Category Archives: Personal Stories

My Summer of Disability

healthOur family began naming our summers in 2002 when our daughter was navigating treatments for breast cancer. The first summer when she was doing chemotherapy became known as the “summer of self-sufficiency.” Her children, (ages 11, 9, and 3) needed to not rely so much on their mother and learn to do more for themselves. The second summer, when she underwent a bone marrow transplant became the “summer of sanitation.” Due to her fragile immune system, we all had to be vigilant about keeping surfaces and ourselves germ-free. No one could visit her if they had even, a simple cold.

Now that I know my recovery from a broken shoulder will take the entire summer, I’ve named the summer of 2015 my “summer of disability.” It’s not how I wanted to spend the summer but I’m working on being a grown-up about it. After all, the measure of a person’s character is how we behave when we don’t get what we want.

I’m learning alternative ways of doing everyday tasks and novel approaches to getting around town. (Think: walking, rides from friends, limousines services, and now, Uber.) I’m also challenged as anyone with a handicap is, to look again at my abilities. What are things I can still do? And even better, what things need doing that, when I’m fully able-bodied, I don’t take the time to do? (Think: sort and give away unneeded clothing, organize photos, clean out office files, finish the article I’ve been working on.)

My daughter Corinne told me once that struggling with challenges to her health had caused her to realize she had been prideful about her state of fitness and good health. A student of the bible I think she was influenced by proverb 16:18, often shorten to “Pride goes before the fall.” I feel a sisterhood with her on that, but I don’t see it as automatically a fault. Maintaining ourselves in good health requires a great deal from us, as does rehabilitating our broken parts after an injury. We should take pride in these accomplishments while recognizing we may not be seeing the whole picture. Tough stuff can happen in spite of our best efforts.

Jim Collins in his book, How the Mighty Fall looks at institutional decline like a disease: harder to detect but easier to cure in the early stages; easier to detect but harder to cure in the later stages. http://www.jimcollins.com/books/how-the-mighty-fall.html My hope for myself is that, when I return to full-bodied functioning, (goddess willing) I will not take that precious gift for granted. The summers, winters, springs and falls I’ve spent accompanying my adult children and dearest friends through life threatening illnesses have taught me that life is precious, even when our bodies are functioning less than perfectly. And three quarters of a century of living has taught me that we do our best, but we are able-bodied and healthy until we are not.

 

The Road Back

physical-therapyIt’s been 7 weeks since my shoulder slammed into the wooden floor of the dance studio. It’s been nearly four weeks since I’ve seen the doctor and I’m looking for reassurance that I hadn’t done any harm doing my passive physical therapy directed exercises. Once or twice a day I’ve held a pulley fastened to the back of a door with both hands, and moved my injured hand up and down using the strength in my good arm. I’ve stretched my arm along a tabletop, powering that movement by leaning forward with my upper body. I’ve very carefully followed all the directives of the doctor and the physical therapist, but when I get into the room where the technician is to take the x-rays, she begins moving my body in ways that I have not been moving it.

“Put your arm all the way across your body,” she says and I can’t do that without it hurting. When I tell her that she says she’s trying to get the angle that the doctor wants to see. I’m thinking if we are going to compare the images from before, why would it be necessary for me to do something I couldn’t possibly have done before? I refrained from asking that question, but I did suggest that she and the physical therapist might need to get together.

Apparently it worked out and the doctor got what he needed. He pointed out on the image that the bones of my shoulder are still in place and showing some signs of healing. This was a great relief to me but my husband, who was accompanying me, was eager to know more. 

“What percentage is she healed, would you say?”

The doctor smiled, “Everybody wants percentages.”

My husband smiled back and stood quietly waiting for his answer.

“I’d say 40 percent.”

“When can she drive?” my husband asked, with quite a bit of eagerness in his voice. I already knew my not driving was a big drag for both of us.

“It’s a liability issue,” the doctor said. “People do sue, and I can’t protect you from that.”

“The physical therapist told me I have no strength in that arm. If I had to turn the wheel quickly, it could be dangerous,” I said.

“There are people who drive with one hand but they take a people with disabilities drivers’ training course in order to do so. The problem with that is there’s a six-month waiting list for the class. The doctor gave his advice as he exited.

“I’d suggest, drive when you feel ready. We’ll add resistance training to your physical therapy regime and I’ll see you in six weeks.”

It’s clear there will be no short cuts on this journey, six weeks will take us pretty close to the end of the summer. But I am grateful for the recovery I have gotten. I’m able to dress myself, put contacts in and out, tie my shoes. I’m grateful that I have access to excellent physical therapists, the discipline to practice the exercises they are teaching me, and for the special bonus of being able to walk to the physical therapy office from my house.Now if I can master using Uber, I’ll be able to move about the city.

Falling: Aftermath

magnetIt’s day 24 since my fall in a Sunday morning dance class ended my life-as-usual routines. Instead of taking a Zumba class this morning I will sit on a chair in the hallway outside the bathroom door, set the timer on my cell phone and use a pulley apparatus to slowly and carefully, exercise my arm and shoulder. When the good arm lowers the wounded one rises. I concentrate on listening deeply to how my body is handling this simple yet dramatic challenge. The goal is to introduce flexibility while not disrupting the proper placement and alignment needed for the bones to heal on their own.

Since my fall I’ve heard many stories of other people falling, including one of my long time friends Jyoti, who has lived in a memory center for close to 10 years. According to her husband someone left a suitcase in the middle of her room while she was sleeping, and when she woke and began moving about she tripped over it. No broken bones but lots of bruises that needed a couple of days in a hospital.

Last week my neighbor Claire saw me walking with my arm in a sling and she offered to check with me the next time she goes to the grocery store to see if I might need anything. A couple of days later she called. “I’m sorry I won’t be able to follow up on my offer to bring you groceries,” she began. “I’m in a rehab center after taking a fall myself during one of my power walks in our neighborhood.” The culprit was an uneven sidewalk, the outcome two broken bones in her left wrist, bruised ribs, and a sore left side

“Falling is part of life” according to the refrigerator magnet my friend Lynn brought me. She had her own encounter last summer with falling and breaking her heal when she walked out of a restaurant in Lawrenceville and turned her ankle in a hole in the sidewalk. After surgery and relying on a boot and crutches and the generosity of friends to get to work and back for 6 or so months, plus lots of physical therapy, she’s now an inspiring example that healing does happen.  IMG_1162

The second half of the magnet’s message, “Getting Back Up is Living,” challenges me to not focus on what I’ve had to cancel, (European vacation, grandparent trip with my granddaughter), or things I can not do (driving my car, taking dance classes, and ballroom dancing with my husband), but on the lessons being provided. I’ve become aware of how attached I am to my competencies. The 4 year old inside me who was ecstatic about being able to tie her own shoes, is still discouraged at herself when she cannot do that or other more important tasks. Looks like she and I are getting the opportunity to relearn many basic skills. I hope we’ll be like we were the first time around, proud and eager to let everyone know of our accomplishments so they can celebrate each small but important victory with us.     

After The Fall

It’s day 16 since my fall, the pattern interrupter that broke my shoulder (or more exactly, the humerous where it inserts into the shoulder) and changed every activity of my daily life. injured.dancerLuckily I’ve learned quickly how to sleep on my back in a stable, relatively comfortable position. Not so quickly, I’ve mastered a one-handed version of dressing myself. A friend came over and helped me figure out what items in my wardrobe could work. Tops with wide-neck openings are the only ones that can go over my wounded left arm. The top buttons on some pants make them impractical for fastening and unfastening during visits to the rest room. And forget a bra and contact lenses. Those items can only be included when someone is available to lend me another hand.

It does astonish what one cannot do having the use of only a single hand. I found clapping for my granddaughter as she walked across the stage at her high school graduation impossible, also tying my own shoelaces. Sandals work well but when it turns cold I enlist visitors to my house to help me don my silver sneakers. I’ve had to invent an entirely new method for wringing water out of my face cloth. The childproof tops on our medicine bottles had to be changed out so I could take my medicine on my own. And as I discovered yesterday, locking and unlocking our front door is something I cannot do without assistance. It’s a two-handed operation – you must pull with one hand while turning the key in the lock with the other.

I’m getting quite a bit of exercise just moving about the house. In order to preserve my balance and avoid another fall I must make multiple trips to move items from place to place as I can carry only one item at a time in my one good hand. To recover something I’ve dropped, which happens much more often now, I execute an elaborate slow genuflection of my knees to the ground in order to avoid bending over and disturbing the placement of my ailing shoulder. And that is the overarching goal. To preserve the proper alignment of what the doctor calls, “the bag of bones” that comprise my shoulder and upper arm, so they may heal on their own without the need of the surgeon’s metal plates and pins. So far, so good.impairedtraveler

Now I listen carefully to the universe to extract the message and meaning of this experience for my future life. I know already it will be a long time before I take for granted the simple acts necessary for self -care in my everyday life.

The Fall

Paramedics My usual Sunday morning ritual when I’m in town, is to take an 8:30 am dance class at my nearby fitness club. Three days a week I take Zumba, the dance workout that draws from the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the salsa, mambo, samba, and cha-cha. But Sunday is an eclectic modern dance class consisting of simple movements and phrases our teacher Laurie has created and taught in her children’s classes. After a stretching warm up we get our heart rates up as we waltz, skip, slide, and jump. And as with all the dance classes I’ve ever taken or taught, we leave class feeling energized and relaxed in ways that seem to last throughout the day.

On this particular morning, which was to change my life dramatically, the studio was humid, (the air conditioner had not been turned on yet), and the surface of the floor had become sticky. As we traveled across the floor in sliding motions, four counts facing our partners, four counts turning our backs to them, my feet stuck to the floor and my body kept moving. Failing to get my feet back under me, the movement pattern ended in a thump and a splat, with me sprawled out on the wooden floor facedown on my stomach. The pain throbbing in my left shoulder told me, “DO NOT MOVE.”

Struggling to catch my breath and to control the pain, I began audible deep breathing. A classmate, whose voice came from my left side, spontaneously became my breath coach. As if I were in the labor phase of childbirth, her reassuring voice encouraged me, “That’s it, just inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.” From the center of the room, someone asks me for my husband’s phone number and I tell them how to reach him using my cell phone. I hear the person leaving the message on his voice mail, “Your wife has fallen in her dance class. She’s injured but she’s ok. She’s conscious and she’s breathing.”

What’s Involved In A Writing Life?

Writers write, or so they say. And though I write most every day, it hasn’t been the type of writing I believe that wisdom refers to. In the last two weeks I’ve written a writer’s statement for an article being published in an anthology in May, and three proposals for speeches I hope to give. Inspired by a woman who writes regularly for a business magazine I’ve filled several pages with practice headline titles for future workshops and articles. She said she spends half her writing time on the headlines because if they’re not engaging and provocative, what you write in the article doesn’t matter. No one will open or read it.

I’m still kept busy tending to the needs of the book Warrior Mother that I’ve already written: writing thank you notes to the people who helped me with last week’s Seattle workshops and book performance, sending emails to workshop participants so they’ll fill out the survey monkey evaluation forms, and organizing my notes from an online course I’m taking on book promotion. A couple of days ago I posted information on Facebook about a radio show I’ll be engaged in.

WritingLife_bookLooking over my list of recent duty filled writing inspired me to re-visit Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I was hoping for some inspiration, remembering what can happen when we writers respond less to external demands and more to what is trying to emerge from inside. Visiting her website, which I was surprised to learn she manages herself, http://www.anniedillard.com/ I find the following, “I’m sorry. I’ve never promoted myself or my books…Here is some information for scholars. (I’ve posted this web-page in defense; a crook bought the name and printed dirty pictures, then offered to sell it to me. I bit. In the course of that I learned the web is full of misinformation. This is a corrective.)”

What I learned from Annie Dillard, a most prolific and accomplished writer who was born in Pittsburgh – The life of a writer, whether experienced or neophyte is nowhere close to our romantic notions of that profession. It takes a great deal of determination to pursue it.

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Like most Americans, my ancestry is a bit of the mutt variety. Dad’s people came to this country from Protestant England and Northern Ireland and were established on farms in southern Illinois well before this country’s Civil War. Mother’s family were redheaded Catholics from Scotland on her father’s side, most likely from northeast of Edinburgh. Her grandparents on her mother’s side were born in Ireland in the midst of the potato famine, and shortly after they married, they boarded a ship to America, settling in Springfield Ohio just after the Civil War.

Irish-Blessing-St-Patricks-Day-Free-Printable-by-Five-Heart-Home_700px_Print-1When my children look back on their ancestry they must include the great- grandparents on their father’s side who left Scotland after their highlander Great Grandmother, who lived in the Lightbody Castle, married their Great Grandfather, a lowlander, and the gatekeepers’ son. Upward mobility for their offspring meant moving to a country with a less rigid class system. On their other Great-Grandfather’s side, there is the mystery of where he came from before he boarded a ship in Liverpool England to seek his fortune in America in the early twentieth century. And to complete their pedigree, they must include the woman he married who was from the Netherlands.

By the time my grandchildren get the St. Patrick’s Day card I send to them each year, I’m sure they are shaking their heads wondering what St. Patrick’s Day has to do with them. They are surrounded by relatives on their father’s side, all descendents from the same ethnic group, Germans from Russia. These people immigrated to Russia from Germany at the invitation of Catherine the Great to bring their farming skills to Russia. They agreed to come as long as they could keep their own language and religion, and be free from the duty of military service. After 130 years, the Russian government cancelled the agreement and my grandchildren’s ancestors were among the million or so Germans from Russia who settled in the Americas after the Russian Revolution. The center for Germans from Russia is in Lincoln Nebraska where my grandchildren live.

Getting back to my insistence on sending St. Patrick’s Day cards to my relatives, I’ve always wondered why my mother’s Irish heritage seemed to stand out from the array of other ethnic influences in my background. Leprechauns_SingingPerhaps it was the fact that her Irish Grandmother raised my mother and that influence never left her. Perhaps my close relationship with my auntie, my great-grandmother’s daughter, grafted me to that branch of the family tree. Or maybe it’s something to do with the spirit of the Irish in general. Wherever they are, in whatever community they live, on St. Patrick’s Day, they lift their glasses and invite everyone to join them in being Irish, just for that day.

Memory 2.0

My husband and I shiver as we stand with our friend Randall at the front door of the Memory Care Center waiting for someone to let us in. “How long has Jyoti been in this facility?” Rich asks. Randall briefly details the 10-year history of his advocacy for his wife in a string of facilities of this type and, blowing my breath on my gloveless hands,  I wonder if it might be time to move her again. “This company pays its staff a bit more so their turnover is lower,” Randall says. Through the glass door I catch a glimpse of a cleaning cart and knock more vigorously on the door. A maid responds and lets us in.

We walk into the main living room and find Jyoti, one of our best friends of 30 years, asleep in a recliner in front of a dark television screen, the same spot I left her on my last visit nine months ago. She’s dressed in comfortable, warm looking grey slipper boots as Randall approaches her chair from behind and gently calls her name. Coming around to the front of her seat, he offers his hands to pull her from the chair and lead her to a more private area for our visit. My husband Rich and Randall walk on either side of her, each holding a hand, and I walk behind. When we arrive in the new space she and I look at each other and I imagine I see a spark of recognition on her face.

IMG_1162The men and I slow way down in order to be in communion with her rhythm. She and I sit close together on a love seat and she lets me put my arm around her. As we hug she murmurs and mumbles a sound that sounds like “Mama.” Randall sits in a chair across from her and teases her about looking so intently at him. Rich sits in a chair on her other side while she creates sounds a young child might make, occasionally saying expressions like, “Oh, my,” with an inflection of surprise or delight. She breaks out in a song, and I respond by singing a few lines of “Amazing Grace.” I tell her that’s what her song reminded me of. She says some syllables in a rhythmic manner like reciting a poem and we remind each other and her of what a good poet she was. Randall invites Jyoti to dance with him and she seems delighted to do that. She’s a bit more reserved when Rich and I join the two of them in a circle dance, but though shaky on her feet she allows it. 

We take pictures of us together and Randall leaves the room and bringing back a framed picture of several women and us in our spirituality group from her room. I comment, “We’re all dressed up and at a wedding but I can’t remember whose wedding it was.“ As we study the picture together I say, “I look pregnant in that picture, but that couldn’t have been the case. I was way too old by that time.” Jyoti begins making a cooing sound and pointing to my stomach. As we sit together in the silence she rubs my tummy while making cooing sounds and I get the message that she’s teasing me about there being a child inside.

Returning home to Pittsburgh I’m disoriented, having trouble picking up the threads of my usual life, as though I’ve traveled to another place beyond space and time, another place we are all headed toward, one way or another. 

Memories

“My memory is perfect,” our 98 year-old former dance teacher, Eddie Deems said, as we gathered in Fort Worth in the living room of mutual friends. My husband and I hadn’t seen Eddie for at least 10 years, and on this recent visit to our former hometown I’d been delighted to learn that he was still alive and able to meet with us. The original plan was to have dinner together but Eddie called that morning to tell our hostess he wasn’t having a good day, so he’d not make dinner. But he was determined to come to see us, so he instructed us to go ahead and eat without him. He told me later, there are no more good days due to his emphysema. Breathing problems make it hard to eat and talk at the same time, and he’d decided he’d rather talk.

IMG_1165Before he began reminiscing with exquisite detail about experiences with famous customers of the dance studio he and his wife ran for over 50 years, he prefaced his remarks. “Now I’m going to name drop, in order to tell you this, so forgive me. This is something my son holds against me. I’m a namedropper.” Getting well into a story he would sometimes interrupt himself and ask, “Now why was I telling you that?” The people in the room, our friends, and Eddie’s present wife of 17 years, would then reconstruct the threads of the conversation and he would remember how the particular incident he was relaying fit with the point he was trying to make. He would then pick up the story where he’d left off.

Eddie remembered some things I ‘d forgotten until he reminded me. He still seemed grateful that I had visited the hospice hospital room of his first wife, Lavonia, who had also been our dancing teacher, when she lay dying twenty years earlier. This reminded me of attending her funeral and a visit I’d made to Eddie’s hospital room several years later, when he had seemed surprised that anyone he knew would make such a visit.

We hadn’t been able to get our dinner in before Eddie arrived so we were quite hungry by the time he got up to leave. “I’m amazed I’ve been able to talk this long,” he said, “I’ve said more tonight then I’ve said all week.” After posing for some pictures we would treasure as mementos of the occasion, Eddie left and we sat down to dinner, grateful to have the time with it and glad he had elected to talk rather than eat.

Tis the Season

IMG_1067The view from my window this December morning, just after first light, announces a foggy grey day. Streetlights and car headlights from across the river are the only signs of life in the stark landscape. The lawn and shrubbery are the clear winners as a steady rain swells the Allegheny River and thoroughly soaks the ground. The patter of the water hitting the roof and back deck seem to say, “stay where you are today if you can, inside by the fire.”

There is plenty to do inside this time of year, this season of completing 2014’s projects and preparing for the upcoming Christmas/New Year’s family celebrations. There’s the organizing and reorganizing, the putting away and throwing away of clutter accumulated during the way-too-busy fall. And whether it’s my dresser top or my closet’s shoe rack, my computer email box or my iphoto albums, finding a place for everything and putting everything in its place is my least favorite way to spend a day. clutter-affect-life-1

So I linger with my cup of green tea which is no longer warm, and think about the friend who gave me the holiday mug I’m drinking from. She is no longer able to take care of herself, according to a mutual friend who herself died this past year. Living in a memory care facility is one way to avoid the cumbersome, unpleasant tasks of keeping one’s life organized, and no longer living in this dimension is another. But I’m choosing today to clean up my own messes since I still have the capacity to do so, and to look for the beauty in each season’s landscape without comparisons to a more preferred one.