For some reason I feel incredibly tired today, like I'm moving underwater. Weird. I went walking with a friend and neighbor last night, the two of us having engaged the battle of the pounds, and now we aim to add intentional exercise to the equation. I enjoyed walking and talking with her. We have so far known each other only in a casual way, though we lived for a while in the same building. Our sons are a year apart, and we'd sit on a bench when they were small, and share stories about schools, homework headaches, that sort of thing. One day, after our boys were grown, I realized I hadn't seen her in months. I saw her husband in the laundry room and asked him how she was doing. He said, "You know we're divorced, right? She lives in a different building now." I was shocked.
Back when we were both in the thick of parenting, I used to see her and her husband going for summer evening walks together, and I thought how connected and loving they seemed. Just goes to show you never know what's going on inside any marriage. Anyway, she and I met up again in the year-long weight loss group I joined. I was thrilled to see her in the room the first day. I always liked her wry, laid back demeanor. Last night, our children now grown, we shared stories of ourselves instead, and it was lovely to finally start knowing each other in a richer way. Unfortunately, it was freezing cold, so our bench sitting at the end of our walk didn't last too long. But we've pledged to make this a regular thing, so our friending will continue, I think.
Thanksgiving is a week away, and we have relatives flying in to spend the holiday with us, the usual suspects, two cousins whom I adore, and two nieces, whom I adore. They're flying in from Orlando, from Trinidad, and taking the bus from upstate, and everyone will be staying here. My other niece who now lives in the city with her boyfriend, announced she's sleeping over here the night before and the night of Thanksgiving, so she can be part of the revelry. And her best friend, who's been with us for Thanksgiving the past few years, will be traveling from Philly with her new boyfriend. My daughter's friend from college, who's feasted with us the past two years, will also be joining us again this year, though she'll probably stay over with my daughter at her apartment across the courtyard. My cousin from Boston is also coming, but she will stay with her sister in the Bronx. I heard a rumor she's bringing her new boyfriend, too.
On Thanksgiving Day, we count twenty-five or so guests for dinner, and I'm already getting quietly anxious about cleaning the house, spreading all the beds with fresh sheets, and creating the meal, even though most of the cooking is done by my husband. He insists he is up to it this year, despite his recent medical odyssey . My daughter will help with the very crucial basting of the turkey. Meanwhile I'll keep whisking cooking bowls and utensils into the dishwasher and running it on cycles so the kitchen doesn't get too overwhelming.
Even though I'm eager to see and spend time with everyone, this is usually the time of year when I wonder if maybe I need medication. It helps that my husband's mood is so mellow these days. It mellows me out, too. I hope when he goes back to work he'll be able to keep the intense stress of his workplace at bay. It's been the main silver lining of his recent illness, the chance to be away from there and reconnect with himself. But now he's eager to go back, to feel useful again. I swear he carried his whole department on his back most of the time. He is sorely missed.
On another note, can you believe Congress is trying to sneak another repeal of Obamacare past us by tacking it onto the tax bill? I suppose they think people will be too distracted by the holidays to notice or too confused by the details of the enrich-the-rich tax plan to puzzle it out. Time to start calling our representatives again. It never ends.
Well, this was a ramble. Thanks for reading here, sweet friends.
There is so much crazy in the news I don't have the heart to write much here. But this guy is doing okay. He's not mad at anyone or anything in that picture. He's just concentrating on calculating the tip on our lunch bill yesterday. That's his face in response, it's quite fierce, resting bitch face we call it, but when he smiles the sun breaks through. Rocks my world every time. Yesterday his doctor cleared him to return to work in December. And at this moment, on this freezing cold day, he is in the kitchen making pumpkin soup.
Across the country, Democrats won down the line, rejecting the politics of exclusion and hate. Women in particular brought this election home. In Virginia, in monsoon rainstorms yesterday, they stood on line to cast their votes for Ralph Northam for governor, the gun safety and preservation of healthcare candidate. The turnout everywhere was higher than expected, with voters delivering a trouncing. And how good was it to see that guy on the right again. Let's keep this train rolling into 2018.
At the front entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City sits a statue of Teddy Roosevelt astride a horse, with an African American man walking on one side of him and an Indigenous man on the other. The rider is in full military uniform while the men on either side of him are partially unclothed. A little more than a week ago, someone spattered red paint at the base of the statue, which has long been criticized as "a condescending expression of a power relation."
A group called Decolonize This Place released a fascinating statement in the aftermath. "Now the statue is bleeding," the group stated. "We did not make it bleed. It is bloody at its very foundation. This is not an act of vandalism. It is a work of public art and an act of applied art criticism. We have no intent to damage a mere statue. The true damage lies with patriarchy, white supremacy, and settler-colonialism embodied by the statue."
In other recent acts of protest, red paint was daubed on the hands of the Christopher Columbus statue in Central Park, and the word "racist" was scrawled across the base of the statue of a doctor, J. Marion Sims, who conducted gynecological experiments on enslaved women without anesthesia.
The mayor has appointed a panel of artists, historians, preservationists and activists to come up with a plan for monuments that represent a history of subjugation and hate. New Yorkers were also asked to share their opinions in an online survey. The paint of Teddy Roosevelt has since been removed, and the hands of Christopher Columbus have been washed clean. Most locals, when asked how they felt about the red paint protest, were not fans of the action. "I didn't even know what this statue was, to be honest," one man told a Gothamist reporter. "I've walked by it a dozen times. Now I can see why that's offensive for some people, but I think there are better ways to protest a statue than chucking red paint all over it, right?"
So what do you think: Reprehensible act of vandalism or socially constructive art criticism? Something else entirely?
Out of respect for the journalists at Gothamist who reported on these events, and whose workplace was shuttered overnight by a billionaire owner disgruntled that they'd voted a week ago to unionize, I'd love to hear any and all thoughts on the red paint activism and/or the historical monuments issue.
My friend just called to tell me that one of the people killed in the terror attack on the Hudson River bike path yesterday was a high school classmate of her son. She is reeling at the news, identifying with the mother of that slain young man. She says she keeps finding herself standing on street corners, sobbing.
When my cousin in Virginia called me yesterday, and asked, "Do you see what's happening in your city?" I was oblivious. The TV was tuned to Fixer Upper, and I was all but ignoring it as I worked. "Turn on the news," she said, and when I did, I began urgently texting loved ones to make sure none of them had been on that path at three something that afternoon. Any one of them could have been. But my daughter was at work. My son was dropping off his rent check in Astoria. My niece was just leaving the hospital in Newark where she works. Everyone else I reached out to was safe.
I heard five of the eight people killed were Argentine tourists, in the city for a thirtieth high school reunion and out for an afternoon bike ride. Even with six degrees of separation, it seemed unlikely that I'd be connected to any of the remaining three who died. I was wrong. And now you who read here are connected, too.
Today is the final day of IV infusions for my husband. He is at this moment giving himself the second to last treatment, with the final one tonight. Another step toward full recovery.
For his birthday on Saturday, our son came over. He arrived on Friday night, using his key and standing in the doorway yelling "Surprise!" He was smiling and pleased with himself, like a five year old who knows he is always a lovely surprise. He stayed until Sunday night, just hanging out with everyone, watching football with his dad, and intermittently disappearing into his old room to study. He has tests every week for the year-long paramedic course, and if you fail more than two, you're out of the program. In a class that started out at 60, the attrition in two months has been severe, 12 people already gone. So far, our boy is doing well, grades in the 80s and 90s, and he's certainly learned how to study. It helps that all that medical stuff is endlessly fascinating to him, especially in an emergent setting. He might have been made for this.
On Saturday our daughter and her boyfriend came over to help celebrate, along with his mother, whose birthday was a couple days before my husband's, and his sister, who cooked and brought a raft of delights, a scrumptious full course meal. My man made his famous seafood gumbo, and I took care of the cake, ordering a chocolate one and a vanilla confetti one from Momofuku Milk Bar. The latter is lately my family's favorite kind of birthday cake, and the 6" version is small enough so that we aren't left eating cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner the following week. Which neither my husband nor I need. We sent the remainder of the chocolate cake home with the upstaters on Sunday morning, while our son finished the confetti cake for breakfast. We all had a lovely time, and the birthday man and the birthday woman judged the low key festivities perfect.
Then on Sunday night, my husband's uncle, his wife, and their son drove from New Jersey to have dinner with us. His uncle had triple bypass heart surgery twenty years ago, at the same age my husband is now, so the two of them exchanged war stories. It was fantastic seeing them. My husband's cousin, who was 13 years old the summer I met him (my husband was a tender 23) has grown into a fine and handsome family man. I could see my son in him, a couple decades down the road. It was amusing to be in a room with these four generations of men, all of them bald with beautifully shaped heads, all of them well over six feet tall. I felt grounded in an odd way by this visible reminder of the bond that is family. We missed you Bruce!
And now, back to the week. I was tossing with anxiety all last night. I barely slept, rehearsing an encounter with the insurance people this morning. There's no such thing as coasting along, breathing into a respite. As daybreak edged into the room I kept watching the clock, waiting for the hour when I could finally make the call. At 9:13 AM, I dialed the number on the registered letter that arrived at our door last evening. It's not yet resolved, but I will bird-dog it until it is. My husband is philosophical. They got it wrong, he says. We'll make it right. In the meantime I am sitting here with that peculiar hollowness in my chest, the shallow agitated breaths, adrenaline surging and surging.
But the weekend was really good. And tomorrow they will remove the PICC line from my husband's arm and he'll begin the next stage of his healing.
In the midst of a wacky week, I completed two editing assignments and also made word count on the book! Well, almost. My contract says I am to deliver 75,000 words and I am at 74,314. My friend, who is a bestselling star in this book ghostwriting business, says I should add those 700 words and observe the contract to the letter. And so I shall. Still, for all intents, I have completed a full draft of the book, meeting my self-imposed deadline, and now (after adding those 700 words, and I know where I will insert them) I can print out the entire manuscript and start to edit. The best part. It's always easier to fix something that isn't working when you already have words on the page.
But to the wacky week: For starters, last Sunday, my daughter, my niece, my cousin and her husband and I auditioned for Family Feud! Here's what I posted on Facebook.
Ione and James Stiebel, by the way, are my grandparents, who raised nine children and instilled in them all a deep devotion to family. I'm forever grateful they did, because three generations later, the sense of belonging is as strong as ever. My husband is always amused when my cousins and I talk about "Stiebel women do this," or "Stiebel women are that," and none of us actually carries the name.
More delightful wackiness: My son's girlfriend S invited my daughter, my niece and me for a night of Writing and Wine, which was being hosted by the mother of one of S's childhood friends. We'd met the friend, Justin, at S's brother's wedding, where Justin and my daughter, seated next to one another, riffed on everything and laughed like old friends. The Writing and Wine event last Tuesday was held at this really happening hipster bar in the West Village. The teacher and I were the only people in the group out of their twenties. I felt uber cool to be part of that scene in an area of town I hardly ever get to anymore. It turned out the lovely teacher and I knew lots of people in common. She provided us with a title, a theme and a choice of three characters and three prompts. We put pen to paper in three 20 minute sessions of writing, sipping lots of wine to grease the flow of ideas. And let me tell you, the wine did its job.
My daughter's story was set in Medieval times, and my niece wrote from the perspective of a little brother wolf. All the stories that people shared were funny and wonderful. I especially loved S's story of The Pumpkin Thief, a pumpkin who kidnapped other pumpkins to save them from ending up in Thanksgiving pie. I was too embarrassed to share my story, which sounded as if written by a lovelorn 13-year-old girl who'd read too many Mills & Boon romances, with a little spy espionage thrown in. The plot got crazier and crazier with each sip of wine. I particularly enjoyed the third writing session, when we had to partner with someone we hadn't known before the class, and recount our stories so the other person could borrow one of our characters to introduce into their own story. And vice versa. Of course the very best part was being out with my girls. When the teacher asked me how we were connected, I said, "They are all my daughters."
Okay, dear friends, I'm off to add those 700 words in the middle of my all but completed manuscript. I'll be back around to all your lovely blogs, soon.
I went with my friends Leslie and Tania to see Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, interview the legendary Angela Davis, whose image, with her gigantic afro and raised fist, adorned my bedroom wall in the early seventies. The event, titled "Spirit of Justice," was held at Riverside Church, where it was moved at the last minute because so many more people than expected had registered to attend. The line to get in wrapped around the block on three sides, and I couldn't help feeling that the turnout was so large because of the times we're in.
One clue was that my daughter and one of her work friends, independently of me, had also registered, which told me the conversation between these two powerhouse women held appeal beyond the usual social justice, theological, academic, and liberal circles. My daughter and I sat together, and her friend's mother also came. Millennials were definitely in the house, many of them in mixed age groups with their parents, mentors, teachers. The generations were cross-pollinating ideas in a rather exhilarating way.
Angela Davis said so many things that simply blew my mind. Michelle Alexander played short video clips of Ms. Davis from the 1970s, when she was imprisoned for her revolutionary activities. It was astounding how applicable to this moment her observations from that time are now. I would love to share the gist of what she said, but I'm still processing everything; so many startling truths just swirling in my head.
It was incredibly helpful to be there last evening, because I am currently writing the final chapter of my book, or not my book, but the book I am writing for an activist who saw some tragedy in her life. So much of what was aired last night made me think more deeply about how to wrap up the story that has been entrusted to me. I'm trying to grab the tendrils of thought, to make the nuanced associations. I hope I will be able to.
"We have to act as if revolution is possible," Angela Davis said at one point, "and if we do that, the world will change." In the context of other things she said, I took this to mean we have to have faith in our connectedness to one another, and faith that whether or not we individually acknowledge that connectedness, it will save us.
In the same vein, she also observed: "Activism is a matter of faith," meaning we have to be willing to engage the struggle even if we are not assured of seeing our efforts bear fruit. We have to fight for the generation after us, she said, knowing that "new issues will always emerge, but every fight moves us forward, not just in one area, but in all."
It's been a week of appointments for the man, with me alongside. Cardiac rehab began; he had the intake and assessment on Tuesday and Friday. The ENT doctor on Wednesday said his vocal chords are about sixty percent back to full functioning, and should recover completely. The nerve was traumatized by the surgery; she explained that it actually wraps around the aortic valve (which I knew from consulting Dr. Google, which is why I was so worried). But after looking through a skinny black scope at the chords in action, she pronounced the nerve to be healing well. I'm happy to report my man's voice is indeed back, and while it's not yet as deep and resonant as before, it is getting stronger all the time. And now, in contrast to the previous prescription of vocal rest, doctor's orders are for him to speak as much he wants, so as to exercise the muscle. We also went out for lunch a couple of times this week, and enjoyed that, although my husband confessed that these outings show him that he still tires easily. Coming up: more appointments, and possibly the end of IV infusions in time for his birthday. He's in good spirits and doing well overall.
We are going to the movies today. For my husband and me, this will be our first outing to a movie theater since July, when he got sick. Ever better, we are going with two dear friends, a couple who have just come through their own health ordeal. In fact, the husband of that pair went into surgery on the same morning, at the same hour, as my husband.
A few days before his own problems arose, our friend had volunteered to go with my very ill husband to his MRI appointment, as I had to get my niece and nephew, who were visiting from Jamaica, to the airport. I got a text from our friend the afternoon before the MRI saying he was being admitted to the hospital and was sorry he would not be able to accompany my man the next day. I told him to take care of himself and not to worry, we would figure things out. As it turned out the next day, my husband, too, was admitted to the hospital. They had very different diagnoses, but both required major surgery and extreme healing.
Since we all live near one another, both men post surgery happened to be assigned the same visiting nurse and the same physical therapist. Their wives, who like to sit together on a bench some evenings, have been in intense caretaker mode, and we've leaned on each other. We both understood that neither of our men wanted many visitors while they were at their most frail, and so the two men haven't seen each other since their hospital odysseys began. But this afternoon we will all walk to the movie theater together. I'm so grateful we have arrived at this place. I think we're even more closely bonded now than before.
We had the makeover reveal yesterday, and it was big fun. But I forgot to take pictures. The only snap I took was in the cab on the way to the event. But even in this close up you can see I'm wearing lighter colors than are usual for me, a cream colored tank, a soft gray shawl jacket, and what you can't see, dark brown slacks of a more fitted silhouette with interesting seams and details. It strikes me that the overall tone of this photo is softer and bluer than is typical for me, and I think it's because of the gentler colors I was wearing. I'll be looking for another opportunity to wear this outfit soon, and I'll try to remember to take a full figure photo then.
I've had these photos on my desktop for the longest while, thinking I might make posts about them. Today, I'm just going to throw them up here in no particular order, because what I really want is to hold the record of them on my blog.
That's my nephew, a wonderful musician, channelling Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley with a little Simon and Garfunkel thrown in. The result is his own divine sound. I look at this picture, taken in his college dorm room, and all I can think is this talented young man is a throwback to another decade. I was in college in the seventies, and it looked just like that.
I love this picture of my son and his girlfriend at a friend's wedding. Don't they clean up nice? My son has attended four weddings already this year, four last year, and he already knows about three he will have to attend next year. All his friends, it seems, are getting hitched. He even officiated at the wedding of a couple he introduced, a college buddy and a work friend. They had already done a courthouse thing, so my son didn't need to be officially certified to perform the ceremony. I heard from his girlfriend that he did a fine job, and looked good up there, too.
Ever heard of butter coffee, also known as bulletproof coffee? My brother introduced me to it. It's made from your favorite brew (mine is Jamaican Blue Mountain beans, which my brother also brought me) mixed with coconut oil, butter, and vanilla extract all whipped up in a blender. The foam is incredible. Some people add stevia, some add cinnamon or nutmeg, some add a shot of heavy cream. I've noticed on the mornings I drink it, I head straight to my computer and start working away, distinctly more energized. It's rather high in calories, and since I'm counting those suckers at the moment, I don't eat a full breakfast when I have it. There is a lot of debate about whether the trend is healthy or not, but I confess my main reason for enjoying this new morning beverage is the smell of the virgin coconut oil. It takes me right back to my childhood and teenage years at Doctor's Cave Beach in Montego Bay, Jamaica. We used to rub on coconut oil as suntan lotion, which was an appalling idea. We were basically cooking ourselves out there on that lovely reflective white sand. But now the smell of coconut oil is like a moment of whiplash, time collapses, and suddenly I'm back there, with all the people who were part of that era, and the memory is delicious.
Nothing much else to report this morning, and now I need to get to work.
The man is looking good. He went for a follow-up MRI of his spine today, and I went with him. After the procedure, on the way out of the hospital, we saw one of the surgeons who assisted with his heart surgery. He and some other people in scrubs were wheeling a post surgical patient in a massive hospital bed with a forest of blinking, beeping monitors and tubes and wires and IV poles attached, to the ICU. The doctor saw my husband in the hallway and said, "You're looking good! Are you back at the museum yet?" They were all fascinated by the fact that he is an ichthyologist. He was, for most of his medical team, the first ichthyologist they ever met. He just might be the only black ichthyologist in the United States, because he knows almost all the other ichthyologists, and yeah. My husband laughed and waved his cane at the surgeon, as if to indicate that he was not yet in fighting form, but getting there.
After they were out of sight he said, "Is that what I looked like after surgery?"
Yeah, buddy, exactly like that.
He is once again hard to keep up with when walking, his strides are so long, and his New York City default pace is kicking back in. All this is good. Last night, in bed, he remarked that he was not only getting better on the outside, he could feel his insides healing, too. Tonight, a box of limited vintage wines arrived, which he had ordered. Even though he can't drink any alcoholic beverage for another month or two, he had noticed that the stores were low and wanted to replenish them. These are things one only notices when more pressing concerns have abated. And then, he got down on one knee and restocked the wine fridge, bending his body to do so. With no pain. So good.
At his check-in with his main cardiologist yesterday, she adjusted his blood pressure meds slightly, and this evening, his numbers are perfect, according to the cheerfully talkative infusion nurse Daniel, who comes once a week to change the dressing of his PICC line and take his vitals. After Daniel left, we looked at each other and he said, "Is that it for the week? No more doctors, nurses, therapists, or medical tests?" That's it, I confirmed, the rest of the week is entirely yours. But you'll need to check your own blood pressure daily and walk, walk, walk as the cardiologist advised. I love his cardiologist. She's a feisty, bossy little woman, born on the same day (not year) as my husband. He listens to her. This is also good.
The twice daily IV infusions continue. He is now able to administer the medicine to himself, although it's easier when I do it. Still, he mostly performs the 10-step process by himself in the mornings and allows me to work, while I do the night shift. The infusion has to be slowly delivered over five minutes or more, so a timer is required, but the yellow liquid appears to be doing its job.
There will be other steps ahead—cardiac rehab, which cannot begin until six weeks after surgery, and further medical procedures, which must wait until three months post surgery. And then there's the appointment with the ENT doctor to check on his vocal chords. As soon as we made the appointment, his voice began showing signs of coming back. It's still raspy, but fuller and stronger, and maybe one day soon, I can finally exhale. Thank you, everyone who sent prayers. Please don't stop. You are powerful, loving, and healing souls.
Can I give you some advice that you won't take the wrong way?
How did I know you'd say yes?
Buy something special for yourself. Be proud. Flaunt your style. Love yourself. Daydream, wonder, and make a few mistakes. Stay up too late every so often and sleep in too long. Sometimes wake up crazy early to doodle or journal or go for a walk. Play loud music. Celebrate everything. And when no one is looking, as often as you can remember, kiss the back of each of your hands in quick succession.
Happy love affair, gorgeous...
So how did Tut, who sends notes from the universe to my email every weekday morning, know that I am in the midst of getting a makeover this week? It's true. In my year-long weight loss wellness program, a personal shopper is coming to speak to the groups about dressing for the journey, including how to select clothes that compliment our body shapes, and basically, how to "be proud, flaunt your style, love yourself, daydream, wonder," and yes, make a few mistakes!
The personal shopper asked for volunteers, one man and one woman, to be made over during a session with him. The session would be complementary, but we'd purchase the garments we chose. The two volunteers would then wear their makeover clothes to the presentation where they would talk about what the experience had been like for them. So many people volunteered that the director of the program decided to use a random number generator to pick the winners. Guess who the randomness of the universe chose as one of the two volunteers! This lucky duck!
Two weeks ago when the email came in informing me that I had been selected, coincidentally while I was watching Project Runway, my heart skipped. I was thrilled and petrified! Oh God, I thought, he won't know what to do with me! This response was to be expected from the girl who growing up could never find anything in the store to fit her. All my clothes had to be hand sewn by a seamstress friend of my mother's. The only thing I hated more than clothes shopping was being turned 360 degrees and tape measured and the endless trips to check for fit. And my custom clothes never seemed as trendy and cool as the outfits my skinny friends wore.
Today, I avoid shopping in clothes stores altogether. I basically have multiple pairs of black pants and several black silk tanks, which is the uniform over which I don jackets, blouses, and floaty things in many colors, most of which I order online. Very often the over piece is also black. I live in New York City. Everybody wears black so I can get away with it. Still, I somehow knew that the only answer to the director's question about whether I wanted to accept the opportunity to be made over, was yes. So I screwed up my courage and jumped with both feet.
I had to fill out a style questionnaire, and then talk to the shopper by phone and then we made an appointment. I had looked him up online. He was an impossibly handsome and sleek man of African and Portuguese descent with gorgeous chestnut brown skin and impeccable style. Hoo boy, I thought, wait till he sees me. But he was absolutely lovely on the phone, and managed to put me somewhat at ease. Besides, I had already resolved that this was one of those "say yes and figure it out later" situations.
Our appointment was yesterday. It was fantastic! David (the personal shopper) is just the most beautiful soul, and remarkably, everything he picked out for me fit! I had feared it would be a disheartening session of, Oops, sorry, too small, but instead it was more like, Oh, I love this! And not only am I definitely going to have an ongoing relationship with him, I've already decided that my Christmas present to my daughter will be a session with him to get a fancy outfit for her sparkly fundraisers (I already told her). I can also probably get something that's a little special for the men in my life through David, as the menswear pieces featured on his web page are incredibly cool. And when my family asks me what I want for Christmas, I'll simply tell them, "Go see David." He has already set aside pieces for me that we both loved, but including them in yesterday's purchase would have busted the budget I set for myself.
I had decided I would buy one complete outfit, and I did that, plus an extra pair of pants in a color other than black. I can wear either pair of pants with the creamy colored shell and this awesome lightweight Eileen Fisher shawl jacket that I would never have looked at for myself, but which I think could become my new wear-everywhere piece. And the pants: As I picked them up I thought, Oh this will never fit me; the silhouette is way too narrow. And yet they kept going up, managing my abundance, and creating a much less bulky profile that my usual wear. I had no idea I could wear pants like those, but now I realize the secret is to select quality material. We were having so much fun we forgot to take an after picture, but perhaps I'll be brave enough to take one at the session on Thursday evening and share it here.
I'm tempted to say, this sort of thing never happens to me, but look, it happened! Thank you, universe!
We got together yesterday to celebrate my son's birthday, which was on the fourth. How is it possible I am the mother of a 26 year old? The lovely party crew was my kids and their loves, plus my brother who happened to be passing through New York for the weekend. Even better, my son and his girlfriend, and my niece slept over from Friday night, and they woke my daughter up early to come and join them on Saturday, so it was a full day of carousing. As always with this band, there were laughs and stories. Also, my husband's voice is showing the first unmistakable sign of returning. There is some bass in it now, less breath, more volume, just a tiny bit, despite the fact that he has not for a moment taken up the habit of silence. "Did Daddy always talk this much," my son asked me, laughing. "I don't remember him as being this talkative, but now that he's supposed to rest his voice, the dude won't shut up." "You don't remember him being talkative because we always hang on his stories," I said, and my daughter added, "Because they're funny as hell." Actually, she finds her dad's commentary even funnier in his Godfather voice. She was sorry when she learned he was supposed to rest his vocal chords, because she used to make him say things just to hear how it sounded with his rasp. As for me, I'm just happy with this new sign of continued healing.
Maggie May Ethridge wrote that she's been feeling a strange, unfriendly energy wrapping the planet like cellophane. It gonged in my spirit like a bell of truth. I woke this morning to a phone call from my cousin letting me know that our Aunt Jo died in Kingston last night. She was the last of my dad's five siblings, the oldest at age 97. I received the news with a sigh, and the thought that now she was free. In a way, she was lost to us a decade ago, the fog of Alzheimer's thick on her, with not even those momentary breakthroughs of recognition. "The last of the Mohicans," my cousin said. "For some reason that phrase is just circling in my mind."
My father's side of the family is not as dramatically demonstrative as my mother's side of the family. We don't efficiently pass news of literally everyone and everything in real time like my mother's side does, but we are close nevertheless. With my cousins on my dad's side, there is no doubt that help, should we need it, is a phone call away. My father's side specializes in swinging into action, unlike my mother's side, which one might say never really swings out of action.
I'll never forget when I was maybe 9 years old, the news came that my dad's youngest sister, who had migrated to Toronto, married a Canadian, and was raising her family there, fell upon a hard time. I won't go into details about it, but she had been committed to an institution against her will. As soon as my dad hung up the phone from the family friend who apprised him of this, he rallied his other siblings, all still living in Jamaica. It was late evening, but they all arrived at our home within the hour for a family meeting. The very next morning, my dad and his brother were on a plane to Toronto, where they succeeded in straightening things out and getting their baby sister's life back on an even keel. What stays with me was their absolute lack of hesitation.
And the year my dad was dying—he and my mom were living in St. Lucia then—my Aunt Jo flew to be by his side, and help my mother care for her brother. I traveled there from New York at one point to give blood for my father, as I was the best match in the family. My daughter was eleven months old, and very attached to me, and when I left her in Aunt Jo's care to go to the hospital with my mother, she cried inconsolably. She refused to be comforted, and even fiercely pushed Aunt Jo over as she stooped to try and hold her. This endeared her to Aunt Jo forever. She loved how spunky her grand niece was, and never tired of telling her that. My daughter, for her part, was horrified that she had pushed over her then 76-year-old aunt, even if she was not yet a year old.
Fly free, dear Aunt Jo. I imagine you shaking off that gray earthly mien, getting up out of your wheelchair, the light coming back on in your eyes. Say hi to everyone on that side of the cellophane for me. Tell them to blow us some love.
My son is 26 years old today! We won't see him till Saturday, as he is undertaking intensive training at the fire academy to become a fully certified paramedic, the next step on his journey. Nine months of super intense instruction with tests every week, plus clinical rotations, midterms and finals, and then the state boards. As he said, "This is my graduate school." We love you son, and we're so proud of you too, the way you just keep knocking down those pins, taking the next step, and then the next toward you dreams. I hope you have a wonderful day, even if you're studying five hours every night, and waking up at 4:30 am every morning. We'll celebrate on Saturday!
(I should note I didn't take that picture; his girlfriend did. That smile was for her camera. He usually scowls at my mine. Thank you S!)
Writing a first draft is such an endlessly surprising process. I often don't know what is going to flow onto the page, or rather the blank screen, until the words appear. I love this process when the ideas, especially the subconscious ones, are flowing. I love it even when they aren't, even when I have to sift through mountains of research and digest it into effortless, accessible, humanizing prose. That's the goal anyway. I do my best, because there is no other work I would rather do. Today, I am conscious of being grateful.
"I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived."
Behind this window I am finally writing again, catching up on all the 1,000-word days I lost when my husband was sick and in hospital. This is critical, as my book delivery date has not changed. A dear friend wanted to come by and visit us this afternoon, but I finally know what do in the chapter I'm working on, the sentences are flowing at last, and so I decided to be honest and tell our friend that I don't want to pause in the writing to get dressed for the day or to tidy the house and could we maybe figure something out for the weekend instead. I don't want her to think we don't appreciate her. We are definitely looking forward to seeing her. But I am only at fifty-three thousand words and I have to get to seventy-five thousand in the next month or so, and then begins the work of editing and revising the completed draft. Our friend is an artist and a worker among workers. She says she understands. I trust this is true.
With all that unfolds in the news daily, I could so easily be up in arms in every post, but I choose not to do that. One cannot live in a constant howl. Suffice it to say more sh*t happened yesterday, including the president informing us that hurricane battered Puerto Rico was "out in the middle of the ocean" and you can't "drive a truck there." Good Lord. We all know what's going on. I get tired of beating the drum here.
A speech therapist came this morning to assess what is happening with my husband's voice. It is the only part of his healing that is lagging behind. Happy to report the back pain is for the most part gone. He can now walk a mile at a time, and every twilight we stroll to the food market to pick up groceries for our evening meal, which more often than not, he cooks. Our usual roles are reasserting themselves.
Now, it's just his voice. It is still a raspy whisper, and it turns out he should not have been using it at all. The intubation during his surgery very likely bruised his vocal chords, and their healing requires complete vocal rest, warm tea with honey, gentle massages of the throat, yoga neck rolls, and all the things professional singers do to preserve their instrument.
I wish someone had told us this immediately after the surgery. Instead we filled his hospital room with talk and laughter, and he told his stories, sometimes straining to be heard. Once we got home, the talk continued. In fact, we believed that the more he used his voice, the stronger it would get, like a muscle. Well, now we know the very opposite is true. It will be a challenge for him not to speak at all. Even as the speech therapist was telling him this, he was saying, "Okay. Got it. I see." Nooooo. Nod your head, my love, or shake it left to right. And I promise not to shout questions from the next room anymore.
Here's the thing about dog whistles: Only those you want to hear their call can discern the true tone. So when the president of these divided states calls on NFL owners to fire the "sons of bitches" who protest racial injustice by taking a knee during the national anthem, you know he's talking about the black players, because in his bigoted mind, constitutional free-speech protections don't apply to them. But when the narcissistic sociopath who currently occupies the White House is called to account, he can disingenuously say, "I said nothing about race, this is about respect for the flag and the armed forces, respect for the country. They're disrespecting our heritage." Whose heritage do you mean, though? Another dog whistle. And by the way, the armed forces respect the players' first amendment freedoms, for which they fought, so let's get real, this is just about the bloviator-in-chief throwing red meat to his base. Tellingly, he had nothing to say when Tom Brady declined to visit the White House, but he's all over Steph Curry's decision not to attend any victory celebration there. Guess which one is white and which one black? But beware, all this is a distraction from the real dangers at hand, the umpteenth effort to gut healthcare, give huge tax breaks to the wealthy, ban immigration from Muslim countries, racially gerrymander voting districts, and round up and deport the undocumented in the most heartless manner possible. And so much more. Every Republican who stands by this president is complicit in the stream of dog whistles and everything else. This is the politics of hate. And it is toxic to the very air.
My cousin, Aunt Beulah's oldest daughter, combed through her parents' photo albums to put together a video memorial for her mom's funeral in hurricane ravaged West Palm Beach last weekend. She found some unexpected gems, like these two cooking class photos taken back in the sixties. Then five years old, she was living with us in Jamaica for a few months while her parents toured "the continent," as Europe was known in those days. My mother enrolled the two of us in cooking classes, and my cousin has very detailed memories of seasoning chicken with vinegar and even having her picture with oversized chef hat end up in the local paper. She's a fine cook today. As for me, until I saw this evidence with my own eyes, I had no memory whatsoever of being in that class. That's my mom beside me in the second picture, her face half hidden by my cousin's headwear. I look as if I am serving her a cup of tea, while my cousin is offering a slice of cake. If you can't figure which one I am in the lineup above, I'm the chubby one, and my cousin is the littlest. I guess you can't fault my mom for trying.
My husband was downstairs, sitting on a bench in the bright morning, waiting for a colleague from work who was coming by to visit with him. This woman is leaving the museum where they've both worked for years, he as an ichthyologist, she as a mammalogist. She's moving to England to take up a position with the natural history museum of Oxford University. She's German, and thrilled that, despite Brexit, she'll have more ready access to home. She travels today, and couldn't leave, she said, without saying, not goodbye, just see you later to my husband.
Before she arrived, our heart son E. came out of his building, which is opposite ours. He saw my husband sitting there with his hands crossed over the curve of his cane. E. came over and sat with him, and they struck up a conversation in the bright morning.
Moments later, one of our complex's security guards walked up, a Jamaican man we laugh and share stories with all the time. He has jokes, this one. I like knowing he's out there, watching over my children as they come and go. Soon after that, my husband's work colleague arrived, and they all sat around talking in the bright morning.
They asked my man about all he has recently been through, and in his still hoarse whisper he told them, "Once I decided I wanted to live, then I knew I had to say yes to the operation, and that meant I was also saying yes to everything that came after, the pain of recovery, the slow road back, everything."
Our security guard friend cleared his throat. "Look, man," he said sternly, "no fooling around, now. You better get all the way better, because I never had a father, and I'm telling you now, you are a father figure to me."
"Me too," E. said quietly.
"Me too," my husband's work buddy said.
My husband looked taken aback. He put a hand of over his heart and just nodded, humbled.
It was a moment I won't ever forget, shared by a little cluster of people sitting under the trees on a bright Sunday morning.
My daughter's boyfriend's mom (on the left in the photo above, with my girl and her guy) drove to the city from upstate to drop off some suits for her son, who starts his new job with a big data finance firm this week. His sister also came, and she made the most delicious baked ziti and a salad, and brought it over to our house so we could all have lunch together. His mom is a kindergarten teacher, and she was saying that they had a cradle in her classroom, but no baby doll to fill it. Why not a stuffed animal, my girl said, and ran to her former bedroom to find one from her childhood that she didn't mind parting with. The stuffed toy, and the dog my girl is taking care of for a vacationing neighbor, got into the picture too.
The upstaters left in plenty of time to get back home in daylight. The rest of us went out for a walk just now, in the dark, because my husband hadn't yet done his outside walking for the day. He was tired after our visitors left, and inclined to blow it off, but I knew he would feel better if he got in at least one walk. God has a sense of humor, I told him, because never in a million years would we have imagined I'd be the one pushing for us to go walking not once, but twice each day. The fact that these two lovely young people came along for the jaunt made it less like medicine and more like fun. I love that they live nearby. They helped make it a simple good day.
I remember when my children were little, and they were sick, my world got very small. Everything but their misery ceased to matter. I realize now what a luxury that was, that I could be relatively assured whatever ailed my babies, they would in all probability get well again, and the rest of the world would be allowed to reassert itself.
My world is small again, this time because the man I love has gone through a tremendous health ordeal, and his body is actively healing. My sister in law, a cardiologist, reminded me yesterday that recovery from open heart surgery is a squiggly line, not straight up. It helps to think of it that way, so I'm not too undone by the nurse practitioner telling us to come to hospital right away so she can do an EKG to check that my man's speeding heart is not in A-fib, which thankfully it was not, and so she sent us home again, with instructions to stop the medicine to raise his blood pressure and instead fill a prescription for a new medicine to lower his heart rate.
Today, it's about the number on the scale, which is somewhat higher than at the start of the week. It would be just a pesky detail for most of us, but for a cardiac patient it means a water pill gets added to the mix for five days and then we check in with the nurse practitioner again. She's feisty older Irish woman, and she scolded my man roundly for not taking his pain meds.
"We're not just giving out candy here," she said, exasperated. "We don't want you to be in pain because it stresses your body while you heal. That's why your heart is beating so dang fast. Trust me, you don't get any ribbons for having a hundred pain pills left at the end. Sheesh, you remind me of my father."
"I'll take that as a compliment," my husband said in his raspy whisper, his eyes dancing as they do.
NP O'Malley cocked an eyebrow at him, unable to hold in her smile.
"Well, yeah," she said grudgingly, "but it's a very thick compliment."
Those were some of the squiggles this week. On the up side, the physical therapist just left and while she was here she showed my husband how to propel himself up from the chair with less pain and greater efficiency, and how to get in and out of bed without putting undue stress on his sore heart and still knitting breast bone. "A Eureka moment," he said, beaming. It's so simple when you know the tricks.
So yes, my world has contracted, this time without the rock solid assurances I recall feeling in the past. In their place are prayers and purpose and hope and belief in the will of this man and the intelligence of his body as it heals and heals and heals.
Our daughter wrote corny jokes on her dad's heart pillow, the one they gave him in the hospital to hold against his chest to cushion his incision when he coughs. One of the jokes in particular had our girl giggling all day. What does a nosy pepper do? Get jalapeño business. Man, the tickled her funny bone. "A whole internet of jokes and that's the one that grabbed you?" her boyfriend inquired, more amused by her than the joke. "But it's funny!" she insisted, and was off giggling again. From his hospital bed, sick as he still was that day, her dad smiled at his delightfully silly girl.
I'm so glad Hurricane Irma wasn't as damaging a storm in Florida as it was feared to be, at least in terms of human life. I know there is extensive property damage, and whole swaths of the state are still without power. But my dear Aunt Beulah's funeral, postponed because of the storm, will take place this weekend in West Palm Beach. I'm sad I won't be there. Over here my husband is navigating infusion specialists, visiting nurses, a weekly phlebotomist, and a rumored physical therapist, not to mention a roster of follow up appointments with doctors of various specialities. We also take twice daily walks. I am trying to do as advised by my husband's aunt, whose husband had major open heart surgery 20 years ago now. She said, "Don't look ahead. Don't be impatient for milestones. Don't assume anything should be further along than it is. Just meet each day as it comes and let the healing happen." It feels good to write that down, to look at it plain.
I worry about new things, but even that is progress, because the things I worry about now are no longer life and death; I'm fairly certain he will survive. He has survived, and now it is just quality of life things like when will his full voice return, when will his back be once again strong enough, pain free enough, for him to retrieve an item from the floor or to push out of bed without wincing. I lie awake sometimes in the deep of night researching different aspects of his recovery on my cell phone. Dr. Google is not usually very comforting. So I fall back on his aunt's advice: Day by day.
Late last evening, I sat next to him on the bed, giving him his nightly infusion treatment. It's a series of steps involving two saline syringes, one medicine syringe, and one heparin syringe to keep the tubing clear of clots. I have to disinfect the port of the PICC line embedded in his upper arm before and after each step, remember to open and close the clamp at the proper time, and to replace the green alcohol cap over the receiving end of the port when we're done. It's careful work, with the medicine itself to be delivered over a period of not less than 5 minutes. My hands in plastic gloves, I wield the syringes and the tiny square sterilizing pads, while he times the delivery of medication on his phone. My daughter and son also know how to do all this. We were all present on the night the infusion nurse came to teach us the process.
Last night, though, it was just my husband and me in the apartment, both of us concentrating on getting everything right, bound by a process out of the ordinary of our lives. The moment felt deeply intimate, the two of us on the bed, heads bent over, in a new configuration of together.
He was discharged yesterday, with a fat sheaf of instructions, six prescriptions, plus the infusion medicine that will continue for six weeks. Without putting his private medical information in the public square (more than I already have) he was a very sick honey. The night before surgery, he thought it might be his time, and then he decided no, his children still need him, and I do too. He decided.
He's home, now, the incision scar on his chest knitting together nicely, black stitches peeking out. He woke this morning and pronounced the night in his own bed "the best yet." Our son had arranged his pillows just so, and its architecture, combined with his dad's utter and complete exhaustion, worked its magic. No doubt his first shower in days also helped. No more sitting on a bathtub bench. He's standing under the water again, his back strong enough, the painful spasms mere ghosts now. The medicine is working. Of course, he's still weak; he walks slowly and gingerly. It is extraordinary to watch the body coming back online after its functions were essentially paused, as machines breathed for him and pumped his heart. I am shocked, happily so, by how far he has come in six short days. On this day one week ago, we did not yet know that his doctors would crack his sternum to perform open heart surgery on him the following morning.
Both our children were here with us last night when the infusion nurse came to show us how to administer the IV treatment. In between these twice daily treatments, he is to walk outside twice a day, two blocks to start, increasing the distance every day. We are lucky to live in a complex with garden paths, and benches along the way. This will be good for me, too. I will certainly walk alongside him, and by the end of a month he is to be walking a mile daily, which means I will be, too. File under the category of silver linings.
It turns out my husband's insurance is good: The at home treatments are one hundred percent covered. He has also racked up an impressive number of sick days at work, almost a year's worth, which he will burn through before having to go on disability. All things being well, he will be back at work long before that happens. File under the category of things I am insanely grateful for.
Meanwhile I am worried about our family and friends who are in the path of that monster category 5 hurricane, Irma. It already blew through Antigua and Barbuda, where my husband is from. Our family in Antigua seems to have come through okay, but Barbuda, their tiny sister island, was ravaged, almost leveled. Photographs my brother-in-law sent us show a torn up landscape strewn with sticks and debris, very few houses left standing. Now, as yet another hurricane takes aim, this one a category 2 named Jose, due to arrive on the weekend, they are evacuating the entire population of Barbuda. I cannot even imagine it.
At this moment, Irma is over the Virgin Islands, heading for the Bahamas, where we have more relatives, and then on to Florida where a whole contingent of our family lives, from West Palm Beach up to Orlando. My Aunt Beulah's funeral was supposed to be in West Palm Beach this Saturday, but they've had to postpone it because of the hurricane. My uncle, his youngest daughter, and her wife boarded up the house in Ft. Pierce and drove to Atlanta yesterday to catch a flight to San Francisco, where my cousin and her wife live. They left at noon and it took them till past midnight to get to Atlanta. The highways were bumper to bumper with evacuees.
I haven't yet mentioned that one of my mom's two remaining sisters had a stroke on the same day my husband went into surgery. She is mostly okay, no brain bleeds, just weakness on one side. She is in good hands as she lives with her children. Another cousin, Aunt Beulah's middle daughter, when she heard the news of my husband's heart surgery, said, "Our family is really being tested right now." And we are, but so is the rest of the world. These are difficult times. And yet there is still so much that mitigates our trials. My son mused, "Do bad things really come in threes or do we just start over counting when we get to three?" I found that oddly profound. For myself, I find everything a little easier to navigate if I don't actually keep score.
To my dear Florida friends here, please know I'm sending prayers for your safety through the coming winds and the rain. I hope that monster storm gets blown off course, way out to sea, and that all you receive from it is a watery kiss.
My daughter sat on the windowsill of her dad's hospital room watching the sun rise the morning of his surgery. We got to the hospital at 4:30 AM to be sure we would see him before the gurney arrived to transport him to the OR.
The surgery lasted six hours. We were drained and exhausted with worry. As the hospital is nearby where we live, we went home for the first four hours, then headed back to wait for news in the cardiac floor waiting room.
The monitors and drips and wires in the intensive care unit were something to behold. I asked the nurse what each number meant then sat there watching them obsessively as they dipped and rose, dipped and rose, all day, all night.
My son finally made it home from the hurricane that had trapped him with a wedding party in Cabo, Mexico. By then his dad had been moved out of the ICU and into a private room with a view.
My daughter's boyfriend was a prince, there for us the entire time. During the surgery, my daughter was my rock. He was her rock and I am grateful to him, so much more than he can truly imagine.
The sky was spitting yesterday morning as I escorted my husband home. While we waited for the car to pull up, he walked out to the sidewalk and into the light drizzle. "Come back inside," I begged him, but he turned his face up to the gray sky and said, "No, this feels wonderful."