.
Like ancient Rome, San Francisco was a city of hills and, with few exceptions, honored its dead by housing them firmly and in perpetuity outside its official boundaries. Gretchen lived and worked firmly within those boundaries, mostly because taking public transportation to and from work everyday took what limited energy she had. She did have an increasingly hard time breathing and walking, her grip was undeniably poor, her fingers lacking in dexterity, but she had an even harder time imagining herself dead, or wanting to be dead.
But she had no master plan, no Disability for Dummies to be her guide, just a lifetime of experience in a body that was weak, breathless, and clumsy, and getting more so year by year. So Gretchen did what was practical and what made life – her life, none other’s – worth living. She kept to the flatter parts of town, used the bathroom before she left home and work, and thought more about her next meal than eternity. In this last concern she had the unwavering support of her family; Gretchen did know how to find a decent restaurant.
She needed this particular skill on this particular evening because her mother, Alice, had flown in. Festive feelings aside, Gretchen had serious misgivings to broach, misgivings that were about a clinical research opportunity that divided them called “Genetic Reparative Therapy.”
When Alice had first excitedly called her daughter months before about GRT, Gretchen couldn’t bring herself to say a hard, “No.” She herself didn’t know exactly why she was flat-out rejecting this “cure” — or why she couldn’t tell Alice no. She’d certainly done it before.
It wasn’t until she burst into tears after half-watching an old Sally Field movie about a mother not leaving her daughter that the feelings coalesced within her as a single as-yet-unspoken fear: “I could be taken from you and you would never get me back.”
When the new Beetles came out, Gretchen had kicked around the idea of ditching all of the cab business and getting a car. Since cars came with lots of options but none that made the car driveable by her, she and the Recluse realized the car would have to be modified. Gretchen heard that lots of disabled people got financial help for such things through Voc-Rehab.
Look. You work. You’re not really eligible to be disabled. Air-quotes.
One sleepy post-lunch hour in her clinic office, she gave in to an impulse and looked up the number. When no one picked up at the main number, she worked her way through the extensions until a deep, annoyed voice said hello. That one call into the San Francisco office of Voc-Rehab pretty much cured any hope she had of even minimal financial assistance. The call also showed how employment was a universal solvent on the human stain of disability, at least where government agencies were concerned.
The counselor had more to say, nasally, on the overall lack of money available and went on to say that he himself was legally blind and had been waiting five years for a computer he could use. To do his job. Voc-rehabbing people who were legally blind, for example. So complaining to him was not really something he would be real open to hearing. If she didn’t mind.
“Now I must confess. I must tell you my secret. I’m not a medical doctor. I’m a doctor of philosophy. But greater even that, I am a humble man. A proud Utilitarian.
“In the great tradition of the Enlightenment – a paradoxical name if you have come to believe like I have that the light of reason is too often used like a policeman’s flashlight pointed right at your eyes – I embraced utilitarianism, or as it is known in the common parlance as, “If it feels good, do it,” or “Something that feels so right could never be wrong.”
“I believed – no, I knew – that happiness was the most important thing because it was the true foundation for goodness. A good quality of life makes you happy, and measuring the quality of a life couldn’t be easier – is there an absence of a reason to be sad?
“I loved the effort and rigor of proving that happiness was what was easy, comfortable, familiar. I felt a responsibility to help end the suffering of people who will never know happiness because their lives are inherently difficult, uncomfortable, and filled with change, all of it really bad and pretty much a downer for everyone around them.
“I realized this when I was recovering from a difficult, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar mountain-climbing accident I had had right after I divorced my second wife because she wasn’t enough of a challenge for me and I was bored. After my injuries healed and I was a real person again, I had everything, a book-lined apartment, a light teaching load, and a beautiful dog and cat.
“It was a way I had never felt before. The simplest things were filled with enjoyment. Max and Emma were everything to me. Their lives, my life with theirs, demonstrated the nature of happiness. Taking care of them, guarding their happiness, was making me a good person. It all made perfect sense.
“I began to wonder why Max and Emma were considered lesser beings than my colleagues in the department, particularly the older ones and the guy with the hearing aid. I began to resent the condescending questions about my ‘pets.’
“One day at a faculty senate meeting, I had my awakening. Max and Emma’s consciousnesses were equal to that of my human colleagues. In some cases superior. They had, after all, achieved for themselves lives we might envy in their ease and comfort. What they lacked was respect from others. What they lacked were their rights.
“I wrote a book denouncing the human monopoly on consciousness, worth, and legal standing. I worked night and day to prove that ease, comfort, and familiarity are the hallmarks of a high quality of life. When my book hit the university bookstore’s bestseller list, I had the department eating out of my hand. What did I get at home for my pains? I’ll tell you. I got a dog I found eating my cat’s shit. He’d developed quite a taste for it. And she was no better, I swear she was filling that litter box like a buffet steam table just to spite me. It’s called copraphage, and apparently it’s quite common. This was not consciousness I could champion.
“I became bitter for a time. All of my hard work, pain, and venturing into the unknown to express the central utilitarian values of comfort, ease, familiarity, that the quality of life is equivalent to the quality of consciousness, had gone for nothing.
“I received a letter around that time from the doctor who treated me after my mountain-climbing accident. In reviewing his records after a lawsuit was filed against him, he found a small tumor in my brain x-ray he had missed before. Needless to say, he was quite concerned. This could really jeopardize his chances in the pending lawsuit. Negligence, how appropriate. I returned to see him and he removed the tumor immediately.
“This episode raised two interesting points. First, the tumor was not actually connected in any way to my accident. It could have gone undetected for years until its bulging dimensions caused me to black out, go into seizures, or compose full-length operas in the time it takes to heat a Lean Cuisine. So you might surmise that this ostensibly bad bit of experience – losing my grip on Capitan and becoming quadriplegic for nearly three days – was actually to my advantage. I had thought my only luck had been when the neurologist, a bottom-half sort who thought ‘futile care policies’ were something vassals brewed up for useless serfs, showed up for one more pin-prick exam before they pulled the plug as my eye-blinks were ordering them to do. I would have fallen off the bed in shock when I felt that jab in my left thigh if I’d, you know, been able to move.
“But as Doc Missedthetumor observed, it’s a good thing these neurologists rush from patient to patient or my wishes would have respected me right into the grave.
“An even stranger occurrence followed, though. I was awake during the surgery to remove the tumor, as is the normal procedure. They were doing a sort of color commentary to keep me posted on what was happening, probably going into too much technical detail because they thought the ‘Doctor’ before my name meant I was one of them. Just after the lead surgeon announced a clean excision, I lost all interest in the nature of consciousness. I couldn’t have cared less about the rights of animals, or people, or the distinction between sensation versus perception. If you told me, ‘The end justifies the means,’ I would have said, ‘Whatever.’ I started noticing how my personal experience was horning in on my objective arguments. I was filled with a desire to read Nietzsche, which wasn’t odd except that what I wanted was to read a few pages and then fight in public places about what I’d read. One day, I thought, ‘Well, that’s just the way it is,’ and it hit me. I wasn’t a philosopher anymore. I had become merely philosophical.
“Needless to say I was useless as a teacher. After a couple of years, my department head noticed the negative student evaluations – though they thought I’d make a great undergrad and had tremendous potential if I’d only apply myself – and called me in. I came clean. Confessed I had a condition that disabled me as a philosopher. It felt so good to finally be open about it. Hobbs was kind, asked me how I was doing, told me he’d suspected something was wrong but felt it was a private matter best left unremarked.
“When I assured him I had stopped struggling and was learning to live with my limitation, his demeanor changed. He became more officious and said he needed to reflect upon the situation. We would speak soon. At first I was nervous but my now-habitual philosophical attitude was in control. I simply thought, ‘Whatever will be, will be,’ instead of grinding each word Hobbs had spoken into a fine powder in search of his first principles. Because I’d forgotten Hobbs didn’t really have any first principles.
“We never spoke again. The university sent me a letter of separation, stating that because I was unable to perform the essential tasks of my position, I was relieved of all teaching duties and publishing expectations. Because I had tenure they couldn’t dismiss me; they recognized I had a discipline-related disability that was beyond my control. I was welcome at all social events and meetings, but they could not reasonably accommodate me and my take-it-as-it-comes reactions.
“The real issue, of course, was liability. The department was small and already had few students. Parents didn’t like their kids majoring in philosophy. If word got out that I wasn’t harping on distinctions between being and Being, or my bioethics class was questioning its own preconceptions about ‘happiness’ or ‘personhood,’ rather than debating how many days a disabled infant’s parents have to decide whether to end the child’s life, those parents might start to ask why they were pouring money into a philosophy education and getting nothing more than sociology.
“Naturally, I sued the university. Naturally, I lost, it being a disability case. I was left with no career, a shit-eating dog, a crap-happy cat, and an apartment I could barely afford after the lawsuit. At first it didn’t get to me. Something will work out, I said. My book was still selling. I thought it was the most ridiculous piece of trash ever written, but I had to eat, as I put it so philosophically.
“But the lawsuit taught me something valuable: how enjoyable it was to bother someone else. Even though I lost, I had been something of a disturbance, and that pleased me. I had to make a fresh start, reinvent myself again. So I took every penny I had, hired the most cutthroat attorney I knew (a former student of mine, actually) and sued the bejesus out of Doc Missedthetumor.
“This time I won. Well, settled big. Personal injury always has an edge on individual rights. Doc Missedthetumor quit medicine and opened a one-hour photo where his film-reading skills were finally in an appropriate environment. Doc claims to be a much happier man now, after me dragging him through the mud. He told me this by saying I ruined his life. He even threatened me, a true sign of our bond. He warned me that the tumor could grow back, that it may already be pressing on another lobe and distorting my thinking in some new and possibly unsavory way. He opened my eyes to what I’ve come to call Transcendental Misanthropy. I keep his letter to me as a testimonial, in case I ever need to file a restraining order.”
[To Be Continued]
There’s No Cure for Gretchen Lowe is an unpublished coming-of-middle-age crip lit novel. Within the broader realm of literature featuring characters with disabilities — #DisLit and memoir — #CripLit presents an understanding of disability using the lens of the social model. It eschews disability as a narrative device and shortcut for conveying sentimentality, heroism, and disaster to readers.
There was a remarkable lack of public debate in San Francisco — or anywhere else — on Adult Diaper Dispensation (ADD). All costs were loudly underwritten by The Dignity Foundation, a charitable body dedicated to community development, medical research, K-12 education, and, now, small businesses hit by the “squat-by defecation” of serial defecants.
Would you like a TDF annual report? We have one for you right here. It makes no mention of our corporate sibling and sponsor, a disposable paper-goods manufacturer that is aging out of infant goods into a more mature market. Our Dignity Initiative public information campaign takes a broad-based social education approach to bring the public up to speed on what we can do — together — through top-level messaging in high-traffic spaces with framing that deploys innocuous word-play rather that blunt fear.
This top-level messaging was visible to all who cared to look out the car window at the blinking billboard near the off-ramp at Duboce. Dignity Is No Accident(s).
“Your life could be easier if you didn’t have muscular dystrophy. What I would have given for this Genetic Reparative Therapy when you were little.”
Gretchen poured water in the coffee maker. “Yeah, I’m well aware that there’s a list out there of Lives That Suck and — of course! — my name is on it.”
Alice continued. “I can’t believe you would even consider not being part of this study.”
“Well, jeez, Mom, I have to consider not doing it.” Gretchen leaned against the counter. The machine hissed and steamed. “Remember when they wanted to fix my foot and didn’t mention they’d be removing half of it? Good thing we pressed for details on that one.”
“I have to live with the results of this experiment – I will be the result of this experiment. And I gotta tell you – just because something can be done is not necessarily a good enough reason to do it.”
And she had made sure the door was locked. She stood there, watching the gray-blue paint and listening to what was happening from within. At first, nothing. Then a murmuring confusion, then a rapid rise in decibel levels, quickly becoming Frank’s singular baritone summoning Gretchen. It didn’t occur to anyone that it was anything but an accident.
She waited and then knocked to get their attention.
“Hi!” she called. She had to knock harder because, as usual, they were still talking. “Hi, everybody! Are you ready to start the meeting?”
Alice’s schoolteacher handwriting greeted Gretchen when she flipped through the mail that evening. It was a floridly pious Mother’s Day card with a letter enclosed. Her mother must have sent it right after Gretchen had called about the board meeting fiasco. Oh Alice, Gretchen snorted pleasurably. I couldn’t have picked a better card myself.
Underneath the card’s summary appreciation for maternal sacrifices, physical and emotional, Alice had written, “Thought you might like to see the enclosed item right now. I think it confirms that we are related. I cannot take credit for why you are who you are but I did have a hand in it. Then again, you were always a rotten child. Not that I had anything to do with that. Love, Mom.
The letter was her mother’s same handwriting. Cheered, Gretchen set to reading it. It was dated from May 1970 and addressed to a Desmond Wallace, Chair of Fundraising Operations for the National Cerebral Palsy Association. Oh dear.