Mom’s hands

Today I was staring at my hand. Well, it was an exercise in the book, “No Enemies Within.” Throughout the book she gives exercises to help a person bring more awareness of what is going on in their body.

The section was called, “Personal Exploration, A Date with your Self.”  She describes a series of three exercises, utilizing kinesthetic, auditory and visual senses.

In the first she asked the reader to hold a place on their body, say the neck, for three minutes. Imagine the pores in the skin breathing in and out, she says. I know, you’d have to be there. Read the book.

But then she said, … imagine the pupils of your eyes can inhale each time you take a breath. Look at one of your hands and receive it through your eyes. Rather than looking at how wrinkled it is, or how you need to trim your nails, just see it as it is. After those three minutes, stop and notice the effect.

I held my hand out in front of me and the first thing I noticed is how wrinkled it is and how I need to do my nails.

I stared at my hand some more, continuing to notice the wrinkles and the nails.

Then I turned my hand over and looked at the palm.

And then I thought, I never looked at the palm of mom’s hand.

I looked at the top of her hands all the time. They were beautiful hands, wrinkled and aged and knobby at the end of her life. I photographed them once holding her great-granddaughter’s baby hands and again when great-granddaughter was three and mom was nearly 100.

Her hands were warm. She would hold my hands and say, “They are like ice,” and then hold them to warm them.

If I laid my head in her lap, which I rarely did, she would run her hands through my hair and gently massage my head. What bliss it was.

Then a strange thought. I wish I had looked at her life line on her palm.

I’ve never had my palm read, and don’t plan on it, but still, that would have been interesting.

That’s what I noticed–mom’s perfectly manicured, wrinkled, knobby, gentle hands–and how much I missed them.


From whence I’ve come

I was surprised by the number of comments to yesterday’s post about Trigeminal Neuralgia. A reader posted it on the TNA Facial Pain Association Facebook site, which brought new readers to my blog. I read heartbreaking stories and learned about what people suffer with this terrible disorder.

A couple of people said they tried alternative therapies, but were still on the drug. Others said they experienced life-threatening side effects from the drug. And a couple of people suggested that I wasn’t very smart about my choice not to take the drug.

That’s because they do not know from whence I come.

I have a lifetime of experience trying to find a balance between what allopathic medicine has to offer and what alternative therapies have to offer.

The TN diagnosis is not the first I’ve had to deal with.

Today I received another diagnosis. This one four years overdue. After five podiatrists, four physical therapists, a nerve conduction test, three MRI’s, two bone scans, and numerous x-rays, a simple ultrasound revealed a peroneal tendon tear in my right ankle and cuboid syndrome in the cuboid joint, something I’ve suspected all along, but no one could confirm.

Two years ago this same podiatrist said I had arthritis. I’ve given up walking and hiking, two of my loves. I’ve been depressed and hopeless, not because I’m depressed and hopeless, but because no one could help me find the answer and I couldn’t walk around the block, let alone across the living room, without pain. And now the same syndrome is developing in the left ankle and cuboid.

A year ago, the same doctor who gave me Monday’s TN diagnosis suggested I take an anti-depressant because I had what he referred to as a “chronic pain cycle,” as if it was in my head, and I needed “to get on with my life.”  He never stopped to consider that I might have a reason for the pain.

I knew all along there was a reason. But I was the only one.

I didn’t give up. I went to a new podiatrist who also didn’t know what was wrong, but she was willing to refer me to a physical therapist of my choice with Therapeutic Associates. He hung in with me and kept looking for answers. He’s encouraged me to do strengthening exercises and has done hands-on physical therapy. He’s the one who arranged for me to go back to the podiatrist for the ultrasound—and met me there.

We will find a way to heal this pain. The podiatrist said surgery isn’t a good option because if a person doesn’t have tendonitis before surgery, they will after. At least he was honest. For a change.

But my journey with doctors didn’t start four years ago.

When I was 18 and about to be married, my fiancé and I agreed I would work while he got his college degree. That meant birth control. In the 60s doctors prescribed 5 mg doses instead of .5 mg doses given today. I went off the pill when I was 22, expecting to get pregnant. I didn’t ovulate.  A doctor gave me Clomid, a drug to promote ovulation. That didn’t work. USC medical doctors suggested Pergonal, a drug that can cause a litter. I refused, knowing I wasn’t equipped for more than one at a time.  At Utah medical center, I was told to have an ovarian section. I still don’t know what that means, except cutting.

Six years later and a few years after my divorce I was told I was at risk for intrauterine cancer because I wasn’t having periods. I cried for two hours and a month later had my first period in six years. They remained irregular. But at that point I decided that if God wanted me to have a baby, I’d have a baby. But without medical intervention. Thirteen years after I went off the pill, and seven years after my divorce, I dropped a random egg, who, along with a “random” sperm, (that doesn’t mean I was sleeping around…it means I was rarely spending time with my boyfriend) is the son for whom I’m deeply grateful.

For years before I became pregnant–and even after–I blamed doctors for misleading me about the pill, and blamed them for not knowing how to help me. I prayed and did counseling and grieved for those lost babies. It wasn’t as if I had miscarriages or stillbirths I could mourn, but their absence was a loss.

But it was my choice to take the pill. My choice to forego drugs and surgeries, which might have helped me have a baby.

Instead, I decided to trust God and the body He had given me to heal. He’s had to do some heart work as well.

That doesn’t mean I would recommend other infertile couples wait it out. That was simply my choice.

My experience with the doctors also led me to become a midwife and health educator. I helped women and their families have choice about the birth they had either been denied before or the birth they envisioned. In 1966, I stopped doing births for a variety of reasons, but the passion for medical consumers to have choice and to exercise their intuition and body-knowledge remains strong.

I have experienced other medical challenges, each giving me fodder for my position. However, that position does not mean I won’t seek medical help when needed. I had a tumor on my thyroid removed in 2004 and take thyroid medication daily. I had unsettling heart palpitations after our trip to California to bury mom’s ashes. One evening I went to the emergency room, where kind and supportive medical staff reassured me I was having benign premature heart beats. I declined the beta blockers, later had a stress test, and went to an acupuncturist. She prescribed GABA and Glycine, two amino acids and did needles. The palpitations are gone.

I made choices for my good based on my experiences, utilizing the best of both worlds, traditional and alternative.

So if anyone tells me it’s not smart to take a drug that’s offered five minutes after I’ve walked in the door, I’d say, think again. I know better.

The dam is leaking.

Two days ago I was diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia. The trigeminal nerve is spasming causing shock-like pain behind and in my ear. It’s not a lightweight diagnosis, nor is the medication prescribed to treat it. The drug can cause all the normal side effects, like drowsiness, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and it can mess with a person’s bone marrow. TN is what people with MS have, or people with a tumor. I have neither.

I won’t be taking the drug. I suppose there’s a never-say-never clause because it hurts like crazy. I cry out in pain at random moments, when I smile, cough, touch my ear–and when I get the electric shock in front of someone, it’s disconcerting.

I went to my chiropractor. He said my neck was tight and my jaw was out. He adjusted both and said he was sure that would help. It did, but hasn’t cured it.

I have to ask the questions. Why is my neck so tight? Why am I grinding my teeth at night? What am I angry or upset about? What am I not saying?

And, what is the best way to treat this?

Those are the questions I need to ask before I take a drug that could compromise my bone marrow.

My chiropractor told me a story.

“I started taking anti-anxiety drugs a few years back. Then they said I needed a drug to lower my triglycerides, then a thyroid drug, then a blood pressure drug. Until I was taking six different medications. And then I got it,” he said. “I’m taking too many drugs.”

He went off all the drugs, except half his blood pressure medication.

“I feel so much better,” he said. “I can feel my hands now.”

That’s good, I thought, since you’re adjusting my jaw and neck!!

Medicines do save lives. They do have a place. But choosing a drug is like playing Russian Roulette.

“Doctors are great mechanics,” my brothers says. “They know what to do when the heart fails, or a kidney needs replacing. But why do you think they call it a medical practice?” he says.

There’s a lot they don’t know about healing the body, which places us, the consumer, in the position of knowing what we need for our own body.We trust them to give us their best advice and then we explore. We get second opinions, not just from mainstream medical practitioners, but from chiropractors, naturopaths, acupuncturists, body and energy workers, like Reiki masters and massage therapists, and counselors. We do our research. We listen to our body. We ask it what is going on…and expect an answer.

I’m reading a book, “No Enemies Within, A Creative Process for Discovering What’s Right about What’s Wrong, by Dawna Markova.” Markova had been diagnosed with terminal cancer more than 15 years ago. She set about the task to heal herself, but kept working with the oncologist.

When it became obvious I wasn’t going to die immediately, as he [her oncologist of a couple of years] had predicted, I waited for him to ask me what I was doing to heal myself. He never did. My check-ups got further and further apart. Finally, I was only going into New York once every six months. We greeted each other the same way each time: I’d ask, “Are you still alive?” and  he’d say, “Sure am. Are you still alive?” I  had been trained in avoidance and denial at an early age, but this man was a pro.

Finally, I could resist no longer. I had to ask. “Tell me, Dr. Stethococus, since you said that no one who was challenged with this kind of cancer has ever survived, why haven’t you asked me what I am doing to make it?”

He swiveled in his maroon leather chair and looked out the window. The lines in his cheeks were deep grooves. His silvery eyebrows hung down over his eyes. The sill was covered with gold framed pictures of his children and grandchildren. He turned back, stood up, and began to pace, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his white coat like discarded tissues. He steps were hesitant, unconscious. His words finally came when he was walking away from me. “All my patients die, you see. I’m an old man now. I’ll retire soon.”

He ran out of space, turned to the left as if on a parade ground, and walked silent to a small mahogany table in the corner. His pipes were neatly displayed in a rack. He picked up the closest one, intricately carved and mellowed. I’m not even sure he was aware he was holding it, as [he continued]. “I went into medicine to save lives, you see?” He faced me directly, his eyes swimming, his words stretching across the room. “If I knew what you’ve done, it would mean there may  have been something more I could have done to help my other patients. I’m an old man. I’m going to retire soon. I don’t think I could live with that. Can you understand?”

Markova’s story is a testimony to the remarkable and willful denial of those in our mainstream medical system to acknowledge that there might be another way.

A caveat. Markova wrote her book in 1994 and she talks about having cancer 15 years prior. But the principals and the principles remain the same. We continue with a downstream model of healthcare, treating disease downstream, instead of treating the cause upstream. The dam is leaking. And I’m ranting.

Twenty-two boy angels

A friend lost her husband to MS a few weeks ago a few days after their 11th anniversary. I hadn’t talked to her because her daughter came to stay with her after he died and then the in-laws came for the memorial service. After that she flew to another city to see her ill father. By the time I talked to her three weeks had passed. She was calm and clear and grounded, the way she always is, but maybe a bit manic.

She’s financially stable, has a little home, and at 62, won’t have to work again.

Someone said, “Why don’t you move closer to your daughter,” and she said, “Are you kidding? And be a babysitter. No, thanks.”

“I have other things to do,” she said. “I can travel a little, do my crafts, and [where I live] offers many cultural opportunities.”

She and her husband had fun together even when they knew his time was short. People came into help and she was able to get out for respite times.

In his last days he went into a coma. One afternoon while she was in the room he spoke.

“Twenty-two, 22? 22!”

She said, “Twenty-two what?”

And he finally said, “Twenty-two boy angels, and St. Michael.”

Then he said, “Oh, it tickles.”

“What tickles,” she said.

“The feathers on their wings,” he said.

She said that he talked to his deceased parents and his first wife, who had died years ago.

The last day he was alive she went into his room to give him his pain medications and when a friend arrived, they would turn him. He was breathing slowly. She spoke to him and said, “What the hell are you still doing here? You have places to be and people waiting for you. And you want me to keep turning you every day? This is ridiculous.” (Or words to that effect.) She wasn’t angry, just speaking in her honest, straight forward way.  She was done…and she could see that he was done.

Then he stopped breathing. Oh, I think he just died, she thought.

She waited a minute and then leaned down with her ear near his mouth.

Suddenly he gasped, drawing in a deep breath.

“Holy shit,” she cried, leaping back and scattering his meds across the room.

She called the hospice nurse who said, “Yes, he’s dying. He’s taking his last breaths…sometimes it happens like that. He might do it again.”

Watching from across the room she waited for another breath. Another one came, and then he was gone.  Now, three weeks later, she was painting and remodeling the bedroom she used to sleep in before they were married. She was moving back to the room because it had french doors that opened onto her patio garden.

She needed a few pieces of wood for the closet. At Lowes she began talking to a customer service rep and asked him if he could cut a piece of wood for her. He told her no, they didn’t do that, but then suggested that her husband cut it for her. “It’s not hard,” he said.  The clerk assumed she was married because she’s wearing her husband’s wedding ring she had resized.

“I don’t have a husband. He died three weeks ago,” she blurted.

He stammered and said he was sorry and oh gosh, sure, I’ll cut the piece of wood for you. 

On her way home she called her daughter and said, “You’ll never guess what I just did.”

Her daughter said, “Poor man.”

“I laughed all the way home,” she said.

She said she has her moments, but for the most part, they had closure (even though I wrote in a previous post that there’s no such thing).

“There’s nothing left hanging, nothing left to say,” she said. “He’s going on to a new adventure and I’m going on to mine.”


A private party

Ritual and tradition help us honor important life transitions. In the Jewish faith, the Bar Mitzvah is a classic example of acknowledging the transition from boyhood to manhood. In some cultures, young women are celebrated when they begin to menstruate. Graduations, weddings, baby showers, retirement parties. In all kinds of ways we recognize and celebrate when people move from one season of life to another.

This past week we celebrated my friend’s graduation with a master’s degree, her son’s graduation from high school, and her daughter’s graduation from college. There are three more graduations in the next few years in their family.

When my friend remarked on Facebook about the three of them finally graduating, I joked, “I’m glad. I’m exhausted.”

At the graduation barbecue Sunday, the older folk sat on the lawn under the trees and talked. One of the women talked about her 93-year-old  father who has Alzheimer’s and is in a nursing home. She talked about his care, about what and who he knows and how it was when he moved and how he remembers her sometimes but not always and when he stopped driving and when her mother died.

I listened with compassion, recognizing that not long ago, I was in the same club. Her story is different from mine, but it’s the same taking care of aging parents’ club.

And when her father dies, she will join the club of those of us who are now the oldest generation.

It’s a dubious distinction, this club of orphans. Cards and flowers will be sent, and condolences offered to mark her father’s passing. But will anyone recognize or celebrate the major life passage of hers. As my friend always says, “We could light a candle.”

I would love that. But that is not the way of things in our culture. We don’t celebrate old age or the transitions offered up by the passing of our parents and loved ones.

I wonder how things might have been different this past year if I had waited and marked time and the seasons with a greater appreciation of what I needed rather than what I thought I needed, or what others needed, expected, and wanted.

It’s up to us in the club of orphans to mark and honor our transitions. No one else is going to do it for us.

I will honor this graduation into a new season of my life.

It will look different than the graduations of my friends last week.

There’s no robe, no tassel, and no celebration–just a season of solitude.

A private party.


Hooked on a horse, Union Rags

I always wanted a horse. Growing up on a small mountain in east San Diego I would pretend I was riding a wild stallion, galloping along the dirt pathways through the chaparral escaping the worries of my young life.

I painted horses–and the famous racehorse, Man O’ War–with paint by number kits. I read about Black Beauty and wept. I read King of the Wind and Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry and dreamed about horses. When I was older, girlfriends and I rented horses and once rode horses on the beach at Ensenada, Mexico.

My mom and dad used “bet the ponies” at Santa Anita and Agua Caliente in Tijuana in the 30s and 40s before he died. After mom married the stepfather, they went to the racetrack at Del Mar and  Agua Caliente. I went with them to Del Mar at least once and was allowed to pick the horse in one race. I bet on the prettiest horse. Nevermind if he could run.

I never got my own horse. When I married at 18, our sport was snow skiing.  We moved to Utah to ski and there were horses and horse people, but I skied, hiked and played tennis. My closest friend got Appaloosas and she used to remark about how I talked to the horses. But I didn’t ride. When I got my first SLR camera in the late 70s I photographed horses.

Back in San Diego years later, my seven-year-old son and I took riding lessons at a local stable across the lagoon from Del Mar racetrack where I had gone to see the ponies so many years before. When we moved to Washington, my son continued his lessons for a short time. I never rode again. Our neighbors had horses and I would photograph them. And later, when I worked at the paper, I wrote articles and took photos of kids in riding clubs, horses being trained, horses at rodeos and rescue horses.

In 2003, when mom was 94, I took her to see Seabiscuit, a movie about a scrappy racehorse who captured a nation’s attention during the 1930s. I never saw mom sit still for two hours straight without needing to pee, until that movie. The movie takes place, in part, at Santa Anita and Agua Caliente and she remembered watching Seabiscuit run. It’s the only movie mom ever went to see with me, making it all the more special.

As in all sports, there’s drama and pathos in horse racing. Seabiscuit’s story is a one of redemption for the people who owned and trained the horse, and inspiration for a nation in the throes of the Great Depression.

In the past few months, racehorse I’ll Have Another had garnered attention after winning the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby. He was favored to win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday and to be the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years. People said it would “revive the sport.”  Mostly, it would have been fun. Mom and I never watched horse racing on TV–we were busy with football and baseball–but she would have enjoyed following I’ll Have Another.

But Friday I’ll Have Another was scratched from the race because of an injury. Rather than risk having him more seriously injured in a race, he was formally retired Saturday to run with the fillies next spring.

I started watching the Belmont Stakes pre-coverage on Saturday. Commentators spoke of the disappointment that I’ll Have Another wouldn’t run for the crown. Drama and pathos. But now another horse was going to get the glory. Who was it going to be?

By the time Union Rags came from behind to beat Paynter by a nose, I was once again hooked on a horse.

That evening I read everything I could about the Union Rags, his owners, trainers and managers. His trainer, Michael Matz, was Barbaro’s trainer, the horse that shattered its leg in the 2006 Preakness and later had to be euthanized, breaking the hearts of horse lovers.

Phyllis Wyeth, Union Rag’s owner, grew up in a horse racing and breeding family and was an accomplished horsewoman. At the age of 20 while working in President Kennedy’s White House, she broke her neck in a car accident. She’s been in a wheelchair since the early 70s. She later married Jamie Wyeth, the famous painter (and son of painter Andrew Wyeth).

Like her parents, Wyeth loved, bred and raced horses, but never had a great horse to make it profitable. Her accountant advised her to sell Union Rags before the IRS taxed her hobby. Union Rags was sold at auction for $145,000. The moment he was sold, Wyeth regretted her decision. Several months later he was up for sale again, this time for $390,000–and Wyeth bought him back.  Read Union Rags, An American Love Story.

Union Rags is a magnificent horse, 17 hands tall and athletic. He’s the color of dark chocolate with a white blaze down his face. His eyes are intelligent. They say he’s a nice horse. Calm, with nerves of steel, ready to win, ready to inspire us.

I no longer gallop along chaparral-choked paths pretending I’m on a wild pony, or paint Man O’ War by numbers, nor do I ride. But once again, a horse and his story have captivated me. I think Mom and dad would approve.

A desert walkabout

I’ve been craving solitude. I wanted to go to a writer’s retreat on Whidbey Island, or return to California and spend time in my friend’s La Jolla loft. But husband is remodeling a home an hour from here, and rather than drive home each night, some nights he will stay there in our trailer. I miss him, but welcome the gift of time without the responsibilities: laundry (he goes through a lot of clothes because of work) and cooking dinner.

Last night I made soup at 7:30. I vacuumed. I painted. Not the walls, but my watercolor swatches. I don’t like to color in the lines so I make bushes or swirls on the edge of the paper after I’ve been a good student and colored in the squares.

I’m also working on a  braided memory project. Laurie Kanyer, a local artist and writer, developed and published Braided Memories: Recalling Life’s Memories on String several years ago. Kanyer describes braided memories as a kinesthetic tool, a way to make “connections between historical events in your life…. the trials, the tribulations, the celebrations and the amazing accomplishments.”

I like the feel of the thread and the beads in my hand, like a rosary. Similar to weeding the garden. This morning I pulled long strands of grass out of the lavender bushes, like pulling threads though a weaving on a loom.  It had rained all night, softening the earth so the weeds came up easily.

 At the core of my desire for solitude is the memoir. The memoir is a way to braid the memories so they aren’t scattered in my mind, unconnected.

Few people know I’m working on it. Some of my friends know, but they don’t take me seriously because I haven’t made it a priority. I was taking care of mom, and before that I was working, and before that I had returned to college and before that I was a single mom and before that…I was making some other excuse. But part of it was that I had to get to this part of the story before I could tell it.

New words: “Sorry, I’m writing today,” or, “No, thanks, that doesn’t work for me,” my new favorite comeback to a request I don’t want to fulfill. Other writers take themselves seriously enough to say those words.

In Ruth Haley Barton’s book Sacred Rhythms, Arranging our lives for Spiritual Transformation, she writes, “One of the most important lessons I have learned over the past few years is how important it is to have time and space for being with what’s real in my life–to celebrate the joys, grieve the losses, shed my tears, be with the questions, feel my anger, and attend to my loneliness.”

Times of solitude have been compared to going into the desert. In The Eye of the Eagle, Meditations on the Celtic hymn, ‘Be thou my Vision,’ by David Adam, he says, “There certainly is a desert that is destructive.”

In the desert I am afraid I’ll be lost, that I’ll die of thirst, that no one will come looking for me.

But Adam says, “There is also a desert that is creative, a place of transition, which needs to be crossed if we are to leave the old behind. …  Once emptied of … trivial pursuits — or false directions — there is a chance for a space to be made for God to work. The desert can be a place where life blossoms, but it is not a place to ignore. When we are unwilling to enter the desert, in a strange way the desert enters us.”

The desert has entered me. I lost my mother and in the process lost an identity. I lost a career. I’ve lost friends. Other friends are going through times of loss, separating me from them while they attend to their own desert. I left my family behind–again. I’ve had heart palpitations and a trip to ER to find out they were benign. Anxiety, they say.  Doctors tell me meds will help. Instead, I will enter the desert and go on a walkabout.

For me the world is weird because it is stupendous, awesome, mysterious, unfathomable; my interest has been to convince you that you must assume responsibility for being here, in this marvelous world, in this marvelous desert, in this marvelous time.” ― Carlos CastanedaJourney to Ixtlan