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.”
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?”
As the West-Hesperidan Free Clinic’s Administrative Manager, Gretchen was the closest thing they had to fundraising staff now that their Director was on stress leave. She was supposed to represent the clinic at these house party things but here she was wandering on the edges, again, frankly worn out just from hauling herself in the door. Here was a question: Why does philanthropy so often require climbing stairs?