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What a Guitar Taught Me About Multiple Sclerosis and Changing Plans

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I was reading a column that said something like this:

“With a chronic illness, you have to focus not on what you can’t do, but what you can. You’ve got this one life and time’s ticking. You’re a fool if you just sit in your own sh** all the time and don’t look up at the sky. Just because things didn’t go the way you planned, guess what? It doesn’t go according to plan for anybody else around here either.”

“Ah, shaddup!” is what I was thinking. Which is funny, because the column in so many words summed up my approach to multiple sclerosis. But sometimes you just don’t want to hear the spiel, right?

I kept reading because it was well-written and I was almost through it. It turned out to be a good piece because before I got to the end, it had sent my mind off spinning in its own direction, like what a good book will do to you. The author said not to focus on the things you’ve lost, but the things you gained. That’s trickier. You’ve got a lot on one side, not as much on the other. Do they balance out? Only if the things gained are a lot bigger, more substantial.

Disability toughens you — plus. It makes you more resourceful — plus. I guess in a weird way, disability brought me my wife, because neither one of us was in it to get married. Our attitude toward marriage was more like, “Ick.” But things changed, kind of fast, which is a whole other story. Bottom line, I got the girl, even if I had to get disabled to do it. Jackpot. Gotta do what you gotta do.

But seriously, folks, reading that column about losing things, images flashed through my mind. One of the first was giving away my guitar. A guy loves his guitar. We were literally attached at the hip for a dozen years. I walked around with it everywhere. It was an ’84 black Fender Stratocaster, and it was all mine. But my fingers eventually were no longer mine. I was enthusiastic but never a guitar wizard, yet my play grew sloppier still. A lot of playing is muscle memory: practice practice practice and you’ll play better and faster. But I was going the opposite direction. My fingers were unlearning songs. In the middle of jams, the guitar pick shot out of my hands like a bullet. There came a time when the guitar never left its case, and the case grew dusty. I scarcely noticed because life became so tiring just going back and forth to work and school that there was no time for guitar anyway.

Times with my friends were rarer too, so once when one of my best friends was leaving my apartment, I happened to spot my guitar case in the corner. I didn’t think about it beforehand, but told him to take it. Of course, it had to go to him, the only one of us with talent and seriously playing anymore. His bands would go on to play the big Chicago clubs on Saturday nights. It was instantly clear to me, so I told him to take it with him. I had to tell him twice because he didn’t understand. I didn’t either, I just wanted it gone. That and the acoustic, a chunky strumming guitar. That was a helluva weird feeling afterward. A guy loves his guitar.

I don’t remember getting a scooter, or getting approved for disability, or getting the blue parking tag, but I remember that feeling of my guitar being gone. I’m feeling it right now. I felt it while reading that column.

That was years ago. Water under the bridge. I think I saw it once in all that time. I couldn’t play it, so who cares anymore? We broke up. But here’s the cool wrap-up, the thing gained.

My friend’s son, who is my godson, grew from a little train fanatic into a tall, cool teenaged bass player like his daddy. And just like his daddy, he’s fronting garage bands. In the past year, photos are surfacing of him slinging a guitar that looks mighty familiar. He’s made a couple of slight modifications to it, and I’ll admit wtf’ing at first sight. But a guitar is a very personal thing. A guy loves his guitar. So you’ll do what you want to make it yours. The Strat’s his and they look right together. I’m loving that. I got the girl, he got the guitar. It’s a wacky life, ain’t it?

I also have to admit that everything turned out the way it was supposed to. Because honestly, truly, I totally sucked at guitar.

Getty image by Puhimec.

Originally published: March 18, 2021
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