Saturday, August 30, 2008
"Life is divided up into the horrible and the miserable. The horrible would be terminal cases, blind people, cripples. The miserable is everyone else. When you go through life you should be thankful that you're miserable."
When I first heard that quote, I was young enough to wake up every day feeling immortal, young enough that I understood Woody’s “misery” well. Misery was a boyfriend who didn’t call, a roommate who ate my leftover lasagna, or a B on a paper, when dammit, I deserved an A. The horrible--those unspeakable tragedies and illnesses that happened to other people--terrified me so much I tried not to think of them.
Thus, Woody’s quote made me laugh nervously and nod inwardly. Now it feels both insensitive and untrue. We're all terminal cases, and nearly every mistake we make in life, every unkindness we do, every squandered moment can be traced to the unspoken belief that we are the Great Exception.
In the first two days after my surgery, I cried more than I have in months--and not from pain. No, I had become the proverbial person who cries at the Hallmark card commercial. I felt an intense solidarity with suffering people everywhere. Their stories weren’t just sad pieces on the news; they felt visceral; they were my story. When two kids from the Cape died in Iraq and Afghanistan died within two days, I cried as if they’d been family.
I wept for my cousin’s husband who has been in a hospital in Kuwait for three months suffering from multiple myeloma. Once a marathon runner who kept himself in perfect shape, he has wasted to nothing, but still possesses an epic will to live. Unable to get comfortable on my bed no matter what position I assumed, I thought of his bed sores and the ache that never leaves his bones, and I wept. I had to turn off a television special about the suffering of Afghan women because their lives invaded my heart, and spilled into my restless dreams that night. But what troubled me most of all was a report about a local injured soldier. I thought of the surgeries, the weeks in hospital beds. Though the reports of poor care at Walter Reed had enraged me when I first heard them, when I thought of them in my post-surgical state, they left me shaking and sobbing.
Are you okay? my nurse said, standing in the doorway.
How could I explain that yes, I was okay, but some crucial filter had broken down? That I had gone over to the side of Woody’s “horrible” category and I couldn’t escape the view?
At around three in the morning, when it was obvious we were both awake, the roommate I hadn’t felt well enough to speak to yet pushed open the curtain that separated us and appraised me. “So who are you over there?”
I told her my name.
“You sure cry a lot,” she said, with the humor and honesty that would go far to transform my hospital stay.
“I guess I do,” I said. I loved that she didn’t ask why. Nor did I feel a need to explain myself.
In the next few days, we would talk a lot and joke even more, especially deep in the endless hospital nights. She had already been in the hospital for twelve days when I arrived and during that time, she’d missed her daughter’s wedding and the birth of her son’s first child. When the nurse checked in on us, she asked her to pass me some photographs from both events; and I couldn’t help noticing how she smiled as I looked at each one.
She'd suffered a lot of complications, but this hadn’t been her worst hospitalization. Twelve years earlier she’d had a frightening bout of myocarditis. While in the hospital, she suffered a stroke that left her short term memory impaired, and then a serious blood clot that necessitated the amputation of her leg. She was thirty-eight years old, and had two young teenagers at home. Her daughter, a freshman in college majoring in accounting, had been so devastated, she dropped out and came home to care for her mother. (Later, she would become a nurse.)
My first reaction was disbelief that so many bad things could happen to one person in a short period of time, but my roommate told her story with an utter lack of self-pity. When she’d gotten home from the hospital, she’d gotten a small dog that was easier to walk with her prosthesis; and as she depended on her husband to help with her memory lapses, their relationship had become something deep and rare. Their religious faith had also grown. In Woody's world, her life would undoubtedly fall in the horrible category, but she clearly didn't see it that way--and neither do I.
Before I left the hospital, the crying that alarmed my family and left me almost unable to watch TV, stopped. My doctor attributed it to the physical, mental, and emotional trauma from such long surgery, but I think it was something else. I think that I had endured a new level of suffering this time, and that it had made me see everyhing and everyone differently. The good news--if there is indeed something possible that comes from this kind of experience-- is that after you've survived horrible , you're far less likely to allow miserable to contaminate a single hour. My roommate, who left the day before I did, grinning with delight at the prospect of meeting her new grandchild and complaining about nothing, proved that.
Monday, August 25, 2008
No one particularly likes a sponge bath, but at the hospital where I underwent my first five surgeries, they made it as pleasant as possible. There was a sweet smelling foamy basin, a soothing back rub with baby lotion, and if I wanted it, that ultimate luxury: a shampoo. A the end of the process, I felt pampered and refreshed.
Thus, I was shocked when an unsmiling aide I’ll call S. showed up to administer my “bath” at my new hospital (a first class institution.) The curtain surrounding my bed still open, she tossed me a wet face cloth, and ordered: “Wash!” A request that she pull the curtain clearly annoyed her, and when that asked for still more, it put her over the edge.
“Soap?” she repeated, as if it were a new concept in bathing. She shuffled out of the room, shaking her head.
I tried to engage S. in conversation, to somehow remind her we were both human, that I understood she hated her job. I, in fact, wasn’t thrilled with my role either. Couldn’t we maybe just be kind to one another?
But S. answered my questions with a grunt, and refused eye contact. After I used her profferred towel, she disappeared without a word.
When Ted came in, he noticed how shoddy her care was even before I mentioned it. She emptied the contents of the foley catheter on top of the bed, and neglected to wear gloves as she moved from one patient to another. The simplest request was met with a glower.
Still, S. and I might have survived each other if I didn’t develop a problem with my pain pump on my second day. When it ceased working, the pain level was intolerable. I pressed my call light, but that wasn’t working either, and my roommmate was out of the room. When S. ambled into the room with her usual scowl, I was thrilled at the sight of her.
However, when I told her about my pain and asked her to get my nurse, S. continued to go about her business as if she hadn’t heard me. “Use your call light,” she said at last, turning her back.
I explained that it wasn’t working, and S. gave it a hasty look. “Try again,” she said, and again turned her back.
As S. moved in and out of the room, I continued to plead my case: the call light wasn’t working; and my pain was nearly unbearable. Could she PLEASE go to the desk and alert my nurse?
The woman, however, was resolute. “There’s nothing wrong with your call light,” she said, as she begrudingly shuffled through the tasks tasks she clearly abhorred.
When my roommate and her nurse returned, S. slithered out of the room before the nurse saw my distress, and confirmed that the light and pain pump were not functioning. She quickly volunteered to get my nurse--but first, she stormed after S.
Though I didn’t tell anyone what had happened with my callous aide., no one seemed surprised the next day when I requested another caregiver. S. was never assigned to me again.
However, I did encounter her in the hallway--and this time, she was the one eager to make eye contact. Now I’m usually a pretty forgiving person, but I wasn’t about to let a woman who’d knowingly left me in pain for over an hour off the hook so easily. Now it was my turn to look away, to refuse to relieve her anxiety. Obviously, she was worried that a complaint that might lead to her termination.
A couple of days later, Ted and I ran into her in the solarium. My first thought was that she was dogging work again, probably avoiding another patient who needed her care. Again, I refused to look her in the eye.
But as we sat there, for a while, I watched her furtively, a heavy woman in her late fifties with deep cut dark circles under her eyes and swollen feet. She clearly had no business working in health care, but she probably didn’t have a lot of choices either.When Ted looked in her direction, she seized on the opportunity. “Beautiful day out there, isn’t it?”
Then she turned to me with an almost touching temerity, exhibiting the broken-toothed smile she'd denied me before, “And how are you feeling? Better, I hope.”
Cynically, I suspected she was only being friendly because she feared receiving what was probably not her first complaint. Maybe her job was even on the line.
I intended to ignore her, but then I thought of the quote from Plato, which had never felt more true: “Be kind because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. I hesitated only a moment before I smiled back. “Yes, a little better every day. Thank you.”
And yet even in my moment of amity, I hadn’t entirely ruled out filing a complaint. Though I wasn’t personally angry with S. anymore, I felt a certain responsibility the the next occupants of my bed. Should anyone else be subjected to this kind of care? Was remaining quiet a kindness, or just another example of my greatest flaw: excessive passivity.
I thought it over for the next two days while I was in the hospital, but neither road felt particularly clear or right. In the end, however, I couldn’t forget my moment of empathy for S. as I watched her in the solarium. I thought of her stubby fingernails with their peeling polish, and her tired eyes. In my mind, I stared down at her swollen ankles, and the shoes that were clearly in need of replacement. I remembered that wily, but somehow heartbroken smile. What would happen to her if she really lost her job? Perhaps, I thought, she’d really learned something from her failure with me. Perhaps she wouldn’t treat the next patient the same way. Given the weaknesses of nature she’d exhibited, that might be unlikely, but given my own, I had no choice but to hold out hope.
Saturday, August 23, 2008
By now, most of you know the story. You know how my friend, Susan Messer, and I bonded over a pie one August. But for those who don't, here's the short version: I'd written about a particularly wonderful blueberry affair I'd been served by no less the writer Marilyn Robinson. Susan contacted me to say she was sure she had the recipe.
Through e-mail, we came to know each other, two aspiring novelists who had placed short stories in literary publications, and won contests who worried that our dream of a novel would forever be elusive. We knew how fierce the competition was. We packed up our queries and our manuscripts hopefully. Agents wrote back to say they were sorry; but they just didn't love it. (Writers, you know how those lines ...you've memorized them, and probably taken them more personally than you should have. Not lovable? ME?...I knew it! Editors, already facing daunting stacks of agented work, would not even take a look.
It seemed a vicious spiral. So did Susan and I despair? Well, maybe for the odd day or two. But stop writing? Never. Every August, no matter what, we resolved we would bake the magical blueberry pie for our muse. And we would believe! (We would also have happy palates and famileis because this is a particularly delicious pie.)
This year, however, when blueberry season rolled around, Susan was worried. My health wasn't good and I was spending most of my days on the couch: how could I ever bake a pie?
I WOULD, I insisted. This, after all was a very important year, and I was going to recognize the muses if it killed me! This was the year when Susan had sold her novel!
I spotted the announcement in Publishers' Marketplace even before Susan did, and quickly zapped her an e-mail.
"Susan Messer's REMNANTS, Like Dust in Pocket Seams, exploring the human face of class, race, and ethnic frictions taking place in Detroit in 1967, the summer of the riots, to Christopher Hebert at the University of Michigan Press, for publication in Spring 2009, by Colleen Mohyde at the Doe Coover Agency (World)."
I'll always remember her response. "Wow, that sounds like a very serious book."
And it is. Serious and beautiful and filled with characters you will never forget.
I bought berries and cream, then urged my family to eat them before they went bad. I wasn't up to making a pie. Then I bought some more, and did the same thing.
But the third time, the blueberries (organics from Vermont) were particularly plump and sweet, and I was scheduled for surgery the next day. It was now or never! My son Theo dragged a stool into the kitchen so I could sit as I cooked...and behold, the muse was pleased. The pie was my best effort ever.
I asked Susan if she wanted to share something about our joint effort here, and she wrote back:
"I guess the main thing I want to say is what a pleasure it's been to share this tradition with you for lo these many years. And as for writing metaphors . . . something I noticed this year . . . there's a point in the process when (regardless of past success) I'm filled with doubts. It's that step when you put the berries in a pot with the sugar and corn starch and lemon juice. You turn on the heat, and the instructions say to cook until the liquid thickens and the berries soften. But it just looks so . . . dry . . . for a few minutes there. It is dry. It's impossible to imagine that it's going to turn into something juicy. And I kind of push the mess around with my wooden spoon wondering. Until, without fail, the magic occurs. A complete transformation into something deep and blue and beautiful and bubbling. I have my crust anxieties, too, of course. Whether it will hold together and so forth. But that dry mix in the pot. I'm telling you."
(I agree that it's a great metaphor for writing, but I've got to add it's helped me a lot in dealing with my illness.)
If you're a writer, you have to know how difficult it is for two novelists to dream and sweat and polish their novels into creation, and then to achieve publication. But that's what happened to Susan and me. Was it the pie that created the magic? I don't know, but I'm not taking any chances. Every August, for as long as I'm able (and sometimes, like this year when I'm not quite) I'm going to be buying organic blueberries; I'm going to be standing or sitting at the stove; and I'm going to be begging the muse for a story that will change hearts, and leave readers craving more.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
You probably know why some of my friends call me Pollyanna--and not always in admiration. I understand; I really do. Sometimes optimism can be grating. When you're in the middle of a divorce or a twenty-four hour flu, you don't need your friend to tell you to take two ounces of bliss and call her in the morning. Or that even even the most dire circumstances might contain a secret gift. Sometimes, you just need someone to give you a huge hug and say, "You're right. This sucks."
Two days post-surgical and stilll unable to get my pain under control
(I still think that my pump apparatus wasn't working though no one believed me) I learned something revelatory about the human condition: suffering isn't fun. I also learned something about myself: I'm not very good at it. I'm not good at being lying in a bed in an uncomfortable positiion, unable to sleep or eat or enjoy the presence of my family because pain owns me.
I didn't want flowers. I didn't want to talk to anyone. It was a beautiful day outside. Really? Close the curtains, please.
I counteracted it with prayer, meditation, two ounces of bliss, but I gotta tell you, physical suffering is a pretty daunting opponent. If I looked in the mirror and saw my old Pollyanna self, I would have pitied her. Poor naive fool; she just didn't know...
Then, determined to exacerbate my misery, my nurse announced I had to walk to the solarium at the end of the hall. I steadied myself on my IV pole, and went, trying to smile at my nurse, but inwardly I was walking to the "this sucks" beat. Cha-cha-cha.
I thought about my old friend, Marie, who while suffering from stomach cancer, a broken hip, and a stroke, gave me her usual luminous smile and promised it wasn't so bad. She lied, I thought.
"I'll leave you here for a while to enjoy the view," the nurse said, settling me in what looked like a giant highchair. (The indignities never end.)
Of course, I wasn't happy with that either. I wanted to get back to my personal torture wrack where I could moan and twist with abandon. But being the people pleaser to the end, I agreed.
The view from the solarium was indeed a lovely portrait of Boston on a late summer day. It looked directly on Simmons College, where they were working on the soccer fields to get them ready for the fall. There was a cosp of trees in the background, and that intangible excitement of people walking through the city, students heading for the hospital to study medicine, skateboarders flipping dangerously between sidewalk and street, business people walking with the high purpose of Napoleon.
I wasn't a bit interested. I felt bad, lousy, miserable...well, you get the idea.
A woman sitting in a similar highchair greeted me. "How you doin?"
"Good!" chirped the automatic Pollyanna. (Well, nobody wants to hear the bad, lousy,miserable line anyway...) Especially not one who could have surely spouted her own litany.
Then we started to talk.
She'd had some extensive surgery the same day I did, came from one of the city's poorer neighborhood, and appeared to be quite alone. But she radiated the kind of happiness Pollyanna would have recognized.
When she heard I came from the Cape, she glowed. "I go down there a few times every summer," she said. And she soon proved that she had the seaside in her veins in a way that I, a local resident never did. She didn't visit the Cape for the usual tourist outing. She came to do some serious fishing.
"I'm like a squirrel storing my nuts up for winter." She listed all the fish she caught; striped bass, scup, and a bunch I'd never heard of, though they were all pulled from my friendly neighborhood ocean.
Hmm. I could actually smell the air by the harbor. "But what do you do with them when you catch them? How do you get them home and turn those giant fish with eyes and heads into something that looks like food on a plate?"
"Well, I got myself a big cooler," she said, probably thinking I was an idiot. "And I clean them right out on my porch. When my neighbors who pass by, they all stop and ask when I'm gonna cook them up. 'You'll know,' I tell them, 'you'll know.'
And they do, too. Soon as I start cooking that fish, people are knocking on the door."
"I should try that," I thought already imagining another adventure for the consultants, their grandfather and myself. Maybe the whole family would go, and we'd eat fish all winter...Maybe we, too, would learn to store up our nuts!
"Fishing on Cape Cod, huh? That sounds like fun," I said, as if it were new to me, and in a way it was. I'd gotten so used to driving past the fishing boats as if they were furniture, I never actually thought about boarding them. But now, seventy miles away, I SAW them.
"Maybe I should try that."
"You should," she said, nodding her head. "But don't wait; life is short. You and I know that." It was her first reference to our common trials. She paused and looked out the window.
"You've got to appreciate the good days," I agreed, looking out at the people on the sidewalk.
"That's for sure," my new friend said. "But I'm grateful for days like this, too." She laughed. "We're here, right? And look at how green those trees are."
Everyone seemed determined to make me see those damn trees. By then, however, I WAS seeing them. And I was thinking about fishing next summer, and eating in the greasy, fish fry places near the harbor that I usually avoided, and sitting on my deck and cleaning fish...well, okay, I probably won't go that far. How about, sitting on my deck, drinking Chianti, and watching Ted clean the fish?
And once again, I was back in the game again. Glad, glad, glad.
P.S. Much gratitude and love to all of you: Even when I didn't feel like doing anything, I still loved it when Ted read the blog responses out loud, and I imagined each of your faces. (I know I haven't seen a lot of you yet, but you still have faces for me.)
And thanks, too, to those who never leave comments, but who have followed along and contacted me in other ways. (Theresa G: If you're reading this, please know your beautiful, courageous letter left a particular mark.)
Thursday, August 14, 2008
The Fashionistas with their grandfather
I'm not much of a footwear person, but about a month ago, I got an irresistible urge for a new pair of shoes. Not just any shoes either. I wanted some tall razzle dazzle hot heels. After a lifetime of flat shoes, I was done with the laid back life. I wanted the kind of shoes that would inspire me to walk somewhere I've never been before. But since I don't shop much, I called my two favorite fashion consultants (aka granddaughters). They were all over this mission.
Together, the three of us clunked and strutted around every shoe department in town, doing our best not to sprain an ankle as we feigned sophistication. I felt like we were walking through the eras as we tried on slingbacks and platforms, skinny pointed stilettos and sexy oxfords like my grandmother wore, but with five inch killer heels. I couln't help admire the consultants' aplomb as they crossed their legs and requested another pair of shoes from an annoyed sales clerk
"Yes, I realize those shoes aren't for children," the oldest and official spokesgirl said, "But could you please bring out two pairs in the smallest size." (I'm telling you, if I only had half this girl's poise and confidence...)
When the clerks glared at me, I just threw up my hands, and winced apologetically."Do you think they could just try a couple more pairs?" With my own children, I never would have allowed such shenanigans, but with the consultants, I'm putty.
And then I found them. They were wine red. Open toed. Retro. And oh so high. After I buckled them, I stood up, put my hands on my hips and looked my 6'1" tall husband square in the eyes. "How do you like me now, baby?"
The consultants gasped in unison. "Those are the ones!"
So where have I gone in my wine red, mile high hot shoes? Well, nowhere. Instead, I've spent most of my time barefoot and on the couch. It's a life that would drive any normal person mad, but is usually quite fine with me. It's a comfortable couch for one thing, with lots of bright light, my animals around me, and a lovely family coming and going.
My magic carpet
But mainly my enforced exile from life has been fine because I've been working on a new novel. And while I've been sitting on the couch, my characters have been doing things like falling in love and traveling to Portugal and performing surgery, not to mention dealing with unbelievable treachery. And I've been doing it with them. How could I ever be bored?
But sometimes when I'm tired or not feeling well, I go to the closet and take out my glamourous shoes. And I think that anyone who owns a pair of shoes like that must have some fabulous destinations in her future. I imagine how the consultants will smile when they see me wearing them. Then they'll claim credit for making the woman I've become. And of course, they (along with the rest of my family) will be right.
IN OTHER NEWS:
* I haven't forgotten blueberry season. My friend Susan Messer and I have both baked our Literary Blues Pies, as has Diana Guerero and the Fawnskin Writers. I'll be posting on that soon, as well as on Susan's marvelous news. (Hint: the muse clearly rewards those who honor her with perfect blue pies.)
*And speaking of writers with brilliant muses, two people who I'm privileged to call friends saw new novels published this week. Tish Cohen's INSIDE OUT GIRL and Amy McKinnon's debut, TETHERED were both released on the twelfth. Though they are very different kinds of stories, they are both gorgeously written, and in their own ways, they both speak to the ultimate goodness of the human spirit. (Yes, I know that TETHERED deals with child murder, but trust me, this is a beautiful book.) (As for INISIDE OUT GIRL, you can check out my review on Amazon. I will say more later when I have the time and concentration to do them justice. But don't wait for me. Both these novels are undoubtedly right up front in your local book store. Check them out!
*As for me, I'm scheduled for another major surgery in the morning. So what am I doing up at nearly midnight blogging about shoes when I have to leave my house at 4:30 a.m.? Um, good question, but I never claimed to be logical. I guess I will try to get some sleep now, and the next time you hear from me, I'll probably be blogging about my hospital roommates.
P.S. Thanks to all who have continued to check in on me over the last two quiet months. I may not have written much, but you've all been in my heart.