Category Archives: Special Topics

A Letter to my Children About Alcoholism

My darlings,

You probably will remember this Christmas as a time of joy over your new kitten as well as confusion over a missing family member.  Someone very special to us was not here this year because of a sickness.  I am sad to say that over the years the sickness had hurt us all, and we were together this Christmas to pick up the pieces as best we could.  Mindless of the adult tension, you played games and built a snowman. Your questions about the circumstances went unanswered, and someday when you are older, we owe you an explanation.  Christmas should be a magical time for children, a celebration of miracles when wonder and joy abound.  Children are too innocent to understand that in the adult world, there is no such guarantee for happiness.  You don’t realize it now, but you were robbed of the Christmas that you deserved, and I will make it up to you.

I know that for you, sleeping camp-out style in a cold, filthy building was an adventure.  I used to think that way too.  The meager Christmas tree that we erected in a dirty corner of a dusty room at the last minute probably looked better to you than it did to me. The broken ornaments found in an old drawer probably glistened a bit more in your eyes, bright with new dreams.  The food probably tasted better and the arguments probably sounded less vicious because you were counting down the minutes until Santa came down the chimney.

You went about life as always, preoccupied with watching all the Christmas cartoons, drawing pictures, and teasing each other.  You fixed a plate for Santa with no help from the adults, who were too busy anyway, shouting over each other and sloshing glasses of wine on the stained floor. I envied your oblivion, and yet I could not help but wonder how much you had already deduced.  After all, you are the smartest children I know.  How could you not notice that many things were strange this Christmas?

While you were gleefully playing with your new kitten, our entire family imploded.  I want you to know that it was a long time in the making, and it had nothing to do with you.  Actually, that is not true.  For me and Daddy, it had everything to do with you.  I don’t imagine that my childhood was like yours.  I grew up very quickly, learned to hide problems and make excuses for my loved ones, and tried to be the glue that held everything together.  The role I played is not the role that I want any of you to play.  Because it’s not how Daddy and I want to treat you, it’s not right, and it’s not good for you.  I want you to have a stable and healthy upbringing, but I have noticed that I am passing on to you some very bad habits that I learned as  a child.  You deserve better than what I had, and only I can make changes in my own life to improve the conditions in yours.

Someday I hope that you understand the decisions that were made, the lines that were drawn, and the boundaries that were established.  I hope that you are not damaged because of what I experienced, and I hope that I have the strength to change myself before it is too late for you to have the family, the memories, and the life that you want and deserve.  Your daddy and I had to make a very important decision this Christmas, and we both pray that our family will be much healthier by next Christmas.  It is January 1st, New Year’s Day.  My heart aches to speak to people whose ears have been closed, but I remain hopeful that it is not too late for us.  It is time for me to break a long and dangerous cycle, and to give you the best gift that I possibly can.

Your life is what you make of it, but without the proper tools, you cannot thrive.  You don’t know it now, but this year for Christmas Daddy and I gave you the gift of a better chance at life because we finally put you first.  We lifted the curse of a million bottles and cans, and we released you from the grips of a family disease.  The road ahead won’t be easy for any of us because we have been affected deeply by a sickness that hurts entire families, but we are working together to make our family better.  Daddy and I owe that to you all.  You will have a better life than your parents, because of the decisions your parents are making for you now.  This is my promise to you, my darlings.  I love you all unconditionally,

~Momma

Something to Think/Write About

2015-09-10 09.27.32Last night when it was time to read stories before bed, my daughter found a book long hidden in our collection.  I had gone downstairs to tuck her in and when I saw it at the top of her stack, I said “Oh, you found ‘The Librarian of Basra’.  Did you like it?”

She answered, “I loved it!  I am feeling so many emotions from this book right now!”  Wow.  I had never seen her respond to a book like this before. She asked many questions about it, so I promised to find out as much as possible for her about the librarian of Basra.

I hadn’t looked at this book in a long time.  It was discovered in the most unexpected of places, a scratch and dent store in Independence, Missouri.  I was cruising the book section, not really looking for anything at all, and then I found this book.  I stood in the store and read it, not quite believing the great fortune I’d stumbled upon.  Reading the story made me feel connected once again to people I had known and lost — friends on the other side of the world who I never would have met had it not been for a war.  People who did nothing to deserve the wrath that had been raining down on them.

The story is written and illustrated by American author Jeanette Winter, known for creating vibrant true tales about real life heroes in a way that is palatable for younger audiences. This story is about Alia Muhammad Baqer, the chief librarian in Basra, forced to give up her building and livelihood when the governor decides to use it as his new headquarters. Baqer’s courage and tenacity saves around 30,000 rare and valuable books from destruction when the library burns to the ground during the early days of the Iraq war.  Although she cannot save every book, Baqer’s efforts prevent the entire collection from being lost and she becomes a local hero.  At great risk of her own safety, Baqer chooses to rescue knowledge, because as a librarian, she knows how intrinsic books are to the survival of her culture.

American cartoonist Mark Alan Stamaty, also depicts Baqer’s story in a graphic black and white comic book format, also child-friendly.  In the Amazon.com reviews section of Stamaty’s book, a reviewer by the name of Judy K Polhemus had this to say:  “As a girl, Alia had read about the Mongol invasion of Iraq and the burning of the Baghdad Library. She equates the burning of a library and its books with the destruction of the culture of her country. Burn a library and you burn a collective recorded memory.  Alia singlehandedly assumes the responsibility… She stuffs her purse and loads her arms under her shawl and walks out, loads her car, returns for another load.  City and military officials who now occupy the library, daring the enemy to bomb their library, pay her no heed.  She fills her car.

Night after night she comes home with a car full of books.  Her husband, bless him, unloads them into a closet, then guest room, then into other rooms.  (I’m a librarian and understand her distress and need to save the books!).  Then neighbors and friends, and those who hear about the effort, and then many other people help rescue the books.  The only books intentionally ignored are those about Saddam Hussein.”

Further research cemented my respect for Baqer, her courage, her passion for books, her legitimate concern that the destruction of the library would mean severe damage to civilization itself.  In Pam McAllister’s blog post Lawbreaking Librarians: A Legacy of Courage, Alia is the featured heroine who rescues a critical piece of her culture in the face of “the war against books”.  Not too difficult to imagine Baqer’s source of courage.  She is a book lover after all, and to her, books are the most important tools for building society.  Knowledge is power.

On women’s history site A Mighty Girl, Winter was asked in an interview how she made her stories, often about heroes in nearly impossible circumstances, accessible to young readers, and whether these stories are even historically valid to these readers.  Winter asserts that her works, especially ‘The Librarian of Basra’ depict stories in an “even-handed” manner, through strong, colorful graphics and easy to understand language, allowing young people to find meaning that they can comprehend.  Winter also states that despite the academic argument that children care little for history, it is possible to cultivate love of learning through “good, accurate story-telling”.

Illustration of Alia Baqer dreaming of peace and a new library, from Jeanette Winter's 'The Librarian of Basra'.

Illustration of Alia Baqer dreaming of peace and a new library, from Jeanette Winter’s ‘The Librarian of Basra’.

This morning I was well equipped with several sources to back up the story of the Librarian of Basra and give my daughter the information she wanted.  I know that she is a book lover like myself, and she also cares deeply for others, so she would find what my discoveries quite valuable.  We had a nice talk before school.  I showed her a photograph I found of Alia Baqer in 2013, on the tenth anniversary of her mission to save the books.  She is now an old woman, sitting at a desk, working with a large hard cover book.  She looks like she is happy and at peace.  This photograph made my daughter very happy.  It made me happy and sad.  It’s difficult to explain how books and stories can create common bonds from across the globe, but I hope that somehow, Alia Baqer can know that her story inspired a little girl in the United States to be a courageous person.

My daughter asked me about my experience in Iraq.  I showed her my collection of photographs — friends and places once visited and long since left behind.  I told her some of the stories of heroes I met there.  I told her why people were scared of Saddam Hussein, and why the bombs were falling on Basra when the librarian was trying to save all the books.  I explained to her why it is important to save knowledge and tell stories.  She gave me a hug and said “I love you Mom” when she left for school.  I looked at all my books and smiled.

~G

 

I wrote this post because I was so touched by my daughter’s interest in the story of Alia Baqer.  I have noticed that, as Ms. Winter asserts, children really are fascinated by history.  Effective tools, such as children’s books like ‘The Librarian of Basra’ and Mr. Stamaty’s true life comics, can help us teach important history lessons to younger generations.  More importantly, we as parents and educators also need to have conversations with children and answer their questions so that our history as people is not swept under the heavy, musty rugs of time.  

 

Links for more information about the librarian of Basra:

Iraqi Librarian Saved 30,000 Books During Invasion

Photo of the Librarian of Basra

Lawbreaking Librarians: A Legacy of Courage

Too Soon or Censorship?

Harcourt Books Interview with Jeanette Winter

 

The Final Days of Ross The Dog

Ross having a good day and preparing for his final hunt.

Ross having a good day and preparing for his final hunt.

Today I woke up to the sound of a gentle rain,  and it reminded me of the lyrics to that old song, If Ever I Would Leave You.  I went out to the back deck, with “If ever I would leave you, how could it be in springtime?” running absently through my head. The pristine morning with softly falling rain and cheerful birdsong completed a long, sad week of saying goodbye to our beloved, fun loving spirit known as Ross The Dog.  Ross was special in many ways, but perhaps what differentiated him from other dogs is that when people got to know Ross, they would say, “I want a dog like that.  I want a Ross.”  On Thursday, while Ross was out hunting for one last pheasant, I bought a bottle of whiskey aged seven years, same as Ross, so that my husband and I could make a toast to our first family dog.  After Van returned with the pheasants and told the story of Ross’s glorious final hunt, we clinked glasses and choked back tears.  “To the best pet.”  I said.  “A good dog.”  Van added.  It wasn’t necessary to say anything more.  Ross was a dog that broke the mold on canine companions, a dog that set impossible pet standards.

Ross taking a nap with his person, Alexis, this spring.

Ross taking a nap with his person, Alexis, this spring.

I wasn’t on board when it came to getting a dog.  Basically Van wanted a puppy but I didn’t think it was a good idea at that time, so he picked out Ross, without my permission, and I had to hold the enemy in my lap during a very long drive home.  Ross peed all over me.  I was quite angry.  I never admitted this to anyone in seven years, but even as angry as I was about Van buying a dog — without my permission — that then peed on me –my heart totally melted while I held him during that long ride home.  Ross learned that Van was the Master, and I was Mommy.  Sometimes this caused problems when Mommy didn’t want Ross doing something, but the Master overruled.  Ross always knew that Mommy somehow trumped the Master (wink).  But possibly the greatest compliment Van has ever given me in reference to my dedication to Ross, was when he said recently, “If there is such thing as reincarnation, I would like to come back as one of Georgeann’s dogs.  It doesn’t matter which, because I know that if I am her dog, I will be cared for better than any other dog.”

Ross learned that there were little companions to play with and protect.  Our children became his new friends, and our youngest became his Person, his life long soul mate.  Alexis would sneak food to Ross during dinner, stick her fingers up his nose and in his mouth during inspections, and use him as a pillow or footstool.  He was very patient and gentle with her and her siblings.  Alexis was the only one who Ross listened to all the time.  Listening to me was optional, and he listened to Van most of the time, but he always listened to Alexis.  And she could get him to do anything.  I didn’t like to take Ross on walks because he pulled on the leash and acted belligerent.  With Alexis, he heeled perfectly and stayed on pace with her, and she never had to say a word.

Alexis proudly showing off her picture of Ross.

Alexis proudly showing off her picture of Ross.

During our last trip to the park this week.

During our last trip to the park this week.

We always knew our time with Ross would be limited.  I still vividly remember how sick he became one day many years ago.  We had only recently moved to South Dakota, Ross was just a few months old, but growing fast, and we had become very attached to him.  We rushed him to the veterinary clinic down the road from our house.  The news was depressing.  Ross was in kidney failure and the doctor didn’t believe that he would live to be one year old.  One kidney was tiny and deformed, and the other wasn’t detectable on an x-ray.  We decided that the best way to care for Ross was to treat him with as much love as we could, for however long he had left.  We started him on a special diet and gave him extra TLC every day.  And we never, ever took him for granted.  He celebrated his seventh birthday this January, a pretty long and successful life for a dog not meant to live more than twelve months!

Resting on the deck after returning from his visit to K State earlier this week.

Resting on the deck after returning from his visit to K State earlier this week.

Last week he became sick again, and I saw the same signs as the first time.  Van took him to the K State animal hospital in the Veterinary Sciences Department.  He was kept there for three days under the incredible care of the students and staff, but the prognosis was not optimistic.  His renal levels were fourteen times what should have killed a dog his size, the veterinarian was mystified, and the one explanation that Van and I could give for Ross living so long was that he was the dog that was meant to be with us at this point in our lives.  The student on his case told me that Ross was responding to the medications, and that he wanted to come home, but there was no guarantee how much longer he might live. “We may have only bought you two days, maybe two weeks, optimistically a few months, but it’s just difficult to know.” she said.  I felt in my heart the answer.

Ross playing in the snow, South Dakota.

Ross playing in the snow, South Dakota.

The night that we got Ross back from K State, I had a dream about him.  He was loping to me, all tail wags and happy panting.  He was wet and shiny like a bright penny under water.  He was young, maybe only three years old, with the best muscle tone I’d ever seen, and his eyes were clear with intent.  I didn’t know what he was trying to tell me.  The next two nights, I was up with him.  He was very restless and had to be let out often.  He was vomiting and couldn’t control his bowels, wouldn’t eat or even drink water.  It was gut wrenching to see him like this, but I was his Mommy, and I was there to clean him up and take care of him.  He seemed to be fighting sleep, as though he suspected that sleep might try to sneak in a more final condition without his approval.  Since I couldn’t sleep anyway, I looked up dream interpretations about wet dogs.  Nothing.  Then I came across a Web sight for Native American dreams and visions.  My bright, shiny, wet dog, according to this site, was a reflection of my own personality and my response with the world around me.  It would be a few days before I understood the significance of the dream.

Ross getting brushed out by his favorite girls.

Ross getting brushed out by his favorite girls.

I think that I had started to notice small changes in Ross over the past year.  He began to slow down, take longer naps, and refuse his food more often.  As time went on, there were more days when he seemed to feel ill, and his hair began to turn white around the muzzle.  He still looked amazingly healthy for a dog with non-functioning kidneys, and to look at him you wouldn’t know that he really wasn’t a dog in his prime.  In just a few short weeks, I began to notice that instead of greeting me at the door with an energetic bark and wagging tail, he first stopped barking and just stood at the door, tail wagging gleefully, then he laid at the top of the stairs, no bark, but with tail thumping.  After a while, he was too tired to even wag his tail, but he would lie at the top of the stairs and turn over for me to scratch his belly.  Days near the end, I had to go find him.  This was very difficult, because I knew it was his way of telling me that he was too tired and weak to keep a routine.  He could tell me that he didn’t feel well, but he saved all his energy for Van and the girls, springing to greet them at the door like a fresh puppy, and he spent up the last of it playing with them.   He let me lay down next to him on the carpet in the bedroom when he was exhausted.  There had been many days when he patiently let me bury my head in his soft fur and have a good cry.  Now it was his turn to push his head against me for some hugs and comforting.  He needed someone to be there and tell him that it was okay, and so even though it terrified me, I put my face next to his, rubbed his shoulders, and said, “It’s okay, Buddy.  I know, it will be time soon.  You’re a good boy.  You can go when you’re ready.”

Watching and waiting.

Watching and waiting.

For me, the Mommy of the family, well, I like to think that he did something special, not that I could ever repay the favor.  Ross and I didn’t have that Master/Loyal Companion bond since he was officially Van’s dog.  But Ross knew his job was to protect the family and be a friend.  He spent more time with me than anyone else.  When Van was deployed or on a training mission, Ross never shirked his duties as the guardian of the home.  And when everyone left the house for work and school, Ross followed me around, got in my way, stole my place on the couch, took naps with me, rode with me in the car, played with me in the yard.  Most importantly, he listened to every word I said.  I told him all my problems, all my dreams, all my secrets.  He probably knew me better than any person! I could look at him and get an idea of what he might be thinking, and when the time came, I knew that Ross needed me to have strength that he no longer possessed, to encourage the family to let go.  He might have gone on living for another week or longer out of sheer willpower, but what kind of a life would it have been?   I told my husband that Ross seemed happy but that he also seemed to be waiting for permission to depart.  Van just needed a little time to prepare a final pheasant hunt.  I found Ross sitting in the bedroom and hugged him.  “Just hang in there for a couple more days, okay?”.  He seemed to give a nod of agreement.

Our family taking Ross for his last walk around the neighborhood.

Our family taking Ross for his last walk around the neighborhood.

There was no way to really repay Ross for a lifetime of loyalty and friendship but I decided to give him the best last day possible.  The things that a dog likes are so simple in nature that they should be a lesson to us all: a ride in a car on a sunny day, rolling in the grass, a nap on an old bed, a crust of good bread, and being with our favorite people.  What better way to pass a last day?  He was too weak to jump easily into my car  so I had to boost him in, but he got to ride shotgun once more time as I made my way to a park near Milford Lake.  It was a chilly, windy morning, and the park was completely empty, so Ross had the place to himself.  I let him run as long as he wanted.  The view was quite pretty, although not as beautiful as South Dakota, where we had hoped that he could spend his final day.  I wondered if God granted dogs the ability to see in color in their final hours, and I hoped that Ross could see everything for how truly beautiful if was on that morning.  Tears started to stream down my face, but great sheets of wind quickly blew them away.  Ross paused from sniffing the grass to look at me quizzically, so I wiped my face and we walked through the park together, hot on the trail of a rabbit that was long gone.

Road DogHe tired quickly, so I helped him back into the car.  At home Ross seemed content just laying in the backyard.  I had been saving half a bundle of sage for a special occasion, so I lit it and let it smolder slowly, ceremonial incense from me to Ross.  I laid down on the grass beside him and smelled the sage and looked at the sky.  It was a gorgeous day.  I opened up the guest room and helped Ross onto the bed, his favorite place to nap, and he sprawled out in the afternoon sun.  I peeked in on him and chuckled to see how content he was dozing on his back with his legs flayed and sagging balls flopping out in the afternoon sun — just the way he liked to nap.  I’d bought frozen pizzas for supper because the one treat Ross was allowed on his special diet was pizza crust.  Van called to tell me that he had found a place for Ross to go on his last pheasant hunt, then he would take him back to K State.  He would go to sleep next to Van, with a freshly killed trophy pheasant to dream about as he began to doze.

Ross and his favorite toy, a stuffed sheep named Moss.

Ross and his favorite toy, a stuffed sheep named Moss.

After school we had to break the news to the girls.  I don’t want to ever have to go through that again, but after the initial shock, the girls agreed to take Ross for a walk around the block, brush him out, play with him in the yard, and feed him pizza crust.  He refused the pizza crusts, but did everything else, and more.  He even posed for some very touching pictures.  We explained to the girls that now was the time for them to tell him what they felt in their hearts and give him all their love so he would be ready for his journey.  As much as it hurt to say goodbye, our good memories of Ross are a reminder of the incredible relationship that we, as a family, had with him. When I think about Ross and the impact he had on our family and friends, I have to wonder if it’s possible for angels to appear in animal form.

A bonfire tribute for Ross.

A bonfire tribute for Ross.

Ross always hated it when Van built bonfires, probably because of his propensity to go overboard and inevitably blow up something.  Ross had a way of giving Van a disapproving look whenever Van was doing something stupid.  On Thursday afternoon, after showing me Ross’s beautiful pheasants, Van told me that on the drive back from the hunt, he was able to do one last stupid thing, just for Ross, and Ross gave him one last disapproving look, as if to say “I get it, dumbass!”  Last night, Van built a fire in my old chimenea that was meant to put all other bonfires to shame — and it did.  He blew up spray paint cans in it three times, which is how many times it took to completely destroy the chimenea.  The third explosion was so glorious that the blast scrambled the video I was taking on my phone (much to my dismay), scattered shards of pottery and burned out paint cans as far as twelve feet from the blast zone, and splattered yellow paint on the deck chairs.  Yellow paint for a yellow dog — very appropriate!

Fire and rain are re-energizing, recharging forces of nature necessary for healing and renewal.  This morning, waking to the sound of rain, my wet dog dream finally made sense.  Ross was not wet from a smelly pond or from bathwater, but from fresh pure rain, he smelled of sweetgrass, looked beautiful, and shone like new a penny.  He was healthy, happy, and strong.  Call me a batty sentimentalist, but I choose to believe in things that make me feel good.  Van’s bonfire was one last tribute to Ross from a bunch of silly, awkward, lost humans, and my dream was a message from Ross to wait for rain.  Then  tonight around dinner time, the sky opened up with the most beautiful and gentle rainstorm we had ever seen in Kansas, sending cool blankets of the rain billowing down to drench us.  We watched the girls play in it for hours, laughing and talking about Ross’s brilliant gift to us for taking care of him.  It was just his way of telling us that he saw it, and that he loves us even though we are all dumbasses.

~G

DSCN2495

The Art of Conversation

Mouth

The dynamics of talking (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Earlier this year my husband had surgery to correct quite possibly the worst documented sleep apnea in history.  He snored so loud I am certain that our closest neighbors also went without sleep. The Army gave him two weeks of convalescent, and by Day Eight of Recovery, I wanted to check myself into the psychiatric ward of the hospital.

Van’s surgery turned out to be prolonged torment; afterward we both agreed that if we had done any serious research, we wouldn’t have committed to such a sadistic idea. It was actually five procedures in one.  A uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (go ahead, sound it out), or U-triple P in medical jargon, is a procedure that trims away all or part of the uvula, some of the soft palate, and part of the back of the throat.  Since my husband still had his tonsils and adenoids, they were removed, so he also underwent a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy.  The doctor expanded his sinuses using tiny balloons and fixed his deviated septum, adding sinoplasty and septoplasty.  All five procedures took less than two hours to complete, and in that time I was able to leave the hospital for an unhurried if not totally relaxed sit-down lunch, but I sped back to the hospital to be present when Van was wheeled out of recovery.

The waiting room was mostly empty and very quiet.  A middle aged black man kept looking between his cell phone and the television blaring in the corner, a firestorm erupting over the events in Ferguson, Missouri.   After a while, the man and I tried to ignore the repetitive tickers flashing across the screen.  I took ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’ from the loan shelf and skimmed enough to figure out that Dorian met a gruesome demise.  A neat old lady walked in carrying a Hy Vee bag, sat down across from me and popped the tab from a soda.  She smiled at me and asked if I knew how to turn off Airplane Mode on a Trac Phone.  I scooted next to her and proved to be useless, but then a conversation began.  She was a whip smart Marine’s wife.  Her husband had been in Vietnam; when he came back his miserable job was to knock on the doors of the wives whose Marines had been KIA.

“Then one day two of our friends came home in body bags at the same time, and he had to go knock on the doors of their wives.  These were people we knew quite well.  After that he didn’t see any point to any of it anymore, so he got out as soon as he could.”  She smiled and met my eyes steadily and we exchanged a knowing look.  We understand so much more than we ought to.

A nurse peered into the waiting room, and I recognized my husband on the gurney in the hallway.  Van looked fragile and frantic, but I smiled brightly into his face, and he clutched my hand tight.  The nurse said, “He won’t be able to talk for quite a while.”

“Then he can listen to me,” I winked and smiled back down into his face again and he squeezed my hand harder.  Before the procedure Van told me that there was no sense in my sticking around, I should go have lunch and get some air.  I had joked “Well that’s not very clingy of you!”  He responded “Oh, that will come after the surgery.”  I could see how much he needed me now.

It’s amazing what we take for granted.  We had recently decided to work on our communication skills and be better mates to each other; now suddenly communication had become quite nearly impossible!   Van had to learn to communicate without speaking; I had to learn how to really listen and interpret his nods, gestures, frowns, and sometimes angry emphatic flailing, and then try to give him whatever would make him more comfortable  — or in his case, less miserable.  Everything slowed down to a crawl, and every minute for us was filled with trying to communicate better.

I had to remind myself to speak much less.  As much as I wanted to talk, as lonely as I felt without banter from my favorite conversationalist, I knew Van was exhausted and didn’t have the capacity for long talks.  I kept a lot to myself, and it wasn’t easy.  For example, the college student daughter of the middle aged black man in the waiting room…was so upset because her mother was also at the hospital undergoing surgery that she hit his truck in the hospital parking lot while we were waiting to be discharged.  Yeah, I kept that to myself for a couple of days until Van was lucid enough to process the information.  Instead of making sentences longer and full of detail — one of my habits — I tried to keep things short and to to the point so that he could get the important information and make a decision quickly or tell me what he needed without having to exert too much energy.  I’m telling you, it was exhausting, and it didn’t always work.  Sometimes I wasn’t intuitive.  Sometimes Van wasn’t patient.  And there were evil forces at work.

We had to live on New Baby new schedule.  Van required round the clock pain medications, so neither of us was getting eight full hours of sleep.  I was lucky if I got three hours of sleep at one stretch, and Van claimed he never slept for more than 30 minutes, but he was really whacked out on the pain medication.  Around Day 3 of Recovery, I woke up to a bloodcurdling scream around midnight.  I figured my daughter was having a nightmare, but I was shockingly incorrect.  She had covered her entire bed in vomit.  Being already somewhat sleep deprived, I could hardly process this new horror, and I had a hell of a time cleaning it up.  The mystery virus swept through the household, causing stomachaches, fevers, and headaches, but no one else vomited.  I was terrified that Van would catch it, but luckily he was the only one who didn’t.

I had to drive across town to pick up Pedialyte and crackers at Wal-Mart, but I didn’t have the energy to change out of my pajamas.  I “dressed” them up with a pair of jaunty red moccasins and an over-sized vintage bleached Levi’s anorak.  My youngest daughter was appalled to see me leave the house in pajamas because my primary rule of fashion is to NEVER, EVER, under ANY circumstances, leave the house in pajamas!  I couldn’t give a shit.  When I looked in the restroom mirror at Wal-Mart, I nearly jumped back at the reflection, much like Dorian Gray must have when he began to see his transformation.  Oh no, could it be?  Was it me staring back?   My eyes were glassy and red, and when I had applied my lipstick, I had put it around my lips, not on them!

On Day 5 of Recovery my husband became a food critic.  The mashed potatoes were too salty, the Jell-O too acidic, the Cream of Wheat too sandy, the soup too hot, the water too cold, the ice too hard.  I started to lose my shit in the kitchen.  I knew it was just because his throat was very sensitive, but when someone tells you that they cannot handle water, that water possesses qualities making it too harsh for consumption, it becomes hard not to just give up.  I smiled at my husband, said “Okay, I will try to find something that works for you,” and went into the kitchen to weep silently while Van watched old Chris Farley movies on television.

On Day 7 I took Van to the hospital for his follow-up appointment.  I was soooo over the hospital.  I’d already been there twice to refill Van’s pain medicine, each visit making me more resentful of free medical care.  I had tolerated the overly complicated customer service ticket kiosk, suspicious pharmacy techs interrogating my intents with the pain meds, and a protracted fire alarm malfunction.  The last thing I wanted was to visit the hospital again, but here we were.  Van leaned on me slightly as we walked into the hospital, and I got a premonition of what old age might be like for us.  The doctor said Van should start do feel much better after getting the stints out, and then I made the mistake of watching the stints being removed.  It was like an alien extraction scene in a sci-fi movie!

Van had taken a turn for the worse the night before, so the doctor sent us to the ER for an IV.  This would add another 2-3 hours to our visit, but it would make a world of difference in his recovery.  There was a young soldier in the waiting room with a huge bloody gash across his forehead.  He had wrecked his truck his wife left him in the same week, but this was still the best day he’d had in a while, so he said.

We sat in a large room for a long time after triage, Van getting an IV and sleeping.  I was so tired that I wanted to cry, but I just sat against the wall and closed my eyes.  Van still couldn’t talk, but I sensed when he needed me.  I opened my eyes, and he motioned for me to come near so he could whisper into my ear.  “I’m ready to get outta here.”  I was ready too.  But it would not happen before we overheard the ER doctor give an overly detailed description to the patient  on the other side of the privacy curtain of all the things that could go wrong during his spinal tap.  I now knew too much.

Day 8 I left the house in my pajamas again, but this time it was much worse.  I didn’t even bother to put on a bra or shoes.  Fortunately, I was just driving a few blocks to pick up my youngest daughter from a sleepover.  I think I cried during the drive.  My friend took one look at me and said “Whoa, you want some coffee?”  I really wanted to stay home and sleep but I had to get out and pick up meds again, so after my daughter and I cleaned up our act, we headed out.  I was hoping to just pick up everything at the Post Exchange, or PX, common on Army bases.  Unfortunately, one of the prescriptions — in fact, the most important one that Van absolutely needed — could only be filled at the hospital, so we would have to go there too.

While we were at the PX waiting for our ticket to be called for the other medications, someone puked all over the floor, creating a veritable minefield of vomit.  I couldn’t believe it. I had dealt with more bizarre things in the days since Van’s surgery — rude Kansas drivers, suspicious pharmacists, sleep deprivation, crazy ER doctors, and so much vomit — and all I wanted was to be able to have a real conversation with my husband, then sleep for an entire week.  Maybe in reverse order.  But those things seemed so far out of reach.

It was a long time before we started communicating again.  Once Van began to talk, he also began to formulate plans.  There were things that he really wanted to accomplish, and I just wanted to catch up — on conversation and sleep! I began to feel a bit resentful.  Was I nothing more than a supplement, a convenient presence during Van’s recovery?  After all, I had been there, serving his every need, never giving myself the luxury of wasted time or leisure. I literally burned myself out just trying to keep him alive and well, and all I really craved was a simple conversation with him, to know that at the very heart of the nightmare that we were going through, we still had our humanity.

Looking back on the whole affair one evening several weeks post-op, Van told me something that made me realize that despite his impatience and anger over being exhausted, uncomfortable, and in constant pain, he saw me as the only source of hope and contentment in his situation.  He told me that when he came out of surgery he kept asking for me.  The nurse wouldn’t let me come into the first phase of recovery, but Van continued to demand that she bring me back.

“I never stopped talking about you; I kept asking for you.”  he said.  “I kept telling that nurse, “bring my wife here.  She can feed me ice chips.”  I don’t know why the nurse didn’t just let you come back there and take care of me.”  What he said made me think of the moment we arrived home from the hospital.  I had to somehow get him up the stairs and onto the couch.  He is taller and bigger than me, but I somehow managed to help him walk slowly, with him leaning heavily on me for support, up the driveway, up the front porch stairs, and up the entry stairs into the living room, where he could rest on the couch.  He leaned so completely on me.

Since the surgery, we have been communicating better, occasionally worse, but we are talking more than ever.  We’ve had a few arguments, a fight or two, and we have opened up and started communicate in ways that we have neglected for years.  Having the form of conversation to which we were accustomed taken away suddenly showed us what we had been taking for granted and pointed out what we needed to repair in our relationship.   We both started leaning on each other more, and now I feel more valued and appreciated by my husband since this incident, and I have stopped taking for granted the simple act of having a conversation with him.  For the first time in weeks, we sat down this morning to have a cup of coffee, argue about the leadership attributes of the ridiculous number of Presidential candidates, discuss lawn care techniques, and exchange banter about the fun that we could encounter throughout the day.  I couldn’t ask for anything more.

~G