Blue as the Sky

Blue as the Sky
Michael Gollin
May 2013

Once in a while, but not every day, we face a decision that leads to momentous consequences for ourselves or others — life or death, joy or sorrow, blessings or curse, fame or infamy, wealth or poverty. Out of the tapestry of little choices we make in a day, a week, a year, a few stand out as fateful decisions –drum roll, please – Which school to accept, which job, which mate? Where to put our money – buy this house? Where to live? We learn to approach these decisions in our own way and they come to express our identity.

Fateful decisions define who we are. We all ask the eternal question, “Who am I?” One answer is, “I am the sum of the choices I have made.” You can use Latin to say “I am homo decidere.” I am the person who decides – literally, the one who has cut off other alternatives. I am the paths I have taken, and I am not the alternatives I rejected. I will become the choices that I will make in the future.

One of my favorite lines in literature comes from Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, at the end of the chapter called “The Superman Grows Careless.” Protagonist Amory Blaine, distracted and struggling academically at Princeton, has finished summer school , trying to redeem himself, to stay in school, and to continue his literary achievements. His roommate hands him an envelope from the registrar. Inside is a pink slip signifying success, or a blue slip meaning he failed, may flunk out, and must resign his magazine editor position. His friends gather around him. Suspense builds as he slits open the envelope, looks inside and says dramatically:

“Blue as the sky, gentlemen….”

What does that phrase mean? Instead of sheepishly accepting what would seem to most of us to be a terrible blow, and one due to his own laziness, Amory decides to express his fate with an artful simile of freedom and beauty. A blue sky is heavenly, promising, a gift of clear weather. He saw bad news and found good wrapped within it. He had already chosen to be an academic slacker. When he learned of the logical consequence of his actions, he chose to make the most of the moment. He chose to react poetically to what his own deeds, and the decisions of others, had presented to him. His choices led him up to that bad moment, and then he made the best of it, entertaining his friends.

Reading that passage decades ago as a neither-bottom-nor-top of my class Princetonian, I respected the poise and bravado of facing that moment that way. Now I have a more mature perspective – or at least I hope I do.

The myriad of little choices we make every day can prepare us for the big ones. Thoughtful people work proactively to create options and open doors for themselves. Especially in the US, a central part of living your life well involves learning to make good decisions that advance your happiness and that of your community. Study hard, work hard, stay healthy, do not abuse alcohol or drugs, or other people — be good and be kind. But everyone, even the most self-possessed, fortunate, and hard-working person from time to time faces the problem of how to react to whatever shocks life presents out of its own whims.

Bad news is a test, and we pass or fail each time. As Job realized, the parts of our fate that we control are quite limited. We must accept that fate, or nature, or God, or strangers, can and will trump every choice we make. But even if we did not bring our fate upon ourselves, we can still decide how to react. And moreover, I think that a life well-lived, defined by good decisions that we make within that constrained set of things we can control, actually does prepare us to handle whatever fate brings upon us out of the vast universe of things beyond our control.

When Amory Blaine received his failure notice, he reacted sophomorically, but grandly, making this a “blue sky” moment for him and his friends. Did he learn anything from his troubles? Apply himself to his studies, straighten up, try to help others to succeed? Not so much – it didn’t suit the character or the novel. As readers, we can identify with his bad news bravado. We can also see that the blue slip of failure could have been accepted as more of a cloudy sky than a blue one, presaging bad weather.

Why does this matter to me now? Because while I welcome blue skies, I see that even cloudy skies have silver linings. In summer 2012, I started to see the bad signs fate was giving me about my health. Despite a near perfect exercise regimen, diet, and emotional well-being, I found myself stumbling, slowing down, with weakened hand and slurring speech. I challenged myself through my activities, and found that no choice or decision I could make would improve my condition. So I checked WebMD and other sources and recognized I probably had a neurological disorder. I went to my doctor, then to a neurologist who had me do blood tests and MRIs, and nerve and muscle electrophysiology tests, then to the ALS clinic at Johns Hopkins. In the meantime, I read the detailed criteria for a diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and the differential diagnosis distinguishing other diseases with overlapping symptoms. I read about the average life expectancy of 2-5 years, and the grim course of the illness leading to loss of the ability to eat and to breathe. While hoping for a diagnosis of a treatable illness, I had been telling my wife and kids “hope for the best, plan for the worst.”

There, a half day of testing confirmed what I suspected. The specialist sat me down, and with a grim face said that he was sorry, but the tests confirmed that I had ALS. My response?

“That sucks.”

Not quite worthy of Fitzgerald, but it worked for me. What I learned with my diagnosis was that from now on I had to deal with the worst of all the options I had considered.

The doctor agreed, “Yes, it does.” And the next chapter of my life began in that fateful moment.

After receiving information about follow up visits, I set off on my way back home. Daughter Julia had asked the previous day for a regulation weight Frisbee so she could practice for the high school Frisbee team. I stopped at a few stores but it was October and they had none in stock. I went home for dinner and began by apologizing that I was empty handed. My wife asked about my doctor visit.

“I have good news and bad news.”

What’s the good news, she asked.

“I’m very good at self-diagnosis.”

Her face fell, and so did my daughter’s, and so began the long process of communicating my new reality to others.

The words I chose that day were only words, of course, not a grand action or a major decision. Nothing heroic. But as with “blue as the sky, gentlemen,” those first exchanges with my doctor and my family helped me decide how to approach life with a terminal incurable progressive disease. I was blunt, realistic, and honest with myself and others, and I looked for humorous or at least tolerable ways to think about the unthinkable, and to speak about the unspeakable.

And we found a Frisbee on Amazon and ordered it that day.

The decisions I made in those moments have been followed by countless others: How to tell my other children, parents, siblings? What to do about work? What about insurance? How would our savings hold up? What about my will? What positive impacts should I leave on the world? How would I spend my remaining time? How would I face the small things, like playing with my children?

These decisions continue to define who I am, and who I am not. I am not someone who gives up. I am not someone who leaves others in the lurch. I am not in denial. Nor am I hopeless. I am not someone who misses a beautiful sunset, a game of catch, my own overall fitness. I am someone who strives for perfect health – with one unavoidable exception. Someone who tries hard to love my wife, my children, my parents, siblings, cousins, friends, co-workers, and as much of humanity as I can.

I decided to celebrate life, to spend time with my family, to continue practicing law for my preferred clients and to benefit my law firm colleagues, because rewarding work is one of life’s great privileges and I enjoy those rewards built on a career of 35 years of decisions since I graduated college (unlike Fitzgerald) – and even before then. I will do what I can to accelerate research to find a cure for ALS, perhaps for myself, but definitely for everyone else who will contract the disease for years to come – over 100,000 per year, worldwide. As I learn about exercise and supplements and other things that could help ALS patients, I will share that with others, and I am mobilizing a public platform to do that.

And I will travel and play and write and laugh and cry and enjoy life every day, to the best of my ability, for as long as I can. Fate does not define who we are. Rather, fate presents us with opportunities to decide who we are.

My closing thought is a wish for each of us to be prepared to make the right choices, especially the most difficult ones. Even if the sky is cloudy, we can mine the silver linings. And we can reflect on our choices and our luck – good or bad – and celebrate them publicly with “blue sky” style.


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