Monday, May 22, 2017

The Best Way to Find Good Food, Guaranteed

Ugh. But the pie makes up for it.
My dad, I have mentioned before, had his 90th birthday in December. In the months since he celebrated the start of his 10th decade he has kept up his winning ways in the Senior Olympics (five more swimming gold medals last month), still gets up at 4:15 a.m. to be the fitness center pool attendant/lifeguard several mornings a week, continues to serve on the tourism board--well, I could go on and on.

He's pretty much unstoppable, is what I'm trying to say. This week, though, we had a conversation I hadn't expected:

Him: "You know, I've decided it may be time for me to stop driving at night."

Me: "Great idea! You have plenty of people who can get you places."

Him: "Oh, I just mean long trips at night. I won't start out from Kansas City after dark any more. I'll still drive to town and around here."

I guess it's a start. I mean, Kansas City is only FOUR HOURS from the farm where he lives, and I gave up night-driving from there when I turned 40, but whatever. And as Husband pointed out, Dad apparently has charmed all the deer between his farm and the small town where he hangs out, so they'll wait at the side of the highway for him to go by. (That was sarcasm, in case you didn't recognize it.)

The upside of this half-hearted nod to mortality was that I had the privilege of driving Dad to a conference a couple hours from his farm last week. And the double upside was that it was day 37 of the Noah's Deluge that has been this spring. My Younger Brother the Farmer declared it too wet to plow and hopped into the back seat for the road trip.

It was lunchtime when we dropped Dad off with his fellow Rotarians so the Farmer and I went foraging and I was able to show off my guaranteed way to find the best food, no matter where you are. Here are the crucial steps of that method:

  1. Take out your phone.
  2. Google "Best pie in (town where you hope to eat)"

That's it. Unlike the treacherous Google Maps, which once deposited my family at the loading dock of Lowe's instead of at the hotel we were trying to find, Google's "Best Pie in Town" search will tell you that the best pie in Topeka is at Bradley's Corner Cafe, and the best pie in Abilene is at Joe Snuffy's. Google graciously let us know that the best pie in Hays, Kansas, was at Al's Chickenette, and the best pie tends to hang around with fabulous comfort food.

Al's Chickenette not only had the best chicken soup I've had in years (with homemade noodles swimming in a perfectly salty broth) and fried chicken that the Farmer described as the perfect ratio of coating to white meat,

it had what was undoubtedly the best pie in Hays: strawberry-rhubarb with homemade crust and sweet juices dripping into my spoon. Also, a waitress who knew that a spoon is the only way to eat pie because forks are for foods that need stabbing and not scooping.

Al's had restroom doors that were identified for hens and roosters, which may have been a twee bridge too far, but we're going to forgive that in the face of that pie.

Well done, Google, and thanks for giving up long-distance night driving, Dad. I'll make that road trip any day.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Taking a Deep Breath

I am taking a deep breath before I hit "publish" because I know this will not be the kind of eyebrow-obsessing fluff you have come to expect in this space. I have dear, dear friends and loved ones who will be disappointed in the opinion I am about to express. But after I saw the monologue by Jimmy Kimmel last week, I knew that I would be saying something.

Did you see it? If you didn't, please click on the video and come back after you've watched it. If, for some reason, the link isn't working, go to YouTube and search 'Jimmy Kimmel baby monologue.'

Seriously, watch it. I'll wait.


Are you back? Could I offer you a tissue? Because if you are not in tears after watching that raw, emotional, tender heart being poured out, you have stronger emotional control than I do.

Or maybe I found myself sobbing deep sobs as I watched because I know exactly what Jimmy and his wife were feeling. Exactly.

Boy#3 was born with a congenital heart defect. We didn't know this until his well-child check when he was turning two. That's when his wonderful, wonderful pediatrician was tipped off by Three's abnormal blood pressure (measuring sky-high in his tiny arms, drastically low in his legs) that he had a coarctation of the aorta.

I know. I'd never heard of it before, either. If you don't want to click on that link, a coarctation basically is a drastic narrowing of the big artery that carries oxygenated blood from the heart to the body. Three's heart pumped blood as far as the narrowing, then because it couldn't get through, the blood backed up and found other ways to travel. His tiny chest was criss-crossed with blue veins that were doing the job of that defective artery. So a few weeks later our baby was wheeled into an operating room where skilled doctors threaded a catheter from his groin into his heart and a tiny balloon was expanded into that narrowing. His blood pressure suddenly normalized, and although he sees a cardiologist every year, he has lived a normal, active life.

We were still celebrating this miracle of modern medicine when his pediatric cardiologist looked Husband and me straight in the eyes, to make sure we were listening:

"Don't ever lose your job," she said soberly. "This child is uninsurable."

Say that out loud, and think of your baby. Think of knowing that you might have to choose between the heart catheterization that will save your child's life, and selling your house to pay for that procedure. Think of how much it cost last time you had an emergency room visit for a kid who needed stitches, and multiply that by the cost of a cardiac ICU stay, then find the money from your savings to pay for that stay.

We had insurance. Three got the treatment he needed, and oh, he is such a fine man today. You just can't imagine.

But what if we hadn't had insurance? What if we had lost our jobs and couldn't find positions that came with benefits? What if we had been forced to find insurance that was not part of group coverage? How could we have lived with having three of our four sons insured?

The thought of being forced into that Sophie's choice makes me shudder now, a quarter century later.

And for everyone who thinks I'm some kind of fairy-dust pink-o, I know there is no such thing as a free lunch. We pay a healthy percentage of our income for our medical insurance, and everyone with an income should pay at least something toward their medical security. But I can't help but agree with Jimmy Kimmel:

"If your baby is going to die, and it doesn't have to, it shouldn't matter how much money you make. Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat or something else, we can all agree on that, right?"

Monday, May 1, 2017

Things That Are Making Me Happy

I Photoshopped my neck wrinkles. I regret nothing.

Four weeks ago today I had way too much time to think gloomy thoughts as I was waiting for the scans/enzyme tests/ambulance, and one of the thoughts that crossed my mind was that this space was going to be left hanging out in cyberspace with no conclusion. When I realized that the last post before The Event was titled "I Write Because I'm Happy," it was a good moment.

"Yes," I thought. "I am just fine if my lovely reader(s) are left with my declaration that I'm happy."

So just so you know that I'm still me even when I'm moving at quarter-speed and taking naps whenever the thought occurs to me, here are the things making me happy today:

The Hat

Last week was a week for winding up commitments I'd made when I was still in full-speed mode. Teaching last classes of semester? Check. Accompanying high school students at state music contest? Check. Final performances of the community theatre's production of Church Basement Ladies? Check. 

If you are ever asked to accompany a rock-star ensemble in a tribute to the women who work in church kitchens, do not miss that opportunity, because there is a good chance the property master will walk up to you with her hands filled with hats and say "The church pianist would be wearing a hat. Here." Then you will put on that hat and a pearly necklace, and suddenly your regular concert black accompanist outfit is a COSTUME! It is so much fun, even if you haven't had as much time to practice as you would have liked (because naps) and quite likely will screw up a different section of the accompaniment for every performance. 

Small Town and Its Wonderful, Wonderful People

We have lived in the House on the Corner for almost 31 years, and for at least 30 of those years we have been trying to grow grass in the strip between the sidewalk and the street. We have seeded, sodded, weeded, coddled, and watched all of our efforts either be shaded out by the three trees in that strip or washed out by the gullywashers that lapped over the curb of our halfway-down-two-hills location. Last summer we gave up and hired the local landscaping genius to take a crack at the area. He turned it into a limestone-edged shade garden that makes me happy every time I look at it. 

The Saturday before The Event I spent three hours giving the spot its spring cleaning. I dug up hundreds of grape hyacinths (the cursed kudzu of the Midwest), trimmed back the liriope, and scooped out clots of leaves that had accumulated curbside. 

Knowing now what I did not know then, it was probably not the optimal activity for one whose lungs are trying to kill her. (Ha! Foiled, lungs!)

I gazed at the spot in admiration when we drove home from the hospital Wednesday night. Wow, I did a great job. I continued to think this until the next morning when I tottered out to get the mail and realized that while I had made a good start, someone else had finished the job for me. New mulch had been spread, the straggler hyacinths were gone, a general nip and tuck made the strip gorgeous. 

I suspected the local landscaping genius had sent a crew to finish what I had started, and confirmed my suspicion with an email. A's response? "So glad you are feeling better. You had us very concerned and we knew the landscape maintenance was just one small way we could assist." 

Yes, of course I cried. 

What's making you happy today?

Monday, April 24, 2017

At the Bottom of the Box

My dear Boys and Girls knew my favorite flowers
How am I doing?

I've been asked that question dozens of times in the past two weeks, and it fills my heart every time someone looks at me with concern and checks my well-being. I always answer truthfully, and depending on how deeply you want me to answer I will tell you just the first few or all of the following--

I'm better every day. I'm figuring out my new physical boundaries. I'm sitting more, and moving slowly and pacing activities. I know now that if I try to do too much on one day that I will spend the next day feeling terrible.

What I probably won't tell you is that the hardest thing I've had to deal with hasn't been physical. In fact, I don't know exactly how to categorize this tough thing. Is it mental? Psychological? Spiritual?

What is fear?

My recovery from this episode has been a reverse Pandora's box, filled with wonderful people and encouragement. It has been love and hope and messages and cards, hugs and cookies baked with dark chocolate. It has been flowers whose scent follows me through the house and reminds me how very many people are pulling for me. But every once in a while at the bottom of the box I suddenly sense a cold tremor that all of that goodness can't quite squelch.

Sometimes it's mental, when I don't know how to respond to what my body is telling me. I know all the classic symptoms of a heart attack (chest pain, sweating, nausea, feeling of doom) but as I was told over and over again when I was having none of these symptoms but was by every clinical measure having a heart attack, women's heart attacks present differently. So when my heart unexpectedly beats hard and fast, and no amount of calm thoughts or steady breathing stops the disruption, should I be heading for the emergency room?

Sometimes it's psychological, when a chance remark by one of my medical caretakers that "Yeah, you really had a lot of embolisms" gives me information I didn't have before and even though nothing has changed, suddenly I'm aware of how close to the cliff I had been standing and fear washes over me.

Sometimes it's spiritual, when my deeply-held belief that God is in control of my life seems to be buried under appointments and prescriptions.

A dear friend was at her husband's side in the emergency room when, with no prior indication of heart problems, he was found to be having a heart attack. I had sat with her after his multiple-bypass surgery, and took a meal when they got home. So I asked her--am I crazy?

She looked at me sadly.

"We were in the emergency room several times after the surgery," she said. "You just don't know."

And that's where the fear originates, I think. You just don't know this body, this schedule, this life.

How am I doing? I'm doing very well, better every day, and I expect to be looking back years from now and marveling at how modern medicine (science!) helped a fearfully and wonderfully made body cope with a glitch in the works.

But it can be scary.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Surest Sign of Spring

A couple of weeks ago, when all things healthwise were topsy-turvy in my world, I got a text from Boy#4.

"Are you having surgery?" he asked my cell phone. "J. texted me saying that he'd heard that (and asking if you were OK), so I just wanted to see who has the better information."

To see why this is significant, you should know that my son lives out of state, as does his friend, J. I love living in a small town partly because everyone looks out for everyone else, but once in a while the news accuracy is just a hair off plumb.

I was able to reassure Four that he had the better information, that I was not having surgery, but was being treated with high doses of blood thinners and TLC.

"OK, I assumed that was the case. Learning your mom is having surgery via text from your friend would probably be worse than hearing about it from her blog."


Well, Four, if you get a text from J. that I was seen hobbling down Main Street and that I didn't seem to be walking well--polio, maybe?--be assured that I was just welcoming spring.

You can keep your robins, your crocuses, even your groundhog. In my world, the surest sign that spring has sprung is the pedicure that ends winter toes. From October to April I am frugal and be-socked (or be-pantyhosed, as I confessed here recently). I shine up my own toes and rub in my own foot softeners because no one is seeing those bare feet except me. But when tax season ends, I skedaddle over to my favorite pedicurist and she pampers me with an orange-scented leg-and-foot massage that makes me practically drool into the hot whirlpool at my feet then finishes with nail polish in a color I would never buy for myself.

Yesterday, though, I hadn't planned ahead and didn't bring my own post-pedi footwear, so all of Small Town saw me shuffling down the block in the fashionable spa-issued slippers. My gait may have indicated a serious health setback, so I'm just clearing up any confusion here:

I'm fine, Four, and my toes are looking sharp.

It's spring.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

This Is What Happened: Part 4

I am thankful for the woman who brought me this chicken ceasar parmesan on pita. It was wonderful, and so was she.

(Feel free to backtrack and read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this story. Really. They're more exciting than today's entry, and do not lead with pictures of hospital food.)

Well, believe it or not, we are closing in on the final episode of this chapter in my life. I know! Who knew so many words could be used to say "Welcome to my new life!" (That, to summarize, is essentially what my New Best Friend the Hematologist told me when I met him this week. Blood thinners forever, and grapefruit no more than once a week, and while you're here, how about let's draw eight vials of blood? EIGHT!)

But this whole experience has been enormously educational. Here's what I have learned:

I have learned that I am surrounded by the very best, very finest, very dearest family and friends anyone could have. I realized in the 10 minutes that I thought I was going to die that I have not told these dear family and friends nearly often enough that I cherish them, and that I have lived the most blessed life because of them.

I have learned that being in the hospital is the next best thing to being an exotic dancer, because hoooo-boy, does everyone just have to go about their business while you are inadequately covered.

And I have learned so much about how to pray for a person who might find herself (or himself) in a similarly precarious situation.

I hope I have been clear in this space that I am a praying person, and I deeply believe in this spiritual practice. I know to the very marrow of my bones that dozens, maybe hundreds, of people (including many, many of you) have been praying for me in the past few weeks, and I am weeping as I consider the magnitude of this gift. Because I know these are the things you've been asking as you lifted me up to the Divine:

That the right people be put in my path. I cannot express completely how this played out, because it was inexpressible. Every single person I met, from the moment my initial EKG was read until this very minute, has been the right person at the right time, doing and saying the right things. There was the medical assistant who drove me to the hospital and asked me to tell her exactly what the Boys are doing these days. I saw you, Esther, and I saw what you were doing, and I loved you for it. There were the emergency room nurses who brought warmed blankets, and Dr. V., who diagnosed me. There were the firefighter/EMTs who went to school with the Boys and lifted me into the ambulance, then talked to me about Costa Rica and upcoming weddings. The nurses in the cardiac ICU--Jessica, Steve, Kensie, Kayla--who joked with me and told me enough but not too much. Even the food service aide who brought my lunch and was just so delighted that I was able to have a regular diet was magnificent. Every single person was encouraging and competent and cheerful.

That I would not be afraid. I knew I was in a perilous state for at least 10 hours, and I'm not even counting the days before when I was probably at risk of sudden death. Do you know how much of that time I was afraid? Ten minutes. I remember it vividly: I was on my back in the emergency room, my blood pressure had been going up for two hours and the doctor had just given me the news that a heart attack was confirmed. I looked at Husband, who was sitting in the chair next to the bed, and I thought "I don't think I'm going to make it out of this, and I am so very sad for the years I will not have with this man, and with my Boys and Lovely Girls." But then I thought of the woman who had that very morning brought me a refrigerator magnet her mother had made. "No Fear With God" the magnet says, and even though I had accepted the gift off-handedly, I remembered the fiery furnace and the witnesses who said "We know God can deliver us out of this, but even if He doesn't, He's still God." And from that moment there were times when I was concerned, times when I was shaky, times when I was confused, but no more times when I gut-wrenchingly afraid.

That I would know how much I am loved. Oh, people. Again with the tears over here, because you cannot imagine. You simply cannot imagine how I have been touched by the messages, the cards, the flowers, the concern. I know you have been praying that I would feel that support, because I do.

I'm only glad that I am here and can tell that you are the very best, the very dearest, the very finest. I love you, I cherish you, and I have lived the most blessed life because you are in it.

Monday, April 10, 2017

This Is What Happened: Part 3

(If you haven't read Part 1 and Part 2 of this Story That Never Ends, I encourage you to go back and do that first. There is a through-line that will help you make sense of the following flogged-beyond-recognition analogy.)

I certainly didn't set out to confuse and frighten you, my lovely peeps, especially the ones who made me cry with your hugs at church yesterday. But as I look back on the past two entries, I can see why some of you were waiting for the next installment to be picked up by Boy#1, who is my designated blog poster if I am ever too feeble to talk about my personal medical history on the internet. (Oops, One! Did I forget to tell you that?)

But I probably should have added a spoiler alert when I ended the last post by being pushed into the ambulance. The spoiler is this: Hi, everyone! Waving from over here! At home!

The truth is that an initial diagnosis of a heart attack that is changed to a diagnosis of pulmonary embolisms is a tire-screeching veer into a treatment path that is quite different from the original treatment path. Heart attacks require tremendous activity; blood clots in the lung require the exact opposite.

When they closed the doors on the ambulance I was expecting to arrive at Big City Hospital and be rushed to the heart cath lab, maybe to be followed up by a visit from a surgeon who would explain surgical options and lifestyle changes. Instead, I was met by a team of nurses who let me do my own antiseptic wipe-down then hooked me up to monitors. I already had been jabbed in the stomach with a dose of blood thinner before we left Small Town, and there was nothing more to be done.

Let me see if I can explain this using a tortured analogy, which is my favorite way to explain things:

Either a heart attack or a pulmonary embolism has the potential to kill a person. The typical heart attack, though, is like a bomb exploding. It hurts, it knocks you off your feet, it damages things that may or may not be able to be fixed later.

A pulmonary embolism, on the other hand, is like one of those unexploded World War II landmines you read about being found under beds in London. (And a side note: I'm a terrible housekeeper, but how terrible a housekeeper must the owner of that flat be? VE Day was in 1945--you haven't cleaned under the bed in SEVENTY-TWO YEARS? Seriously?)

Anyway, that unexploded mine might never explode. It might stay there undetected for decades more. But something--deterioration, humidity, the knowledge that we're living in Trump's America--might cause that bomb to re-activate, and when that happens it's best to scurry off to the air raid shelters, because a PE can take. you. down. It stretches, yawns, then enters the blood stream to cut off circulation to the brain (a stroke) or the heart (a heart attack).

I don't know how long blood clots had been forming in my lungs. I'm guessing they'd been there for a while. Looking back on the spring Husband and I realize how many times I said "Man, I am so tired," and I found I no longer could walk up the 77 steps of Small College without panting, but I thought those were just normal signs of aging. It wasn't until the strain of breathing overtaxed my heart and sent me to the emergency room that I realized I had a landmine under the bed.

So what does one do to defuse a landmine that is still dangerous? Very little, as it turns out. One checks for collateral damage (and a 2D echocardiogram showed that in spite of the heart attack symptoms, my ticker is strong and undamaged, thank You, God). The shots of blood thinner in the stomach transition to a lifelong regimen of oral medicine, and a referral is made to a hematologist. A night in the cardiac ICU and another night in a ward bed end with discharge orders to "take it easy."

And now we wait. We wait for the wonderful, astounding creation that is the human body to absorb the clots, or to isolate them up scars that are stable and cannot enter the blood stream. That waiting could take several months.

The cliffhanger stages of this story are over. I have a couple more chapters to write about things that happened along the way, and I'll be meeting my new best friend (the hematologist) tomorrow to see if we can flesh out the orders to "take it easy."

In the meantime, though, it's been kind of nice to have permission to take a nap any old time I feel like it.

"Gosh, I'd love to vacuum, but I really need to take it easy."

The landmine is still there, but I'm a terrible housekeeper--the odds are excellent it's going to stay undisturbed for another 72 years.

(Wait! Don't leave! I have a few more things to say, so please come back tomorrow.)