Read an Excerpt
Why Me, Lord? A Life
Turned Upside Down
It wasn't raining, but it should have been. The gray California sky hung leaden, threatening, the tired clouds heavy with their unreleased burden. I should have taken it as an omen, but of course I didn't.
The day had begun innocently enough on our beautiful, sprawling ranch in California's canyon country. Recently back from a trip to Hawaii, I had started the morning in my usual way, with meditation and exercise. I felt good, actually better than I had in days. Much better than I had in Hawaii, where I had suffered the mysterious and frightening episode that sent me to several doctors for a battery of tests upon my return.
The trip to Hawaii was supposed to be special. More than just a much needed vacation from the busy schedule I kept as a practicing chiropractor, this was to be an adventure with the person dearest in the world to me, my ten-year-old daughter, Sara. Her father and I had divorced some time before, and she made her home with him in New York City. Being on opposite coasts did not allow us to spend a lot of time together. We had planned to spend every day doing something new and exciting.
One of the events we had planned was a day-long hike up the mountains of Kauai. Sara had never been hiking before and was excited by the prospect of this new adventure. We had begun on a beautiful crystal clear morning, the kind that Hawaii seems to have the exclusive patent on. The mountain was not overly challenging, but theclimb was long and somewhat strenuous, especially as we began to reach the higher altitudes along the face. Victory lay at the top, of course, and all of the exertion was worth it as I shared the wonder in my daughter's face as she stood surveying the wonder of God's Earth that is that stunning ring of volcanic islands.
It was during our descent that the nightmare began. My legs began to feel numb, the muscles sluggish, unwilling to respond with their normal strength and agility. I put it down to exhaustion and pushed on, believing that some well-earned time in a hot bath and a good night's sleep would soon cure what ailed me. It soon became apparent that my problem was far worse.
Something was terribly wrong. My legs grew heavier, the muscles wooden, almost rigid. Silently, I began to be afraid. We were far from any portion of the resort where help could be easily obtained. The hiking trail, though well marked, had no handrail or walkway to assist the hiker, the assumption being made, naturally, that anyone who came this far would, by definition, be physically fit enough to make the return journey unassisted. Worse by far than my physical difficulty was watching the growing look of concern in my daughter's taut face, the increasing note of panic in her voice as she asked me what was wrong. Although I kept reassuring her that I was just "getting old and tired," it was painfully apparent even to her young eyes that I was, to put it politely, lying through my clenched teeth.
Halfway down a mountain that I swore had doubled in height since our ascent, it happened. My legs refused to work at all. I fell to the ground, Sara's frightened scream echoing in my ringing ears. I could see that I had scraped some skin off of my knees and calves, but I couldn't feel it! I was effectively paralyzed. With Sara in tears and with an effort born of sheer desperation I made it down the rest of the way on my backside, propelling myself with my hands, tearing the skin off my palms and breaking my nails to the quick as I fought to control this sudden dead weight that was the lower half of myself.
By the time I made it down the mountainside, a great deal of the feeling had returned to my lower limbs, and I put it down to possible lumbar strain, brought on by overexertion and lack of oxygen to my muscles from the demands of the climb. Sara was overjoyed, and, although I had my doubts, I said nothing, relieved that her confidence and sense of security had been restored by my pronouncement of plain old back strain.
I wasn't so sure, however, and resolved to be examined in California as soon as I returned there. Unbeknownst to Sara, this wasn't the first time that my muscular lack of response had concerned me. I had been having some difficulty with the step aerobic portion of my routine for a couple of months. I kept falling off the step equipment near the end of my workout. My ankles seemed to invert, to turn on their sides as if I were ice skating for the first time. I had thought it was simply encroaching age. After all, I was 42, and my standard 45-minute step routine was strenuous.
At the local hospital facility in Santa Barbara, I was examined by Dr. Willis, the neurologist in residence. She suspected lumbar, or spinal, problems and took several tests, including an MRI of my lower spinal area to determine the problem. I underwent all of the tests she recommended, determined to get to the root cause of this creeping malaise. Dr. Willis's demeanor was clinically detached, virtually emotionless as I explained my concerns. I don't know if it was her personality, or the fact that I was a chiropractor that engendered this cold response.
Unjust as it most certainly is, a large portion of the medical community views chiropractic professionals as pseudoscientists, a group of fringe shamans, either consummate grifters playing at being "real doctors," or medical school failures who couldn't make it "all the way." The truth is that chiropractic, in the hands of a dedicated professional, is as legitimate and exacting a medical science as heart surgery, or any other specialty field.
I underwent the procedures and returned home to the ranch to await the results. And so, the scene was set, the players perfectly positioned the morning destiny grabbed my life in an irrevocable grip, changing my world forever.
I was standing in our southwestern-style kitchen on this particular morning, the flagstone floor cool under my feet, the clouds obscuring the normally caressing sun, absently staring out of the sliding glass doors toward the corrals, watching the horses enjoy the freedom from a night in the stall.
Even on this overcast and gloomy day, the ranch was still breathtaking. I never failed to see the wild beauty of the landscape or realize the pure insignificance of man beside it. All of our lives in all of their moments mean less than nothing to mountains as old as time. They were here before us, and would stand, mute guardians of the oldest secrets, long after the memory of humankind was a whisper in the lone trees far above the timberline. And so, lost in thought, I didn't hear our cook, Kurt, join me at first. He called my name, and something in his tone made me turn and stare hard at him.
"This came for you this morning. I was across in the office at the time, and they asked me to bring it over here for you." He held out a sheet of paper toward me, his face too carefully expressionless, his body too still.
I took it from him, automatically scanning the header. It was a fax from Dr. Willis's office at the clinic in Santa Barbara regarding the results of the tests that had been performed. My heart beating faster, I read the message, the cold, impersonal tone biting with an antiseptic sting.
FINDINGS: Multiple focal and confluent areas of increased signal on long TR and inversion recovery sequences are seen in the deep and periventricular white matter, predominately around the lateral ventricles but also around the fourth ventricle. The lesions are very extensive and patterned....
Frontal, parietal and temporal lobe involvement is shown.
CONCLUSION: Findings strongly suggestive of multiple sclerosis.
I stood frozen as waves of immeasurable fear swept around me while each word burned before my eyes, piercing my heart like grotesque and deadly darts. As a doctor, those chilling words held more terror for me than perhaps for another with less knowledge of the human condition as a whole. I reeled from the pronouncement that gripped me with icy hands, a verdict of misery and doom that I could not accept.
Multiple sclerosis. Dear God. Time really does freeze during your most horrible moments as the chasm of fear yawns before you. I remember gripping the edge of the counter for support as the room shifted and somehow became unstable. Dimly, I could hear Kurt's voice, as from a distance, telling me not to panic as I suddenly understood his uncharacteristic behavior. I lifted my locked stare from the page and stared blindly through him as my mind raced, desperately seeking escape from a reality too awful to contemplate.
His tone strong and infinitely calming, Kurt continued to talk to me, the words beginning to penetrate as the roaring in my ears lessened.
"Don't freak out too much, really, Dr. Celeste. This isn't so bad. I have a cousin who's had MS for years, and it's really amazing how much of it can be treated with diet and nutrition."
"What?" I focused on his honest, kind face, suddenly listening. He noticed the change in my response and smiled reassuringly.
"Sure," he repeated. "A lot of this thing can be managed with diet. My cousin isn't cured, but he's living a nearly normal life. You're a nutritionist. This should be easy for you!"
Easy? I know he meant it encouragingly, but I almost laughed. Yes, I was a nutritionist. In addition to holding a chiropractic degree, I was also a fully accredited Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine. For years I had successfully counseled my patients on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, of the value of nutritious eating. But this was entirely different. This was me!
I managed to smile weakly as he continued, seemingly unaware of the gauntlet of emotions rushing furiously through my heart. "I'll be happy to get a copy of his diet from him, and you can check it out, ok? I'll call him this afternoon and see if he can fax it over here. Don't worry!"
"Would you do that, thanks? I would like to see it." I had to get out of the kitchen, away from his well-meaning advice and attempts to comfort me. I needed to be alone. I needed to think. I shifted, pushing off the counter. "Thanks for the advice. I need to take a couple of moments, okay? I need to sort this out."
He smiled understandingly as I turned to leave. "Sure, no problem. It's a big blow. Although I can't know exactly what you're feeling, I'm sure right about now it's plenty rough. I'm here if you need me, and I'll get that diet info for you right away."
I nodded my gratitude and then I was out of the kitchen and down the hall, heading blindly toward my room, the fax tightly gripped in my icy, nerveless fingers. I spent the next several hours alone in my room, my mind seeking desperately to recall every scrap of information I ever knew about this incurable and often fatal disease.
On the one hand, my life had already been touched by this mysterious crippler. My dad, Sam Pepe, had been diagnosed at the age of 31 as having MS by the U.S. Navy. He had continued to live with the disease for years. Although he did have his medical problems, he was never debilitated, except at the very end of his life, at which point he had contracted a number of concurrent problems in addition to the multiple sclerosis.
On the other hand, my questing mind leapt unbidden to the images of celebrities afflicted with this scourge, people like Richard Pryor and Annette Funicello, visualizing the obvious ruin their lives had become, the daily agonies and indignities they suffered. I didn't think that I would be able to bear that, and wondered if I would have the courage to end it all if it ever got that bad.
I also spent the prerequisite amount of time feeling sorry for myself. Although we all may be noble publicly, in private, at least for a few moments, it's usually an entirely different matter. Someone once asked the late Gene Roddenberry, the talented creator of Star Trek, if his success was attributable to the old adage, "Face each day like a lion instead of a mouse." Gene replied, "It's more like: 'Face each day like a lion and shake in bed each night like a mouse.'" Well, I certainly felt at least that small, and sat there for moments uncounted too terrified even to think at all.
The afternoon wore on as I began a pattern of thought that would become almost routine in the months to follow. I began to review my life, trying to recall what, if anything, I might have done that made me a candidate for this disease.
It was early evening when Jerry returned from his meeting in Los Angeles. Although I often accompanied him, enjoying the drive and my various activities while he engaged in his busy schedule as owner of a large international corporation, this time he had gone down alone while I had slept in, still not one hundred percent recovered from my Hawaii experience.
I stood facing the window as he entered our room, his voice full of tired warmth and affection as he greeted me. We had been together for over three years, but a complete stranger could have seen the naked desolation in my face as I turned toward him.
"What's wrong?" In an instant he had crossed the room and stood beside me. Mutely, I gestured to the wrinkled fax lying on my vanity table. His face questioning but concerned, he read its contents. I watched him closely, and saw him blanch as the import of the words sank into his consciousness. He stood silently for a long moment, and then spoke, his voice gruff and businesslike.
"This is a mistake." He walked toward me again, the language of his body aggressively defensive. "This can't be what is wrong with you. There's got to be an error somewhere."
"There's no error, Jerry. It has to be true," I answered, my own voice low and strained, barely audible.
"Why? Because of that crap in Hawaii? I thought you said it was back strain." He shook his head defiantly. "No way, Celeste. You can't be this sick. It has to be a mistake. We'll get the test redone, by a good doctor."
"This was a good doctor, Jerry. And a good hospital." I stepped forward and took the fax from him, replacing it on the vanity and smoothing it reflexively. "And a good test."
"Bullshit, Celeste!" The words exploded from him, as if by the sheer forcefulness of them he could alter the circumstances, make it right. "This cannot be what is wrong with you! I won't accept this!"
He crossed the room and grabbed me, almost too hard, enveloping me in his great bear hug that I had always found so reassuring, so safe. Now I stiffened, feeling trapped instead of comforted. He continued, his voice calmer, the man of reason, one large hand stroking my hair. He pushed me back slightly, looking down intently into my face.
"Look. It can't be true. Look at yourself," he said, turning us both to face the full-length mirror on the opposite wall. "You're healthy, Celeste. You're trim, fit, beautiful. This thing puts people in wheelchairs, for God's sake! You'd look ... well, sicker if you really had this thing the damn test claims you have."
"I don't know, Jerry," I said slowly, fighting a hope that I knew to be false. I rested my head on his broad chest, surveying our reflected image. I was healthy, in appearance at least. My physical body was in excellent shape, and looked far younger than my forty-plus years. My hair was full and shone with the vitality of good care and a great cut, my smile cosmetically perfect, my face relatively unlined.
He was right. This was not the image of a sickly waif or some frail creature subject to fainting spells at every turn. I ran, I swam, I rode horses, I exercised for hours. My exercise regimen was twice what most people would even attempt to perform on a regular basis. Jerry was right. I didn't look sick. Maybe ...
My uncertainty must have shown in my face, for he brightened visibly. "Sure, it must be a mistake. We'll just have you do the test over again. And besides," he added, releasing me to walk to the dresser again, staring accusingly at the paper that had torn a hole in his well-ordered world, "even if you do have it, you probably only have a minor case of it. I'm sure it can't be all that bad."
I stared at his back with growing frustration. This was so like him, I thought with mounting resentment. Jerry never accepted anything that didn't fit in with his plans. That quality had made him an excellent businessman. It also made him, at times like these, a difficult partner. He also tended to minimize the afflictions of others, which could make him both a difficult boss and mate. It was almost as if my illness was inconvenient for him, so therefore, it was either a mistaken diagnosis or nowhere near as serious as I made it out to be.
I stood there silently, feeling almost cheated, and very alone. I don't know what reaction I expected, or was hoping for, but this definitely wasn't even close. Knowing that any further contradictory response on my part would only instigate an argument I couldn't handle right then, I sighed silently, feeling defeated.
"Okay, Jerry. Maybe you're right. I'll take the test again."
"There you go, babe," he encouraged happily. Feeling in control of the situation again, he stepped behind me, squeezing my shoulders for emphasis. "It'll be fine, you'll see. We'll get you the finest medical diagnosis money can buy. You'll be past this thing in no time."
Turning toward the walk-in closet, he shed his jacket, casually dropping it over a chair. "I'm going to grab a quick shower before dinner. Find out what we're having, would you? I'm starving."
He disappeared through the adjoining bathroom door, not looking back, confident that he had handled yet another crisis. I stared after him, desolate and empty.
There was really nothing more to say anyhow. Jerry would have his way. He usually did. I would take the tests again, with doctors he chose, in a situation where he could remain firmly in control. I knew the results would have to be the same. I also knew that Jerry would never accept them unless he was certain that there had been no error, no possible mistake. And maybe, not even then.
Sleep that night was far from blessed relief. My dreams were vivid, disturbing, full of frantic surrealism. I was lost in a thick and swirling mist, knowing that somewhere beyond it was God. I searched for Him, certain that He had the answers, answers I desperately needed to keep from losing my sanity and my will to survive.
Why had this happened to me? Why was I chosen? Was this a payment for sins, known and unknown? Was it a genetic failure, a distortion of my DNA that made it more susceptible to damage? Was it some childhood sickness, returned in a more virulent and deadly form to attack me once again? I'd already had my share of difficult episodes in my life, and I really didn't think I deserved this. The questions of my conscious mind became the dreams of my unconscious as I strove desperately for the understanding that I needed to handle the devastating reality my life was about to become.
I awoke from the dreams with no new answers. No epiphany had been mine. The room was dark, and I was sweating. Jerry snored peacefully beside me, oblivious to my waking start. Absurdly, I wanted to shove him, to wake him from his unconscious bliss to feel just a little of the uncertainty and fear I was feeling.
In frustration, I almost leapt from the bed, grabbing my notebook from the night table. Stalking to the overstuffed chair by the balcony window, I flung myself into it and flicked on the small light on the occasional table beside it. I began to write, the words coming furiously from the pen, almost of their own volition. I had questions. God was supposed to be omnipotent. I wanted, needed, demanded answers. I wrote:
I am afraid. The shock I felt has gone, only to be replaced by fear and the wild desperation of a rabbit in a snare. Why did this happen? Why is my life to be shattered by MS?
Is MS really just a virus I didn't handle when I was young, as some doctors believed? Is it the result of the mononucleosis I contracted at seventeen, after moving from Camarillo to L.A.? Or, does the MS stem from the cause of the virus: the desolate heartbreak of losing the boy I loved and the deep, fierce resentment of my parents that I felt, blaming them as I did for the loss?
Dear Billy, the boy who was so unsuitable for me in their eyes that they uprooted my world and moved the family to the airport area of Los Angeles, to a neighborhood I hated, leaving my high school friends behind? You know that my resentment of the situation was so strong that it was palpable. It colored everything I did, as did my loneliness, until finally I fell ill with mononucleosis. Is MS the virus returned, or are they totally unrelated?
I need answers, God. My logical mind craves a reason. Everything I've ever been taught screams to me that there has to be an explanation. My career, my world, is built on cause and effect. This can't be different. I need to know why!
And beyond the why, the what. Or more accurately, the what now? I'm a doctor! I'm supposed to be healing the world. And now, it is I who desperately seek healing.
Is this why I was chosen, selected to bear a burden this great, knowing that I must begin a race against time upon which my very survival depends? You promised me in your Word that you would never give me more than I could stand. Are You saying that I can stand this?
I certainly don't feel like I can. I want to run, screaming, until I outdistance this terrible twist of fate. I want to wake from this nightmare and find I am safe in the arms of the man You have given me to love, and find that none of this awful reality ever existed. Or is this where faith comes in? Is this where I let You carry me, the place in my life where only one set of footprints lines the sand?
Excerpted from REVERSING MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS by Celeste Pepe, D.C., N.D. and Lisa Hammond. Copyright © 2001 by Celeste Pepe, D.C., N.D., and Lisa Hammond. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.