Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cystic Fibrosis: Living Like Tomorrow Always Comes

Autosomal recessive geneImage via Wikipedia

And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years. ~ Abraham Lincoln

I rolled my eyes, thinking he didn't see. Oh, God, he's quoting Lincoln again. Here we go, another lecture on what I should do with my life. My grandfather was silent for a few seconds and I hoped the moment had passed, but no such luck. "You don't see it now, because you're young and think you've got plenty of time. Well, I hope you do, but just in case, it doesn't hurt to remember to make the most of what you've got."

Twenty years later, at the advanced age of 33, I was sitting in a doctoral seminar on the philosophical study of religion with four other students, one of whom was 24 and had cystic fibrosis. He announced it that afternoon while we were sharing our personal stories and getting to know one another, waiting for the professor to show up. We didn't know much about CF except it didn't sound good and he went on to explain he was something of an anomaly. He called it an autosomal recessive disorder, meaning both his parents had to be carriers of the gene, and in the mid-1980s, a 24 year old with CF was extremely rare; most didn't live to 25. And yet, there he was, newly married, trying for a baby, and attending graduate school.

It was at that point someone asked the question the rest of us were thinking, "What are you doing here, of all places?" It reminded me of a television program entitled Run for Your Life. Diagnosed with an unspecified terminal illness and given a year to live, the lead character determined to fill his remaining time with all the adventurous things he'd never done. Our classmate responded, "Where else would I be? This is something I've always wanted. Why shouldn't I live as though tomorrow will always come? Aren't you?"

I was chatting, the other day, with a friend of mine who is "older" and considering medical school. He's been getting questions similar to the one addressed to my younger classmate, e.g. why do this to yourself now, shouldn't you pursue something easier to attain, etc. The unspoken presumption being, challenges are the province of the young and the older we get the less inclined to accepting them we should become. Uh-huh.

Lincoln got it right and so did my grandfather. It's not how long we have but what we do with it that matters. Although I eventually lost track of him, my classmate saw thirty as well as his first-born. If he'd done what was expected, he would likely have remained single, skipped graduate school, and stayed home with his parents, waiting to die. Because he chose to live in hope, his child will have graduated college by now. Maybe she's pursuing the degree denied her father or maybe she's in medical school, studying cystic fibrosis.

Wherever she is, she is because of him, because he refused to let death interfere with life.

(Image of unknown license via Wikipedia)
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