Caregiver, Heal Thyself

In my Southern Methodist upbringing I have been taught that life is full of lessons that we are meant to learn.  Sometimes the lessons elude us, but there are times when the message is crystal clear.   Such was the case at our house a couple of weeks ago when I developed what appeared to be a mild cold.  Days one and two I marveled that this cold would be a piece of cake, which was a relief since I didn’t have time to be sick (is there anyone who does?).  There was a bit of congestion, but not the hit by a bus feeling you get with a typical cold.

Day 3 the hit by a bus feeling started creeping in.  For the next five days it got worse, along with a very raw throat.  By day eight I was on the phone.  When I was told my doctor couldn’t see me for another few days, I assured the receptionist that I would be dead by then.  So I was worked in to see a Physician Assistant, who diagnosed me with allergies complicated by an upper respiratory infection.

After a  few days on antibiotics when I began to feel human again, I began to piece together my lesson.

Of all the symptoms I could have suffered with this illness, the dominant one was a cough.  Not a petite little ‘hide behind a tissue’ cough, but a ‘stab in the throat’ cough that caused me to cough until I saw stars.  One time I coughed so hard I got chest pains, and I had vision  anomalies that lasted several hours.

I began to understand a little more about my husband’s cough.  Many times I had resisted the urge to suggest that he shouldn’t cough so forcefully.  I learned that when you have to cough, there is no real way to temper it.  If you get an irritation in your airway, the goal is to make it go away.  It is not quiet, nor is it delicate.

I also learned that it can be quite irritating to have someone follow you around, asking if you are all right.  I am guilty of that on a daily basis, and my husband has been kind enough not to become impatient with me over the years.

I learned that it really, really stinks to be sick.  My husband feels crappy on a daily basis, yet he powers through to get to the next day.  He does not complain unless I ask him specifically what is wrong.  He has my complete admiration.

My husband learned something as well:  it is extremely stressful to hear your loved one ‘cough up a lung’.   Although he still has me beat in this department:  I never threw up from coughing, nor did I ever pass out, which he does regularly.

Our assessment of why I got sick is that we both needed a tangible reason to put ourselves in the other’s shoes.  It was very effective, and he began to see that he needed to be more proactive about finding the reason for his cough.    Up until now, I have been the one being in touch with the doctor, following up, etc.

Last week he was given a new treatment regimen, requiring oxygen therapy when his O2 goes below 90%, which it has been for the last several weeks.  He has followed it diligently, and the cough is slowly improving.   Once again, we are feeling empowered and grateful.  And empathetic.





Passing the Torch

During the most recent visit with my in-laws, we were talking about upcoming family events.  My Mother-in-law reminded us that this is her year to have the family get-together, sometime in the Fall, on a day that will not conflict with any Alabama games.  All college football fans know exactly what I’m talking about.

Then she said:  “and this will be my last year of doing this.”  Just like that.  With those words, an era was ending.  When we recovered our composure enough to ask her why, she said, “well, when it is my turn to host again, I’ll be 89 years old, if I’m even around.”  I felt a certain loss at this knowledge, like we are losing one more thing that was an institution in our lives.  One more thing that grounded us.

This loss was further compounded when we discussed another family reunion that occurs the last Sunday in July every year.  The last July reunion we went to was in 2010.  In 2011, we couldn’t go because my husband was still in the hospital after his triple bypass surgery.  In 2012 I had to turn around on our way to the reunion to take him to the emergency room.  In 2013, the reunion was shrouded in mystery as we waited patiently for the invitation to come.  It never did.  About 3 days before the reunion would have taken place, we found out why.  The kind, funny, enthusiastic, family get-together-loving cousin who had spear-headed the event had passed away in the Spring and his widow was too distraught to try to plan it.   Not only did we mourn his loss, but also his role as the glue that held us together.

When I asked if she thought there would be another reunion, she was very doubtful, feeling that it wouldn’t happen unless one of the grandchildren took it up.  And she reminded us that things like that aren’t a big priority with the younger folks.  Yet another institution crumbling.

I remember reunions from my childhood:  my grandmother’s family got together the 2nd Sunday in June.  It was a drive of about four hours, and we would leave before the sun came up, so we could spend time with my great-aunt before we met at the old family church.  It was very exciting…we were out of our routine, and there was plenty of activity as we packed the fried chicken, gallons of iced tea and potato salad into the trunk of the car.  Whoever thought about it first got into the front seat, in that coveted spot between my grandparents, where they would fall asleep again under the arctic blast of the car’s air conditioner.  The day unfolded as we got to our destination and got reacquainted with cousins we hadn’t seen since the previous year.  There were tons of laughs, food and fun.  It was a glorious respite…we soaked it up, knowing that these times had to sustain our connection for another year, until the next time.

I remember learning that the reunions on my grandfather’s side began as a birthday party for my great-grandfather.  Apparently, a great time was had by all and it was decided that it would become a yearly event.  This decision would provide yet another source of happiness for us great-grandchildren.  Yet another connection to sustain us, to keep us acquainted with those family members we didn’t see every day.

My train of thought is this:  these events in my child’s mind were something that I took for granted.   Yet, in my adult mind, I know that each year took it’s own brand of planning…they didn’t just spontaneously happen.  In her own way, my Mother-in-law passed the torch, or at the very least, put the ball in our court.  To what magnitude we would keep things going will be up to us.  Will we reach out to the extended cousins to continue the tradition, or keep it closer to home?  It will take some time to figure out where to go from here, but the important thing is to address the need to stay in contact.  If the yearly reunion has taught us anything, it is that with family, you can always pick up where you left off.


Giving up a Dream

Well I almost did it again.  I almost got angry and overwhelmed based on my own feelings and my own perspective, with no consideration for his.  I decided to do some cleaning and rearranging of things in the home office.  I began to get angry when I looked at the assortment of electronic equipment that seems to have no purpose, yet I was the one stuck dealing with them.

I had to physically stop myself, take a deep breath and say out loud:  ‘these items may be a pain in my backside at this moment, but they are a physical representation of his lost dreams’.  When he collected them, they had a purpose in his mind and in his heart.  He has now decided that he can’t keep all his dreams, so some of these will have to go.  It was a very sobering moment, and it was very hard to remind myself that I am the one who needs the work.

Disparity and Forgiveness

Exactly one week ago today, we watched with pride as our youngest son walked across the stage to receive his High School diploma.  It was yet another milestone that I prayed we would all get to witness.  It was a day of hope and promise….the first step in this new chapter of his life.  It also put us one step closer to the closing of this child-rearing chapter in our lives, one that is ending all too quickly.

In the last several years, there has been a great deal of disparity in the experiences of our sons.  While our oldest son has to watch and worry from afar (which is extremely stressful in it’s own right), our youngest has been a daily witness to all the maintenance, symptoms and repercussions of dealing with this illness.  Unfortunately, this is not the only way he has been impacted.

When our oldest son was still at home, we were in a much better position financially to help him accomplish some amazing dreams.  It was easy for us to support him in these endeavors because we knew he was meant to do these things.  For instance, one January day, he took a discovery flight on a Cessna airplane at the local Flight School.  According to my husband, when he stepped out of the aircraft after being allowed to assist in the flight, he had a look on his face that confirmed it: this was something he was born to do.  We knew we must help him achieve this.  He did his part by working to help pay for flight lessons, and was even able to eventually get a job at the Flight School….employee discount!!!  At the tender age of 18, he received his pilot’s license.

So one day a few months ago, I was talking to our youngest about things in general, including things we were not able to help him do.  It was a difficult conversation to have, because like parents everywhere, we have always wanted to treat them both the same.  It is a tall order for two different people, but what we have done for one, we fully expected to do for the other….or the equivalent, based on their interests.

We did help them both do a few similar things…they were both able to accomplish an amazing hike of over a hundred miles through the mountains  in New Mexico on the Philmont Scout Ranch, which is a pretty big deal.  However, we knew that there would be some things we wouldn’t be able to provide as much support for, like attending college, the way we did for our oldest.

As we began our conversation, my voice quivered as I felt the pain of the unfairness to our baby son.  He stopped me abruptly.  “It’s ok, Mom…all of this has made me a better person.  I appreciate things so much more.  You do not need to apologize!”

I was astounded at his insight, and thought about the power of forgiveness….how this simple act released me from the chains of my own guilt and how I could use it as well to free others.

I thought of those I may still be harboring a grudge against.  What causes me to refuse the gift of forgiveness to others, when that day I craved the forgiveness of my son more than anything?  What if I could feel the pain of someone who is asking for forgiveness…the pain they must feel at having wronged me.  At the depths of their soul, all that matters are the precious words, “I forgive you.”   Since we cannot reach back into the past and change anything, why not let it go?  Why not free it from my soul and consciousness, so that I may allow room for something more positive?

The bonus is that the person receiving the forgiveness now sees us in a different light, maybe with a new-found respect.

Just like I now view my son.  My incredibly smart, kind and grounded young man.

He will do just fine.


Archaeology of the Heart

On the first of several days off last week I began a somber project.  I started helping my youngest son prepare his personal items for us to either store or mail to him at his first duty station.  He is not leaving until July, but I know that if I wait until right before he leaves, I will be a bundle of emotions and this task will be so much harder to accomplish.

So last Thursday I began consolidating the largest collection of Legos that has ever existed.  Ever since our firstborn was old enough to play with Legos without eating them, we began collecting.  About 20 years’ worth.  That is a LOT of little bitty pieces of hard plastic, each of them covered in pointy edges.  Over the course of time, I am sure I have stepped on them all.  With my bare feet.

Right away I did something that I immediately regretted:  I dumped the entire contents of the small bin of Legos into the bigger bin that would be sealed and put away.  Unfortunately, mixed in with the Legos were pencils, pens, gum wrappers, toy cars, loose change and other items that I could not name.  I realized that I was in for the long haul in getting this project ready for posterity.

I gathered my supplies:  my vacuum cleaner, an old sock, antibacterial wipes, a small bowl and a garbage can.  With the care of a seasoned archaeologist, I covered the end of the vacuum cleaner hose with the old sock and proceeded to pick up any dust.  After a few seconds, I would turn off the vacuum, hold the end of the hose over the small bowl, and pull the sock farther up the hose.  This would cause any Legos that got sucked into the sock to pop into the bowl.  I could then separate them, then vacuum up the dust.   It was easy to get rid of the dead batteries and other garbage.  Some of the other stuff, not so much.

As I cleaned and sorted, I began to imagine the day that this bin would be opened again.  I pictured it being a rainy day, my sons sitting on the floor with their own little ones.  Maybe they would begin talking about the things they used to build.  Maybe they would talk about events that inspired them to build.  There would be lots of memories.  Lots of good memories.

I was suddenly reminded of my own childhood days of rummaging through my grandmother’s button box.  It was a real treat to examine the buttons one by one.  It was especially exciting to find other things in the box that had nothing to do with buttons.  A small china doll.  A tiny replica of a vintage oatmeal canister.  Somehow these things had extra importance:  they really didn’t belong with buttons.  It was a mystery why they were in there.  Apparently I liked it that way, because I never asked my grandmother why these unrelated items were in the button box.

That’s when it hit me:  I would make the Lego storage bin into our very own Time Capsule, like the button box.  Matchbox cars and Micro machines went back in, as well as small airplanes.  Little items that might trigger big memories.  I placed some of the coins back into the box, in the hopes that one day a small child might look in awe at the old coins…his or her own ‘buried treasure’ found in the Lego bin.  Sometimes just a small bit of chaos is all we need to liven things up a bit.

It was quietly reassuring that one day these items will be loved again.  One day we will once again hear the familiar sound of small pieces of plastic being excitedly raked around in the search for a specific Lego.  The sound of creativity.  It is my fervent prayer that it is a sound we both will hear.


O2 Limbo

The last few weeks we have been dealing with The Cough.  Again.  We made a valiant effort to treat it at home, in case it was post nasal drip, caused by seasonal allergies.  After all, ’tis the season for Spring pollen here in the South.  When we decide the allergy remedies are not working, we head to the doctor.  He prescribes a Z-pak and some other allergy-fighting remedies and tells us to let him know if there was no improvement.

Unfortunately, a few days later, we are back in the doctor’s office, this time for abdominal pain.  After a brief hospital stay for the abdominal issue, his doctor sends him to his Pulmonology specialist.  He is prescribed a very strong antibiotic for bronchitis.  Unfortunately, the side effects of this were horrible:  he vomited and had severe heartburn, as well as feeling a burning sensation in his esophagus for several hours.  Not good for a man with GERD and a hernia.  So his pulmonology doctor had him rest for several days and then begin another antibiotic.  He was able to take the new one without incident.

However, into the first week of treatment, my husband’s O2 saturation levels began to dip into the 60’s and 70’s.  So we go back to see the pulmonology doctor.  There was some concern that he may have blood clots in his lungs again.  Thankfully, that doesn’t appear to be the case.  However, we are in to the 2nd full week of the low O2 saturations.  My hubby is wearing oxygen nearly 24 hours a day right now, in an effort to maximize lung repair after this bout of bronchitis.

This life in limbo is wearing on my sweet hubby’s soul, and on ours as well.   The wonderful sunny days that he so looked forward to are spent either staring out the window, or sitting on the patio or front porch…..wherever the oxygen hose will allow him to go.  It is so hard to describe the feeling of watching the one you love change before your eyes, no matter how temporary it may be.  There is anger at the circumstance, and helplessness.  No matter how much you do to help, you feel like you should be doing more.   Then there is the desperation to move Heaven and Earth to just fix it.  If it means pitching a tent in the lobby of the doctor’s office, you are prepared to do it.

This is where we are, and most days I wake up feeling lost, with no focus.  The laundry is piling up.  So is the clutter.  I have no desire to pursue anything that gives me any kind of happiness.  I guess this is one of those situations where we just get through one day at a time, until we conquer this hurdle.   Or…. I can  take a piece of my own advice from an earlier post.  I shall start by making a list of what needs to be done….this will be how I regain my focus.  I will put larger jobs into smaller components, so that I will be able to easily cross these off the list as I accomplish them.  I can do at least one small job per day, until the fog starts to clear.

I would love to hear how you get over one-day-at-a-time hurdles.  Please feel free to share any thoughts you have.  And, most importantly, thank you for reading along!

Re-gaining Focus, Making a Difference

In recent weeks I have been struggling with an old nemesis:  self doubt.  This has snowballed into a sort of ‘Blogger’s Block’….In fact I made a couple of posts and after a time of reviewing them, they both ended up in the “trash”.  Not deleted, because, though I didn’t feel I could articulate these topics in a helpful way at the time, they are a part of me and there is always hope that I will find a way to resurrect them.

And so, as I regain my focus and stay true to the reasons I started this blog, I will post about something that is near and dear to my heart.  The subject of blood donations.

I knew I would address this when I saw a local blood drive being publicized during the Christmas season.  Although blood is needed all through the year, at the moment we are entering Prom season and Spring Break.  Our young people are out and about and, every parent’s worst nightmare….vulnerable to accidents.

A particular epiphany I had one day made my blood run cold…if you have ever had this happen to you, it is both amazing and horrifying…and on this day I took notice.  It was during the time my husband was on the respirator in September of 2011.  Maybe it was because, though we had dodged the proverbial bullet with the bypass surgery a couple of months before, we had had the rug yanked out from under us yet again.  For the second time in two months, we had viewed the fine line between invincibility and catastrophe, and catastrophe had nearly won this time.  All my emotions were raw as I realized that we were vulnerable.  Vulnerable to things we couldn’t control.  Even vulnerable to death.

I think it was the Tuesday of the respirator days that I came in to sit by him at visiting time, only to see he was getting a blood transfusion.  I knew that the balance of all his internal functions was being monitored and carefully tweaked to give him the best chance of recovering.  When I looked at that bag of blood hanging on the pole, it dawned on me:  what if they had NOT had this blood in store?  He obviously needed it.  What if his life depended solely on whether or not they had blood to give him?  What if NOT having blood available caused him to lose his battle to recover?

The answer is simple and something we can all do ensure no one loses a life because of a blood supply shortage:  we can roll up a sleeve and DONATE!!

Of course there is fear in anything that has never been done.  I was terrified the first time I donated.  However, if there is ever a time when one feels welcome, it is when entering the room at a blood drive.  Maybe I’m a bit twisted, maybe I’m just a tired wife and momma (I have been known to fall asleep in the dentist’s chair…while he is drilling), but I enjoy the bit of time that I am treated like royalty.

Once screened, you are settled into a chair and reclined to a relaxing position.  There IS a needle stick involved.  However, once the needle is in, there is no pain…that is how you can have an IV in your arm for days on end while in the hospital.

Experience has taught me a few things:  for instance, I found that I do better to sip my Sprite while I am donating.  If you feel this would be helpful, just ask.  I would also suggest not moving your head around too quickly, so as not to get woozy.  Also helpful is not to look at the arm with the needle until you are used to the process.  Being hydrated before the donation might help things go faster as well.  Don’t drink a large quantity of water as you are walking in to donate…start that morning, drinking just a little more than you normally do.

Become aware of the others who are there, maybe engage in a conversation.  You are all there for a common, noble purpose.   Your gift that day will aid in someone’s recovery, or even more profound, someone will have another opportunity to live.  And before you leave, there are soda and cookies.  Take them and savor…the volunteers highly recommend it.  And, you have earned it.

Please, before hesitating….picture this:  you are standing in the emergency room, your loved one is behind the curtain, and doctors are telling you that too much blood has been lost, and they don’t have the correct type on hand.  Or it will be several hours before they can get it from another hospital.  Your loved one may not survive because there is no blood available.

Now go roll up your sleeve.  It will be one of the most amazing things you can do.  I promise.

A Relationship Redefined

It was Valentine’s Day, 1987.  We had been married three and a half years.  On this day, a day set aside to celebrate our love and our relationship, my husband committed the ultimate Valentine’s Day Crime:  he waited until the last minute…the DAY itself…to go purchase my Valentine’s Day surprises.  And I never would have known had it not been for the major blizzard that struck in the wee hours of that morning.  Roads and businesses were closed, leaving my poor husband trapped in our little house with a very angry wife…

I saw it as the ultimate betrayal.  How could he not think of me until the very last minute?  Certainly this barometer of his love was the lowest it had ever been, and ever could be.  It was, in my eyes, proof that he didn’t care, that he would put this off until it was almost too late.  Oh, how silly and immature I was!!!

Fast-forward to the present.  Since my husband’s illness has kicked into high gear, I get very impatient with the many articles we are bombarded with, especially this time of year, about relationships:  How to Tell If He is Cheating.  What to Do If She Won’t Communicate.  Top 10 Relationship Blunders.  What Your Loved One Really Needs to Hear, etc.  It’s enough to make me lose my mind, for this simple reason:   these concerns are no longer part of our relationship equation.  In fact, they seem petty, even laughable.

When you have a spouse or significant other who is fighting a serious or chronic illness, time is not spent nurturing the relationship.  Time is spent in contemplation.  Time is spent healing and resting.  Consciously or not, the ill person will likely withdraw.  The moments when feelings are discussed are few and far between, and even those conversations might concentrate on upsetting topics such as death and moving on.  Instead of fun-filled togetherness days, those hours are usually filled with clinical activities such as giving medication,  symptom monitoring and control, doctor’s appointments, tests, rest, planning and preparing a balanced diet, and any other issues that may arise.  It is during these times that one can only hope for the foundation that has already been built to sustain the relationship.

I am proud to say that I have shed the pettiness of those early years of our relationship.  I no longer see the slip-ups as tests of how much he cares.  In fact, the real tests run much deeper than that.  For instance, having one of the ICU nurses tell me that he was much calmer when I was with him made me see how deep our bond was cemented.  That he, in his delirious post-surgery state, would instinctively know that I was a familiar presence meant more than getting a Valentine’s Day card on time.  Most importantly, seeing everything that my husband has gone through has sometimes, but not always, tempered my selfish need for hearing how important I am to him, or how pretty he thinks I am.  Our relationship no longer needs to be tested.  It is solid enough to weather our circumstances, and during the good days we will build up any deficit.  It’s an equation that works for us.

Winter Wonderland

The Winter Storm that made an appearance in our area last week brought back some wonderful memories of our years  in Colorado.  Since everything shut down in our neck of the woods, we had no reason to be anywhere.  We just hunkered down together and enjoyed the day by the fire.   We became like kids again as we watched the flurries pile up on the rooftops and the ground.  We marveled at the transformation of our Southern neighborhood into a rare Winter Wonderland.

Our youngest was five when we left Colorado, and remembered very little about our Winter adventures.  I was all too happy to fill him in on many of the memories that I held so dear.  The most vivid one was his penchant for eating icicles.  He did not discriminate…..he loved them all, from the pretty, sparkly ones that hung from our patio table, to the gray ones that clung to the wheel wells of our vehicle.  To this day it makes my stomach churn just a little to think of what might be living on these icicles that took the brunt of whatever road sludge I happened to drive through.  Consequently, it was a constant challenge to keep him away from these icicles.  Each time we went out our front door, he would race at full speed toward the car, yelling ‘Icicle, Icicle’.   I would sprint after him, dropping purse, books and whatever else I carried in an effort to swoop in and grab him just in the nick of time.  Thankfully, he was usually too exhilarated by the race to be upset that I wouldn’t let him eat the icicles that he worked so hard to try to reach.

This time around, at age 17, he was not interested in eating icicles.  However, he DID eat the Monkey-bread that I made on our Southern Snow day.  Also a throwback to our Colorado days, whether we had flurries or a full-blown snowstorm, this warm cinnamon and brown-sugar treat was baking in the oven.

Then there were other memories:  stepping in a small, icy puddle in sock feet.  Taking 20 minutes to wrestle a toddler into his snowsuit, mittens and snow-boots only to have him announce that he had to go potty….NOW!!!  That feeling of vulnerability as your car hits a patch of ice and is sliding across the road, and you are powerless to stop it.  The sense of panic that you feel when you don’t take the time to brush the snow off the top of your vehicle and then brake a little too hard at a red-light, sending an entire wall of snow sliding over your windshield.

Of course, not everyone’s experience last week was a trip down Memory Lane.  Many, including a cousin of mine, were caught up in the mass exodus from Atlanta, and wound up spending 10-24 hours in their cars.  Also, one of my uncles was stranded for about 6 hours outside of Birmingham.  Many people were inconvenienced, and even endangered at times.  However, the brutality of these conditions was tempered with stories of people bringing food, and leading stranded people to local businesses where they could stay warm.  It seems with each crisis that we encounter, there are those who step in and do something to make things more bearable for those who are suffering.  It is something we could all do, and it is as simple as giving a smile or an encouraging word to someone who appears to be struggling.  Can you imagine the impact if we strive to reach out at least once a day?  It could change a life, even our own, for the better.

The Deep Freeze

Well, our little corner of the world has joined the rest of the Nation in weathering this fierce blast of cold.  School is out tomorrow…a rare weather day that is usually reserved for avoiding hurricanes, not the cold.  There are the usual calls for checking on those who are elderly or living alone, or who may not have the resources to keep as warm as they should.  Everyone is advised to stay indoors if possible, to avoid the risk of exposure to the severe cold.

I have seen many people on social media post that they are setting up ‘nesting’ areas for neighborhood stray animals.  It may be on the porch or under a carport, but these ‘rest stops’ provide a spot with a blanket, food and water for vulnerable animals who are just passing through.   In addition, I hope that those who have nowhere to call home are able to find a warm place to spend the night.

If we all ponder a few moments, I’m sure we can think of  someone we know who would benefit from a friendly checking-in.  It would only take a few minutes, but they will know that someone is thinking of them.  We will benefit far more from reaching out….to reconnect with an old friend, or to make a new one.

Please stay safe and warm.