When I first got sober, I had realized long before that I was numb. Alcohol has an anesthetic effect; in the past a good slug of whiskey was used before surgery on battle wounds. Well, that and biting on a bullet and what not. I haven’t ever heard of alcohol being used to ease the pain of childbirth, but i digress.

Many people in recovery describe using alcohol or drugs specifically for the anesthetic benefit, to ease the non-physical pain that seemed intractable and interminable. The resultant numbing was maddening, though, like having an itch you couldn’t scratch, and the pain never truly disappeared. Welcome to addiction.

If you’ve been numb for a while, coming back to consciousness is uncomfortable and disconcerting. That’s why so any people in early recovery drink or use again. The recovery programs don’t lie, though – if you stick with it, you’re going to fee better. You’re going to feel pain better, grief better, sadness better. You’re also going to feel happiness and joy better, but that usually comes later. You have to bite the bullet while the nerve endings are coming back to life, because sometimes it hurts like nothing you’ve ever felt before. Hell, that’s why most of us drink, to avoid the pain of being alive.

Last Thursday, I lost a friend. A friend who was almost exactly my age, a friend with whom I had many years of history. She was not a call-you-every day kind of friend, or someone I was in regular contact. Her spouse was actually a little closer to me, having been a sponsor of mine when I lived in SC. She was a very good sponsor, and that’s how I met the now-dead friend. Her name is Susan. Susan Worthington Gager. And she lived, and touched people, and did a fine job of living.

Susan had lost her job when I first met her, and was going back to school at 40 on a vocational rehab program. She wanted to become a nurse, and so she did. She recreated herself, but never lost herself. She and my friend Kasey were married in SC a couple of years after she was done with school, in the middle of the tremendous opposition to same-sex marriage. But there was suddenly a federal law that allowed them to formalize their relationship, and so they did. I drove a few hours to witness that with them, and it’s the last time I actually saw Susan in person.

Kasey and Susan became ex-pats not too long after their marriage, and they moved to New Zealand and then Australia, where Susan became a psych nurse. For some twenty years, they lived in the land down under. They became a part of Aussie society and kept in touch with friends here in the U.S. via Facebook and other social media.

At some point within the last decade, Susan was diagnosed with cancer. I think it was breast cancer, which affects people the world over at near epidemic rates. She had the necessary treatments, and recovered. The experience of cancer recovery is never quite that simple, of course, but she did what she had to do and survived. Life went on, and she and Kasey went back to the life they had created so lovingly.

Kasey and Susan announced they’d be coming to the U.S. a few months ago, and those of us who’d known them here were excited. Susan had one daughter, who lived in TN, and they were excited to see her. A big get-together was planned for the SC/NC friends, and I was ecstatic, marking the time with memories and anecdotes.

Just before the date for the reunion arrived, Susan reported that she’d developed severe pain, so intense that she could barely stand at one point. Her Facebook post described the agony, and the reunion event was called off because she was told not to travel. Less than one month later, she was dead.

I wonder when she knew. I wonder if she came here to say goodbye to old friends and family, because she knew before she left Australia that she wouldn’t be going back there. They’d explained to friends there that it would be around six months before they returned, which I found curious since even the UK doesn’t give you six months of vacation time. I think she knew, and this was planned as a farewell tour.

For a variety of reasons, Susan’s death has knocked me off balance. Maybe it was because she was almost exactly the same age, maybe it was because I never think my friends are going to die. Maybe it’s because I wish I’d been a lot better about keeping in touch, more intentional about keeping the relationship alive. Maybe it’s because death scares the crap out of me, and this one feels so close.

I know very well that whatever I do, in a given trip around the sun, I never know when that will be the last time I take that action. Whoever I see, interact with, however I move through space and time cannot be duplicated. I create some bizarre work of art each and every day that I live, and it is unique no matter how routine it may seem. Accordingly, whatever I do each day should be intentional if it’s to mean anything at all.

No matter how much I may believe that my life is meaningless, or has no impact on the rest of the world, that’s just a fallacy. Whatever I do today has some impact somewhere, whether I realize it or not. I have the ability to change the energy that emanates from me in some way, and who knows what else may be impacted. I don’t know why that’s so difficult to remember.

Susan gave me a great gift in her death, because I realized that I need to be intentional about whatever the hell I do in a given day, a given moment. People in addiction recovery frequently describe their previous way of walking through the world as similar to a tornado, a great mass of impersonal and destructive energy that upended everything in its path with little regard for anyone or anything affected. That’s what happens when you live without accepting that you’re not the only person on the planet and that what you do has some impact somewhere.

When I turned 50, a friend gave me a novelty book that was titled something like “Aging Is Not For Cissies” or something like that. More than ten years later, I agree with that. No matter how much you know about human life cycles, you’re never prepared for the fact that you can’t prepare for change. You never know exactly how it’s going to be, or how it’s going to feel, or how you’re going to handle things when parts of your body no longer work as they once did.

You never know whether you’re going to be a good sport about receiving a terminal diagnosis and knowing that you are going to die in a finite period of time. When you’re told to get your affairs in order, will you do that or will you rage, rage against the dying of the light? Will your thoughts be focused on a proverbial bucket list, or will you see out meaningful interactions and be intentional about how you touch other people? I certainly don’t know what I would do. I hope I would be kind and true and go out with some kind of grace and dignity, but who knows.

Perhaps what scares me the most about dying is the possibility that it comes suddenly nad unexpectedly, with ho time to prepare or plan an exit. I could step off a curb today, fall and hit my head on the asphalt and that could be it. It’s more or less a crap shoot (although I believe the spirit has some choice in things, but I don’t know how that works). You pay your quarter and you take your chances every day. so I understand that every day should be lived intentionally.

What I understand and what I have the strength to do are two entirely different things. It’s not for cissies. It takes bravery and courage to live, especially these days. Bravery is not the absence of fear, it’s acting in spite of the fear. Courage is doing that over and over, I think. Living takes courage. Doing the right thing takes courage. Being kind takes courage. Courage takes bravery and just a smidge of “fuck it all” and running headlong into the breach. I am beginning to believe that every opportunity for courage is a crack in the universe, an open door to another world. Things will never be the same once you’ve passed through, and you can’t go home again. It’s a brand new day.

Dark nights of the soul are fodder for crossing the threshold of new life, I think. And I think way too much. When you come out the other side of a spiritual trial, there is new growth and fresh soil, and you can’t let the grass grow beneath your feet or you’ll be stuck there. I suppose we are meant to grow, because like a seed it’s just what we do. We have to split open and blindly send out a shoot into the void, and take our chances. That’s how it goes, unless it doesn’t.

Right this moment, I want it to go…I want to have the experience of living. Actual living, and not just surviving. Godspeed Susan, and thank you for reminding me that death is not the end of life as long as you’ve taken the risk of creation in the first place. I wish you well, my friend.

Just grow, dammit.

Published by annzimmerman

I am Louisiana born and bred, now living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Fortunately for me, I was already living in NC before Hurricane Katrina decimated my beloved New Orleans. An only child, I now feel that I have no personal history since the hurricane destroyed the relics and artifacts of my childhood. As I have always heard, c'est la vie. My Louisiana roots show in my love of good coffee, good food, and good music. My soggy native soil has also shown me that resilience is hard-wired in my consciousness; when the chips are down (or drowned)...bring it on.

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