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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Warrior Dancer

She is free; sliding, gliding loosely across the floor, even buoyant, airborne at times. Her dance is solitary, full of grace but surprisingly acrobatic as she levitates high in the room, spinning, tumbling. The music is for her alone. She is oblivious, lost to the world around her. It is a joyous dance, hedonistic, erotic. Her environment is pure air, nothing else but the walls around her which allow her to bounce softly back and forth with arms outstretched, propelled by some mysterious force.

But the atmosphere suddenly thickens with peril. An unknown force, an enemy, bursts in wielding weapons. She is brave and strong as she plants her feet firmly on the ground to face her adversary. She fights, aware she must protect an invisible crowd from harm. It is all up to her. A chase, she the pursued. Panic. Then the power shifts as she becomes the pursuer. Somehow a large paddle like a cricket bat appears in her hands while she is momentarily distracted from this battle to sort papers. Her strength is prodigious. She delivers a crushing blow, knowing she could conquer anything. Her enemy falls as the bat splinters on his body. Vanquished. Her world is safe. But no. As he went down he landed a deep stab with his sword into the left side of her abdomen.

She awakens with the pain of the wound which disappears the instant she returns to this reality. She yearns to recapture the freedom of that dance, to bring it to this world. But at what price?

*Christian Rohlfs, "Nu de femme dansant", 1927.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


It was much like a nightmare. Bad things are happening, you're not quite sure what, and you can do nothing about it. You feel like running away but your legs won't move because you are pinned down. Even if they could, you know you'll just be spinning your wheels, going nowhere.

Monday evening was uneventful.  Two phone conversations with my kids were the highlight. I felt a vague cramping below my right shoulder blade. I can usually work such things out by stretching. I got Michael off to bed without drama with the same nagging sensation in my back but I was unconcerned. I climbed the stairs to bed.

I couldn't relax or get comfortable. I tossed around for a while but the discomfort was now in my upper right abdomen. Nothing serious. Could just be gas, though I hadn't eaten anything for several hours - I never do in the evening.  I tried my usual remedies which, by midnight, seemed to relieve things somewhat, allowing me finally to fall asleep.

One o'clock. Pain wakes me. Now it's severe, though more a squeezing sensation than sharp pain. My belly is distended and I can pinpoint the exact site of the pain, in fact it's tender to the touch: right side, just below my ribcage. No ignoring this.

This is something other than indigestion.  I've never had anything like this before - or maybe I have, way back in my early twenties, a similar attack, lasting several days, that I may have mistaken for stomach flu. I was very ill but I sought no medical help. I lived with a first year medical student at the time and he was completely unconcerned. I'm not sure why I trusted his only slightly educated judgement. This time I wanted to consult with someone more reliable. I knew this was serious but it was now middle of the night and I had a very sick, but sleeping - thank God - husband in the house.  I could not leave him alone. What do I do?

I called the Quebec government telephone service for medical advice. I spoke to a very calm, kind nurse who got my phone number right away (in case we are cut off) then asked me to describe my symptoms. I told her I thought I might be having an unprecedented gallbladder attack but I had no fever, I was calm (sort of), and otherwise okay except for mild nausea. She asked me to rate the pain with ten being extreme.

"If I put labour pains as ten," I told her, "then this is about an eight."

Her advice: Go to the hospital.

"Impossible," I declared and described my situation.

"Take him with you," she advised.

"Impossible," I reasserted and wondered why I had called. I suppose I had just wanted contact with another human being in the dark, lonely night.

I ran through the list of nearby friends I could call to come over at 2 a.m. But did I really want to go to the hospital? I'd have to take an ambulance, since there was no way I could drive in that condition, and then probably wait a very long time to be seen. Through the fog of pain and sleeplessness and worry, I did my best to consult a few resources on the subject. Could I take a heavy painkiller safely with this possible ailment? Nothing seemed to indicate that Tylenol 3 would be harmful so I popped two pills, left over from my son's wisdom teeth extraction, and hoped for the best. I unlocked my front door in case, unused to any medication let alone strong ones, I didn't come to in the morning;  I wanted my caregiver, due to arrive at 9:30, to be able to get in.

There was no danger of sleep. The pain subsided by 4:30 but the drug seemed to make me more wakeful and uneasy. Damn. Oh well, I'd enjoy the respite from pain as long as it lasted. I resolved that if the pain recurred in the morning, I'd head off to the hospital when I had my caregiver here. Her presence wouldn't alarm Michael. If no pain returned, I'd at least make a doctor's appointment.

The pain has mercifully stayed away - so far - though the doctor said it could recur at any time or never come back.  He agrees that it was probably gallbladder-related and has ordered an ultrasound to see if I have stones. He advises surgery if I do.

I called my naturopath in the morning and immediately started on an alternative treatment consisting of a homeopathic preparation and small, daily doses of apple cider vinegar.  I have also educated myself on the subject. I don't know if any of this will work but I must give it a try before agreeing to submit to the slice and dice option which could leave me incapable of looking after Michael for a long period of time. But then so could not submitting to surgery. My children are alerted and are poised to return home, if they can, to help out if necessary. A lot of ifs. I can deal with the uncertainty of Michael's ill health but not of my own. I am the main support in this house of cards. I depend upon myself.

I've been in a mild fog all week recuperating from a night of lost sleep and the troubling implications this predicament presents. I am very careful with my low fat diet; my weight is good; I am fit and active; I don't smoke or drink, my biggest physical vice being two cups of tea a day (I won't even get started on my spiritual vices but I'm hoping they are irrelevant in this situation); my recent blood tests all indicate healthy levels of cholesterol, the main culprit in this problem. In other words, I work very hard at staying healthy and fit to be able to do this onerous job.

To say I was completely blindsided by this would be an understatement. I know this is not life-threatening - or at least there is very low risk of that, if I am careful - but it will most certainly create enormous problems if it returns.

*Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), "Pferdefleisch ist gesund und bekömmlich"

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Tree

Three years ago it became clear that we would need to outfit our home with an exterior ramp if we were to stay in this house. Michael's mobility was becoming more impaired and, though he was still ambulatory, it seemed that the time was drawing near when that would no longer be the case. The government health services had already supplied us with a wheelchair, but apart from occasional use it has primarily remained in one spot at the dining room table. It allows easy positioning at the table which is otherwise difficult for him.

To date, the wheelchair still remains largely unused, but it has proven useful on a few occasions. We have used it outside occasionally when Michael has found himself stuck and immobile, needing to be rescued in the chair, but it is difficult to push the vehicle over our gravel roads. It is a testimony to his supreme athleticism and agility that he can usually still negotiate stairs extremely well, even when he cannot walk. Another odd Parkinson's paradox. Michael only goes outside to walk around on the rare days when he is able, and our very few outings together are always well-planned to coincide with his optimum mobility later in the day.

The building of the ramp was incorporated into a complete overhaul of our front porch which runs the full length of our log home. In the process of planning this project I decided it would be nice to add a large deck to the front of the house with the ramp sloping nicely toward the driveway and onto a brick walkway. The finished product is very attractive, especially with the rock garden I incorporated into the design and on which I have worked for three years. I am very happy with the results and now have an easy access for Michael on the so far rare occasions he needs it. He is mostly housebound now but at least can easily get outside onto the large deck to soak up some sun when he can. The ramp has been used a few times to transport him out on a stretcher into an ambulance but mostly the dogs use it to race up to the deck from which they launch themselves down the opposite staircase if there happens to be a passerby they need to yell at.

We had only one regret concerning this ambitious project. A well-established, spectacular hydrangea bush would have to be removed to accommodate the new structure.  Every summer this large shrub would produce hundreds of large, elongated white blossoms that, as the summer ebbed away, would turn a brilliant pink. If left on the bush, these flowers would dry out and turn an attractive brown but if you clipped them off while still pink, they would stay that colour for years in their dried state. Friends from all around would remove armloads for their homes.  One year a friend even arrived with a large suitcase to carry dozens off to her mother in Manitoba. Maybe she still has them.

We pondered chopping down this beloved tree that we strung with lights every winter to brighten up the dark nights. But it was heartbreaking to contemplate. We consulted with a tree expert who told us the tree needed more light even though, to me, it seemed to be thriving right where it was. He thought a transplant might be possible. Really? A tree that big?

Michael's soccer team buddies, of which the tree expert was a member, had wanted to help us out now that Michael had had to give up the sport. They seemed willing to take on this task. One Saturday morning they arrived ready to start work. I had promised pizza and refreshments.  A new location in the back yard was chosen, a spot that saw sunshine all day long.

As this was long before I needed to be Michael's constant nurse, I toddled across the road to the Nearly New Shop for our monthly sale, leaving these competent men to their task. When I returned many hours later I found the tree relocated but not without mishap. It turned out to be so huge and so heavy, that one fellow's large SUV was called into action, but, not being even big enough for the task, some damage was done.  The men were soaked in sweat and exhausted, proclaiming the tree was far bigger than they had expected. It was a Herculean effort by all. Michael supervised.

I am sorry to report that this once magnificent tree has done poorly in its new location. I inspect it daily from my kitchen window and mourn the loss of those vivid blossoms because, since the move, we've seen only a few puny flowers, nothing like its glory days.  I have since learned that this tree, contrary to the expert's advice, actually needs shade to thrive, making its old location a perfect one. Every spring since the move, there are more bare branches that need to be removed. It is a thin, nearly leafless ghost of its former self.

A dear friend gave me a new hydrangea bush last year for my birthday.  It seems vibrant and strong and sits proudly in a spot very near where the old one reigned with such majesty. A rebirth. Time will tell whether it will be as beautiful and stunning as its predecessor.

As for the other, it stands as a stark symbol of that day of unified effort and a valiant struggle to survive.  It is also a reminder of the wasting nature of this disease, mirroring in real time Michael's own more rapid decline over the past three years since I attempted our doomed visit to the west coast, the dramatic beginning of Michael's downward spiral. Every spring sees him, like the tree, with far less vibrancy than the year before.

As the tree weakens I am left wondering: Will this be its last summer or will the agony of its decline span many more seasons. And what is the most merciful thing to do? Should I cut it down before its inevitable death, or should I simply let it fade away slowly and naturally?

*Hydrangea paniculata