Neck Brace and A Miracle

My neck was came darned near being broken in the car wreck.  I have always struggled with neck pain:  back in high school, I was trying to show off how extremely cutesy and agile I was, and I tried to do a back flip in our gym without a pad.  I had never done one successfully before, even with a pad.  The resulting damage left me in a soft brace for six months, which my mother tried to dress up by covering with attractive fabrics to coordinate with my, of course,deeply  trendy outfits.  Embarrassing epic fail.

 

Anyway, because of that old high school stupidity I have had degenerative arthritis in my neck for years.  Then when I began playing piano for hours at a time a few years ago,  it began hurting terribly, so my doctor ordered a course of physical therapy.  During the PT,  we found out that I needed bifocals, of all things,  I was holding my head at such a weird angle trying to read the music and look at the students, back and forth, that that was triggering this latest episode.

 

So I didn’t start with the greatest neck history.

 

The impact of a heavy truck, hitting my little car, when he drove through what should have been a stop sign at over 70 miles per hour and hit the side of my car, was….very harmful.  Let’s just say he made a very, very bad decision.  But back to my neck.  Never strong at the best of times, it was slammed back over my headrest so that most of my brain damage was to the back of my brain. My neck condition, was for months, critical.  There was virtually no chance that, if I ever got the brace off, I could avoid an extremely invasive neck “fusion” surgery.  I only vaguely understand this, but as I do comprehend it I would have lost a couple of inches of my neck, and much of the functions the neck performs beyond simply holding up your head and being a conduit for food.  Turning your head, looking around, looking up and down…not so much, apparently.

 

And one of my vestibular problems, BPPV, was so drastic that I was simply throwing up anytime they would change my position.  Move me. Try to sit me up.  Turn me over.  Roll me over.  Instant spew.  Again, thank God for the coma because I don’t remember any of this, but my family and the nurses certainly do.  To all of you, I’m so sorry.

 

Then right when I began awakening from the coma, I was moved to On With Life.  Enter Amy, the vestibular specialist.  She watched my eyes, saw me doing all this spewing business and ventured a preliminary diagnosis of BPPV.  But she couldn’t be sure, and she couldn’t treat it.  The diagnosis AND the treatment both required some pretty fast movements involving my neck, which were clearly impossible with the neck brace on.

 

The neck brace came off just before I was released from On With Life in early January.  Until that time, I had been taking motion sickness pills to dampen my vestibular symptoms and make them less noticeable.  The week it came off, I was scheduled for a diagnosis and first treatment.  They put these cool huge goggles on me, brought a trash can over, you know, just in case.  Then you do a whole complicated series of movements, rolls, sitting up, laying down, and all the time people are watching your eyes on a screen to see the fine movements that the nystagmus causes.  I asked Amy one time what exactly they were watching for, and she asked “Do you remember Cookie Monster’s eyes when he would see a cookie?”  “Well, it’s a lot like that.”  Interesting.

 

At first without the neck brace there was a LOT of neck pain.  Because of all the trauma to my neck, and because it had been immobilized for months, my neck was simply unable to support my head.  Its ligaments were basically noodles.    By evening it would be aching really, really badly.  I slept in my old neck brace for months.

 

All the time I had been in the brace, I had had to sleep flat on my back.  My normal sleeping position was on my stomach.  After the brace came off, I couldn’t lift my head high enough to get it on a normal pillow.  We found the coolest travel pillow, very bendy, with the center cut out of it.  I slept on that, flat on my back, for another year.  Now I sleep on a low pillow on my side, but I still spend at least half the night on my back.

People were praying for my neck to heal:  Thousands of people, through my Caring Bridge, were praying,  and for this surgery to not be necessary.

Three months after the accident, I went for my first set of neck X-rays.  It was guardedly optimistic.  Much better than expected, certainly, but far too soon to tell if the weight of my skull would still drive my head down into my neck, making the surgery necessary.  Come back on the one year anniversary.

 

We came back at one year.  More X-Rays.  The doctor came into the room.  Very, very good.  Almost less than one millimeter of my head settling down into my neck during the first year, which was the danger point before my ligaments were strong yet.  Still too early to be absolutely sure, but if the two year anniversary was just as good, he said I would never need to come back again and NOT NEED THE SURGERY.

 

Two year appointment.  No fear at all in my heart. In the  last appointment I had asked him for neck strengthening isometric exercises he could show me, and I had been doing them regularly with no pain.  I was turning my head so much farther, looking around me so much more normally.  I felt total peace whatever he said.  I knew God had it.

 

After I had the X-rays taken downstairs, we went up and waited a little for him to read them.  Finally he called me back into his off.  He started out, as my husband said he always did, with a history lesson.  I could wait.  I knew it was going to be all right.  Then he got to the point.  He said “There’s virtually no more settling of your head into your neck.”  “You never have to come back and see me.”  And then he kept looking at them, and looking at me.  “It’s odd.  The only explanation for why you avoided injuring your neck more, and didn’t need the surgery, was your coma.  If it had been even a week shorter, I think we would be looking at a very different set of circumstances with your neck.”

 

Sometimes God says “Yes.”   Sometimes He says “No.”  Sometimes He says “Wait.”

 

My husband says that he still wishes when all those panicked prayers were going up to Him….because every single day and hour that you don’t wake up increases the likelihood THAT YOU NEVER WILL!  He’s the Creator of the Universe.  Would just a text message have been too much?  Just an “I got this one” or something?  And I gotta say, that’s a question we’ll ask when we get there.  But not right away.  We’ll be too busy thanking and praising Him for stuff.   Amen.

The Chair

The Chair From The Depths Of Hades.

 

It is called the Rotational Chair Test.  Here is the online definition:

The chair test measures dizziness while the subject is being turned slowly in a motorized chair 

                        and….  

The rotary chair test is used to help determine if your symptoms are due to a disorder of your inner ear or a disorder of the brain. Eye movements are recorded with small electrodes similar to those used during the ENG test. Not all individuals need a rotary chair test to assist with diagnosis and many health care facilities do not have access to a computerized rotary chair. The rotary chair test allows measurement of responses to movements of the head that are closer to speeds encountered in daily activities. During this test, the patient sits in a computerized chair that moves. The rotary chair test is very useful in determining if an individual has a problem with both sides of the vestibular system (bilateral vestibular loss.

I feel my  overwrought hysteria about this test perhaps needs a bit more explanation.  Allow me…

First:  Pre-accident my vision was so  exceedingly poor that I was totally dependent on my glasses.  Almost any physical punishment was preferable to my glasses being broken.  I couldn’t even find my glasses without them on my face.I was very near the “legally blind” parameters.  Because of the goggles they have you wear for the test, you can’t wear glasses.  I am lost without my glasses. Totally vulnerable and afraid to move.  Childishly near tears immediately.    My husband had to help me to step up into the “dark room”, which was a very menacing chair placed on a platform (I know my husband will say it was “just a chair” but I’m sticking with my story) inside a totally closed capsule.  God help anyone with the slightest hint of claustrophobia, because there were no warnings of that at anytime before the testing.

I now see double without my glasses because of the brain trauma.  Did I mention that the test was SANS GLASSES?  Oh yeah, I think I did.

Second:  The accident left me with PTSD.  I was on anti-anxiety drugs, anti-depression medication, sleeping medications.  For this test to be successful, they had stipulated that I was to be drug free for 48 hours before the test.  So, basically, I hadn’t slept AT ALL for 2 nights except for brief naps from total exhaustion.  And just wait until you hear what comes next.

Third:  The test was scheduled for Tuesday.  That Saturday morning, our much- beloved family dog, a yellow labrador retriever named Remo, who was over 12 years old, finally was unable to get up off his fleece in the kitchen.  My husband and our son carried him into the yard and helped him stand so he could go to the bathroom, and then carried him back up on our deck and laid him on a blanket.  The entire rest of the weekend he kept slipping in and out of consciousness.  It was unspeakably difficult to watch.  Monday morning my husband called the vet and they made an appointment for a couple of hours later.  Remo had been our family dog with all that entails. The laughter, faithfulness, joy, stories, parties, camping trips, kayaking, singing along with my voice lessons The morning he was being put to sleep was the first morning I was scheduled to be off of all my medications.  We had waited months for this appointment, my husband had scheduled the entire day off already.  We needed some answers.  We were going.  Come hell or high water, and this was pretty darned close.

Back to the capsule.  I hear the woman’s voice coming through a speaker somewhere in the darkness. I try to concentrate on the directions, but I am so extremely afraid I am having real trouble keeping it together.  I am determined not to break down after we’ve come through all this.  I’m finally here!  I finally am just praying one word with tears running down my face.  Please.  Please.  Please.

Fourth:  Immediately after the accident I lost all concept of right or left.  The first part of the test was showing a tiny red laser light on the wall, which of course I couldn’t see at all, and I was supposed to tell if it was moving right or left.  The woman was given NO IDEA at all of what my medical history had been, she was just to administer the test.  My husband was out there trying to explain, and I was inside having a total meltdown.  Finally he opened the capsule, put my anxiety stone in my right hand, closed my fist over it, and had me repeat after him “right.  Right.  Rock right.”  Finally I had it.  He closed the door again.  Back to the dreadful, terrible, awful, stifling darkness.

And somehow we held it together.  I wasn’t alone in that dreadful place.  Someone was there with me.  Jesus was with me in my childish fear and isolation.

We had been waiting in this particular doctor’s office for several hours.  First one waiting room, then an interview with an assistant, then another waiting room, and so on and so on.  Now it was hours later, both of us were starving and I was scared out of my wits and my husband was worried to death for me, and the doctor had just rushed into the r00m, asked if we had had this particular test yet.  When we replied “No,” he had sent us down to this lab.  The sheet from the morning had said “don’t eat the morning of the test.”  Luckily I had eaten a granola bar because now it was after 2:00 with no end in sight.

 

There were several tests.  The chair kept stopping, turning, the voice kept issuing directions that I would desperately try to follow.  My husband said it was maybe 30 minutes.  It seemed to me like an eternity of pain and chaos.  Tears kept streaming down my cheeks.  The lady kept asking if I needed to stop, and sometimes I would for a bit.  Sometimes my husband would open the door for a while and reach in and hold my hand for a while.  They were both so unbelievably kind and gentle.  The lady was simply appalled that they had sent me down without giving her any warning at all about my situation.  I was just so grateful for the knowledge that both of them were keeping watch out there.

By the end I was just a broken, sobbing wreck.  Praying for Jesus to please hold me.  Which He clearly was.  The lady’s sweet voice would ask me a question, I would breathe and ask Jesus to help me, and He would whisper peace to me.  We got through it.

Then back to the doctor’s office to await the results of the test.  Which was definitely the worst thing ever.  Ever.  Ever.  We had been sustaining ourselves throughout this entire ordeal with the hope of finally getting some answers if only I could just hold on and make it through the test.  And finally I had DONE IT!!!!  Triumph!!!

Back to that  last blasted office.  He rushed in again followed by an assistant or two,  And delivered this verdict.  That he wasn’t sure why On With Life had recommended he see me.  That he could only find a small amount of residual vestibule damage.  What he had found (not him, of course.  One of his assistants.) was significant cerebellum damage which accounted for my balance issues. He seemed surprised that none of my doctors had figured out that the cerebellum damage was responsible for my balance problems.  He seemed to think that, because he could find very little evidence of vestibular damage now, that must never have been my problem.

When I inquired about exercises for the remaining vestibular problems, and the cerebellum damage, he stated that he wasn’t aware of any.  When I asked again, trying to pursue possible places that did physical therapy, or exercises for balance that I could do at home, he just shrugged and would not, or did not, comment.  The unspoken message in the room was that I would never get better than I was.  It obviously wasn’t his issue.  He was in the business of diagnosing problems, not solutions. “Hope” was not his MO.  We’ve run into several doctors like him, and I have come to despise this philosophy.  Medical doctors by no means are required to be experts in rehabilitation but they DO NEED TO BELIEVE IT IS POSSIBLE and be willing to point their patients in those directions  We’ve run into these situations over and over and over again. You would think when they  see and hear my story, they would change their tune, but apparently not.  Apparently not.

That trip was a major setback.  I was sick from the test itself, sick from losing our loved pet, sick from being off my meds for so long, severely depressed.  I lay on the couch for days.  Finally our daughter, who was back in New York, got so worried that she called the vestibular specialist at On With Life.  Amy called me back.

She announced what we had heard from that doctor, about my vestibular problems being almost nonexistent now, was great news.  I said “How is it great news?!”  She said, “It means that our initial treatment worked really well, and also that you have been doing a great job at home with your therapy!  This is really great intel!  Now we know that your problem must be combination of anxiety and cerebellum damage, and there are definitely exercises we can do for that!”  The way she said ‘WE” suddenly filled me with hope.  Along with the “get on with it” tone in her voice.  I sat up on the couch, and asked what the first step was.  She explained, and my doctor certified me for another 3 months of out patient therapy at On With Life.  We got me back seeing  a therapist weekly  for my anxiety.   I had mourned, and rested, long enough.  Time to get back work.

Back on track.  Back moving forward.  Back getting On With Life.  They have a magical way of seeing a diagnosis not as a stopping place, but as just ruling something out, so that you can start exploring other possibilities. When the doctor told us he found very little sign of any vestibular damage, Amy knew how severe mine had been.  I had been throwing up constantly every time they moved my head, until Amy had diagnosed it.  I HAD been doing my exercises multiple times a day!  Amy heard success where I had only heard echoing disappointment.

I understand this test is the gold standard of vestibular tests.  We’re definitely fortunate to have a facility in our state that has this test available.  I don’t mean to frighten people away at all.  I know that my circumstances were, hopefully, very, very unique.  I’m just being brutally honest about my perception of this test and its echoing repercussions.  People have this test all the time.  I’m sure the sweet lady was as traumatized as I was.  They should have given her at least some warning.  There’s a an extremely large chasm between me and someone who is experiencing bouts of puzzling dizziness, which was everyone else we seemed to be seeing in the waiting rooms.  The majority of them had driven themselves, or at least were walking by themselves.

Thank goodness the doctor decided not to do the water test, whatever THAT was.  Apparently my results weren’t bad enough for that….we’ve often debated what that would be. I sometimes wonder if it is in anyway connected with how they used to test for witches.  I am just am certain I don’t want to find out, so please don’t tell me if you do know.

 

 

 

Scars

 

I don’t know where to begin here.  So…feet up?  I prefer ending with the face.

Every time I take off my shoes, my attention is drawn to the fact that my right ankle and foot are slightly larger and more purple than the left.  This is the side that the truck hit, and my injuries were most severe here.   There’s still a lot of pain and tenderness in my right foot, ankle, shin, and knee.   For a long time after I came home, this area was always extra cold. But, unfortunately, it also misinterpreted “heat” as “cold”, leading to some very near mishaps with bad burn situations.  Close vigilance in the way of actually reaching down and touching my supposed “freezing” foot, only to find out it was burning hot, prevented some pretty bad situations.This is a little better now, but still continues to be a problem.  I’m sure the reason I don’t notice it so much anymore is a combination of  gradual improvement, I’ve gotten used to it, and I’ve found adaptations.  Seems you can basically pretty much get used to anything, unless it’s constant disabling pain.  Thank goodness I don’t have that anymore!

More about my temperature:  a common result of brain injury is the body’s inability to control its own internal temperature.  During the fall/winter/spring, or simply anytime I’m indoors, away from the sun and in air conditioning, I’m cold.  Freezing cold.  Sometimes it gets so bad that my body starts shaking uncontrollably and can’t stop.  This is embarrassing for me, and bewildering for strangers.  Fortunately it only happens infrequently, but still…

To counteract this I wear gloves simply all of the time, even indoors.  Except in the heat of summer, I carry a blanket around to throw over my legs while I’m sitting.  I always wear two pair of pants, and often three shirts. Big change for a girl who always called herself hotblooded and used to wear sandals in the depth of winter.

Next comes the scar from the feeding tube.  This is what left me with my “second belly button.”  The feeding tube completely saved my life the seven weeks I was in a coma.  I had the feeding tube in until long after I learned to swallow again.  The doctors had to determine me to be getting enough nutrition from food to not need it anymore.  Getting it out was not fun.  Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?

My entire midsection is a network of  scars.  I use lots of lotion to keep them soft, but even so  some of them are raised and hard.  Whenever I am tempted to call them ugly, my husband sweetly corrects me and tells me they are the most beautiful things in the world to him. Because of those scars, I am alive.  I  go along with him,  but  I secretly still think they are ugly.

Sometimes they itch madly. Occasionally, for no reason,  my neck flushes bright red–a side effect of one of my medication.  When this happens, the tracheostomy scar in the front of my neck seems to positively glow white in contrast to the crimson of my neck.  I can feel the heat rising up from my neck, and it quickly transfers to my embarrassed cheeks.  Is there a word for  infinite embarrassment?  That would possibly be me at these times.  But such a trivial thing!

Sometimes I manage (after getting dressed in the morning) to forget about most of my scars for hours.  Then I change my clothes, or take a bath,and am startled to see they are still there.  My short term memory loss continually gives me the gift of forgetting–and rediscovering–over and over again.

For a few weeks, when I first came home, I flirted with the idea of trying to hide  my tracheostomy scar with a scarf.  After all, it’s not very pretty.  Aren’t women supposed to be all about trying to look attractive, hide our  flaws?  Aren’t we taught to dress to minimize our imperfections, not flaunt them?

And then I started thinking about that scar, what it said about me, my life, my experience, what I had been through.  Of all my scars from the wreck, it was by far the most visible.  By trying to hide it with a scarf, wasn’t I saying “No, no, it wasn’t ME that was in that accident!  You must have heard wrong!  That was someone else entirely!”  Wasn’t that sort of pretending that the most significant experience of my entire life was somehow shameful, incidental, something to be quickly forgotten and covered up and brushed aside?

I decided otherwise.  It was hard for me.  I’m pretty vain.   I don’t ever try to purposefully flaunt that scar because I still find it very unattractive, but it is a key part of me and what I’ve come through.  Just like my silver hair, and my lined face.  I came by this silver hair and these lines honestly, and I wouldn’t trade a single day.  So what was I saying about the scar by trying to hide that? After all, I survived what my scars represent.  By not hiding them, especially the visible ones, I hope I’m sending the message to people who see them that they can survive too. Because, unfortunately, bad things are coming to us all.  We have to stick together, scars and all.

 

 

Dog to the Rescue!

 

Just about two weeks ago, we finally got a letter that I have been approved to receive a support mobility dog.  It has been a very, very long process of prayer, hope, dreams, depression, and longing.

First I had to get a glimmer of a dream of a possible future for me.  It seems impossible sometimes to avoid looking around at all I’ve lost, to see any kind of a future. When I let myself remember how very full my life was before, and how barren it seems now,  it’s like looking at a wall.  A dead end.  I try to make myself picture a window that I can see through to look at what my life will become now.  Perhaps one day I will be able to picture a door that I can walk through, into a new, lovely life.    I won’t lie to you, it’s a tough  process, and sometimes I’ve definitely been more successful than others.  But God has been down here with me. and I’ve learned a lot about trusting and listening to Him.  He’s very good at that…He’s had lots of practice.

I first had the vision maybe two years ago, not long after I came home from the facility.  If I was going to struggle with walking independently for quite some time, and possibly forever, why not apply for one of these mobility dogs that I was reading about?

So that launched the first wave of effort.  My oldest daughter, who had been home with us during the 9 months after  my accident, took on the project.  She did lots of computer research and made dozens of calls.  It seemed most places we found wouldn’t allow their dogs to go out of state, only trained dogs for children and veterans, or were prohibitively expensive.  She finally settled on a man here, in our city, who trained dogs  He said he had several breeders he regularly used, and he would be willing to go with us to pick out the puppy.  We would do the basic obedience training, and he would do the specialized part of the training.

I did further research on mobility dogs.  Unlike other support dogs, they have to be fully mature…approximate two years old.  Just the frame that they wear around their neck is pretty heavy, and in case the person stumbles and puts their full weight on the dog, their bone structure has to be mature enough to handle it.

And there is a very high risk that a puppy won’t turn out to have the correct temperament.  After 18 months of training and love and waiting, we would definitely have a pet.  But maybe not a mobility dog.  Pretty scary stuff.  But I said “Ok”, because this seemed the only option available.  And a puppy is, after all, very very lovable!

And then came months of waiting, without a call back.  When we eventually managed to make contact, it was only to find that this man had tragically died of an premature heart attack a few months before.

Of course this was a much, much more extreme tragedy for the man’s family than for us!  Even so, it seemed like another setback on my journey to find a dog.

Back to the facility in St. Louis that my daughter had initially called, who had refused to give her an idea of any waiting period until we paid the application fee.  As I pointed out, it had already been more than a year since we had initially started the process.  The usual wait time we were finding for a dog was 2 to 3 years, so if we had applied at the time …..

My husband quickly agreed.  He called them.  The initial contact was indeed most unhelpful, which must have been what turned my daughter off.  They were mostly concerned with telling you what the dogs could NOT do.  They were NOT seeing eye dogs, they were NOT trained for PTSD, yadda yadda yadda.  He persevered, thank goodness.  She agreed to send him an application.  Game on.

My lifelong best friend lives just a few miles away from this particular place, and she is the one who hand-delivered the initial application packet, and the follow-up packet.  She and her husband also paid the application fee for us.  They, along with several other friends, started doing some heavy duty praying.

Support Dogs Inc., where my dog is coming from, is, as I said previously, in the St. Louis area.  I can’t say enough about the great work this organization does!  We visited there a few weeks ago, and it just made my heart leap up to see those dogs, so proud and tall, all there for their “specialized” training.  They are all born there, then at 8 weeks they go, either first to a family or to prison to live with a prisoner (they will eventually all do both) for their socialization and basic obedience training.  Then when they are 18 months old, they come back for the specialized training.  We saw 2 litters of puppies, and about a dozen of the older returning dogs.  My dog is more than likely right now in a prison or a home.

Can you tell I am excited? This is me trying to hold it down. This application process has already been very extensive, and more than a year. They say the wait will be less than two more years, most probably around a year. I am content to wait now that I know for sure that somewhere out there there’s a dog for me.

Hello out there, my doggy pal! I’m praying for you, and your trainers.

Ode to My Mother In Law’s Hands

 

I’ve always loved the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi.  If you’ve never read it, I advise it, even if you are not a Christian.  I would recommend an easy reading version, like The Message or The New Living Bible if you are a starter. Just maybe not the The King James Version.

It is just so beautiful.  It is a love story, not between a man and a woman, but between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law.  Ruth was the daughter, Naomi was her husband’s mother.  They had lived in the same household for years, where Naomi was a foreigner, and developed a deep, deep love for each other.  After both their husbands died, Ruth did not desert her mother-in-law, but went with her back to Israel to care for her.  I like to think I would have done that for my mother-in-law, but I don’t know.

When I got pregnant, while we were still in college and unmarried, my then-boyfriend (now my husband for over 31 years and 4 children), graduated college that spring.  I still had a year left.  The next month he got his dream job offer, out in California, to teach a drum and bugle corp.  He had aspirations  of being a professional drummer, and where better than Los Angeles?

I was totally panicking, and alternating between begging him not to go and  bravely telling him to go ahead and follow his dream, that this chance wouldn’t come again.  And so he went.  I looked desperately for a degree I could finish before the baby came. My current degree program was music education, with several courses and student teaching still left to finish.   The baby obviously wouldn’t wait.  Keep in mind that this was 31 years ago, in a small town in northern Missouri.  Not exactly a hotbed of liberal thinking.

So I prayed about it desperately, and formulated a plan.  I was really close to a Bachelor of Arts…all I needed was six hours of a foreign language, plus a couple of other classes, and at least I could graduate with a degree.  That way, if I followed my boyfriend to California and enrolled in a college there, with a degree, I would only have to finish that state’s requirements to be able to teach.

Voila!  As good as done!  I enrolled in two summer courses: Spanish I from 7:30-9:30 Monday through Friday, and then French I from 9:30 to 11:30.  I was working full-time at the local Taco Bell to support myself, so my usual shift was 4:30pm to 12:30 am.  Enter terrible, terrible morning sickness.  I began losing weight at an alarming rate.  I couldn’t keep anything down.

My belly started to show, and my boss at Taco Bell, a deeply devoted, conservative Christian woman, noticed.  She called me into her office, and asked me if I was pregnant.  I said “yes.”  She said, “then I’m afraid I’m going to have to let you go.  Some of my customers are from my church, and they just wouldn’t understand. ”  I mumbled something through my tears, and rushed out. It’s entirely a miracle that my faith never wavered in God, just in some people who professed to follow Him.  Hmmmm.

And school was a total disaster, as you probably saw coming. Some days the same tests would be back to back in both classes, like the days of the week, or the months of the year.  I was hopelessly confused.

Next, the pastor of  childhood church called me.  He very kindly, offered to let me come back to the congregation if I would stand up in front of them and confess what I had done.  I protested that it was already done.  Was everyone else in the congregation going to stand up and confess everything they had done , just to keep me company?  Of course, he hung up on me.  I probably would have too.

I couldn’t think what to do.  I knew my boyfriend had told his parents.   I had met them during the previous spring break, and I had fallen in love with his family in a big way.

 

So I packed up my car and drove the 4 hours to where they lived.  Unannounced.  And they took me in.  Treated me like a daughter. Even though they both deeply disapproved of what we had done.   Even though they still had a high school son living there.  He and I became almost as close as brother and sister.  This went on for several months, while they let my boyfriend and I figure out what to do about our relationship.  He (fortunately!) decided he didn’t want to do life without me, and I was already there (but I admit I had a powerful incentive!), so after a few months, he drove back to Iowa to get me.  We went back to California, got married, and our life together started.

Back to Ruth and Naomi.  Naomi must have been a mother-in-law very, very similar to this.  She must have welcomed Ruth into her home like a daughter.  There would have been some tussles:  there always are with women.  But I think Ruth must have always known how fierce Naomi’s love for her was.  I certainly did.

My mother-in-law had severe rheumatoid arthritis.  It deformed her fingers and feet.  I can’t recall her ever, ever complaining about it.  She always wore heavy wool socks and Birkenstocks or clogs all fall and winter, and in retrospect I realize that it was because she couldn’t fit shoes on her swollen toes.  I just thought she was really hip.  I loved those feet in their sandals and clogs.

And her hands…her fingers were so twisted, so gnarly…so beautiful.  They both made you want to wince and to sing for joy to see them.  And they were never, never still.  They were always making casseroles, or pies, or setting tables, or holding endless pieces of toast and warming half full cups of coffee in the microwave.  Or petting her beloved golden retriever, Annie, Or hugging.  It was so indescribably wonderful to be squeezed by those skinny arms, and those hands.

 

I’m so extremely regretful that I was too busy to ever spend much time wondering why she no longer did the things that my husband had talked about her doing in the past….like sewing.  She was so talented.  If it ever crossed my mind, I think I just thought “Probably now that her kids are grown, she’s lost interest.”  But now I’m almost certain it was pain.  Of course it was pain.  Her fingers just couldn’t handle fine detail work. Now, since the accident,  I’m much clumsier than I was before, and I rely on several kitchen gadgets that I recalled from her kitchen.  I always, again, thought they were very fashion forward of her.Now I realize that they were absolute necessities, as they are for me.  .  I’m so sorry that I stupidly never spent much time thinking about how much pain she must have been in, or trying to find things that would have made tasks easier.   In retrospect, this seems monstrous.

I loved my mother-in-law’s hands.  Now that she’s gone, I think of them often.  I miss her so much, but especially her hands.  I wish I had held them more, warmed them more.  But I know she’s fine now and she’s telling me to do all that for someone else.  So I’ll try.  I’ll try.

reflection of what used to be

This is hard to write.  I didn’t even realize it was a problem.

It has been nearly 2 1/2 years since the accident, and I thought my attitude was mostly pretty positive.  Actually pretty miraculous, considering everything, would be the consensus of most people who know me.

My husband gave me a lovely, lovely Valentine card.  It was so beautiful it made my eyes tear up as I read it…he left it on the table for me when I came down for breakfast, because it was a work day for him.  I was alone when I opened it.  It said something about still being a beautiful woman.  I mean physically beautiful.  That shocked me to my core.  I used to be pretty, or at least I thought so.  I always had plenty of dates in high school and college, so that didn’t seem to be a problem, but every since the accident I look so much older, and initially I was so thin, and haggard and stooped, that I hated to see pictures of myself.  And several people, several times, would ask me if my husband was my son, or if my friends–who were always in my age group–were my daughters.  I was very well aware of how much the accident had aged me, and just didn’t enjoy looking at myself in mirrors anymore.

So I didn’t.  Without realizing it, for a couple of years I had only looked at bits and pieces of myself in mirrors to check for gunk in my eyes, if my hair needed combing, or if my outfit looked all right.  I had ceased to care much about my appearance. I was telling myself “It doesn’t matter!  It only matters what’s inside you!”  I had no concept of myself as even attractive anymore.

Then the card.  I sat staring at it, thinking, for a long time.  Then I slowly carried it into the downstairs bathroom, where I go to comb my hair, and set the card down on the counter beside the sink.  I lifted my eyes up to look at my face in the mirror.  Couldn’t do it.  No matter how hard I tried–and I tried over and over for 20  minutes–I couldn’t look at my entire face.  Could not make myself.  I could only force myself to glance at bits of my face for a second before my gaze would slip away, no matter how I tried.  I started to sob ,hard.  I hadn’t realized this was even a problem, let alone such a desperate one.

It was totally shocking.  Just another piece of crap I would have to fight through.  I get so tired of fighting all the time.  Of being positive.  Of smiling.  But I can’t give up, because I just don’t know how.  One time, years ago, within a few months I had been let go from one job that I really loved for reasons that I’m still confused about, and then I got a temporary teaching job.  When I interviewed for the permanent teaching job, I didn’t get it.  Under, shall we say, pretty dirty circumstances,  Those two experiences made me decide to be a more tough-skinned, less vulnerable, not smiling at everyone I meet, sort of person for the rest of my life!  I managed to keep that resolution for….I’d say, about 1/2 hour?  It’s not like I’m naturally good, I just don’t know how to be negative.  I always choose the positive.

My hair is silver.  It’s been naturally silver for several years now.  Before the accident, my face was pretty tan and my movements were quick and youthful, so people hardly ever mistook my age, but now…I look worried all the time, I’m stopped over, I have to be helped everywhere, I’m a little thinner than I used to be, I have several scars that I didn’t used to have, and my eyes must look older. I move much more slowly, awkwardly, cautiously.  No wonder they mistake me for the elderly mother.

I don’t feel I look beautiful anymore.  I don’t feel even remotely pretty anymore.  So how can I enjoy looking at myself in a mirror?  How do I fix this? It’s no use that my friends and husband rush in and say “you look younger!” when, almost immediately, a clerk, or another stranger, will mistake me for the elderly mother.  So I know better.  I know they’re just lying to save my feelings, because they love me.  Or maybe my husband still sees me through the eyes of love.  I don’t know.  I just know my eternal fountain of creativity is baffled this time.  I always thought that my husband and I would grow old together.  Not that I would suddenly leapfrog ahead of him.  That people would mistake me for my own children’s grandmother.  I KNOW it’s just my stupid pride, that I could have a terrible facial disfigurement or something like that.  But it’s still a problem.  Just because it could be worse doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a problem, and you still have to deal with it.  It just helps you keep it in the proper perspective, I guess.

 

Grandma Harriet

My sister-in-law’s family owns a campground in Wisconsin that we’ve been returning to frequently for nearly 18 years now. The entire surrounding area owns a huge chunk of real estate in our hearts, because of so many shared memories and funny stories.

Grandma Harriet lived in a modest house right on the shores of the lake, and we always had full permission to walk down from the campground and use the beachfront that came along with the house.    I only knew “Grandma Harriet” as a tall, lively, red-haired, former music teacher, who had been married three times (the first two husbands had died) and who would sometimes bring her accordion up to the campground and lead the sing-a-longs they used to have there on weekends.  We always got a kick out of how incredibly spunky she was…she used to get up and dance along with the song, and her current husband (who obviously adored her) was, as far we saw, almost totally silent when they were in public and just sat watching her smiling.  And then one year we heard that her husband had died, and not long afterward Grandma Harriet went too.  The family kept the house and often one of the adult children were living there, so we just kept using the beach and telling stories of Grandma Harriet to our kids.

 

And then came my accident.  At age 52,  I was naturally struggling with depression and feeling that my life was over.  I had recently come to grips with the realization that I would most likely never teach high school chorus again, or play piano at all well or so easily again.  I had most of my identity and self worth wrapped up in that.  I was determined not to be whiney or negative.  I wanted to be someone people wanted to be around, but it was just so HARD!  I kept praying about it and reading only positive things and trying to think only positive thoughts, but I was starting to lose the battle.

And then we were invited to visit the lake and stay in the house for a week with our daughter and her husband. We hadn’t dreamed of having a vacation with our financial circumstances, and with my problems, but this seemed perfect!  We quickly said “yes” and agreed on a week.

 

It was the most magical week ever.  Ever.  The bedroom we slept in had a giant picture window that opened right on the lake, and we went to sleep every night to the sound of loons, and woke up every morning to sunshine sparkling on the lake.  It must have rained sometime, but it didn’t seem like it ever mattered.  And then there were Grandma Harriet’s scrapbooks.

 

Beside the fireplace in the living room were built-in shelves holding a number of photo albums and scrapbooks.  One lazy afternoon, early in the week of our vacation, we were lying around in the living room talking about what might be in those old books.  My husband started pulling them out and looking through them.  Quite a few of them had been compiled by Harriet, and told the story of her life.  In a paraphrase of her words, ” by the time your children and grandchildren become old enough to be interested in your life, you’re not around to tell them stories.”  These books were her way of leaving a story behind so that by the time her descendants were interested enough to want to know more, the whole story would be here for them.

Turns out she was quite a girl with quite a story.  The last line in every one of the books, save one, was “This has been the best year of my life!”

 

When she and her first husband had been married over 30 years and had 2 adult children, he was fixing a gravel truck right in front of their house when it fell on him and crushed him.  She saw the whole thing happen.  That was the only year she left that line out of the book.  She wrote that she took to her bed several weeks with grief, and then one morning she heard her son and daughter in the kitchen discussing who would drive her down to Florida (she and her husband had spent winters in Florida for years).   She lay there thinking “I’m not a baby!  I can drive myself!”  and hopped out of bed and ran into the kitchen and explained that to her children.  They eventually agreed to let her try it, and so started a whole new chapter in her life.  We started seeing many more references to a group down in Florida named the “Sojourners” that was made up of snowbirds, who would have weekly meetings, socials, dinners, eat at restaurants, card games, and in every newspaper clipping and picture about the group there would be Harriet smiling somewhere.  Husband #2 she had met through this group.  He had been a widower, whose wife had been dead several years.  That marriage was a happy one and lasted quite a few years before his death.  More years went by, and then she reconnected with Clark.  He and his wife had been friends of Harriet’s and her husband years before, and the two men had hunted together.  They had lost touch through the years, but reconnected through the Sojourners Group and fell in love.  This was the husband we saw, the quiet man that just sat watching her, quietly adoring. And again, after several years, he died first.  They were all good marriages.  Because her first marriage had been so fortunate, she wasn’t at all afraid to run wholeheartedly toward the next opportunity with no hesitation, no worries about “this time it might not…”.  And so it always worked out.  Who could resist being loved by such a woman?

Harriet had a daughter with polio, she had seen her husband of over 35 years die in front of her eyes:  she had had the courage to remarry, and that had been a strong marriage, but he had died too.  She had still had the heart to risk another time and that had been another win, but he too had predeceased her:  yet at the end of her book she wrote these words which I’ll never forget:  “Life has treated me kindly.”  What a gift to another woman who feared that her life was over.  Harriet started over and over and over, and at the end wrote those words.  I’m certain that it was a God-thing that placed us in Harriet’s house with those scrapbooks and led us to them.

Our last morning, I woke up very early and walked out in the dim early light of morning.  “Harriet?”  I whispered.  “Are you here? If you are, I want to thank you so much.  I think you saved my life.”  But there was no answer, no sense of her presence.  Not that I expected there to be.  Harriet had moved on to better things.  She wasn’t the type to stick around when things were over.