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Illustration by Wenting Li

Remember that old expression, “the school of hard knocks”? The idea that being roughed up a little bit, having the hard truth pelted at you like a fist-sized boulder, builds character and creates go-getters? I don’t know if I subscribe to that line of thinking, but I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about life’s lesser-known curriculum – and that’s uncertainty lessons.

I often hear people say, “Nothing could have prepared us for this pandemic.” While it’s true that we’ve all been blindsided, it’s also fair to say that some of us have had to spend more time in that blurry, grey slog of navigating the unknown.

This was the case for our family when my vibrant, travel-loving, avid-golfing, fast-car-driving 83-year-old father began falling. At first, we blamed the ice. “Look how slippery!” we said. Then it was the curb. “Who makes these things so high?” we wondered.

Then, he began to slow. His sure, rapid gait became stilted and draggy. “Well,” we said, “he’s getting older. It was bound to happen.”

When his speech began to slur, it became harder to explain. Though we tried. Maybe it was that blood-pressure medication? When was the last time he saw the cardiologist anyway? We frequently called on Dr. Google, MD, as his symptoms worsened – because real medical attention was not, he felt, required.

Uncertainty.

It’s uncomfortable. No one likes it. It makes your stomach clench and your mind spin. If you don’t grab a hold of your worry and wrestle it into submission, it will quickly insinuate itself into every neuron and synapse, lighting your brain up with anxiety like a Christmas tree on fire.

When a kind-eyed neurologist revealed the answer to our most pressing question, it wasn’t the gift we were looking for. Instead, we opened a pandora’s box filled with even more, even scarier unknowns.

How can a disease made up of three little letters, each innocuous enough on its own, spell such utter devastation?

When we found out we were dealing with ALS – commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease – the uncertainty became almost debilitating. My father was losing control of his muscles, his ability to speak, to swallow – and we, as family, were virtually paralyzed as to how to prepare.

ALS is cruel. It traps a perfectly sound mind in a rapidly deteriorating body. It takes no prisoners. Right now, there is no hope. When the future looks so bleak, you have no choice but to take comfort in the tiniest pleasures, in snatched moments of muted joy, however fleeting.

I wish I’d done that more.

But I was a new student. For me, this was Uncertainty 101. I didn’t have material to draw from. I’d never felt such an utter lack of control. So, naturally, I tried to manufacture some. A classic fixer, I directed the full force of my practical, get ‘er done attitude toward trying to untie a Gordian knot snarled beyond untangling.

I worried about the reverse milestones my father would be hitting and how to get ready for them. I read pathways to care, personal accounts and I tried to divine how long he would live based on fruitless internet searches that were ultimately as productive, and reliable, as asking one of those magic eight balls from the 1990s. “Cannot predict now.” “Better not tell you now.” “Concentrate and ask again.”

And for the many months that he was ill, I wasted countless hours preparing for eventualities that would never come to pass. I blindly urged my parents to consider moving to long-term care. I failed to see that there was no “long-term” for my father and that my mother would need the comforts of her home.

My dad didn’t live long enough to need a porch lift, though I leafed through stacks of pamphlets and rang-up companies for quotes. An electric wheelchair? Also not required. He walked, albeit with a walker, until the day before he died. I spent days pouring over the travel insurance implications for a trip to Florida he would never take and I spent dark, lonely hours imagining the agony of standing by my father’s bedside should he choose medical assistance in dying. (He didn’t.)

Wasted worry is wasted time. As it turned out, I worried about all the wrong things anyway. Life doesn’t unfold neatly, so trying to predict the future is a losing man’s bet. I’ve learned the hard way that there is a difference between careful preparation and futile fretting.

All that time I was running circles, I should’ve done the opposite. I should have embraced stillness. I should have sat down, quietly, and held my dad’s hand.

It was too late when I finally understood that there was nothing else to be done.

As we battle uncertainty on a global scale, it’s teaching us all a lesson I stumbled through the hard way. A lesson about humility. About the limitations of our worldly powers. About the sad fact that you cannot save someone you love, a job you need, a home you’ve built, through the sheer force of will alone.

If COVID-19 is throwing us for a loop, it might be wise to ask ourselves what we can learn from this collective upending. Uncertainty lessons are hard, but they’re important. They teach us to hold on to what really matters and let go of the rest.

Suzanne Westover lives in Ottawa.

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