A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
All his symptoms were aligned with the inevitability of death. But we still took Dryphuss to the veterinarian’s office to assess whether we might continue to manage his pain. The vet determined that since Dryphuss wasn’t going to get better, we were putting him (and ourselves) through unnecessary suffering and trauma. He recommended euthanasia that very day.
“But I’m not ready yet,” I selfishly told the vet. “I just need one more day with him.”
“I love people who don’t give up,” the vet replied. “But the problem with people who don’t give up is that they don’t know when to give up. Dryphuss is suffering – it’s time to let him go.”
I nodded. I loved Dryphuss enough to do what was best for him. But in that moment, the vet had not only diagnosed my dog – he had diagnosed my personality.
I don’t know when to give up. My high blood pressure – since my mid-40s – is proof of that. My tendency to become exhausted and depressed over world events is further proof. But…so is the success I’ve had in many personal and professional endeavors. That’s what continues to fuel me: Every once in a while, not-giving-up works.
But it’s a hard way to live.
Every time I read or watch The Diary of Anne Frank, I hope that it will turn out differently. Maybe this time she won’t get caught. Or if she does, she won’t die. I know that’s bizarre but I hold out hope. Despite what the neurosurgeon termed “a lousy diagnosis and a lousy prognosis,” I didn’t expect my mother to die from the three tumors embedded in her cranium. Even when they declared no more treatments were in order, I told myself we just had to figure out what to do next.
I’m in good company. Susan B. Anthony suffered from that Not-Knowing-When-to-Give-Up Syndrome too. Shortly after attending a suffrage convention in Baltimore at the age of 86, she took ill, dying the following month. Her last words spoken at the convention had been, “Failure is impossible!” even though it would take another fourteen years before the 19th Amendment was passed, using the exact wording she had proposed 42 years earlier. The week before she died, she instructed her sister to give every cent she had to “the cause.” Two hours before slipping into a coma, she finally did give up: “To think I have had more than sixty years of hard struggle for a little liberty, and then to die without it seems so cruel.” Her obituary in the New York Times beautifully captured her spunk: “Miss Anthony herself had believed that she would recover. Early in her illness she told her friends that she expected to live to be as old as her father, who was over 90 when he died.”
I recently watched Kill the Messenger, a movie about Gary Webb, a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News, who uncovered a connection between a San Francisco-based drug ring and a CIA-sponsored Nicaraguan contra group. It purported that millions of dollars made from those drug sales were later used to fund a secret war against the leftist Sandinista regime. Mr. Webb was drummed out of journalism and killed himself at the age of 49.
Although several insiders claim the movie was sensationalized and Webb’s reporting deeply flawed, it re-ignited what I already know about dirty dealings in our government agencies under our leaders’ authority, whether Reagan or Obama. All fired up, I asked my viewing companion, “What are we going to do about this?”
He looked at me like I had two heads: “What do you mean, ‘What are we going to do’? That was back in the 80s! Haven’t you heard? Reagan’s dead!”
He thought it time to give up on exposing The Gipper’s and Oliver North’s role in the Iran-Contra Affair. But for me, justice has not yet been served. Reagan’s name is spoken with the greatest reverence by Republican presidential-hopefuls as they proudly stand at their podiums in his ostentatious library. And to the uninformed, Ollie remains the ever-principled and justified Marine.
I’m not ready to give up on reminding others that a government by the people requires vigilant people.
I wrote a blog post for Ms. Magazine calling for the end of separate commemorations for women (like Women’s History Month) and instead putting our efforts into legislative changes, like passing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The editor of Vox Populi, well-known and respected for being a thoughtful, progressive activist, declined to re-post it by responding, “The ERA was a battle that was won and lost when Democrats were in control of most state legislatures two generations ago. Now that Republicans control most legislatures, the amendment doesn’t stand a chance of being ratified. I think that our limited energies are better spent on other issues.”
At first, I felt foolish. He was right, of course – How could I think the ERA would stand a chance while this War on Women is raging? And then I thought, How can I just give up on that? The wording is simply, Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Such legislation shouldn’t even be needed, but the fact that it has been defeated makes it worth fighting for despite the current political climate. How much ground would we lose if we only take on issues we know we can win in the short term?
Legends about those who persevered despite all evidence to the contrary inspire us (sometimes even when we wish they had not succeeded): Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon, Adolph Hitler, Colonel Sanders, J.K. Rowling, Steven Hawking, Nelson Mandela, and Malala Yousafzai. Those who should have picked up their marbles and gone home. Accepted defeat. But they did not.
Neither did my mother. She was defeated seven times for a seat on our local school board. It became a joke in our community; she was a perennial candidate, like Harold Stassen. As a teenager, I was humiliated. Until she won and became president of that board.
She was my role model; she’s the reason I don’t give up. I both blame and credit her for my head being bloody at times.
The problem with people who don’t give up is that they don’t know when to give up. What makes for that kind of stubborn resilience? When does staying power have merit and when is it just plain foolish? And how can it be channeled appropriately so that we don’t burn ourselves out and annoy the hell out of others?
I’ve heard it said that most of us stop believing just before the miracle is about to happen. The legendary ant that moved the rubber tree plant had high hopes. Despite my somewhat pessimistic world view, I too have high hopes, manifested by a naïve belief that if I just get involved, maybe I can make a difference. A belief that I could be the one to help reach the tipping point, the critical mass. Maybe I could save my dog, my mother, my gender, my country.
If enough people beat their heads against the wall, the wall eventually comes down, the saying goes. Or Oops there goes a billion kilowatt dam.
Copyright 2015 Patricia A. Nugent.
Patricia A. Nugent is published in trade journals, literary journals, online journals, and regional publications. She wrote The Stone that Started the Ripple, a dramatization about a modern-day reunion of the suffragists. She is the author of the book, They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad, a compilation of vignettes portraying the stages of caring for and saying goodbye to a loved one.