“This Could Be Serious” {Every patient has a story.”}

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I don’t have to wait long to be seen—maybe because I’m so sick or maybe because the doctor from the walk-in clinic alerted the ER, as she said she would—but I am in the waiting room long enough to be reminded what a microcosm of the human condition the hospital is: All walks of life brought together by all sorts of maladies. People whose paths you quite likely would not cross save for the fact that you are all in need of medical attention.

One woman complains that others, who came in after she did, are being seen before her. Another alerts us to the children who are playing with plastic spoons near an electrical outlet.

“If those were metal those kids would get shocked. Electrocuted, maybe.”

An older man eats a hamburger, a teen texts, and I think I recognize a lady from my church. There is just enough time for me to begin (okay, so I’ve been doing it since I woke up) ruminating on chance, luck, Divine purpose, the vagaries of life, before I’m called back by a nurse.

I’m put in a room, and the blood draws and IVs are underway almost immediately. My nurse, the first of several, is lovely. She talks me through everything she’s doing. I feel so bad I don’t really care what they do to me, but I appreciate her treating me with respect.

This is what I am thinking: This is how people find out they’re really sick. Someone’s husband is parking the Subaru with the dog slobber on the backseat windows and a doctor comes in and says something life-changing. On an otherwise normal day, people get bad news all the time. This is how it happens, without fanfare or warning or your loved one having time to get back from the garage. You have a fever and no energy and your life unravels. The old “Why me? Why not me?” toss up.

I begin to weep.

It’s an actual room, not just a curtained corner, so I do have privacy, which is nice. When it’s determined that I’ll need to be admitted, and there’s not a room available, the nurse has a hospital bed brought in, so I can get off the thin mattress that reminds me of the fold-out mat I used in kindergarten at naptime. It is a thoughtful thing to do and I am grateful. Any comfort–like the nothing short of a miracle shampoo shower cap–in this storm feels like a life preserver.

There is a lot going on out there.

Someone (as I make my way to the bathroom later I see a policeman in the hall) yells for a man to get back in his room. Apparently he doesn’t realize that being under arrest means you can’t just go tooling around the ER willy-nilly.

Several medical professionals come and go from my room. I am asked the same questions by different individuals. I think my answers are pretty consistent: Been feeling a bit poorly for a week or so but not alarmed until this morning; no I haven’t been out of the country; no I didn’t notice a tick or a rash on my body; yes I get yearly physicals; no I haven’t seen blood in my urine; no I don’t smoke.

One man, let’s call him Doctor X (not his real name) shall we, pulls a chair close to the bed and gets even closer to my face.

“Ms. Wilson.” Pause. “What do you think is wrong with you?”

His tone makes me feel like a kid, when my mother would ask me, “What do you think you did wrong, sweetheart?” (For the record, she did not have to ask me this often as I was an exemplary child. Or so the story goes.)

“I have no idea,” I say, when what I am thinking is more along the lines of, “If I knew, I promise I’d tell you. If I had a nagging suspicion, a mere inkling, any semblance of intuition, a scrap of insight, I’d share it with you.”

He makes me feel as if I am holding something back, as if I don’t want them to know everything they need to know in order to figure out what is happening with my body.

“What about HIV? A lot of times these low white cell counts indicate HIV.”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“You’re not at high risk, you don’t think?”

“No sir.”

“Multiple sex partners? Drug use?”

“No sir.”

I don’t have the strength for regaling him with all the reasons I don’t think I’m a candidate for HIV, and I feel so bad I start to think maybe I’ll be some fluke case of contracting it. It could happen, I guess. I don’t have an issue with the testing; test away. I have an issue with the delivery. Why not something like, “It’s standard for us to test for HIV when we see such low white counts.” More equalization; less shame.

“Okay, well. You need to know that this could be serious.”

Again, maybe you could try: “We don’t know what’s wrong with you but we’ll do everything we can to find out. It could be an infection, or it could be something more serious.”

So, um, Doc, I’m already convincing myself I might be dying. I’m in the ER, so I get it, that this might be serious. To me it already is. I’m way ahead of you.

Doctor X leaves and comes back so fast I’m surprised he had time to turn around.

“I’m testing you for HIV.”

“Okay,” I say. “Fine. Of course.”

Call Me When You Get There

Before I married, at age forty-one (yes for the first time), I had just about had it up to here with friends patting me on the shoulder and saying, “You’ll just know.” They were trying to make me feel better by telling me I would know when the right person came along. They were assuming that the right person would show up, even though my father taught me early on that there are no guarantees in life. I never dreamed of a knight on a horse, or even a banker in a Buick. So my friends thought they were making me feel better when I didn’t even feel bad to start with. I did, however, often feel worse after they fussed over my singlehood all the while regaling me with stories of their idyllic couplings and pictures of their perfect children.

It didn’t seem like the end of the world to me that I might live my whole life without marriage. I suspected it would be more fun with a partner, and there were Friday nights when I felt desperately sorry for myself, but I did not consider pairing up a prerequisite for a fulfilling and happy life.

“Why haven’t you married?” people would ask me. This seemed to me a preposterous question, one that answered itself. I hadn’t married because the right opportunity had not presented itself. The crush from high school didn’t ask, and I didn’t trust—or love—the one who proposed in my twenties. Plus, I think he was drunk at the time.

“Maybe you’re expecting too much,” friends would say, when all I really expected of myself was not to marry for the wrong reasons.

“What are you looking for?” they would surely inquire, and this one I had an answer for: Someone who cares whether I get home safe and sound. Someone besides my parents. I had often joked that the man who said these words to me, preferably while holding me close or leaning in to kiss me, would be the one: “Call me when you get home so I know you’re okay.”

So when, a few days after our first date, as I was preparing to leave my hometown where I was visiting and return to Nashville, where I live, Precious tapped on the driver’s side window as he stood in the parking lot of the coffee shop where he’d bought me a “sweet roll” for breakfast and said, “Please call me the minute you get to Nashville so I won’t worry about you,” I just knew.

 

 

Mother Knows Best

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A favorite photo from several years ago, before Mother’s dementia diagnosis.

Back in January 1922 my parents were born four days apart. My father in Bell, California, and my mother in Tula, Mississippi. They would meet several years later at elementary school when my father’s family returned to its southern roots, and they married in 1948.

Although there were balloons and decorations and cake for my mother on her birthday earlier this month, she would not have known it was her day unless someone had made a fuss. Her dementia robs her of a lot, such as keeping up with dates and important life events. She sometimes thinks her parents have just died and that she wasn’t able to get to their funerals. I hate this for her, that her mind is not only failing her but is also tricking her, goading her into thinking she failed her parents. When, in reality, she was a devoted and faithful daughter until the very end, when she saw her mother and father across the bar and into the ground at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford, Mississippi.

So she loses memories and facts, but she retains her grace, and her humor, and her kindness.

At Christmas I held her hand while we watched part of “Miracle on 34th Street,” which I had never seen and for some reason insist on referring to as “Miracle on 51st Street.” I left after Santa was put in the hoosegow, so it is my fervent hope that the poor man got sprung before the movie was over.

When I arrived that day at the residential facility where she lives, she was resting in her chair with her eyes closed. I sat on the edge of her bed and waited for her to wake up. When she did, she took a few seconds to stare at me with love.

“I recognize you,” she said, smiling.

Her eyes were clear and lively, not dulled as they can sometimes seem when she is having a harder time focusing and engaging. It was the same smile I have seen on her precious face countless times before, an upturn of her lips that let me know she is still my mother.

Show Me Your Scars and I’ll Show You Mine

IMG_3730.jpgI didn’t realize I was sick back then—just miserable. I knew I didn’t belong in law school, though everyone around me said I did. Problem is, you don’t drop out in my family. Wilsons persevere.

“I think something’s wrong with your thyroid.” This from my mother at the Thanksgiving table after my dismal semester. Turns out a goiter had sprouted in my neck and I hadn’t even noticed. That’s how out of touch I was with myself, people. (Google “goiter” at your own risk.)

“You better go see Doc Murray when you get back to Oxford.”

I did and it was. The kindly and charming old-school doctor sent me to a specialist, a not kindly and especially uncharming man, who glanced at me and said: “Most times this is cancer.”

My twenty-two-year-old self started crying and ran to call my parents.

“Come home,” they said. So I did. We got another specialist. A nicer one.

After the surgery to remove half my thyroid gland, I didn’t really mind the scar, even early on when it was angry and red. It proves I can weather the storm, if you will, that’s the way I see it. Cliché or no.

“I can fix that for you,” said a doctor acquaintance at a party not too long ago. He was tilting his head toward the base of my neck and stabbing for an olive with one of those plastic cocktail swords. Red I think it was.

“Fix what?” I asked. I wasn’t even trying to be coy, as I don’t think about the scar, which looks a little bit like a short, braided rope.

“Your thyroidectomy scar. The surgeon should have done a better job. You know, so it wouldn’t be so noticeable.”

Maybe your mother should have done a better job with you, I wanted to say. You know, so your personality wouldn’t be so bothersome.

“I don’t want it fixed,” I said instead. “But thank you for your concern.”

Besides the small rough patch on my right hand—a neighbor’s German Shepherd jumped up on me while I was riding my bike (boy was I proud of that banana seat) and I ended up in a puddle of gravel—I don’t have other visible scars. (I’ve had more surgeries, laparoscopies and such, but no additional physical reminders of trauma.)

My mother, bless her precious 93-year-old heart, is riddled with scars: colon cancer, mastectomy, gallbladder, vena cava filter, skin tears every time her body tricks her into thinking she doesn’t need to use a walker and she pitches to the floor.

I don’t know if she minds her scars or not. I could ask her, but the answer might not be based in reality, as dementia is robbing her of such. She doesn’t seem to mind them, though, or much of anything, actually. Instead she comes across as content, happy even, in the moment. She no longer seems anxious and does not spend her days borrowing trouble, a favorite pastime of hers that I’m sorry to say I have inherited.

Usually she just smiles, asks me if I’m her baby, and rolls herself into the dining room to join the other old souls who can no longer live on their own.

“Yes, ma’am,” I say. “I am.”

Scars and all.

Amy Lyles Wilson

Writing Prompt: Read Lucille Clifton’s “Scar” and write about what it brings up in you. Write for 20 minutes. I’ll set the timer. Go!

http://www.sunsetcoastwriters.com/blog/scar

On Dreaming {Waking Up Worried}

dsc_0066.jpgThis morning I woke up wondering how to make amends for having offended someone. We were at a conference and I’d tried to sit next to him during the lunch break.

“You can’t sit here,” he said. “I don’t want to be around you because I saw you do something I didn’t like.”

It might be merely sad if I were worried about someone jerky enough to refuse to sit by me because of a perceived slight I might not even have been aware of making, but the thing that makes my concern even more pathetic is that it was all a dream. After dreaming about a man, someone I did not recognize from my waking life, being rude to me, my response was to blame myself and beg for forgiveness. All this before I’d even brushed my teeth.

This can’t be good, right, that I allowed a dream to make me doubt myself? That my first inclination upon waking was not, “What a beautiful morning” (which it is here in Nashville) or “Aren’t I lucky to have a husband who brings me coffee?”

Instead, I opened my eyes and thought: “I can’t believe I made this guy so angry with me. What could I have done wrong?” Blink. Blink. Blink. “What can I do to make it right? How can I make him like me?”

“That’s a stretch even for you, Babe,” said Precious when I told him I woke up worried. “Usually we make it to noon before you take to fretting.”

I think he was kidding, but he knows I’m an anxious sort, that I have the potential to assume responsibility for actions that take place five counties over. That I can imagine all manner of things to be sorry for just sitting in the den.

But I’m working on it. I’m learning the art of presence. I’m practicing being centered in today instead of borrowing trouble against tomorrow. I yearn to be respectful of, and grateful for, this very instant. This one right here. I don’t want to be the kind of old woman who wanders too far afield into the unknown of the future or stays mired in the over and done with of the past. Today, though, I feel like my dream conspired against me.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In training to be a spiritual director, we’re doing dream work, which is new to me. We’re asked to make notes of our dreams and sit with images that come up. Maybe this dream is inviting me to let go of what people think of me. Maybe this dream is reminding me that I can’t control how others react to me and that, alas, not everyone will like me. (This one still breaks my heart, that not everyone thinks I’m fabulous. And that there’s not a darn thing I can do about it.) This wouldn’t be the first time such propositions have been hurled in my direction. Maybe now I will get the message. If not, there’s always tonight, where another dream awaits.

On Birthdays {My New Normal}

ALW-BabyPicI turned fifty-three two weeks ago today, and for the first time I didn’t hear my mother’s voice on August 5. It’s been almost two years since her dementia diagnosis, so her memory is not what it used to be, not like it was when she would call and sing “happy birthday” to me whether I was living in Oxford, Mississippi, or Washington, DC, or Richmond, Indiana, or Knoxville, Tennessee. And now, Nashville.

Sometimes Daddy would chime in, even though harmonizing was not his finest gift. But sang they did to their baby girl, the one who was supposed to be a boy, the one who keeps looking for the next big thing. The one who is now more than half a century old.

Since Daddy died in 2000, Mother has been carrying the tune on her own. Last year a family member was able to help Mother call me, and even though her voice was shaky she managed a verse or two. This year, though, my mother’s hold on the present day is looser than ever.

“You could call her,” said Precious, when he realized, at day’s end, how sad I was not to have heard Mother’s voice.

“I know,” I said. “But I think it would be too hard. She’s sometimes more anxious in the evening, and even if I didn’t tell her why I was calling, I’d be too emotional to sound normal.”

When I was a child, I would tell people my birthday was “August and the fifth,” trying to make sure, I guess, that they wouldn’t separate the day from the month and run the risk of forgetting when they should bring me a gift. Or call me on the phone.

On Monday Morning {Sitting Down to Write }

DSC_0255I’ve promised my friend Sheri that I will write for one hour every day. I think it was my big idea, trying to get us both motivated to do what we say we love to do: write. So now I’m sitting here on a Monday morning, coffee hot, candle lit, jazz on the radio, and I’ve got nothing.

When working with clients, I advise them simply to start, when, of course, there’s nothing simple about this, except maybe the tools you need. Most everyone has pen and paper, and potential. But that motivation part is tricky. “Sometimes,” I say in my kind writing coach voice, “I make lists if nothing is coming to me during my writing session. Just begin.” And so I do.

  • Today I feel a little less sad than yesterday. Maybe it helped that I showered and dressed before 8:30 this morning.
  • I know the writing life requires a lot of solitude but sometimes it is too much for me.
  • A friend emails to tell me a young man in our city has killed himself; his grandparents are friends of hers. Only 28.
  • I should have my email off while writing.
  • I’ll be 53 soon, and if one more person says “it’s only a number” I might clock ‘em.
  • I’m in the process of getting rid of stuff I don’t need, use, or love. There’s more of it than I care to admit. Out it goes into the world to be needed, used, or loved by someone else.
  • Last week, unbidden, two people let me know how much I mean to them. A gift.
  • Fingers crossed that my precious stepdaughter gets the job.
  • The nurse from the retirement home called last night. Mother was sad and wanted to hear the voice of one of her girls. I needed to hear hers, too.
  • I fear I’m becoming one of those people who treats her dog like her child. Wait. I may have been like that since Quay Girl.
  • A volunteer training I just completed did not work out like I had hoped.
  • I called my priest friend to tell her I want to do more in the church. She wants more time to write. Such is life.
  • Maybe I should just “be.”
  • You’d think the meditation and centering prayer would be paying off by now.
  • I need to lose weight.
  • The hour is almost up!
  • Why haven’t those people called me back?
  • I miss Indiana.
  • I’m not sure how much longer I can keep watching the news.
  • What is it about the future that keeps captivating my attention?
  • Self-employment is hard.
  • I may have cut my hair too short.
  • Yay! It’s the Diane Rehm Show, one of my favorites.
  • Finished a great book last night, something I picked up on the road at a used bookstore: The Scent of God, by Beryl Singleton Bissell. Now I want to read everything else she’s written. Maybe I’ll pass it along to my friend Karen. I think she’ll like it.
  • My neighbor is having her windows cleaned. I’ve lived in this house for ten years and it has only now occurred to me that washing your windows from the outside might be something to consider.
  • Now more than an hour has passed since I first sat down to write. I must tell Sheri.
  • If I had a dime for every time someone has said to me, “You’re so sensitive,” I’d have a bunch of dimes.

Searching, Searching, Searching

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I’m like the child who can’t stop asking questions, although I try with all my might not to fidget.

“Why is the sky blue?” becomes, for me, “What shall I do with the rest of my life?”

“I want to be a fireman when I grow up,” sounds like “Should I have been a social worker? A priest?”

“Can dogs fly?” makes me wonder, “Can I get everything I want out of this life?”

“Give me more candy” translates as “Give me more: Time. Energy. Dreams.”

And, like the voracious child, I will have to learn to accept that sometimes the answer is “no,” and sometimes the answer is “maybe later,” and sometimes the answer is, “settle down.”

And every once in a while there is no response that will satisfy.

On Being 52: Trust Me, It’s More Than a Number

DSC_0326Please, I beg of you, don’t tell me that my age is “just a number” or “all a matter of attitude.” I get it, really I do, that you mean well, and that you think I’ve got a youthful spirit and that 52 is not 92. But I am here to tell you that being fiftysomething is more than a number. Regardless of one’s perky outlook, it is the startling—although it shouldn’t be a surprise seeing that I’ve had five decades to get used to the idea—realization that more than half my life is over. With that comes, if you’re paying attention at all, some kind of evaluation about where you are and where you want to go from here. 

Here’s what being 52 is: weakening eyesight, creaking knees, a need for naps, an ever-present countdown toward the rest of my life’s goals, missing my dead father, learning the language of Mother’s dementia, dreaming of going back to school yet again, wanting to make a difference, a longer list of books I haven’t read, grieving misplaced relationships and lost opportunities, wondering what will become of me. Thankfully, being middle-aged (humor me, please; I know I’m stretching the math here) also brings sharpened awareness of even the smallest joy, an appreciation for what I’ve accomplished and what I’ve avoided, a heightened curiosity, increased energy for what simply must get done and a gentle release of what won’t, discarding what no longer fits me—from old clothes to worn out grievances—without guilt, overflowing gratitude for steadfast friends and supportive relations, and trusting it will be okay in the end.

On this icy winter morning, as I consider my next steps, I raise my decaf latte to the fabulous Elaine Stritch, who bears witness to the “courage of age” with such blazing fortitude that I am made bolder simply by listening to her on National Public Radio.

Sing it, sister, I say. Shout it, growl it, live it.

Singing the Blues

IMG_2556Not really, because I can’t sing, at least not in any meaningful or memorable way. Although I’ve been known to belt out a little Van Morrison or John Hiatt when Precious isn’t around, it’s not pretty, or melodic. Just cathartic. These days, though, I’m not much in the mood for singing, or for anything other than reading, napping, and eating. Oh yeah, and wallowing. And maybe a little ruminating.

On paper, I shouldn’t be depressed: loving husband, fine friends, spiritual underpinnings, work I enjoy (although not always enough of it as a freelancer), warm home. But those of us who “suffer” with depression know that paper has nothing to do with it. I put the word suffer in quotation marks because I wonder about what it implies, that maybe people will pity me. I don’t really find pity an appropriate response to depression. I vote for acceptance and understanding instead. Because on this very day, in this tender place, I don’t need you to cheer me up (smiley faces begone!), or pat me on the knee while saying  “it’s going to be okay” (I trust it will be), or remind me I have a lot to be thankful for (indeed I do). I just need you to sit right here with me.

So far, I’ve kept my appointments, met my deadlines, gone to the gym, and, on most days, managed to practice proper hygiene, but I haven’t done those things with my usual levels of energy and involvement. Instead I’ve met the minimum and then hurried back home to hunker down. Sometimes, while hunkering, I find myself mulling over mistakes, worrying about the future, and wondering where I might have made a different move. And although I enjoy a little introspection as much as the next middle-aged goober, I suspect such intense “what if-ing” isn’t healthy, not for the long term anyway, and I’m working to make sure I don’t over do. But I also know this is part of me, this depression, and that it deserves my attention, and maybe even my respect.

It’s cold and gray here in Nashville, without snow to make the weather seem worth it, so that doesn’t help. I don’t know if I might be susceptible to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but I plan to check it out just in case. 

So tonight my depression and I are listening to the soundtrack on NPR devoted to cabin fever and trusting in tomorrow. Maybe we’ll light a candle, and even sing a few bars. What do you listen to on dark winter nights?