It's a Wonderful Life

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Well, it finally happened. Allow me to explain.

It’s been a rough year. While Kevin chased his bliss in NYC this week, I remained at home struggling with the Skin Condition that Has No End. I’ve also had an on-and-off again (mostly on) chest cold for the entire month of December. So yesterday, I thought I would treat myself to one of my favorite past times—thrift store shopping. This is a reasonable activity for me to pursue on many levels, particularly after the erection of our ONE MILLION DOLLAR retaining wall. Also, quite frankly, I enjoy the hunt. It’s the closest thing I get to a drug these days, and yesterday, I needed some relief.

It wasn’t going so well. A friendly shopping tip: Do NOT try on clothes when the Chest Cold that Has No End has prevented you from getting to the gym and you have gained holiday weight before the holidays have even officially begun. And then there’s that most perplexing mystery of middle age—back fat. Nevertheless, I found a couple items and went up to the cashier. Through mopey eyes, I noticed she was young, a girl, an infant, really. Perfunctory greetings were exchanged. Then she looked me up and down, paused, and asked,

“Do you qualify for any kind of discount?”

My heart leapt. At first I thought, “OOOH, is it White-Tag Wednesday?” But then with a knowing plunk, it sunk.

“What KIND of discount?” I growled.

“Uh, if you are 50, you qualify for…”

And then I blacked out.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise—I mean I am 48. And it was not my best day: Still sick, dirty hair, no makeup, geeky glasses, army jacket, rosacea flaring, bad sleep, mid-migraine etc…

Fact: I’ve never been preoccupied with my looks. I’ve always enjoyed dressing up when the occasion called, but I’ve never been much of a groomer. I forget to trim the ‘stache, shape my brows, bleach my teeth, cover my gray, shave my legs, and I get a mani/pedi about once a year. And by the by, WHO KNEW how many people are doing Botox in their 30’s? Let’s just say I am well behind on the “grooming” bell curve.

I called a dear friend and we had a good laugh. But after we disconnected, I still couldn’t shake the crappy feeling. I knew I was obsessing, that I was completely and utterly in self. But I mean, really! It had only been 6 short years since I was carded literally everywhere I went. The convenient details I’m omitting are that in Dec. 2010 my “youthful” visage was a result of edema due to kidney failure and I was 4 mos. away from dialysis. I was also a daily drinker and pill-popper.

Today, I've come leaps and bounds with the diseases of CKD and addiction, yet the hole in my stomach widened. How could I flip this? How could I change my perspective?

As I headed for home, I thought about the body I sometimes drag around, and how much it’s endured over the last 6 years: A second kidney transplant, rejection of said transplant, one kidney transplant biopsy, 2 overdoses-one on barbiturates, the other on benzodiazepines, an endoscopy, an ulcer, daily consumption of drugs and alcohol until October 2011 (with a few relapses sprinkled in), 2 skin biopsies, the relentless stress of a mysterious periodic and painful 21-month skin condition and finally, twice daily doses of toxic immunosuppressives. I clutched the steering wheel tighter and sighed, wondering how I didn’t look 150, never mind 50.

But instead of feeling better, I started to get angry, resentful even at those who can jump out of bed every morning without a second thought for their health. It's not fair!

(News flash: It isn't fair, but neither is Life.)

I knew I was swimming in ego and self-pity and needed to get out of the pool—STAT. So this big, fat baby got into bed—with the covers not touching my skin—to indulge in one of my favorite holiday traditions, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Side note: If you haven’t seen “It’s a Wonderful Life,” A) What’s wrong with you? Seriously. And B) Remedy this immediately. This movie is perfection.

And the cure-all for all things self-absorbed.

If you don’t know the plot, here goes: George Bailey is a good man who has sacrificed his dreams for the sake of his small hometown, Bedford Falls. The movie opens on Christmas Eve, where we find Bailey on the brink of suicide believing his $15,000 insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive, due to a misplaced $8000 that will send him to prison. (Although we do not discover this last detail until midway through.)

It’s a beautifully constructed movie. Bailey always does the “right” thing. Although he repeatedly steps up to the plate when called to—and finds great joy in doing so—we are also witness to his increasing frustration, that his childhood dreams are never realized.

From the opening sequence, I was wiping away tears. Over the establishing shots of Bedford Falls, we hear the multiple prayers of his many friends and family pleading for his safety. About halfway through, Bailey is granted an angel, the goofy Clarence, who affords him the gift of seeing what life would have been like for his loved ones had he never been born. (Essentially, a modern twist on Dickens’ Christmas Carol.)

But before Clarence arrives, there’s a moment where Bailey stands at his turning point, when the $8000 is missing, and he doesn’t know what to do. He looks up at a portrait of his father on the office wall. Underneath are the words,

“All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”

And suddenly, I understood what my self-pity was about. I realized my looking-50 funk had nothing to do with my outside; it was about what 50 represented to me on my inside. It was a watermark of sorts, a litmus test: WHAT HAVE YOU ACCOMPLISHED? I have no career. I can’t support myself. I’m always sick. I am a failure.

I had fallen into the same spiritual spiral that Bailey would. One second he was celebrating his brother’s Congressional Medal of Honor, the next he was contemplating suicide because of $8000. Ah, I feel you, Bailey. It’s easy to spiral when you are judging your insides by everyone else’s outsides. One second I was indulging in a wee bit o’ shopping, the next I was calling myself a failure.

Because I exist in real life and not a Frank Capra movie, I began to think not about how others might have suffered had I not been born—I mean please, I may be self-obsessed, but I’m no narcissist—but how many people enrich my life on a daily basis.

Even that day, I had chatted with 3 friends, left 4 VMs, talked to 2 of my sponsees I-love-so-much-it-hurts, texted with my nephew, my brother and 3 other friends. I thought about my friend, A, who introduced me to this movie and my beloved friend, J., who I would recite lines with in our 20’s. And then there’s my “Mary,” my Kevin, the only person I would die for.

An embarrassment of riches, indeed.

The movie’s end is beyond compare. It kills. Slaughters. The town rises up to collect more than enough money to save Bailey from going to jail, but it is the near final line of the movie that encapsulates the true meaning of wealth:

“To George Bailey, the richest man in town!”

By the end of this epic experience we are reminded that George is rich not because of the literal pile of money in front of him, but because of the way he has enriched the lives of those he has loved.

Like Bailey, my childhood dreams of becoming a big movie star were never realized, but also like Bailey, those dreams have changed to embrace infinitely more fulfilling ones. I can only hope I enrich the lives of those I love the way they enrich mine.

Therein lies my bliss.

Despite the heart wrenching final scene, my breaking point came at the end of Bailey’s “glimpse.” Desperate to return to the life he lost sight of, he leans over a snowy bridge begging God,

“I want to live again. Please God, let me live again.”

Every morning I do this, but last night I had to get down on my knees again, convinced I was a nothing. Then He reminded me through this wonderful film, that no man is a failure who has friends…

No matter what.

It IS a wonderful life.

The first time I saw you take that fistful of pills after your first transplant, my heart broke a little for you. And ever since, that image of a brave 19-year-old determined to do what it took to stay alive has been my inspiration when things have been tough. I wish I had told you that years ago. You have touched and delighted so many people. It is a wonderful life, because you’re in it.
On the lighter side, always go shopping with someone older than you. — Alix Godbout
You are a shining light, a beacon of hope and inspiration! I’m not family and a relatively new friend (if I can be presumptuous and call myself that) and I am honored and blessed to be included in your circle of life. Your youthful spirit, your curiosity, your brilliance, your caring soul and the love you exude from every pore defines your essence. That’s what makes YOU truly wonderful! — Marlene Garcia
Crying on the TTC...Love you! Merry Christmas and a very, very Happy New Year. — Astrid Van Wieren
Beautiful! — Kate Ladd
Henriette...You are a beautiful person and an excellent writer. It is a wonderful life!!! — Linda MacDonald Armstrong