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.

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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

Too close to home

My intention when I started to write this blog was not to write about death and dying and grief. I write about what is up. And right now, that’s what’s up. I can’t help it. It is what it is.

And, in case you haven’t noticed, death is one experience none of us can escape. How it happens and when it happens is the only way it is unique to each individual.

My friend’s mother died six weeks ago. Another friend’s husband died suddenly in front of her five weeks ago. Another friend’s husband died last week of complications from multiple sclerosis. Another friend’s husband has pancreatic cancer.

In Seattle, just down the street from where my son used to live, four people were shot to death on Wednesday at a coffeehouse. The gunman shot another woman, a mother of two, in cold blood an hour later in downtown Seattle. Among the four who died at the coffee shop was a 38-year-old aspiring actress who had just visited her 103-year-old grandmother in Georgia. Two friends sipping coffee, musicians and artists, died together. An urban planner in his early 50s also died.

A week earlier, a 43-year-old man was shot and killed while driving his van in Madrona, a Seattle neighborhood. A random bullet from a random fight on the street hit him in the head. He was a father of two. He was shot in the neighborhood where my son manages one of the Molly Moon Ice Cream stores as part of his job.

A few days earlier, a young culinary student was walking in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. A random bullet from a random fight on the street killed her. She was 23 and had just moved to Seattle to go to school.

I called my son. He was disturbed and sad for the loss of life, but not afraid.

He tried to reassure me. “I don’t want you to be scared. It’s a city of a [700,000][2 million in King County],” he said. “There’s been 21 deaths this year, and while that’s a lot more than last year at this time, it’s still not a lot.”

We are sometimes insulated from death. After my friend’s mother died, her sister said, “No one close to me has ever died.” She’s fortunate. But when people are gunned down in our neighborhoods and friends are diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses and die from them, we are reminded of our vulnerability, that we are not safe on this planet.

But if we believe, as most people do, in an afterlife, a heaven, a oneness we can hardly imagine in our finite human minds, then perhaps we are safe after all.

Not human being safe, but spiritual being safe. That is slightly reassuring.

But somehow, no matter how spiritual we are, it doesn’t feel safe when bullets are flying. It doesn’t feel safe when people are dying too close to home.

Connecting Points

When mom died the family dynamics shifted. No one visited, except for the memorial. I was left alone to sort her stuff, pay the taxes and bills, and figure out what to do with her ashes. It was a lonely year. My brother and I were grieving. We talked, but it was hard. Then we had trouble getting organized to bury the ashes. I also felt as if my son had distanced himself. He was busy with work, music, and is in a committed relationship.

The crazy glue, the mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, had left us, and over the past year we each had to discover a new paradigm of behavior in the family. Slowly things began to shift.

In late March, a month before our trip to California, son’s girlfriend texted me a photo and said, “Here’s your new grand baby.” A puppy…yippee. Not exactly the species I was hoping for. But I recognized it for what it was…a connecting point. They invited us to bring Taz and meet the grand-dog and go to the dog park. First we had the California trip, but last Saturday we went to Seattle to meet Dio, a five-month-old border collie/golden retriever mix.

Son has trained Dio to sit at the end of hallway and wait until he calls him. He rolls over on command, sits, lies down, and waits patiently for a treat set down an inch from his nose. He’s crate-trained, the only way you could have what will be a 70-pound dog in a small apartment. Dio rings a bell to go out to pee. They take him for daily walks and to the dog park twice a week. They are also looking for a house with a yard.

The dog park is a nine-acre off-leash complex on Lake Washington where dogs run free, chase frisbees and each other, and hobnob with new pals. A 25-foot wide fenced lane (dog freeway) leads to the dog beach. Owners amble, while dogs sniff, visit and chase each other. It’s a blast. At the beach, water dogs chase frisbees and balls in the water. The other dogs cavort on the beach. Owners sit on benches or stand, as if watching their preschooler at a playground. It’s not a whole lot different.

Taz is crazy and fun, but more mature now. She’s friendly and well-socialized. If a dog annoys her, she moves on. She doesn’t annoy other dogs. And puppies, well, they aren’t that interesting. And Dio was, guess what,…acting like a puppy. Son said Dio was being a jerk. I said he has high expectations, since his dog is already better trained than Taz. I can’t imagine her waiting anywhere for anything unless she was chained to a post.

“He just has to grow up a bit,” I said. “You’ve done a great job training him.”

But J said we should leave the beach because Dio was misbehaving. A lot like a cranky preschooler. And son was setting good boundaries. I didn’t remind him how he used to act when I took him to the playground when he was a preschooler. We began the trek back to the car.

As we walked Taz engaged Dio, who had been preoccupied chasing and annoying other dogs. Tas is fast and agile and ran in great arcs, never allowing Dio to catch her. When he got close, she jumped over and around him. He would land flat-faced in the dirt and skid to stops narrowly missing Taz. It was clear she was teasing and teaching. Finally, he surrendered and rolled on his back in submission.

This is back at the apartment but an example of his submission. She’s not really barring her teeth, just playing.

We cheered and son said, “Good job, Taz.” He was happy to see her teaching him.

We went to lunch, the dogs played more at the apartment and we took photos. It was a great afternoon. A connecting point.

****

While in California my big brother gave me an art lesson. That might sound like a small thing, but brother has been an artist for 50 years and he teaches art. I’ve never asked for a lesson and he didn’t know I was interested. But recently I had a lesson with a friend. I wanted more.

The last morning we were there, my brother brought out his paints and some paper and taught me to mix water colors–Alizarin Crimson, French Ultramarine, New Gamboge, and Burnt Sienna (the primary colors, red, blue, yellow, and a brown). He said those colors are all I need to get started. He showed me what brand to buy and where. He showed me how to make color swatches and how to practice mixing the colors.

And, he gave me one of his paintbrushes. I felt like a little girl again–the same feeling as when he first introduced me to jazz music–Louie Prima, Dave Brubeck, Ella and others. It was just me and my big brother sharing his love of art or music with me. A connecting point.

A few nights ago I practiced mixing color. I ended up with six different shades of dirty brown and orange. It’s harder than it looks. But I have beginner’s mind … and my brother, a feeling I had missed for a long time. We were both sad when we parted at their house in California. But something had shifted. Now I can call and ask him how to mix watercolors. Or talk to him about politics, or a myriad of other things, rather than recount the latest drama with mom.

The connecting points have always been there, with my son and my brother, but when everything changed, everything changed. I wasn’t sure how or where to connect. It’s possible that the connection never left, but it has been transformed.  Our clan never fit the pictures of an intact clan, but it’s not fractured, as mom used to say and I believed. It’s not like the clans where the three children and eight grandchildren gather to visit grammy and grandpa and then the next day 142 photos go up on Facebook. But it’s my clan. And I am connected.