Maybe this is what bipolar disorder is like. Some days are manic, the others depressive.
The sun was shining yesterday and I took a long bike ride but all I could think about were worries of infection, my eyes peeled while I rode to ensure no one got closer than 10 feet to my imaginary bubble nor I to theirs. I tried to exhaust my body to match my emotional state, beating the anxiety out of myself with physical flagellation.
The rain is steady today, the temperature cool, but I am buoyed by the thought that I am safe at home. I have a second cup of coffee from underneath a warm blanket on my deck and finish a second book alongside the coffee. A cat curls up next to me.
I know we’re likely still at a beginning, but it feels like being stuck in the middle, hoping for a happy ending. Moment-to-moment is manageable, but I am not OK. None of this is OK, even though yesterday all my friends and neighbors were OK that’s no guarantee that today or tomorrow will be OK.
I Am Not OK.
In some ways, I’m fine with the not-knowing since each day has the freedom to be its own adventure or horror, but then I try to tell the story. The story of the between-days, the story of the span-days, and I lose the plot, find myself staring into a middle distance filtered in Gaussian blur and I wonder what I was even saying.
The coffee is the perfect temperature now. I’ve perfected my craft this past month – the beans, the grind, the water, the steeping, the cup. It’s a little ritual dance that hasn’t lost the luster of shoe-tying or teeth-brushing. I can still see the newness of each coffee molecule and enjoy the sparkle. The result is warming and slightly bitter, reminding me to drink up each day and note the subtle shades of difference that color the world and my experience of it.
I want this all to be over but I also don’t want it to end. When again will I have so much time to simply exist and watch the natural world? When again will I experience this alchemical mix of total stress and complete relief?
I am not ok. The world is not ok. Maybe both me and the world never were before but maybe they can be soon? This is my hope and written prayer.
I have smiled and laughed and fought and cried and shouted and cheered, all in the same hour, in the same day. I have lived, I am trying to live, and I will be alive come Monday.
In my broken beauty – in this “not OK, but fine” between – I am in my own personal bardo. When I re-emerge I will be an anti-butterfly: changed inside but looking just as you remember me.
I am not OK, but I want you to know I’m fine. If you’re not OK, that’s fine too. I see you and nod respectfully from a safe distance. It’s my way of promising a big bear hug later.
At the start of 2020 I reached out to a friend and former coworker to ask about getting lunch sometime soon. The idea was borne simply out of a desire to talk to him in person after so much time apart. We’d had an ill-fated Fall where we’d each scheduled and then cancelled on numerous attempts, so a new year provided a perfect re-starting point.
I’m not even close to the first person to use January as a reminder to reach back out to old friends, but this person and this time jumped into my head almost unbidden.
I shouldn’t have been surprised then that the answer came back emphatically and almost instantly: yes, let’s have lunch next week.
It also shouldn’t be a surprise that the instant we actually saw one another at the restaurant (Mexican, naturally, as we could both eat it every day) my friend launched into almost twenty uninterrupted minutes of monologue. He had so much news to impart, so many wild, wonderful adventures and perilous accidents, that I think I ate an entire basket of chips before I even attempted to get a word in edgewise.
Now I should clarify that this is a person I respect immensely both personally and professionally. I follow their social media, I stalk their LinkedIn, I somewhat frequently text them about how things are going. And I knew none of what he shared. Not a single word.
My first contribution to our conversation was to ask more about his family and I learned even more that was unseen in all his blog posts, tweets, texts, and status updates. Here was someone like myself whose 2019 had seen tons of upheaval and change and pain. Someone who was being strong because he had to be strong. There was no other choice. Is there ever?
I gave him some headlines about my folks, my dad, my in-laws, and Owen, most of which I’ve shared here, but some of which I haven’t. I think it was all news to him, but I could see his demeanor change. It wasn’t exactly misery loving company, because I’m far from miserable, but my wounds are still somewhat fresh and healing. Maybe it was warriors telling battle stories and comparing scars. Or maybe I’m being dramatic and it was just two men bonding over lunch about their lives.
Aside from a very eager waitstaff it was the nicest lunch I’ve had in some time. Real conversation with a real person about real life. Nothing staged for a camera or audience; nothing performative for a response. Just the full three dimensions of 2019 reflected in the hopeful haze of 2020.
We talked for more than an hour and ate our burritos. We left with a handshake and a promise for future lunches, but I can’t help feeling like the natural outcome should’ve been a hug. Not that he needed one, but I needed to give one. To tell him everything would be ok, but also to tell myself. To remind myself that here in the real world real connections matter and that I should spend 2020 pulling myself out of my phone and into the real world. To engage fully and directly with my life by living it; by doing.
I hope he reads this notes and knows that I love him as a friend and I’m pulling for him in all facets of his life. And even if he doesn’t read this, I’m glad I wrote it. I’m pulling for me too. I want to be this person who has more lunches and talks more truth.
I want to hug and be hugged. I want 2020 to be a great year.
I’d love to have lunch with you, too. You know where to message me.
This morning I drove with the two younger girls to a veterinary hospital that specializes in exotic pets. One of our three rats, Tulip, (yes, we have pet rats) had, over the course of the past few months, developed a large tumor that impeded her ability to move around much. After much discussion and calling around, we decided to euthanize her as surgery was both expensive and no guarantee that the tumor wouldn’t return.
It was gray, cold, and rainy as we drove – a kind of day that seems to portend the potential of even greater wintry weather to come. Also the sort of slate upon which feelings for an entire year can be etched. In our case it was a hangover from New Year’s Day; we were saying goodbye to something known and loved before heading into an uncertain and gloomy short-term future.
At a stoplight somewhere on South Marietta Parkway near Whitlock Avenue west of the Square I had an intense sense memory of winter sadness. Something about the warm, arid air of the car heater juxtaposed against the winter slop outside reminded me of the passing of each of my grandfathers. My maternal grandfather became gravely ill just after Christmas and my paternal grandfather passed just after the New Year.
In my mind’s eye I can see the Michigan snow, feel the wind licking my face, and easily recall the at-first welcome and soon grating heat of my grandparents’ homes and cars. The days had the same sense of creeping coldness, of finality, and of fires and heaters and coffee barely warming parts of body and soul.
Maybe, in the end, all deaths feel the same. They all tug at the heart in the same way. They are all bracing cold and icy unsureness contrasted against the intense heat of life.
Today in the car, on the road, and later in the vet’s office I was present for the pain of my daughters as they said goodbye to their Tulip. But I was also remembering my own pain. Remembering my grandfathers. Remembering other pets I’ve lost. Remembering winters and New Years and goodbyes and hopes for futures which became present then past.
We all cried a bit today and brought Tulip home for a simple backyard burial. None of us did too much after that point, but I spent some time in the afternoon in quiet reflection on our deck, warmed by blankets and a propane heater while the rain and wind whipped in through the screens.
Today was a reminder that seasons and change, life and death, are with us and in us always. In remembrance of the people, pets, places, and times that came before I’ll quote Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
A few weeks ago, during my seemingly annual crisis of confidence, I deactivated Facebook & Instagram. I also changed my Twitter avatar to the wound vacuum that sat at the end of my Dad’s hospital bed back in May.
I’m including it here for folks to ogle:
The eagle-eyed among you should be able to clearly read the word “stump” written in Sharpie on the device. It’s written there because a) my dad had two wound vacs, and b) this was the one for the stump of his right leg, the result of a below-knee amputation.
A few points of order before I get into the nitty gritty (and hopefully non-grisly) details:
My dad was never a smoker
My dad doesn’t have diabetes
Somehow my dad has vascular disease
1 & 2 make 3 a head-scratcher but we’ve been building towards this nightmare scenario for a few years.
If you have read my account of that experience you should know that my dad has had several fem-pop procedures in the intervening years to guard against another aneurysm and keep blood flowing to his legs. Spoiler alert: one of them didn’t work.
Without going into too much detail my folks moved to Florida a few years back, rehabbed a house on the “Forgotten Coast” which then got totally demolished in last year’s hurricane and, in between, my dad had a graft put in behind his right knee so a “pseudo-aneurysm” didn’t graduate to full aneurysm status.
So after the hurricane left my folks functionally homeless they bounced around to the homes of friends, relatives, and children until they took a trip to Indian Wells for this year’s tennis tournament. My dad has terrible pain & discomfort in his leg so they had to cut their trip short to stay with us and be examined.
Here’s where shit gets weird and worse.
Dad has surgery to replace the bypass behind his right knee. All seems well. Mom comes home to sleep in our guest bedroom instead of the hospital.
A little after 10pm she’s in the living room, visibly shaking, asking for someone on the other end of her phone to repeat the news they’ve shared and which she’s having a hard time processing. I take the phone and listen in.
Dad is back in surgery. He crashed while seemingly OK in the ICU recovery bed. Bleeding from his hip (surgery site), seemingly losing blood and bottoming out of his BP. No one knows why but they’re trying to find the cause.
Mom & I head to Atlanta Medical Center in their truck – I drive – and spend hours in the ICU waiting room. Sometime past midnight a surgeon gives us a 20-minute talk that’s the equivalent of the shrug emoji.
We go home exhausted but happy that he’s still alive and wait to see him the next day.
Dad, chipper as ever, recounts his side of the ordeal the next day. Remembers feeling woozy and losing consciousness but no worse for the wear. They release him a few days later and he spends a couple of weeks at the house convalescing.
Dad seems mostly fine but is very run down. He sleeps a lot be we mostly chalk that up to recovering from surgery. It’s a big damn deal to have a cadaver vein put inside of you. The scar alone, two ruler-length ribbons – one above the knee, one below – are enough to make me need a nap.
No one is too concerned, except my Mom who wants him to move around a bit more to aid in healing.
Turns out she was right to be concerned.
One afternoon after Mom had picked up our girls from elementary school Dad was in such discomfort & pain, she had an ambulance come & get him. I met her at Atlanta Medical again and Dad ended up spending the night in the hospital. The ER visit was like a throwback to his initial aneurysm from 2013, but he seemed generally OK.
Maybe it was just the flu? or so the thinking went.
It was not.
10 days later he’s in awful pain and back in the hospital. They’re having to take out the vein because it’s gotten occluded somehow. Maybe it’s an infection or maybe it’s just a failure. Doctors aren’t 100% sure, they just know his blood flow is terrible.
The fix is that they’re going to put a plastic vein in his body since the wait for another cadaver vein of the proper length is too long.
I don’t remember my brother coming to stay with us, but I know he was there in the ICU when they brought Dad back from surgery. Dad’s intubated and still asleep and now has a single scar running from his inseam all the way down to his ankle.
His foot is purple. The sharpie-written note on the whiteboard reads “No pulse LRE”.
No pulse lower right extremity.
I share a glance with my brother and we walk Mom into the hall. None of this is good.
At this point I think we meet with 3 of the 4 surgeons from the vascular practice who’ve been helping Dad. Their respective attitudes range from determined to dour, but they all say we have about a day or so of waiting to see what happens.
None of them bring up amputation, but we do. It’s always an option but they want to wait and see.
When Dad wakes up they can’t remove the tube right away. Having to deal with a parent as they grapple with their own muteness and the gravity of the failed and (now) failing bypasses was heartbreaking. He was already ashen but the prospect of more surgery, the simple fact that he’d lost 24 hours he couldn’t remember, and our inability to discern his thoughts (especially my Mom) really frustrated Dad.
This all happened on a Monday or Tuesday and by Thursday morning it was clear that his leg was in dire shape. For reasons related to how many good veins were left and how multiple bypasses on the same system tend to get less effective as surgeries progress, he had a choice: take a less than 10% chance on another surgery or proactively have a below the knee amputation.
As fate would have it, he made his choice and was booked for surgery within the hour and was under the knife only 90 minutes after choosing.
If you’ve read this far, it might surprise you (or not) to learn that even after all of this drama, Dad actually had another post-operative setback. He had a skin graft to close his amputation wound a few weeks after surgery and, unfortunately, an infection was trapped in there so he had to have another surgery – two in fact – to remove the infected tissue and then heal slowly. Much more slowly.
It’s now been just over 6 months since the amputation and this coming Friday he’s hoping to get molded for a prosthesis. Maybe by Thanksgiving he’ll have the first iteration of his eventual new leg.
I know I’ve waited too long to get all of this written out because my brain is missing some key dates and other details could stretch for paragraphs or blog posts all on their own. I’m trying to be a little more kind to myself and realize that I needed time to process all of these events before I could commit them to the blog.
Hell, they didn’t even happen directly to me, but to say his struggle hasn’t affected me wouldn’t be true either.
Maybe now is the perfect time to be sharing this story. It’s a reminder that none of us is promised tomorrow (or even today, really) and that we should be thankful all of the time and hug our loved ones while we have the chance.
I know I’m going to be extra happy for the holidays this year.
Is there an open web any more? If you’re not reading this on Facebook or from a Tweet or a “link in bio” on Instagram does it even exist? Is using an increasingly unwieldy framework like WordPress useful anymore?
I’m about at the point I’d like to either a) move to a free WordPress.com subdomain just to keep these archives, b) start over with flat HTML that I hand-edit, or c) delete the whole shebang and not look back.
This is like my arc on the social web in miniature.