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Surprised by a Plumb Line

Posted in Blog by Elizabeth Neeld, Joie de Vivre: Enjoying Life

I’m about to share with you a personal email. But before I do, I’d like to talk first about plumb lines. Because this email that you will read shortly is so much more than a message I received from a friend. This email will remain forever a vertical reference line that allows me to measure the center of balance of my life on any day.

And that takes us back to plumb lines.


The dictionary tells us that the word plumb comes from the Latin word for the metal lead.) A plumb line is a string or line from which a weight is hung. (The weight is called a plumb bob.) This plumb line is suspended from above to determine or test whether something below is or isn’t vertical. Plumb lines determine the vertical on an upright surface. Think of an ancient cathedral. Probably a plumb line was centered over a mark on the floor; and, as the building proceeded upward, the plumb line would be taken higher, insuring that the building stayed straight as it grew in height. (You can still see these marks on the floor of many old buildings.)
Drawing students use plumb lines for a most interesting purpose: “to find the vertical axis through the center of the gravity of their subject and to lay this center of gravity down on paper as a point of reference. This plumb line is important for lining up anatomical geometries and visualizing the subject’s center of balance.”

So that’s a plumb line, which is for me a most powerful metaphor for the impact of the message in my friend’s email.

Now about the friend who wrote the email and the friend who is the subject of the email.

Doug wrote the email and Dana, his wife, is the subject of the email. When we first met Dana a few years back, we were struck by her vivacity, aliveness, warmth, and presence. She was a young woman who had risen to the top in her profession, holding a high-profile national position through which she was recognized for making a real difference in the world.

Then came the day when, standing in line to check in for a flight, Dana had trouble being able to keep hold of the flight envelope in her hand. A short time later she realized that she was having a difficult time holding a serving utensil at a wedding reception. Later came tests and then more tests, with an ultimate diagnosis: Dana, in the prime of her life, had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

We have been privileged to be part of Doug and Dana’s lives as they have lived this health saga over the past couple of years. It was inspiring to see their all-out effort to find every possible treatment, approach, activity, and behavior that could help Dana. And instead of finding gloom and anxiety when visiting in their home, we found joy and hard work and delight. To see Dana with Sophie, their breath-takingly beautiful black Giant Schnauzer, or with her green and yellow birds with whom she had amazing communication, or with her new spectacular Dutch Warmblood horse that Doug bought her for her 50th birthday was to see a woman committed to life, a woman being healthy even while she dealt with her illness.

And the humor—what a gift from Dana. I remember the night I was helping her count out vitamin capsules and putting them in partitioned little plastic boxes marked for each day of the week. Some of the vitamins were quite small and kept slipping out of our hands. Dana quickly taught me the rule: if the capsule is on the floor less than 20 seconds, it did not get dirty!

I wish I could write an alternate ending to Doug and Dana’s story, and what actually did happen is that slowly Dana was incapacitated by ALS. But, as you will see from Doug’s email below, being incapacitated does not equal the loss of a love for life for Dana. You will also see in Doug’s words his own magnificent recognition of the gift of the present moment and his gratitude for it.

Here is what Doug wrote:

Subject: Update on Dana (she is home from the hospital)

“I cannot discover that anyone knows enough to say definitely what is and what is not possible.” — Henry Ford

Hello all!

After almost 60 days in the hospital, Dana is home and sleeping soundly in her own bed tonight.  It has been quite a journey and we still have challenges in front of us but just for the moment, let’s pause to celebrate that life is pretty sweet for her.

Dana has 24/7 medical care here at home for the next few weeks and we are working to arrange for round the clock care of some kind for the longer term in a way that we will be able to afford after her insurance runs out. Medicare doesn’t cover private duty home care.

Dana is on machines for breathing and eating. She is in very good spirits for someone who has been in the hospital as long as she has. There is a way with her breathing machine that you can put a valve in the line so she can talk for short periods of time each day. What she uses her 15-20 minutes of voice time for is she sings.

Now that’s just inspiring.

It is clear that your prayers and offers of support have made a huge difference for her and for us. Please continue to hold us in your prayers for the uncharted territory ahead.

Much love from our house to your house.

Doug and Dana

Doug’s words will always be a plumb line by which I attempt to true up my life and find the center of gravity and, as drawing students do, to lay this center of gravity down as a point of reference. It’s Dana and her amazing connection to life, and it’s also Doug who so clearly is melody and harmony himself.

Wikipedia has one more word about a plumb line: A plumb line is a line regarded as directed exactly toward the Earth’s center of gravity.

I have no words to add to that definition.

Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights to anyone whose life is in a time of transition, change, grief and loss of any kind. As an internationally recognized and accomplished consultant, and author of more than twenty books - including Tough Transitions and Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World - she is committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.

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