Tag Archives: Family

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

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Homecoming

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An imposing perspective on parent/child relationships. You can go home again, but it’s scary!

So here is a confession: my parents and I had a falling out recently.  The details need not be aired, but I will admit that I spent several weeks not talking to them, and it was brutal.  As summer neared, the mulish anger subsided, and just in time for the return of the prodigal daughter.  I placed a phone call to Mom to patch things up.

I was still skittish about coming home after making amends with Mom and Dad.  After only a few delicately worded conversations, it seemed that we were all walking on egg shells, and anything was apt to go wrong.  Visiting my parents is not like visiting other parents.

Mom and Dad live in a giant, ancient schoolhouse.  Correction: the third floor of a giant, ancient schoolhouse.  So a visit begins with the hauling of half a ton of belongings up three flights of slippery crumbling tile stairs, usually late at night, during a rain storm.  Can’t find your kids at Papa and Nana’s?  They are probably just playing hide-and-seek, aren’t they?  At my parents’ schoolhouse, which is roughly 45,000 square feet of mystery and danger, I have about as much chance locating my wandering children as the drunken transient who has broken into the building in search of valuables to steal and sell at the pawn shop down the street.  There’s a Hunger Games vibe.

In a town full of individualistic characters, my parents are the definition of characters.  Everyone knows them, and depending on previous encounters, the mere mention of their names can bring smiles and happy anecdotes or dark scowls of contempt.  Am I proud of this?  Damn right I am!  Does it make life a little harder when I come to visit?  Sometimes.  But while running errands around town today, something made me realize how important your family is, even when driving you crazy, making you mad, and causing you constant frustration.

It started at the dented can store — the kind of place where you buy cereal boxes that have the tops taped back on and cans of organic black beans with little dents in the sides — all at a discount.  We went to look for “good deals”, a longtime family ritual.  Inside the store a photograph of me is tacked up at one of the cash registers.  It has been there since 2003, when I left home to go to Baghdad.  Me in my Army uniform, with my infant son, who is holding a little American flag.

Every time we have gone into this store over the past eleven years, my parents have made a fuss over the picture.  Now my children make similar remarks, mimicking what they have heard my parents say for their entire lives.  “Doesn’t Momma look neat in that Army uniform?”  It finally occurred to me that the picture is still tacked up at the register because my parents have made sure I’m not forgotten.  They have made me into the hometown hero and carried on my memory long after I’ve gone.

Running errands around a town  this small, my main concern was finding sustenance to accommodate my annoying food sensitivities.  I had already fallen off the gluten-free wagon during a delicious but near disastrous lunch at a local sports bar, so I was thrilled to discover that one of the grocery stores features a new, impressive gluten-free section!  Arriving back at the schoolhouse (and after four trips up the three flights of stairs carrying 200 pounds of grocery items) I mentioned to Dad that the section was quite progressive.  He took  complete credit for its inception.

“I talked to the store manager for some time about doing that,” he said.  “I told him that you needed better food options when you visit, and that there are a lot of other people in the community who need gluten-free foods.”

I was, quite frankly, in awe.  It’s possible that my father was not the one person solely responsible for the gluten-free section of the grocery store.  However, knowing him, he probably spent a great amount of personal time lobbying the store on my behalf.  Just like he spent eleven years remarking on my deployment photo, making sure that everyone within earshot didn’t forget me.  It made me wonder if the reasons why I had been so upset with my parents were really worth being so angry after all.

 It makes me wonder something else too.  Will I ever be as good a parent to my children as my parents have been to me?

— G

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Our Neighborhood Belongs to the Children

One of the neatest things about living where we do is that our neighborhood is under the control of the hundred or so children who constantly swarm in and out of our houses, caring little whether the house is actually theirs.  I have never lived any place where this was possible or even acceptable, and there is something so freeing about it.  In other places we’ve lived, always basically nice neighborhoods, the idea of children roaming unattended through the streets, playing in neighbors’ yards, and entering unfamiliar houses was unthinkable, maybe dangerous.

In our neighborhood this behavior is not only allowed but enforced by the children, who would have it no other way.  Perhaps this regime was established years ago when the neighborhood was still brand new and the first families decided to band together to create a close knit environment; then the environment thrived into a microcosm where the children exercise their democracy through the freedom to run and explore, free range, inside the established boundaries.

What a visitor sees when coming to our street is a residential scene from a bygone era: children shooting around on vintage looking bikes, scooters, and skateboards, the muffled sounds of lawn mowers and sprinklers mixed with laugher and the crack of baseball bats, and then in the distance the ice cream van’s jingling songs play merrily.  The children might disappear momentarily to grab a fistful of change, but soon they are back, jostling into a jagged line to buy ice cream and popsicles, and then it is back to zooming around on the now empty street.

While all this is going on there is limited parental supervision.  One or two parents may sit on the front steps of their homes, or fiddle with a dodgy sprinkler in the yard, but no one hovers over the kids while they play.  Some might consider this as irresponsible parenting, but I have had the chance to get to know some of the parents in the neighborhood, and they do not strike me as the type.  It seems more like a social experiment, an understanding between parents and children in which parents allow their offspring to leave the nest and venture out into the world to explore and network with peers.  In this cell phone age when parents and children are just a call away, why not let children explore unsupervised to give them a stronger sense of confidence, accomplishment, adventure?

Often the adventuring leads neighborhood children to my door.  Since I am a well known authority figure in their school, the children feel comfortable coming to me for all kinds of reasons: to ask for a glass of water or a popsicle, to see if they can help me in my garden, to ask if I will teach them how to make sushi, and my favorite, why my hair looks so funny.  I also often look out my window to find neighborhood children just playing in my front yard for no other reason than because their parents probably told them to “go play somewhere else”.  This causes no concern except for when the little boy on the corner is in my yard.  I frequently find him going after my daughters with a hollow plastic baseball bat.  They probably instigate the ‘attacks’ and on the flip side, they are all smiling and laughing, and my girls always have foam pool noodles for self defense.

One day I woke up from a nap to hear noise outside and when I looked out the window there were half a dozen children in my front yard with a remote control monster truck.  They were racing it up the driveway and trying to jump it off of my bottom step.  It kept crashing all over the place and they were making quite a racket.  When I threw open the front door they all froze and looked at me with guilty expressions.  “What are you doing out here?”  I asked.  “Uhh…testing out the monster truck…”  “Do you want candy canes?”  “YES PLEASE!!!”  I shouldn’t have fed them, now they are in my yard all the time.  But they are cute and sweet and they don’t mess with me because I yell at them plenty at school.

Another caveat to the free ranging children is that for some reason they will inevitably want to come into my house and explore when they get tired of exhausting the resources of the surrounding outdoors.  Usually I can fend them off with a popsicle bribe and a hollow promise that “sometime soon” they can come in, perhaps when I am making cookies, but “not now, the house is way too messy!”  It always is.

The best lesson I have learned from these little intrepid spirits is that when they come to my door, it is the perfect excuse to drop the laundry, the dusting, the cooking, or whatever mundane house chore I feel obligated to drudge through and go outside to get in touch with my inner child.  Their subtle, adorable hijacking of the neighborhood has given me a little freedom because I can say to myself, “hey this is not so important when there is a beautiful evening to experience!  I’ll outside and see what my kids are doing, and get back in touch with neighbors I haven’t seen in ages!  Goodbye laundry basket and mop bucket!”

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Zombie Princess drawn by my daughter. Happy Halloween!

Tomorrow the neighborhood will be swarming with children in costumes.  Our neighborhood is THE place to trick or treat.  Many neighbors go all out to decorate houses and stash truckloads of candy for the hoards of costumed youngsters who will invade.  Children at the school have been asking me all week if I will be at my house to hand out candy.  I bought a five gallon pumpkin shaped bucket to fill and still need to go back to the store for backup candy.  It would not be surprising to see at least 200 children at my door tonight.  Children from other parts of town and as far as Fort Riley will come to our neighborhood for candy.  That is fine with me, just as long as no one asks to come into my house.  It is still a mess.

— G