Saturday, August 26, 2017

Another summer, another hospital stay

For the fourth time in four years, Honey is in the hospital. And he has been for most of this month. Again I spent almost 30 straight hours in the ER with him waiting for answers: Lying on a window sill countertop trying to snooze, leaning on various uncomfortable chairs in various waiting rooms while he has test after test. Eating crap food from the cafeteria. Feeling helpless as I watched him in pain and frustration. Hearing a renowned specialist say he doesn't know what's causing the pain -- in the 7,000 endoscopies he's performed, he says, he's not seen a case like this -- but they're going to attack it more aggressively now. I wonder why they didn't attack it more aggressively 2 weeks ago. Why can we never get one step ahead of this illness or out from under its financial burden?

I am willing my feet to step out of his room now, to go back to my children and my life and try to be normal. I can't help wondering when I leave him here in the evening what condition he'll be in tomorrow when I come back, or whether I'll see him again at all. Should I come back tomorrow? Is this healthy for me, to just sit here day after day while he sleeps in a morphine haze? 

Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Every hospital looks the same. And I've seen them now in North Carolina, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maine. Long corridors. Shiny surfaces. Light blue and yellow walls, beige linoleum tiles on the floor. Cheerful signs at each turn reminding me to wash my hands. Acrid bodily smells reminding me why.

I am willing myself to walk out to the parking garage. To stand upright in the face of my fear. 

It’s been over a decade now that he’s struggled with this illness, and although it’s his body that’s wracked with pain, it’s taking a toll on my body, too. My shoulders seem permanently tight with worry. He complains of a stomach ache and I sleep lightly, in case I’ll be awakened in the night to call an ambulance. I watch him calculate every bite of food he puts in his mouth, wondering if this is the one that sends him into another attack. I worry about my sons - do they carry the genes for this condition, too? I hate his father for passing it to him. It’s irrational, yes, but I hate his father for his genetics as well as his weak character. 

Also irrational is the anger I feel toward my husband. I am angry about how his illness affects my life. I am angry that our children are growing up with this uncertainty. This was not exactly what I had in mind when we vowed “better or worse, sickness and health” — that was supposed to come much later, after we traveled and put our kids through college and played with our grandchildren. I am angry that our peers haven’t had to face such illness and disruption as many times as we have; they don't know what to do for us, how to help or what to say. I’m angry too that we can never be more than an hour from a hospital. I am angry about the financial toll this takes; every time I think we may finally be out from under debt, another heaping hospital bill piles on. We can't make a plan for a vacation without that small voice whispering doubt. My brain knows it’s not his fault. He has tried especially hard these last two years to be healthy - he has changed his entire lifestyle, he has lost 100 pounds, he sees specialists every 3 months to check in. Yet he is sick. Again. Still. And it hurts me, too, and I'm angry.

In the weeks since this latest bout started, I have argued with doctors, I have kissed up to nurses, I have cried in the lobby listening to the elderly pianist playing show tunes. I have called Honey's boss, filed for his short-term disability, combed through our bank account to ease our budget woes while he’s out of work. I have planned for daily childcare so I can spend time with him in the hospital. I have canceled vacation plans and missed my cousin's wedding. I have worked for two weeks by his bedside, pushing back my own deadlines so I can be there when a too-busy doctor breezes in to give us over-simplified explanations that don't make much sense. I have prayed words that didn’t really mean much because I don’t really know what to pray. I have held his hand as he writhed in pain; I have wondered over and over “is this the one that kills him?” I have tried to encourage him even when I feel completely black inside. I have kept family and friends abreast of each development, repeating the same things over and over. I have asked questions and read medical articles and borne the brunt of his frustration. He yells at me because I’m strong, you see. So fucking strong. 

Ten times he has been hospitalized in our 17 years of marriage. You’d think I’d be used to it by now. But this is the most anxious and sad I have ever been. Tomorrow begins the third week without him at home. I wake up every morning feeling empty; I can only sleep at night with the help of a cocktail or a pill. 

Right foot. Left foot. Remain standing for just a little while longer. Pretend everything is fine so your children don’t worry. Hope that someone will offer to help with the kids, regret that you moved so far away from your closest friends who always knew what to do without you asking. Wish you lived closer to your family so you didn’t feel so much guilt at asking them to stay in your crappy guest bedroom another week. Try to be present for work meetings even though you can’t focus on anything but trying to solve the medical mystery your husband has presented. Pay the bills. Make the lunches. Feed the cat. Fold the laundry. Take the kids hiking on a beautiful day, even though you just want to lie in bed with the covers over your face. Preserve as much normalcy as possible; this may be a while. 

I am so tired. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

I'd have more time for writing

I’d have more time for writing* if I didn’t love the evening read-and-huggle routine with Zippy. If he didn’t smell like toothpaste and sunshine, if he didn’t curl up perfectly in the C of my body, simply a larger version of the infant he was when he came out of me. I’d have more time for writing if I didn’t know he’d only be 7 and cuddly for another blink, hands that fit perfectly inside mine, pink cheeks and long dark eyelashes. This is the only time of the day when he is still. I’d have more time for writing if I didn’t long to cuddle his big brother like this, also.

I’d have more time for writing if I didn’t cook actual food for my family -- and serve it at an actual table -- or if we didn’t hold hands when we recite the simple grace rhyme the kids learned in preschool. I’d have more time for writing if this wasn’t my favorite moment of every day, having all four of us in one spot for just 15 minutes, Zippy's hand in my left, Happy's in my right, Honey's eyes locked on mine from across the table. (I’d have more time for writing, too, if chopping vegetables wasn’t so cathartic.)

I’d have more time for writing if I drove to work instead of walking. If the sun didn’t rise so brilliantly over the peninsula, bay, and Back Cove like it does and the snowy egrets weren’t out to greet me every morning, I’d definitely have more time for writing. And I’d have a lot more time for writing if walking this trail wasn’t both exercise and meditation.

I’d have more time for writing if I didn’t read such good books, if didn’t fall in love with old curmudgeonly characters like Leo Gursky or Olive Kitteridge, if I didn’t get swept up in clever word play by Junot Díaz or twisty plotting by Lianne Moriarty, or crave Mary Oliver’s poetic precision. I’d absolutely write more if I didn’t catch my breath with every turn of the page of When Women Were Birds, then go back and read it all over again the second I finished.  

I’d have more time for writing if I didn’t need to put my feet in the sand or my head in the trees as often as I do. I’d write volumes, I’m sure, if the salt air didn’t feel so refreshing on my face and the smell of pine needles didn’t remind me of all that’s good. I’d have much more time for writing if I didn’t need to sit with my face in the sun so often, if I didn’t crave its warmth and energy and promise.

I’d have more time for writing if I didn’t text my people all day long. If I didn’t need to feel so connected to my besties' love and humor to get me through every day, if I didn’t get anxious when I don’t hear from my father or siblings every morning and afternoon. If I didn’t want to share photos of my kids as they grow up so wondrously 500 miles from everyone we love most, I’d write more, I’m sure of it.

I’d have more time for writing if this cat wasn’t so soft and her purr wasn’t so soothing. If she didn’t melt into my touch like this, or look in my eyes like I’m the only creature on the planet, I’d likely write more often and for longer stretches.

I’d have more time for writing if I didn’t look forward to lying on this couch with my husband every evening, just feeling his warm hands on my feet and hearing the smooth rhythm of his breathing.

I’d have more time for writing if I didn’t go to the movies with my kids, or out to dinner with my friends, or wander aimlessly through the farmers’ market on a Saturday morning.

I’d have more time for writing if I didn’t daydream about places we’ll travel to or reminisce about places we’ve been.

I’d have more time for writing if I didn’t get lost in old photo albums or tell stories about my grandparents or try to recall my mom’s smile.

I’d have more time for writing if I didn’t stop everything to dance whenever a Prince song plays.

I’d have more time for writing if I didn’t like the taste of red wine so much.

I’d have more time for writing if I wasn’t so busy living.

* The same could be said for cleaning, too...or sleeping...or exercising...

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

For the love of Nacho

Just around the time I was starting to wonder if Nacho really loves me -- or if he really just uses me for food -- I read this article that confirms what I'd hoped: He really likes hanging out with me. Maybe he even loves me, and I know now I love him.

Nacho is a big fat jerkface of an orange tabby cat, with a big fat gentle heart. He often can't get out of his own way, but that makes him a good snuggle on a cold winter evening, and you know we have plenty of those around here. He may drive you nuts by sleeping on your feet so you can't roll over or move to get out of bed in the morning...but he will certainly keep you warm.

He's a Nacho, Nacho Cat.
He doesn't meow or cry much. He squeaks, somewhat timidly and ridiculously for such a large cat. I only heard him truly meow for the first time this weekend when he felt pain. Nacho speaks more with his purr; his constant rhythmic rattle is what I'm missing most right now in this quiet, sleep-filled house. He has a different purr for every message: a feed-me purr, a pet-me purr, a hey-kid-back-off purr. This cat is not patient for food, but he's never mean -- just persistent, sometimes (especially on a lazy Saturday morning) over-assertive, but he won't try to hurt you. Even when he's pressing his full weight on your chest and you're having trouble breathing, the sight of that bubble-gum nose will dissipate your annoyance. Mostly.

Nacho loves to stretch out and show off his macho bod, all 16 pounds of cat flesh. He's the only cat I've known who relished belly rubs. He'll flop down next to you, turn on his side and purr loudly until you sink your hand into that thick, soft belly fur. Then he'll close his eyes and roll his head back and relax every muscle, purring and sighing, and I swear it, smiling. Pet him anywhere and he'll melt a little. Except on his flank -- that will get you a warning nip or swat.

Nacho is extremely patient with kids -- I can't count how many times Zippy has picked him up about the middle and hauled him around the house like a giant floppy toy -- but he's not terribly playful. Every now and then he'll tear through the house chasing his stuffed starfish or a rattle mouse or a ball, but if we initiate play he watches us with condescending eyes. Silly hoomans. He loves sitting on the windowsill, his ample belly and hind leg spilling over the side. Oh, and the basement is his favorite place to explore! So many nooks and crannies to sniff out, but also a wonderful street-level window by the steps to gaze through -- kitty TV. He caught two bats inside the house the first summer we lived here, and he chases bugs here and there, but mostly Nacho wants to chillax. He has fit perfectly with our mellow family vibe.

For three years this big fat jerkface orange cat has hung around by my side. He's been between my feet when I'm walking or cooking or cleaning, he's been sitting next to me on the couch when I'm reading or writing or just watching television, he's been nosing into the bathroom while I did bathroom business. His purr has filled my ears, providing comfort when I'm sick, reminding me of his hungry belly when I'm not paying attention to him, warming me when I'm lounging. He filled the hole in my heart that opened when Pitino died (oh, sweet Pitino, my first true love, who walked and cuddled me through 18 years of my life), and Nacho swiftly created a new space for himself -- a giant 16-pound big-eared orange space -- in my heart and our family. We love him. I love him. And that's why I had to give him up yesterday. I couldn't provide the medical care he needs now nor throughout his life, and I couldn't bear to see him suffer. I thought I could cuddle him while he died, but it was too hard to bear his pain.

Always by my side, the purr-o-matic.
It happened quickly. He seemed lethargic, wasn't eating, hid under the bed, peed all over himself...these are all major bad signs. I took him to the emergency vet and soon had a diagnosis and a gut-wrenching decision to make. I brought him home. Over 24 hours, our family wrestled with so many feelings, worries, doubts. And we knew the window for decision was small, and closing quickly. I prayed for peace and clarity while I laid with Nacho on the bathroom floor, feeling his steady purr growing quieter, his eye wide and scared.

Yesterday morning, when I knew for sure he wouldn't get better on his own, I picked up the phone to call our vet. I would ask if they would euthanize Nacho for us, to stop his pain and ours. Before I got the words out, though, the woman on the phone said, "Is this about Nacho? We were just talking about him! I think we have an idea."

She offered a solution: They would perform the surgery he needed, at no charge, but I would have to surrender Nacho to their permanent care. In other words, they'd save his life, but Nacho would not live with us anymore. He'd be their office cat, or one of their staff would eventually take him home. Either way, she promised, he'd be doted on and loved and cared for for the remainder of his life. His medical care would be provided, pro bono. He would live.

So we said goodbye to Nacho yesterday, quickly before we could rethink or he could get sicker, and this morning his purr rattles on for someone else. Our hearts are broken, but we'll heal, and the best news is so will he. Through all of this, I'm most struck by the incredible grace and love shown by people who hardly know us. I mean, sure, they care for cats and likely did this for Nacho more than for his humans (and they, like you, may be secretly judging us for our decision). But I'll continue to view this as grace, as an unexpected, undeserved kindness.

We will mourn our family's loss of our favorite big fat jerkface cat -- we will miss his purr and his pink nose and his fluffy belly -- but we will smile to know that he lives with caring, big-hearted people. Happy asked last night if Nacho will remember us. I don't know the answer. I don't know much about cat consciousness or memory, but I hope Nacho will know that we love him, the way I know he has loved us.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Look up

I walk a lot. Walking is one of the pieces of my Portland lifestyle that I value most, in fact: countless trails, parks, paths, and sidewalks that not only get me where I need to be, but also show me woods and sea and proud old homes and all sorts of loveliness. (I also walk past a lot of not-so-lovely in this town each day, but we'll save that for another post.) Sometimes when I walk through a quiet neighborhood, like the one over here along Clifton Street in Back Cove, I feel envious of single-family homes and yards and kid-friends playing together in the driveway. Other times in these same neighborhoods, I feel grateful for the ample parking and snow removal of our rental home, as well as for landscapers who cut the grass and landlords who come to fix the kitchen lights or replace the dryer when it punks out. When I walk through Evergreen Cemetery, often I feel contemplative, peaceful; its consecrated ground and hundreds of years of history soothes me. Other times I feel sad and anxious about the fragility of our lives.

It's all about perspective, right?

These tracks around town are all familiar routes to me now. My feet know where to go, and I can look around, take in every sight and sound. This morning, for example, my feet navigated up over the curb while I turned by body to locate the robins singing to one another from trees on opposite sides of the street. I took a photo of the sun rising over the low-tide mud-flat of the cove -- a snowy egret has come home for spring, by the way! -- without stumbling or slipping in the soft gravel of the trail. And my feet know where the crags in the bricks are on the sidewalk along Elm Street so I can huff and puff my way up that huge hill without tripping while I fiddle with my podcast playlist. I notice most of the things around me, good, bad, and ugly, while I'm walking because my feet know the way. There are few surprises, the paths are generally flat and even, it's routine.

Hiking is different, though, even on a trail I've hiked before. I'm super-cautious with every step. I watch the trail, I watch my feet, I watch Zippy skip-hopping in front of me and try to anticipate his (sometimes erratic) decisions. I analyze each segment of trail like a robot: "Slick looking mud to the right; step left. Watch out for that root; step up, over, down. Bend your knees more, your ankles are stiffening up. Zippy, stay to the right up there! Branch -- duck! That rock looks more stable, yes, good. Oh, more mud..." Seriously. This is what's happening in my head on a trail. (I've gone hiking to clear my mind, of course. Oh, the irony.)

Sunday afternoon we found a nearby "easy" trail to hike, to celebrate the re-emergence of spring. (It was 55 degrees and sunny and I swear every resident of Portland was outside in shorts and t-shirts singing happy songs in their hearts.) This trail, however, still hadn't seen the sun. Ninety percent of it was covered in slush and ice, the rest was thick black mud. We picked our way along -- Happy and his friend way up front, Honey and Zippy in the middle, slowpoke ol' Mom bringing up the rear -- and as much as I wanted to relax into the warm woodsy air, my mind went into robo-mommy mode (see above) and I started to feel frustrated with my family for zooming off so far ahead of me. Irrational. Anxious. Covered in mud. This is not the hike I'd craved!

Right in the midst of my pity party, my foot slipped off a root and into about 4 inches of squelching, stinky mud. It oozed over the toe of my boot, slurped at my heel. I had to stop completely to pull my foot out. That's when I looked up.

My family was so far ahead of me that I couldn't hear them anymore. I was standing alone in a copse of trees, pine mixed in with skinny birch and poplar, amidst a chorus of songbirds singing their sweet, feathery hearts out. They called back and forth to one another over the sound of a trickling brook of snow-melt. Sunlight streamed between the treetops, and everything looked like I was seeing it through a soft focus filter; the scene looked like Thomas Kinkade had painted it and sounded like the background soundtrack of my meditation app. Peaceful. Calm. Still covered in mud.

I almost missed this. The path was uncertain and full of obstacles, so I'd been walking with my head down. Yet the forest was screaming, look up, you silly girl! Look around! Pay attention to this beautiful moment, even though you're stuck in mud! No...especially because you're stuck in mud.

I guess it's more natural to look up when your feet know the route by memory. But it's so much more necessary to look up, isn't it, when the path is unknown and covered in ice and mud?

Just look up.

Friday, March 31, 2017

"She's taller than my dad!"

"I wonder if she can slam dunk."
"That mom is gonna hit her head on the door."
"She's taller than my dad!"

These are things often overheard when I drop my kids at school. Kids don't whisper quietly. None of these comments are new, mind you. I've heard these (and worse) since I was, oh, 9 years old, when I stood next to my 4th-grade teacher and one of my classmates noticed that I was as tall as Mrs. Schneider. No, I cannot slam dunk and I've never hit my head on a door jamb, but yeah, I'm taller than most dads. (And I've only met one mom in Portland who looks me in the eye; her kids go to a different school.)

I've borne the loud-whispered tall comments my whole life. Usually they're muttered behind my back, but often to my face as well. People say silly things. Period. Words sting, even if they're not intentionally harsh or teasing, and I wish people would realize that I can hear their gasps and whispers; my ears are not so high above your mouth that sound doesn't reach them. There are so many times - daily! - that I would like to simply blend in, to not stand an entire head taller than everyone in the room.

But what can I do about it? The only alternative I've come up with so far would be chopping off my feet just above the ankle to remove about 6 inches. (That would put be at about 5'9" which I've always felt would be a perfect height.) However, it would be difficult to get around without feet and ankles, and my hiking boots would surely never fit right again. I like hiking, so I suppose I'll continue to put up with the tall comments. I'll continue to pretend my ears are too far into the clouds to hear shorter people's questions, taunts, jokes. And I'll put off ordering the jacket that reads "I can hear you, dummy" across the back.

My kids are tall, too. Of course they are. You'd be surprised how many people - even well-educated people who understand the general concept of genetics - say things like "Wow, he's tall" when they see Happy standing next to me. (Interesting, too, is that they always ask, "Is his Dad tall?" As if my being 6'2" doesn't fully elucidate the origins of his height.) Just last week, at Zippy's 7-year-old well visit, our pediatrician's nurse practitioner said, "You should take a look at this growth chart! He's well above the curve for both height AND weight." I didn't respond with words. Instead, I glared a laser through her face until she realized what she'd said, how ridiculous it sounded when talking to a child's Amazonian mother. She looked down at the chart, wearing a sheepish I-can't-believe-I-just-said-that smile, and replied, "Well, I guess that's to be expected. I mean, he always has been. And you..." Her voice trailed off without finishing the sentence. (Can you believe she asked a few moments later if his dad is tall, too?)

In general, when I'm with my tall kids, the tall comments are directed at me (because I'm tallest, and I'm a woman and may as well have a horn growing from my forehead), and I absorb them as I always have. (Someday I'll tell you how mama-bear I feel when I hear people talking about Happy's size, and how amazed I am that my own parents must have carried a roiling ball of fire in their bellies without completely exploding on my behalf.) This morning, though, walking into Zippy's school and hearing (again) all the children whispering, a sudden anxiety gripped me: Will my kids be embarrassed by my size?

I mean, they're both at ages where their peers' perceptions are crucial to their own self-esteem. Will they hear these whispers and feel self-conscious of their own bodies? Will other kids tease them about me?! I was suddenly 9 years old again, hearing a classmate say "My mom thought you were the teacher!" about our class picture, listening to the laughter of my own classmates and wishing I could melt into the linoleum floor. I tucked my head down, felt my shoulders hunching.

At that very moment, Zippy reached out and grabbed my hand. I know he heard the comments, too. We walked a few more feet into the school entryway, and a little boy looked right at him and said, "Your mom is taller than allllll the teachers!"

"My mom," Zippy explained, "is tall like a superhero." His stride didn't slow, his voice didn't waver. True conviction and all heart. My boy's mom is tall like a superhero. In fact, she is taller than his dad, too.

I squeezed Zippy's hand. He squeezed back. Then I let go, breathed deeply, and watched him float along in the wave of children flooding the hallway. I could see him all the way to his classroom at the end of the hall, too, because he stands a head taller than every single child around him.