Saturday, September 30, 2017

I am here

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.

Friday, September 29, 2017

A scar is never ugly

"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." 

―Chris Cleave, Little Bee

Working again

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.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Tea and honey

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.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The politics of hate

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.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Cooking class

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.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Bright morning

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.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


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.

Friday, September 15, 2017


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, that 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.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Day by day

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.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

So long, hospital room view, our man is home

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."

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Open heart

My husband had open heart surgery yesterday morning, six hours in the OR as we held our breath, but he came through it like a soldier. The first hurdle cleared. They woke him briefly in the later afternoon to test his neuro functions, his responses indicated no cognitive impairment as a consequence of the surgery. The second hurdle cleared. This morning at 5 AM they woke him from the sedation again. They removed the tube from his airway and began working with him on restrengthening his lungs and everything else. Later they got him out of bed and he sat up in a chair for a couple of hours. We sat with him, mostly just being there, as talking for him was an effort, a hoarse whisper, and he had to concentrate on breathing deeply and clearing the fluid from his body. One day out, all things considered, he's doing well. But there are many more hurdles ahead on the path to full recovery. If you had told us at the start of the week that we'd be in this place five days hence, would we have believed it? And yes, the need for open heart surgery was related to the month of severe back pain and spasms, which turned out to be the secondary condition, and thank God for doctors who were medical detectives, and a flashy, cocky Italian surgeon ready to cut and replace a damaged, malfunctioning valve, and now, tonight, two whirling dervish nurses, two tornados determined to make my husband well, monitoring his pain, his numbers, beating on his back till he coughs up the sticky stuff, strapping massage cuffs on his legs, one nurse the teacher, the other an intern, both of them sent by the angels. He looks so much better tonight. Like himself. Telling me a story. Another hurdle.