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Friday, November 30, 2012

A Conversation

"We need to talk about what we're going to do with all our stuff when we leave." His voice was anxious. He had lurched into the kitchen to make this unusually coherent statement.

"Okay. Where are we going?" she asked, nonchalantly flipping through a new cookbook.

Pause. A slight flicker of panic. "I don't know."

"Well, when you know, then we'll talk about it."

" you want to stay with me?"

"Yup." Eye contact. "I'm not going anywhere. Are you?"


"So, do you want to stay with me?"

Twinkle in the eye and the hint of a smile. "Yes."

"Good, then it's settled."

"Good." He leaned in for a hug then shuffled and stumbled back to the couch.

* Aigen Kirche window, Wolfgang Sauber

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


It is difficult to imagine a life any quieter than we were leading before the Great Gallbladder Debacle, but since my return home on November 2 - a joyous occasion for me - I have hardly left my immediate neighbourhood. And I am as happy as can be.

One reason for this greatly circumscribed life is self-imposed. No doctor advised me on an appropriate diet for my now extremely sensitive organ, but given how little was consumed to trigger the first very violent attack, I returned home eyeing every morsel of food with suspicion. I restricted myself to foods with zero fat in the first few days, then slowly and nervously introduced exotic foods like oatmeal and soy and flax seed but only in very small amounts. Homemade gelatine and fruit juice desserts became a staple as did soups made with fat-free broth and oodles of vegetables. These very nutritious but calorie-light meals meant I was having to eat every hour in the first week, my body desperately trying to regain the rapidly lost seven pounds. One cannot go very far afield when one must eat so frequently. Nor can one leave home for long when food preparation becomes so labour-intensive. No quick, processed foods for this digestive system.

I ventured out with my friend last Monday morning, resuming our weekly tradition of breakfast out. I threw caution to the wind and indulged in a cup of decaffeinated coffee with partly skimmed milk and a single waffle with no butter, only artificial syrup. I didn't realize how serious my mistake until an hour later when the pain hit with the same force as the day that had sent me to hospital.  I spent the rest of the day in excruciating pain, calling around to find someone to sit with Michael so I could once again hitch a ride in an ambulance to the hospital. After calling just about everyone on my help-list (most people aren't home on weekdays - surprise, surprise), I finally nabbed a neighbour in the afternoon, the pain now having reduced me once again to a writhing mess on the kitchen floor. As soon as he saw me in this state he asked if his morphine pills, prescribed for recent surgery, might help? YES. PLEASE. As my surgeon had failed to provide me with a prescription for the only medication that seems to touch this awful pain, I gratefully accepted a pill. Within an hour and a half the pain had disappeared and didn't return. Needless to say, I am now highly motivated to adhere to this strict diet until this offensive little organ can be removed and thrown very far away. I might even ask to be able to stomp on it fiercely first and pulverize the offending stones.

Another reason for my hermit life was the extreme fatigue I felt for the first three weeks home. I sent my daughter home on my fourth day, realizing that surgery was not imminent and I didn't want to squander my very precious help, preferring to call upon my children only when things might get bad again. This meant stepping right back into full Michael-care. Though he fared well through my absence and has done quite well since my return, there have been some significant set-backs. Constipation was a severe problem for two weeks, requiring interventions I haven't had to rely upon for two years since I started the flax seed solution. With the constipation always come heightened anxiety and confusion, therefore many nightly attacks requiring a soothing word and heavy medication. One night he was unable to understand how to feed himself his usual bedtime snack of yogurt so I had to spoon-feed the poor man. These are not extraordinary reactions to stress for him but there were many nights when it felt like more than I could handle in my own fragile state. Consequently during much of my precious respite time with my precious caregiver, I simply climbed the stairs to my bedroom for a much needed and lengthy nap.

A relative enthusiastically commented that at least now I know I can leave Michael and he will be okay. Nothing to worry about. True, and certainly when I have to submit to the knife (January, I'm told) I will not hesitate or worry that the many people required to care for him in my absence will not be able to cope. But the fallout remains a huge problem. While witnessing my most recent brutal attack, he seemed unperturbed, but it was afterward that his psychosis and paranoia kicked in, turning a thirty-six hour recovery for me into a much longer ordeal for him as his demons overwhelmed him as soon as I was better.

On some level I think he understands that I am ill; I don't abandon him intentionally. So while I was gone he was able to hold it together for his substitute caregivers. He even wrapped me in a warm and protective hug on my return home.  I choked up and melted into his embrace, momentarily pretending my old husband was back to take care of me. But it didn't last long. The child within returned before nightfall and, like the dogs who took up residence on my bed that evening, Michael didn't want me out of his sight. 

I was back on the job. Hey, I'm not complaining.

*Small Island in Saranac Lake, October 2007, Wikipedia user Mwanner

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Life Suspended

A week in hospital; a life suspended. No responsibilities: no meals to make; no medications to administer; no anxiety to mollify; no midnight awakenings to attend to. Nothing.

Two days before my emergency run to the hospital, Michael awoke me at midnight, extremely agitated. He was clutching his upper right abdomen, uttering the words "blood" and "hospital" and "sutures". I had to medicate him, sit with him, and open his bedroom door to show that his room was in our house and not in the dreaded hospital. A premonition?

My journey to the hospital was quick - no sirens. The kind and calming paramedic monitored my vital signs and taped electrodes to my chest. He assured me I was deemed urgent and the wait time shouldn't be long: "You picked a good night."

My first injection of morphine was administered at 9:00 p.m., three hours after my departure from home. Friends arrived quickly and took charge. Questions, painful prods, deep breathing remembered from childbirth, though this extreme pain had lasted longer than any labour I had experienced; my longest, my first, only four hours. 

9:30 p.m.: all of a sudden pain evaporates and I wonder if I'd ever had it. Magical morphine. I don't even feel drowsy or doped, more elated and energized. I'm wheeled from the examination room to a stall in the emergency ward. A handsome nurse faces me from the nurses' station. My friends leave me to the fine view. I resolve to enjoy the rest even if it must be hospital.

Morphine overwhelms for a few days but I am even sent home twenty-four hours after admission, only to return a few hours later in more pain. The vestiges of Superstorm Sandy roar outside but I am unable to see or care from my cave-like existence. 

Copious amounts of blood are withdrawn over seven days; concern over a liver in crisis. Human pincushion. Ultrasound, endoscopic procedure, intravenous hydration and nutrition, more morphine, anti-nausea medication. Still no enlightenment on the liver trouble but my liver enzyme levels are falling, moving in the right direction. Liquid diet when not overwhelmed by nausea. Suddenly four days later the pain is gone, gone, gone. Sweet relief. Sweet unmedicated sleep.

Two cramped, battered rooms; three roommates, two of them men. Dirty windows. Loud snoring, belching, coughing, moaning; occasional conversation in a language smattered with French and English; blinding florescent lights; electronic beeps throughout the night; malfunctioning machinery that I learn to fix myself to ensure sleep. Modesty must be discarded. Sponge baths. Midnight transfers; motion sickness. 

I am humbled by my illness, surrounded by others who suffer. Pain and suffering are the great levelers. Death too.

Frustration over doctors who might have a master plan but communicate little to a person used to being in control. My grasp is slipping. Fear is non-existent. Submission creeps over me. Sleep.

News from home: two daughters take turns caring for Dad with the other two offspring waiting in the wings to be called to duty; caregiver sleeps over and keeps life as normal and calm at home as possible. Reports are surprisingly positive about Michael's condition. A few cracks but I don't care.  

Visitors shuffle through. Concern on their faces doesn't faze me. I'm content to stay here as long as I must. Resignation.

My last day my vitality returns with surprising force despite starvation. The weight has slipped off my thin body while I wasn't caring. My intravenous has been removed. A blessed shower is offered. I consider the possibility that I might have to stay here much longer so I set out to pace the hallway with vigour; I must keep up my strength. Patients and nurses watch me quizzically as I stride with as much power as I can muster. Then sudden release by the surgeon with an appointment for an MRI after the weekend. My friend magically appears to whisk me home in his very fast car. 

I must await the surgeon's verdict and avoid further trouble by adherence to the strictest diet I've ever had. 

It's over...for now.

Vincent Van Gogh, "Dormitory in the Hospital in Arles," 1889.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Autumn Storms

The leaves were finally liberating themselves from their fettered summer life and their blazoning autumnal death throes. A strong wind was all that was needed to complete the job. Superstorm Sandy promised to take care of that even though I doubted the dire meteorological warnings for our area. Weren't these the same people who predicted mere showers the weekend we had the rain storm of the century in June 2011?

An odd, blustery frenzy had held me captive for many weeks. It was akin to that mysterious hyperactive nesting instinct that overcame me just days prior to the birth of each of our children. We had moved into our first house together just nine days before our eldest child was born (two weeks early), and instead of the quiet, settled accouchement that I had imagined, I was attacked by a feverish energy to scrub every surface of the nursery, indeed the entire house. Or just before the birth of our youngest, when I was homeschooling his three older sisters, I was up till all hours of the night preparing lessons for our children to pursue independently or at least with less of my involvement until I was back up to normal speed.

I interpreted this year's energy as my usual change-of-season restlessness when many household tasks must be completed before the temperature plummets and the snow piles up: Gardens needed to be put to bed; perennials had to be split; the large, heavy rubber mats to prevent slipping on the ramp had to be laid; windows washed; outdoor furniture sheltered or stored; hoses rolled up and put away; furnace serviced; shed cleaned out.

But this year there was a heightened restlessness: I furiously rearranged bedroom furniture to better accommodate our growing family; I bought beautiful Persian rugs online to decorate my house; I released many of my beloved books from their isolation on dusty shelves to other homes where they could be enjoyed; I planned a possible basement renovation project, heaving and sorting the accumulated junk. Then there was that wild two weeks where I was even planning a possible future without Michael and a complete change in my living environment, followed by a hastily arranged visit to a cemetery to purchase our final piece of real estate.

For many months, with two weddings and various other major events in our children's lives, I had nervously watched Michael's condition, hoping that no crisis would befall us to sabotage any of these important occasions. The energy I expended to keep things under control sometimes felt Herculean. But rather than exhausting me, it seemed to fuel the fire of manic activity. We just had to make it to Saturday, October 27, the date our son and his new bride would be returning from their honeymoon. chased ashore on their cruise out of New York City by the spectre of Superstorm Sandy. After that I knew our children's lives would probably settle down to a comfortable hum.

Our children have developed a wonderful resilience throughout the years of their dear dad's illness. Poised to jump without fanfare or drama at the call of any crisis, they have learned to conduct their lives with a calm and strength that I love and admire. For that very reason I have not called upon them more than absolutely necessary, knowing they would abandon everything to lend a hand of support. They have all apprised their various employers of the sometimes dire situation at home; they've all been supported whole-heartedly and granted permission to leave whenever they need to. But my children live a minimum of 200 kilometres away, one in the very middle of our vast country. I cannot impose on their busy lives more than I have to; I cannot take advantage of them. They have careers and families to manage as well. They have achieved the glorious independence for which Michael and I trained them.

Saturday, October 27th was to be the second day of a sale at the Nearly New Shop across the road.  I had my four volunteers in place to care for Michael over the weekend, each doing a two-hour shift. Friday had been a busy and lucrative night for our little charity shop. Saturday was likely to be quieter but we were short-staffed. Some of our trusty volunteers had funerals and family responsibilities to attend to. There would only be two of us to hold down the fort,  no difficult task on a quiet Saturday.

My first Michael-volunteer arrived early. I chatted and filled him in on Michael's minimal needs for the morning. That was when I felt the first twinge in my gallbladder, an organ that has been an occasional but painful nuisance for the past five months. I grabbed the cash box for the sale and dashed out the door. I was barely down the driveway when the pain hit, not violently but assertively. A few seconds later I was at the church where another volunteer was pulling in, one I hadn't expected. I greeted her and expressed my relief at her presence because I knew I had to go home. The pain was already nearly unbearable.

My previous gallbladder attacks have been predictable and short-lived. If I ate a few too many potato chips or turkey and stuffing I would brace myself for the inevitable middle-of-the-night wake-up with biliary colic. Or I would take a prophylactic pain medication which usually worked to suppress the pain before it reached fever pitch. It was a system that worked well. I could live with the pain, sometimes worth enduring for the joy of a rare, delectable treat.

But this was different.  I had had my usual breakfast of granola, normally a safe food. By ten o'clock I was in agony with what I knew was gallbladder-induced pain but far worse. On the scale of one to ten that I was later asked to rate my pain at the hospital, my morning suffering was a definite ten, right up there with childbirth pain.

I arrived home minutes after my departure and prepared to cope with the agony, believing it would abate in a few hours like all the other attacks. My friend who was here to look after Michael kept me well distracted with his lively and friendly conversation.  We covered a whole range of topics with me all the while down on the floor on all fours and my rear end up in the air, my go-to position for any abdominal pain. I took my usual two Ibuprophen and prepared to wait.

Two and a half hours later the pain had subsided somewhat but wasn't gone.  When my second volunteer arrived I decided to head back to the Nearly New Sale to help out and distract myself, still believing the pain would eventually disappear. I worked slowly and cautiously, preserving my strength.

Upon my return home two hours later, the pain was still rumbling ominously but I decided to try a bite to eat, two arrowroot cookies and a pear. Immediately the pain returned, this time more like an eight on the scale. I knew I was going to have to act so a bulk text message went out to my four kids warning them that I might have to go to the hospital. I called my caregiver to see if she could stay the night if necessary. She could and put herself on standby.

I spent the next two hours gauging the pain which wasn't mounting but also not subsiding.  I had a hot bath and put on my pyjamas, slightly relieved from the heat. I packed a small hospital bag and prepared Michael's drugs for the week. It was while I was doing this small task that I nearly passed out from the pain. Grabbing the kitchen counter and spilling a few pills, I took a few deep breaths and finished the task. I called the closest offspring, who jumped into planning an immediate trip home, and then my caregiver. I called my friend and neighbour to come right away.

By now I was sick with pain, barely able to stand up. My friend offered her husband as chauffeur but I declined; I wanted an ambulance, knowing from past experience with Michael that I would get attention more promptly and I could travel on a stretcher, my pain by now supreme.

I don't think it was more than ten minutes before the ambulance came but my memories are muddled. My wonderful caregiver arrived sometime before that, my relief at the sight of her overwhelming. I do remember climbing onto the stretcher with the paramedics' calm voices and competent hands assisting me. I sank into the thin mattress, utterly relieved to be leaving, completely detached from the outcome for me or for Michael. As I was being wheeled out I was aware that my son had just called in to say he had arrived home safely. I sighed, relieved.

It was time to go. I felt swept away, no longer having to hold on.

*Antonio Parreiras, The Gale, 1888