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select a month a year of stories - falling apart - by greg knauss

You don't have your breakdown in the ICU. You're there to be strong, to be a hopeful face, and the person lying in the bed in front of you doesn't need to see you going to pieces. You have your breakdown later, after, away from the quiet, constant machine-murmur and the tired, scared eyes. You have your breakdown when it all starts to sink in, and you realize that the world doesn't work the way you thought it did, the way you'd hoped, the way you'd always been told.

On December 27, 2000, over the course of four hours, my father-in-law became a quadriplegic. From an initial tingling in his feet through the complete paralysis of everything below his third cervical vertebrae, the disease – still undiagnosed – struck without reason and without pity. He eats through a tube installed in his belly. He has the mucus suctioned from his lungs so he doesn't drown. If he's not turned on a regular basis, his skin will split and tear under his weight. The wasted ruin of his body sags and bloats, anything once defined by muscle having long since faded into a single, seamless mass. He is literally falling apart.

It is the most appalling, awful thing I have ever seen. He's all there mentally – he's even the same man – but his fully functional brain is trapped atop a body that has betrayed him in every conceivable way.

And in the weeks that followed the initial rush to the hospital, the panicked phone calls, the explanations and the meetings, when things slowed down enough to let me sit in my car and sob, I sat in my car and sobbed. On a bitterly cold January morning – 3:30, 4:00, I forget – I sat in my car in an empty hospital parking lot and mourned the loss of every illusion I had ever held.

Things don't work the way we've been told. The good aren't rewarded, and the bad aren't punished. Every line we're fed, every assumption we carry from day to day, every happy story we're told in civics class and Sunday school is a complete and total lie. No matter how hard you work, no matter how good you are, no matter how much effort you put into doing the right thing, it can all end on a hospital bed with thick, viscous phlegm running out of your mouth because you don't have the muscle control to swallow it.

This is not a revelation. Any thirteen-year-old can tell you the same thing. But the closeness of it, the completeness of it, has stripped me clean of any hope or faith or belief in the beneficence of God or fate or the universe. I am angry, still, in ways I have never been angry before, enraged by the thought that everything I hold dear can be taken from me without reason, warning or cause. There is no one to scream at and no one to blame – it's just the way things are.

And that sad reality has left me furious, spent, and broken.

How was your January?