Cheers To a Slowly Dying Christmas Tree and the Start of Something New

My Christmas tree is still up. We might start there..

Two Fun Facts. Even when your Christmas tree begins to shrivel and sadly die in the corner of your living room:
1. The decorative lights still emit that magical glow when turned on at night and you’d never know their was death lurking behind them.
2. It still smells like Christmas! Even while dying, that one of a kind sap-infused, woodsy, cinnamon smell still infuses the room from the corner where the tree sits, but looks more like it’s floating.

I still catch random whiffs of Christmas when walking by or while reading on the couch. It’s like the original air-freshener, and since the scent is so sporadic and only comes around once a year, like Girl Scout cookies, encountering it feels uniquely special. Like glimpsing a shooting star or seeing a bald eagle. Sometime its feels like a nice gift the tree is sending my way. I think, Hey thanks tree, you have a good day too! What I’m saying is, you begin to talk to things that are not human when you live alone, and that’s OK. It’s bound to happen. I think. I’ll ask Monty.

I tried deciding whether a Christmas tree still hanging around on January 22nd that also happens to be dying is depressing conceptually or not. I say conceptually because I can say from an actual standpoint, it most definitely is not. It still brings all the joy it did from day one. I am a Christmas enthusiast and my fervor has always extended to the art of holiday decor and the unmistakable enchantment of a Real Live Christmas Tree. Everything about them makes me happy. Until I start seeing them on the corner of peoples driveways laying on their side next to the trash can– what a tragically depressing image to encounter. Or it always was for me, growing up. I feel that keeping the tree around this long and seeing it to its final days, I’m squeezing every ounce of wander out of what Christmas trees have to offer. It’s like The Giving Tree! Except in this case at the end, we burn it in a large pile of leaves and miscellaneous dead foliage and branches out in the prairie. But I find this to be a far less sad ending to the tree than awaiting its demise on a driveway and being tossed in a trash truck full of rotting food and discarded junk. I wonder if it freshens up the smell of the garbage truck? Probably not. Anyway burning the tree returns it to where it came, and whether that works out scientifically or not, for me it feels like a much kinder fate. And symbolically more appropriate.

As for outsiders, seeing a dying Christmas tree still lit up in my living room might look like a lapse in civility or domestication on my part– some kind of improper etiquette. Like having dishes in the sink or a mess of a house when company shows up. It’s always a little shameful when people visit, especially unexpectedly, and your place isnt tidy. Somehow it feels like a reflection of you– whether clean or dirty, we’ve come to see dishes in the sink as a little pitiful and a perfectly sanitary house as the height of a life in order! But order doesn’t imply anything moral or productive. Then again, a really dirty house does start to make you wonder about the direction someones life is going. If you haven’t done laundry to dishes in over three months, it might be time to talk to someone. It’s funny how having a clean house gives us a sense of pride and sends the message of “I’ve got my shit together and things are great!” Somewhere deep down, don’t we all secretly wish our homes smelled faintly of Pier One Imports? THAT is a fresh, successful smell if there ever were one. Unfortunately you can’t detect what your own house smells like, you can’t discern your own smell, so you kindof just have to keep up with the cleaning, pray that your pheromones mix well with your dish soap and the wood of your cabinetry and whatever else is informing the air of your house, and hope for the best. Many houses I can think of from growing up have distinct smells to them, that are still there when I visit today. It always elicits memories of certain times way back when. Funny how just a smell can be so tightly tied to a person or experience. I can still remember the exact smell of my grandma baking homemade bread. It takes me right back to childhood, to punching down the raised dough in those huge seventies-colored bowls, and to that first piece warm out of the oven. Son of a nutcracker I am hungry now.

Anyway, I imagine somewhere in a book of manners and proper social behavior, there is a responsible cutoff date for the Christmas tree, and if yours is up past that date, forget it. You might as well quit your job and stop tying. For me I don’t have a real job so there’s a personal loophole–if in fact, Jan. 23rd is past the cutoff date for tossing out the tree. Anything after that is an obvious decay of domestication. Or maybe just poor manners.  Maybe I’m still in the clear because it’s still within 30 days of Christmas, and if I can still technically return a gift to Target, then I should be squared away with the tree. Either way, none of this actually matters and obviously you should keep your tree up as long as it makes you happy and does not accrue mold. Isn’t that how we justify killing them for the purpose of holiday decoration in the first place? By enjoying and appreciating their beauty and assorted pleasures for as long as possible, we sort of redeem cutting them down. Sort of. I don’t know, what is the environmentalist take on real Christmas trees? Is real or fake the greener choice? Probably fake, right? Let me check.

Well that was a hellstorm. I’ll save you some googling time and just say the conclusion to ten articles on this very subject is that the science is still out on conclusively naming one or the other as better (or worse) environmentally. Worth noting is that artificial trees are created using this special ingredient calling PVC (polyvinyl chloride) which is not recyclable nor completely biodegradable. Also vinyl-chloride is listed as a human carcinogen. You have to use the artificial tree anywhere from 7-20 years (there are multiple conflicting studies)  in order to make it less harmful to the environment than using a real Christmas tree. Also at least 90% of real Christmas trees are farmed, which keeps the natural population healthily sustained. Hmm, one can emit hazardous fumes in too high a dose, and one provides magical Christmas dust that enlivens the senses and makes miracles. So I am biased clearly, but I still say down with artificial arbor. Go real. Go green. And inhale that magical smell until March if you want to.

Its funny, but even though Christmas is well over, I’m still recovering from the festivities I partook in. Some of it is my fault; I have a hard time doing what’s best for myself in terms of the illness, and doing what is fun and adventurous and happy in the moment. This disease is so insidious, it doesn’t let you know how much you’ll have to pay until you’ve already done the damage. Its like going swimming today, but not having to hold your breath until tomorrow. Say you swim in the ocean and get distracted by the tropical fish. You go under water following them around, and all the while you think “I haven’t been under that long, I’ll definitely be able to hold my breath this long tomorrow when the time comes.” You think that because you’re stupid and you didn’t learn your lesson from last time. The next day comes and you have to hold your breath for all the times you went under water, but on some of your sub-surface excursions, you were distracted by awesome sea life and stayed under like 3 minutes. Now you’re trying to hold your breath for three minute stints and you’re blue in the face and passing out and thinking, why did I go under the water. Why Mary WHY. So, that’s one way to explain it. Anyway, Christmas is happiness and this year it was a great one. Sometimes the dive is worth turning blue.

I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I’ve had the feeling for a while now that 2017 is going to be a very special year. I can’t say how specifically, but I sense that big changes are in store. Important changes. Great changes. And that the start of something new and big has already begun its course. It’s only an intuition so what do I know. Maybe anything compared to the dismal 2016 will seem auspicious by default. But something tells me it will be more than that.

I never saw myself in the world of advocacy or politics, but tomorrow is the first day of a very important journey that I suppose will include both. It’s the first time I will meet with a politician to talk about me/cfs and address the funding issue, in person. I’m meeting with the Louisiana state director, Brian McNabb, who works in the office of Senator Bill Cassidy. I have no idea how the meeting will go. Of course, I have my talking points prepared and there is only so much my brain can store. My main is goal is to tell the truth and leave a lasting impact. In my imagination the scenario goes like this:

We start with some charming banter yada yada yada, he pours two glasses of whiskey, and as the ice clinks in our glasses I say “Look McNabb, we need $100 million from the NIH for this disease. Minimum. And we need it yesterday.” He thinks a moment, sips his drink img_6334and says “You know, after reading the riveting history of this disease, the outright neglect, and the heartbreaking stories of so many who’ve been devastated by it, I’d like to offer $200 million toward biomedical research. It’s actually the more appropriate and fair amount.” I walk over, raise my glass to toast to this proposal and say “Wonderful Brian. You’re doing a really incredible thing.” Clink!

“How soon will the funding come through to the NIH?” He thinks a moment, “I’ll have to get a few documents in order, but I’d say by tomorrow around 4. Does that sound alright?” I begin to put on my jacket to leave. “Sounds fine.” He opens the door, “I’ll let Mr. Collins know about the funding change. Anything else?” Walking out I hesitate, stop, then turn around. “Actually, I have these parking tickets in New Orleans I never paid-” “Ms. Gelpi! Don’t be ridiculous! I’m not a genie I can’t just say ‘poof!’ and fix everything!” I blush from assuming something so stupid. “You’re right, I’m sorry. It was foolish to ask. Forgive me.” I turn my head away a little embarrassed. He nods affirmatively and ushers  me out. Before he closes the door I yell inside just to be sure “But we’re still on, $200 mil to the NIH tomorrow by 4? Right?” He already has a phone to his ear and looks distracted by some new matter. “Right. 200 mil. 4 o clock. G’bye now.” The door shuts and I turn to walk out, grabbing a handful of Worthers Original candies from the crystal bowl on the secretaries desk. She doesn’t mind. Outside it’s chilly as I walk to my car and my legs are already aching, but I don’t mind, it’s too happy an occasion. I arrive at my car and immediately notice a boot on the front tire because my meter expired while I was inside. There’s also a notice that says I have dozens of unpaid parking tickets and my car has been seized. I turn around and march back toward the tall marbly building. I dial my mom, walking up the steps. “Well?” she answers with anticipation. “Mom! I’ve got good and bad news, which would you like to hear first?”

The End

That sounds like a reasonable scenario, right? I’ve heard that’s how Washington works so, I’ll keep you posted. :)

Health, happiness, GREEN.

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All I Want For Christmas is $100 Million Dollars

100 million dollars. I’ve never lived in a world where that figure represented an actual amount of money. I don’t think I’ve ever used it for anything more than hyperbolic effect in conversation. As in, Anthropologie is so expensive even a scarf there is like, 100 million dollars. I’m not even sure I could write out that number with confidence about how many zeros follow the number one. Unacquainted as I am, I’m learning to write and say it with total conviction, because now it does represent an actual amount of money, and I am seeking it with earnestness. Within the strange world of politics-meets-medicine, it’s no longer an absurd number. In this new context it’s become completely reasonable. In fact, some would say given the facts, it’s an exceptionally modest amount. Go figure.

As many of you are probably tired of reading about, I began a campaign earlier this year requesting that the NIH allocate this amount of funding toward the research of a mostly neglected, orphaned disease. Over the year, this has become the most important pursuit of my life. And I believe the cause to be one of the most important in anyones life: our health. Like many things, you don’t realize how important it is until you don’t have it anymore.  Stepping foot into the advocacy world provided me with a new, unexpected perspective–to see the community I’m a part of, from the outside in. This adjusted outlook has fueled my insistence for change to a degree I’ve never felt before. Interestingly enough, this outside viewpoint began within my own family, but not from my own experience with the disease.

I rarely talk or write about it, but my mom has lived with ME/CFS for two and a half decades. Most people with this disease will tell you there is a pre-sick version of themselves that couldn’t quite  survive once the illness took hold. I was only 2 when my mom became sick, so I don’t remember or know her as any other way than how she is. I’ve been reflecting on the reality that there is a whole side to her I’ve never really known. Prior to getting sick, she might better be described as a type-A personality. She was fast-moving, organized, sharp–an ER nurse. She and my dad had a large social circle and were both involved in the community and church. But no one would ever know about this past part of her, how could they? She left work tentatively to devote herself full-time to motherhood and raising four children under the age of five. In pictures she looks happy and privileged to be a mom and wife. In old videos she is lively and beaming, her voice animated, giggly at times.

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Real nice, Doug.

Christmas morning, 1984. 4:30 am. Grainy video footage taken mostly by my dad (a tech geek elated by new video recording technology) reveals this other side to my mom that many people besides me have never known. In the classic reddish-brown hue that tints all memorabilia from the 70‘s and the early 80’s, three kids under the age of five are glowing in wait in our sunken living room. The fourth kid, me, is five months old sitting in a car seat on the sofa. (Thanks guys) My siblings frantic excitement is palpable–the kind that only comes on Christmas from children who still believe. They remind me of shaken up cans of cola, overflowing with joy. In contrast my mom and dad aren’t entirely awake yet given the hour, and early video footage provides evidence of a boisterous Christmas Eve party late into the night before. They speak in soft tones of voices and have glazed over look on their faces. Despite the lack of sleep, my mom still looks beautiful in a long white robe, rubbing her eyes intermittently to try and pep up. The kids grow more intoxicated with each new gift, and both my parents take turns reacting to 3 individual shouts of “Look at my new toy! Look! Can you open this?” Crumpled up wrapping paper begins to litter the room like discarded wads of kleenex. Outside, it’s still dark.

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Toy assembly line, 4:45 am
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My brother Nick is crying because he can’t find his legos.

I love this footage for many reasons. For one thing, it captures such an iconic display of Christmas morning during such a happy time as if out of a Rockwell painting. You can sense the love between my parents, and observe childhood traits in my siblings that still exist today. Nick is methodical and organized with his unwrapping, and with everything. At one point my sister Amelie opens a gift and says “Wowwww!!!”as her eyes grow huge with excitement. When she shows it to my mom she laughs and says “Amelie, this is just the box.” My brother Doug still receives high-tech gadgets for Christmas and maintains the same enthusiasm. And me, I am still perfectly content to lie on the couch surrounded by my siblings–listen to them tell stories, laugh, bicker, cook, play games, and pine for my mothers attention. Even as a baby, I was comfortable and entertained just watching and listening to them live around me.

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Christmas Eve, 1984

The footage is also deeply nostalgic of course. It’s both wonderful and emotional to hear my dads voice again, to see him alive and in his element. Happy, goofy, making corny jokes. But it’s also a snapshot of the woman my mom was before she got sick. It’s not that this part of her is totally gone, but the illness simply changes your capacity for regular things, even socializing. As such you’re forced to make adjustments. She appears so spirited and vivid in these videos, so unweighed down. Maybe it’s because I so often see how the illness has effected my own appearance every time I look in the mirror, my posture, my facial expression even, that I can easily spot how it’s changed her physically, her whole body language, the inflections of her voice. Even sleepy and in the early hours of morning, there’s an underlying, unrestricted vigor in her–something that lies dormant now. There is a heaviness to this disease, like an invisible ton of bricks you carry with you at all times. Look hard enough and it’s not so hard to see.

My mom was never able to go back to ER nursing as planned. “I couldn’t trust my brain anymore” she says, and the stakes in that line of work were just too high. While she still calls so many people friends and loves them the same, her social life took an extremely hard hit. Given the insidious nature of this disease, I imagine it’s difficult for those who knew her before she was sick to adjust to this comparatively different, limited person–who by most accounts appears so much the same. As a result, relationships struggle to sustain the blow dealt by all the change, and to continuously explain the illness and your newfound incapabilities is exhausting, especially because you have such little energy to begin with. As a result, many people tire out and turn inward, ending up more like hermits or monks. My mom has always been strong and independent, never one to feel sorry for herself or even reach out for help, perhaps sometimes when she could use it. As much as she’s made the best of it and adapted to a less social life, I know a place in her aches not just for the friendships she had, but for the friend she was once capable of being. This is one of the hardest adjustments to the illness, particularly painful because it happens during a time when you need friends and support the most.

Since the birth of her second child, my sisters health has been steadily declining. For the past year and half she has slowly worsened with classic MECFS symptoms. Ruling out many other diseases that mimic this one, she will see a specialist soon for an official diagnosis. But many tests are showing the same abnormalities as those with ME. She is the same age that my mom was when she got sick.  Fortunately because we know now the best course of action, she has a better chance of recovery by addressing it early and aggressively. In March, she left her job tentatively to attend to her health full-time and attempt to get her symptoms under control. She has seen what pushing it has done to both my mom and me, and I don’t think any of us could stand it if it happened to her too. I know leaving her job was not easy for her. She loved her career as an interior designer, began a successful start-up firm with a partner and worked extremely hard. But as her symptoms became more frequent, more severe, longer and harder to recover from, she knew she had a decision to make: Cut her losses now or risk losing a lot more later on. She chose to act now, which was no doubt the right way to go, but I doubt that made the decision any easier on her.

For so long, my whole family, especially my sister and my mom have been my champions who carried me when I was weak and encouraged me when I felt hopeless. I’m so eternally grateful to them for all they’ve done and continue to do, and I’ve always wondered how I will ever repay them and my whole family for their kindness. I believe now it’s my turn to be their champions. Maybe this is my chance to finally return the favor.

I don’t have money to pay back the expenses, and I don’t have the strength to reimburse them by “working off” my debt. What I do have is a voice. A small platform. And a petition with 40,000 signatures. I’ve watched what this illness has done to my family. I’ve read the hundreds of heartbreaking stories that sick people have left on the petition page or emailed to me. I’ve become friends with Jamison Hill, the first person I’ve met who’s close to my age and has MECFS. He was a former personal trainer, and has now been bedridden since January of 2015. He lives in a dark room, able to tolerate exceptionally little light and sound; most days he is barely able to talk. Seeing this widespread devastation was upsetting but also opened my eyes to the urgency and dire need of this issue. It lit a fire within me that’s stronger and different than before. I think sometimes it’s easier to fight for other people than it is yourself.

My mom and sister never gave up on me, and so I promise that I won’t give up on this. It’s a black and white petition with a very specific ask. I won’t settle for the gray bureaucracy of political red-tape that is slow moving, inefficient and has failed this community for the last 30 years. I am hoping Santa, or the right senator, can bypass all that.

What an amazing Christmas it could be for millions of people with this disease around the world, to finally have real hope knowing that change is happening now, and the kind of research we’ve all been waiting on will finally be possible. It’s not a change that would normally happen quickly. And I don’t expect this fight to be easy or painless. But, it is Christmas. And even at 32, I still believe in something powerful around this time of year that makes anything possible. I know that this is, but it will require the right kind of help. Here’s hoping, for all of us, that we get it.

Health, Happiness, Believe

If you’d like to add your voice or help circulate the petition to more people, that would be amazing and please click here.

To donate to Jamison Hill’s medical fund click the link!

Yall Rock, Thank you to all.