Like about 99.99% of women, I gained a few pounds as my 50th birthday approached, with most of the weight settling into the inches around my belly button. I like to think that I am a self-confident woman who knows that beauty is more than skin deep, but something about this newfound roundness just ate away at me.
I started using a phone app to “track” my diet. In principle, this seemed like a grand plan… enter my weight, set a goal, then eat the number of calories necessary to get to the finish line… how simple is that!?! Super simple… except that I now spent every minute of the day thinking about food. It is impossible not to obsess when every bite that goes in your mouth has to be entered into your “food diary”.
Most mornings, this meant that by 9am I was already stressed because a slice…
Bill rolled over to take a look at the alarm clock. It was almost 8:30 so he decided to spring into action. He never set the alarm clock. He saw no need. He was retired and had always longed for the time when the alarm clock was not to be used to alarm him out of his sleep. Some days he got up by 7:30 am, other days it was 10. It depended largely on how late he stayed up reading or watching television.
Since he needed to make a call at 9 am, the affable retiree rushed about the house in a rather disorderly fashion, leaving a bit of a mess in his wake. That did not bother him as there would be plenty of time later to clean up the place. Now he was making coffee and giving just the slightest thought as to what he would buy today at the supermarket.
The only thing Bill tried to be punctual at all week was the Monday call to his neighbor, Harold, who lived just a few doors down. The way Bill saw it, old Harold probably relied on the weekly call.
The Midwest planner from down the block seemed to know no one and had little contact with the world. Bill was convinced he was doing Harold a big favor. He did not know exactly how Harold felt about the weekly sojourn to the giant Publix supermarket, however. It must have been a Monday highlight for the newly retired neighbor and new friend.
A quick glance out the window revealed a perfect Florida morning. Bill loved this area of Florida. In honesty, he settled there because the property values were quite depressed in Sarasota County after the big recession, and he got a good deal in a good neighborhood of old timers, like himself.
Now it was time to help out an old guy who needed a friend, so he called Harold on his AARP phone and waited for his tentative voice to respond. Bill was quite amused as he thought of the same surprised tone Harold had each Monday morning when he answered the phone.
Much to the amazement of Bill, there was no response. He let the phone ring a long time before giving up. “I wonder what the old guy is up to this morning,” Bill thought. So he decided to wander down the street and ring Harold’s doorbell.
As he went up the steps to the front door, a voice called out. “You ain’t gonna find no body at home, young man,” Harold’s next door neighbor called out as Bill chuckled to himself. Not too many people referred to him as “young man.” In fact, no one did. He turned around and walked in the direction of a woman who did seem to be a lot older than Bill or Harold.
Mabel Crockett was well into her eighties but still rather spry. She kept up on the neighbors by frequently finding an excuse to do things around the outside of the house. It was unnecessary as there was an Association to deal with maintenance and yard work, but she liked checking up on things.
“So where is old Harold this morning?” Bill asked in a cheery tone.
“They carted him off pretty early, I reckon,” Mabel said in a deep southern drawl.
“What?” an astounded Bill exclaimed.
“Well I ain’t one to meddle in other folks’ affairs,” she lied, “but I seen that Sunday paper still settin’ there on that landing he calls a porch, so I just took a walk over there. In the back I could see he was, uh, just layin’ there on the ground in that screened in patio. So I went on home, dialed 911, and it’s a good thing.”
“Good thing?” Bill questioned.
“Why, he was still breathin’ when they loaded him into that big ol’ ambulance. Leastwise, I think he was still breathing. The young feller drivin’ that big vehicle said he still seemed kinda fresh.”
“Fresh? That seems a strange way to put it,” Bill said with a rather incredulous tone.
“Well, I guess it was because he couldn’t a been layin’ there too long. Anyways, they said they was taking him over to the general hospital. Right over here a piece,” she said pointing to the south.
“Oh my,” Bill responded with a great deal of concern. He said good-bye to the old woman and rushed to his car.
When he arrived at the general hospital, he went right to the emergency room and inquired about Harold. His questions only got questions in return. “What time did he arrive? What was the problem? Did he come by ambulance or did someone bring him?” Finally, the lady without the answers invited him to take a seat and someone would come out shortly. By “shortly” she must have meant an hour.
After the long wait, a nurse with a clipboard in hand appeared. “Are you here about the elderly gentlemen who had a stroke?”
“Stroke!” Bill exclaimed as he got all choked up about someone he barely knew.
“Yes,” she said calmly. “Are you the next of kin?”
“A relative perhaps?”
“Do you know who is next of kin or related somehow?”
“Do you know who his doctor is?”
The series of questions went on until Bill finally explained that he was just a neighbor. In fact, Bill did not even know Harold’s last name. The nurse looked disappointed but thanked Bill anyway and went back to her station. Bill followed.
“Excuse me, nurse, will I be able to see him?” Bill inquired.
“No, only immediate family,” she explained.
“But we don’t know if he has immediate family,” Bill said with a sense of urgency.
“I’m sorry,” she said as if she has had to say that a thousand times before.
As he left the hospital Bill realized that the master planner from the Midwest had no plan for this. Although Bill rarely planned anything, he decided he better go home and make one.
Note: The next “Harold story” appears in two weeks.
The first thought I had this morning was “The phone is ringing. Answer the phone.” Getting to the phone from bed is a stretch and a twist. I could make it easier by moving my Disney “Someday my Prince will come” lamp, which would make it harder to reach. I use my lamp more than I use my phone, so the phone stays put.
Regardless, answering a ringing phone from a dead sleep is one of my more acrobatic moves. Most times, when it rings early in the day, it is either a telemarketer or a doctor’s office reminding me about an appointment. This time, it was a friend from whom I was very glad to hear.
“Hey R. !” I said. You’ve got to love Caller ID.
“I’m alive,” he said. He sounded great. Considering he had two heart valves replaced during the past week, that’s not such a small thing. I was amazed, delighted. Impressed he sounds so perky and clear-headed.
R. goes way back. We met at the college radio station, where it seems everything important to me began. He was 13. I was not quite 18. I felt very superior, being so much more mature than he.
He had such a baby face, full of freckles. He still does, though the hair has become mixed with gray. Such a kid. Our lives continued to intersect throughout the decades. When he was 14, he got cancer. He was treated. Went into remission. Decided to skip college because he figured he was going to die young. Not.
He taught himself computer programming and morphed into a cracker jack software developer. He learned to fly and bought a small plane. I got to fly … even a pretend run as “co-pilot.” It was fun, and scary, and made me realize I love to fly … as a passenger. No piloting for me, thanks.
He went to live in Brussels. I went to live in Jerusalem. Both of us came back and married. My first husband — with whom we were all friends because he ran the college radio station where we all met — died following a mismanaged mitral valve replacement. I was married to Garry by then, having met Garry at that same radio station. No exaggeration — everything started there.
So you can see why everyone in our crowd is more than normally nervous about heart valve replacements, even though Jeff’s death was at least partly his fault — but more the fault of an arrogant doctor who failed to take the most fundamental precautions in post operative care.
Hearing from R. was wonderful and heartening. He had two valves replaces, the mitral and the aortic. He had previously, some years back, had a coronary bypass, so he was a little cranky this surgery. He takes exceptionally good care of himself — and his wife, M., would personally fight back death with her bare hands. I wouldn’t mess with her.
We had talked several times about surgeons, hospitals, mechanical versus tissue valves. I explained why I preferred tissue. No blood thinners and with all the other medical issues I’ve got, who needs to deal with that too? R. is not exactly free of other medical problems, either. He’s got that cancer lurking in the background, so less is more where medication is concerned.
But he sounded terrific. Alert. Alive. He made it. If you live around here and you need serious heart surgery, I highly recommend Beth Israel. They are terrific. If there’s such a thing as a great hospital experience, you will have it there. I don’t say this lightly, having been resident in pretty much every one of Boston’s highly regarded facilities.
R. is going to be okay. I could hear it in his voice. He sounds better less than a week post op than I sound 11 months after mine.
It is deeply reassuring to not lose another friend. Given how the herd has thinned, we are even more precious to one another than we have been in the past. No more taking for granted.
This totally made not only my day, but possibly my year.
Daily Prompt: First Light – Remember when you wrote down the first thought you had this morning? Great. Now write a post about it.
About 10 days ago, Garry and I got sick. Coughing. Wheezing. Sore throats. Runny noses. Chills one minute, sweating the next. The perfect storm of a classic winter cold. My son came down with it at the same time as did half the people with whom I’m in touch on the Internet. We all have the dreaded What’s Going Around.
We get sick every winter. Every damned winter. It doesn’t seem to matter what we do. We get sick anyway. We faithfully get our flu shots, but what comes around is never what it was we got vaccinated for. We tried to have a conversation earlier this evening. I couldn’t hear him because my ears are blocked. He couldn’t talk any louder because his throat is so sore. Then we both started to cough, then laugh, which made us cough more.
Danger lurks. No one is reclusive enough to avoid What’s Going Around. The worst places (in order of threat level) are a doctor’s waiting room. The drug pickup area at the pharmacy. The grocery store. A dentist’s waiting room. Really, any place where people gather in the winter is a place full of germs. We are doomed.
We’ve already been told — on the phone, without an examination because all those other sick people are clogging the office — we do not have the flu. Is this supposed to make us feel better?
I’ve been trying to smile. To not whine all the time, which is what I feel like doing. I’ve got a ton of stuff I need to do and feel too crappy to do it. We are snowed in. I can barely haul my aging, aching carcass and a camera to a door to take a few pictures of this impressively deep snow.
It’s hard for me to stay cheerful when I feel exactly as bad today as I did a week ago, if not slightly worse. So does Garry. And Owen. None of us is better than last week. I think I’m worse. But the doctor says it’s viral, so there’s nothing she can do.
I’m not cheerful. I feel like my lungs are full of liquid. As if I’m being water boarded by a virus. I know it’s just a winter cold. It will go away. They always go away. I wish it would go away very soon. Now would be good.
Re-springing Your Step – Tell us about the last experience you had that left you feeling fresh, energized, and rejuvenated. What was it that had such a positive effect on you?
It was just about a year ago when I discovered the heart murmur I’d had since early childhood was not just noise. It was a badly damaged mitral valve, and the aortic valve was in trouble, too. The heart muscle, trying to compensate for the inefficient mitral valve, had grown huge, trying to push blood through the ventricle. The muscle was so oversized, it was blocking the valve. I wasn’t getting oxygen.
I was having trouble breathing. I was pale, weak. And I didn’t think much of it. Heart problems don’t manifest dramatically. They creep up on you. You are tired. You do less. You avoid stairs, limit activity.
I believed my heart was the one organ I didn’t need to worry about. I ascribed all my symptoms to other conditions. Asthma. After-effects of cancer. Arthritis. Bursitis. Other stuff.
When one has many overlapping medical conditions, it’s easy to assume whatever is going on, is probably one of them. It will pass, I told myself.
The local “doctor” colluded with me in pretending everything was hunky dory. I’d been getting an EKG every year. Every year, they told me “you’re FINE.” I took it at face value, a gift horse. I wasn’t about to examine its teeth.
My supposed cardiologist showed no interest and even less alarm, at my situation. He didn’t have time to see me personally. Dr. Brownstein — a very busy man I was assured and my so-called cardiologist of record — never actually saw me. He sent me to his young nurse practitioner to pass along messages, omitting to mention the cardio myopathy in the left ventricle. At that point, no one suspected I also needed a bypass for a clogged artery. No one ran any tests.
Dr Brownstein when I finally saw him — 6 months after it was determined my mitral valve was failing — said I should wait until my heart completely failed, then deal with it. He said — this is a quote — “You can manage with a bad valve for years.” Big happy smile. The asshole.
I was coming out of my self-induced fugue state. I went online and searched for surgeons specializing in minimally invasive repair of mitral valves. I knew, from reading about it, that the best course was always to repair ones own “original equipment.” Not always possible, but always worth trying. If it didn’t work, the surgeon would use a replacement valve — fashioned from the tissue of a pig or cow — or a mechanical valve.
I didn’t want a mechanical valve because they require a lifetime of blood thinners. Also, my first husband died of complications following implantation of a mechanical mitral valve. Bad history.
I found a doctor. An excellent cardiac surgeon. He ran tests, including an expanded EKG. It showed the mitral valve to be in very poor shape, but he though there was a slight chance he could save it. As for the aortic valve and the big muscle blocking it, he’d carve that out. He was sure he could save the aortic valve.
Heart surgeons cover emergencies and Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston is a premier cardiac facility, so patients come from everywhere. I was rescheduled four times before my number came up. Finally, I was in the hospital. More tests. Intrusive nasty tests. They didn’t give me nearly enough drugs. There are things I’d rather not remember.
Finally, D-Day. They opened me up. It was evident the tests hadn’t told the whole story. The mitral valve was not working at all and there was almost no blood passing through the aortic valve, either. How I was managing to survive was an interesting question. And I needed a bypass. And some other stuff.
The surgery lasted almost 8 hours and they kept me in a medical coma for 48 hours afterwards. If you think you can’t feel pain when you are in a medically induced coma, you’re wrong. You can feel pain just fine. You just can’t do anything about it. I was hurting. But it was a very fine hospital and at no point did I feel anything but safe and protected. These people had me. Never was there a moment when I felt in danger, even if I was. After determining my heart would not beat on its own, I had one final surgery to implant the pacemaker.
I got home at the beginning of April. I was a physical and emotional mess. Over the weeks and months, I sorted it out. Pain eased off slowly. The the 6-month mark passed and my breast bone was not healed. Now, at almost a year …. it’s close. It doesn’t grind as much.
More important, the spring is coming back. It’s a tiny spring. I’ve had cortisone shots in my hips and walk better. My back is the same. It can’t get better, but applications of heat and gentle exercise might keep it from getting worse. I’m beginning to feel like someone I know.
So, what put the spring back in my step? Heart surgery and lots of it. A mitral valve replacement. Cardiomyectomy and aortic valve repair. Cardiac bypass. A pacemaker. Two big shots of cortisone in my hips and a year of healing.
Everything isn’t perfect. I’ve got so many replacement parts, it’s funny. Two breast implants, a pacemaker, something else in there that works with the pacemaker, and of course, a replacement mitral valve. And each piece has a serial number. I carry a wallet full of cards with all the serial numbers.
That’s what brought a semblance of spring to my step. Not quite like the spring of youth, but I can walk, climb a few stairs. That’s something. That’s a lot of something.
I’ve come a long way since I originally wrote this. It’s interesting, like mental time travel. You get to see who you were “back then” versus who you are today.
Life changes. Change is the only constant in our world. Change can be good, but as we age, it tends to be … well … difficult.
I broke my back when I was a kid. I was reconstructed when I was 19. For the next 35 years, I refused to pay any attention to my spine. I was not going to be disabled. Not me. It was mind over matter. But, it turns out, mind over matter only takes you so far.
I began to have trouble walking. My balance became erratic. I lost sensation in my feet and miscellaneous reflexes disappeared. I went to doctors. All of whom said I needed a new spinal fusion, the old one having fallen apart.
That explanation and solution made no sense to me. After surgery, I’d be in more pain. My spine would be stable, but spinal instability was not my problem. My problem was pain and stiffness with the accompanying limited mobility.
I believe in miracles because I’ve experienced a couple of them. Nonetheless, I don’t count on them. If you could count on them, they wouldn’t be miracles, now would they? In lieu of prayer, I took my case to the top spine guy in Boston.
He said I did not need surgery, nor would it solve the problems I was having. (See? I was right.) “Ignore my colleagues’ scare tactics,” he said. “Your back got you through this far. It’ll take you the rest of the way. Pain control, gentle exercise, and recognize your limits. Don’t do anything stupid.” Like fall off a horse? Lift heavy packages?
Since then, there has been so much more yet finally, I’m beginning to feel better. My back isn’t better. That’s not going to happen, but the rest of me is beginning to feel — younger.
Faith can help get you through times of trouble, but faith in what, exactly? Yourself? Your loved ones? Your friends? It need not be a deity (though I often think it would be nice to really believe that someone was watching out for me from on high), but faith in something, that there’s a future worth living. That’s a big part of getting through life-threatening stuff.
Faith is a tool, not an all-purpose band-aid. You don’t apply faith like a salve and it heals all ills. Contrary to popular mythology, it does not mean you don’t have to take care of yourself, nor will it make you young again, or stop your joints from aching. It won’t pay your mortgage or make you immortal, but it can offer you a context in which to see yourself and your problems, make you realize that you really do have something to live for. That is no small thing when the going gets very rough.
After a lot of intellectual dodging and weaving on the subject, I believe there is something, but I have no idea what. I don’t believe we have individual guardian angels looking out for us. It would be nice, but ridiculous. Nor I am not willing to commit to nothingness. To suggest I know the answers would be an extraordinary act of hubris. So I’ll let others duke it out on the details while I remain unaffiliated.
Meanwhile, whoever or whatever has helped me get this far, I’d very much appreciate it if that Force would stay with me.
New Skin – If you could spend the next year as someone radically different from the current “you” — a member of a different species, someone from a different gender or generation, etc. — who would you choose to be?
I can’t imagine wanting to be anyone (or anything) but me. Perhaps in a dream, I’d be a horse or an eagle. Or a dolphin. But that’s dream stuff, not living.
When I was a teenager, in those hyper hormonal years of Hell, I wanted to anyone but me — though even then, I never wanted to be anything other than human. I grew out of that pretty quickly and by the time I got into my 20s, was already fond of myself. At least the brainy part.
I’ve always had issues with my body. Ill health has stalked me from early on. By the time I was in my late 20s, I used to laugh, tell people that, with the help of modern medicine, I’m living proof the unfit can survive.
So here I am, alive and still complaining. I’m sure someone elsewhere has even more after-market replacement parts than me, but I don’t know him/her/them. I’m sure I’ll never be an unidentified Jane Doe on Ducky’s autopsy table because I carry 4 cards with serial numbers identifying various implanted pieces — pacemaker, two breast implants, and a heart valve. The piece of plastic fibula in my right leg predates serial numbers and two pieces were put in, but subsequently removed when they didn’t work.
So here’s the thing. I don’t want to be someone or something else. Not for a year or a day. What I want is to be is me. An all-original, functional version. With no arthritis or heart problems. Without cancer or bursitis. Supple young skin, and silky, thick hair in a blanket down my back. I would like the perfect complexion my friends so envied and which I never appreciated until it was gone. I’d like my teeth and stomach too, please.
Fantasy aside, I’ll hang on to me, grateful to be alive. It’s New Year’s Day, 2015. A beautiful, bright, sunshiny day in the heart of winter. I ever-so-slightly over-baked the blueberry pie, but the prime rib will be perfect.