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.
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.”