Digging Your Own Tunnel

Every now and then during your lifetime you read or see or hear something that so exemplifies your existence. or a part of it, that it's almost painful I recently had such an experience while watching "The Shawshank Redemption," a movie about the effects of life-term imprisonment on hope and the human spirit. It's also a good metaphor for my life with Lou Gehrig's disease (or ALS).

I have heard it said that ALS is like being a prisoner trapped in your own body. I have always thought that this is an oversimplification. By providing an in-depth look into the experiences and psyches of various prisoners, this movie took the metaphor to its proper depth for me.

The story begins with the main protagonist, Andy, being sentenced to two life terms for double murder. On his first night in prison, he is faced with the enormity of his situation. This scene evoked my memories of receiving the sentence without hope: a life with ever-increasing disability and death within three years. I remember lying alone in that hospital room with little hope or sense of future. The enormity of my nightmare hit me as I thought about my wife and kids, money, my job, and my kids some more. I never thought about myself, not because I'm unselfish, but because I'd written myself off. I prayed out loud for the first time since I was small, asking for a reprieve so that I might see and help my young kids grow up.

Like Andy, my first two years were the roughest. He was regularly beaten and forced to compromise. In my case, I was constantly fighting--with myself and sometimes with others, as the disease continued its relentless violation of my once dependable body. As I watched the film, I remembered the stitches, head bangings, cuts, bruises. torn muscles and strained ligaments that resulted from my efforts to maintain normalcy. I recalled the frustration that came with each grudging compromise: walks and the exercise bike instead of runs and swimming; leg braces: no driving; working at home: wheelchair. I remembered the depression that came when I was forced to ask for help with my progressive loss of freedom.

The movie illustrates how Andy's reaction to the loss of freedom is different from most of the lifers'. Most of the lifers simply surrender after a while. Andy finds ways to assert his status as a thinking, functioning human being despite the limits of prison life. He establishes his worth to others as an advocate, financial manager and librarian. He has long-term projects, a chess set and a tunnel that takes him 19 years to dig. He never gives in. He finds ways to grab moments of normalcy, like playing music and drinking a beer. Andy's ability to affect the lives of fellow inmates is most important to him--he can cause things to happen and make people react. Andy talks about hope making a man free. His philosophy is, "You can get busy living or get busy dying."

I thought about my reaction to imprisonment and recognized that I have both an Andy and the other type within me constantly doing battle. The daily opportunities to surrender to the isolation of physical limitation. The temptations to give up something else. And how each day brings chances to participate in life, to fight against the forces that imprison me, to dig my own tunnel. It's easier to withdraw to my cell. As time advances and the disease progresses, everything gets harder, not only for me but for everyone around me. It is more difficult to affect the lives of others in a positive way. The walls close in. I become more of a spectator in order to ease up on the people around me-and on myself. I wonder if I could return to normalcy if my tunnel's ever finished; if I'm strong enough to sustain the effort involved in coming back; if I'm too comfortable with my isolation.

I became more convinced that death would be easier, but I've found reasons to live. I know that without my children and without the hope medical research offers, it would be very easy to give in. Andy makes his own hope. I have mine given to me.

I rely on images from my life on the outside for the motivation to "get busy living." I can see and feel myself doing things like holding my children, playing with them, eating certain foods. The movie echoes these reflections. I thought of how much I resent the necessity of asking when I need a shower. food, the bathroom, to scratch an itch or change channels. I've learned to ignore many of these things to avoid asking for help.

The movie's visual images were especially evocative. There's a scene where inmates, working on a roof, rest in the warm sun, drinking beer. I recall the great feeling that came from finishing work and resting with a beer on a hot day. There is a shot of Andy, recently free, in the rain, reveling in the interaction with God's natural forces. I took a lot of pleasure from running, playing ball, standing in a rainstorm. Quite a contrast to now, when I can't brush away a drop of water from my eye or hold my head up.

Another image from the movie is of a freed man walking along a country road, farm fields on either side, the sun casting a golden haze over everything. Having spent much of my youth in rural areas, I felt as if I was seeing country roads that I'd enjoyed as a free man. My youth came flooding back. Making hay, working road construction, riding horses and motorcycles, swimming, just sitting. I thought how desperately I want to have the pleasure of walking again.

What really struck me was Andy's dream that motivated his tunnel-digging. He envisions life in a small fishing town in Mexico. Warm sun and water, cool breezes, cottages and cafes lining the beach, seafood, snorkeling, deep-sea fishing. I knew the place exactly. I had been there on my most memorable vacation, nine months before I was diagnosed. I was experiencing symptoms, but nothing that stopped me from doing anything I wanted to. It was the last time I would feel that freedom. In the six years that have passed since that vacation, its memory continues to provide a picture of the pleasures life offers to free men.

Images may fade. As does the motivation. However, life can replenish these things. Sometimes it takes something like this movie to remind me to get busy living. Hope can live for as long as we're willing to dig. Even for 19 years.