Portraits of Courage

With back-to-school just around the corner, it’s time for a pop quiz.

Who wrote Portraits of Courage?

A) George Washington
B) John F. Kennedy
C) George W. Bush

Ok. It’s actually a trick question. JFK wrote Profiles in Courage, and George Bush didn’t write Portraits. He painted them.

If you’re as astounded as I was, read on.

portraitsAbout two months ago, as I stood surrounded by moving boxes, I caught a radio interview with the 43rd president. While tugging a long — and extremely noisy — strip of packing tape, I heard what sounded like the announcer praising Bush’s artwork.

“That can’t be right,” I muttered.
“George Bush doesn’t paint.”

Actually, he does. And there’s a book to prove it.

The same president whose pronunciation of “nuclear” still rankles my eardrums [it’s only got two syllables!] has produced an album of paintings honoring veterans whom he’s personally met. It’s a former commander-in-chief’s tribute to those who have sacrificed greatly for the liberties we enjoy every day.

I was dumbfounded.

“Huh. I’ll have to see for myself.”

Even with all the distractions of a move, I didn’t have to wait long. While exploring my new workplace, the copy that caught my eye from the “new books” shelf quickly landed on my coffee table.

I’m no art critic, but even if I were, I wouldn’t find much room for criticism here. What makes the book special isn’t the art itself; it’s the total production of artwork and stories that illustrate an uncommon brand of valor.

With each painting, Bush recounts the calamities faced by each individual in the line of duty. Limbs lost. Comrades killed. Sights and sounds that haunted the rest of their lives.

Yet, what surprised me most wasn’t Bush’s talent or the brutalities endured by these men and women. It was what happened afterward.

They could have become bitter. Resentful. Angry at the commander who sent them to the combat zones that permanently altered their lives.

But they didn’t.

As I read about surgeries and prosthetic limbs – hallmarks of recovery that touched most, if not all of them, their paths to recovery bore a common theme: resilience.

It was an experience that put shame to the way I’d handled a battle of my own:
Living with lymphedema.

Lymphedema is an insidious condition with no known cause or cure. As the name indicates, it occurs when lymphatic fluid accumulates in a region of the body, usually due to defective or damaged lymph vessels. While it often results in cancer patients due to the necessary – though unfortunate – removal of lymph nodes, which subsequently stresses the entire lymphatic network, it sometimes appears without warning or explanation.

And, out of the blue, it entered my life the morning of July 6, 2007, when I awoke with a swollen foot.

As days and weeks progressed, the swelling continued, accompanied by pain and discomfort. After enduring a battery of tests (x-ray, ultrasound, CAT scan, MRI), I learned my fate: primary lymphedema.

The nurse practitioner was nonchalant. “There’s no known cause or cure. But with proper care, it can be managed.”

As I soon discovered, proper care meant constant care. When I’m not massaging my lower legs and feet, I’m either wrapping them in bandages (bedtime) or wearing compression (daytime). If I forgo one or both options, the swelling returns almost immediately. Hence, summer has become my least favorite time of year; heat and humidity are a recipe for disaster.

And, in addition to being expensive, bandages and compression stockings are usually not covered by health insurance.  (P.S. They wear out every six months).

So, there I was, sitting on the floor of my apartment, massaging my sore swollen feet for the umpteenth time and feeling quite sorry for myself…until I started reading.

It didn’t take long until a new thought emerged. “Yes, they may be swollen, but they’re healthy limbs, and they’re still attached.”

In short, I had nothing to complain about.

The pity party ended pretty quickly as I marveled at disabled soldiers who forged ahead with their lives, whether it meant re-learning to walk or challenging their commander-in-chief to mountain bike races while biking with only one leg. They may have lost body parts. But they didn’t lose their resolve.

At the time of my diagnosis – just a month shy of my senior year in college – I couldn’t see how I’d survive. I had a senior recital to plan, grad school applications, a full slate of classes, work-study, and internships. How was I supposed to squeeze in physical therapy? I didn’t have time for that.

But life, it seems, has a way of interrupting our plans. Couldn’t every person in this book have said the same?

“…I wasn’t supposed to step on a land mine. I have a wife and three kids. How will I support them?….”

“…I wasn’t supposed to be hit with shrapnel. I’ve lost my eyesight. Now what?…”

“…I’m only 26. I have my whole life ahead of me – but I’ve got PTSD. Is this how I’m supposed to live the rest of my life?”

You won’t find any of those lines in the book. But you will find the words of Marine Lance Corporal Timothy John Lang, who knows what real courage looks like:

“We all have battles to conquer in life…and that’s how we are judged: by how we pick ourselves up and move forward.”

In my world, it translates into The ABC’s of Lymphedema, an insightful and humorous list devised by someone who understood that even if you can’t eliminate the problem, you can choose how you respond.

Here’s a snapshot:

A is for Acceptance. You can deny that you have lymphedema and get worse, or you can accept it, learn how to live with it, and do very well.

D is for Denial. It doesn’t work (see letter A).

O is for Overwhelmed. This occurs when you think, ” I have got to do what for the rest of my life?” You just have to do it for today. Yesterday is gone and tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet.

Unlike the pop quiz, life doesn’t always provide answers.
But what the soldiers knew – as well as the ABC writer – is this:

V is for Victorious. You can overcome your lymphedema [insert trial here] even if you can’t cure it.

And if Portraits is any indication, that includes my battle, too.