November 23, 2021

The Jimmy Type

When I was eight years old I had a great friend named Jimmy. Jimmy lived around the corner and his grandparents lived across the alley from me. Jimmy's grandparents had a swimming pool in their backyard and I was sometimes invited to swim in it with Jimmy and any of his cousins who happened to be around. One hot summer day, Jimmy and I were playing beside the pool. His four year old cousin was with us, but she was in the pool. Suddenly, she started flailing her arms and couldn't get her head above the water. She must have moved to the deeper part of the pool which was four feet deep. I stood rooted to the ground, like a deer in the headlights. I could see Jimmy's cousin was drowning, but I couldn't seem to act. Jimmy jumped into the water straight away and saved her. I have never forgotten how impressed I was with Jimmy. I also could not understand my own behavior.

The fact is, the world is full of people like Jimmy who jump in with both feet during a crisis, and thank God they do. This week in British Columbia, during historic rainfall and the subsequent flooding of countless farms and homes, landslides, and washouts of important transportation corridors, we have so many examples of people acting immediately in response to the catastrophe around them: first responders, pilots, health care professionals, police officers, truck drivers, and members of the general public who have the 'right stuff' and know innately how to make themselves useful right off the bat. My hat goes off to all of them. They are worth their weight in gold in a crisis.

Of course, when I had children my reactive reflexes developed and I saved my own kids from some near misses and trucked them off to the emergency room when needed. Something primal takes over one's natural tendencies when one is responsible for tiny humans. Still, in the face of large scale disasters I am still somewhat slow to fully respond. My mind seems to employ a slow processor when it comes to this type of crisis. If someone else (like my husband, a Jimmy type) directs me I can act - sometimes I'm even effectual - but left to my own devices, I'm afraid I lack the necessary DNA to take charge. I was once the passenger in a terrifying car accident from which I walked away miraculously unharmed. My response to the shock? I went home and fell asleep on the couch. I'm much better at crises for which concentrated thought processes are involved, like if one of my children is going through a hard time and needs advice, or a friend needs a listening ear and a measured response. That sort of thing.

We all have different gifts, although we can be pretty hard on ourselves when we find our particular gifts not terribly useful at a given time, myself included. I want to be helpful to my flood-damaged neighbours. It just might take me some time to figure out what that help will look like. (I've also been trapped between mudslides for a week and a half, and my role during this stage has been one of keeping myself calm and lending moral support to those around me.) 

In the meantime, my appreciation for all you Jimmy types out there is currently at an all-time high. Keep on jumping in with both feet. You are so needed. 

November 4, 2021

Saying Goodbye to Mom

When I was a young child my biggest fear was that my mother would die. I had an overly active imagination and sometimes thoughts of the possibility that she would leave me forever would make me cry. I remember at least one occasion in which my mom came to my bedside to calm my fears and let me know how silly I was for entertaining such thoughts. In my defense, I didn't invite this particular fear to take up residence, it simply came unbidden. 

On October 20th, my mother did die. I was 52 and she was 83. Her dying had become less of a fear and more of a sad inevitability. She had lived with vascular dementia for four years, and had grown increasingly fragile over the past year. Early in October she had taken a fall and broken her hip. She underwent surgery, which was successful, but after a couple of weeks of being in hospital, a blood clot developed in her lung. A day later her caregiver sent word that Mom was dying. My husband and I rushed to be with my sister at Mom's bedside. My eldest sister came the next day. Mom was never left alone those last three days of her life. We sang to her, her grandsons called and sang to her over the phone, and in Mom's last moments, we sang the hymn of St. Francis, 'Make me a Channel of your Peace' with our brother leading over the phone from Calgary. I sang with tears streaming down my face and snot dripping from my nose as I held her face in my hands. And then she was gone. I cannot describe it aptly. She was just...gone. 

My mother was the sunshine in our family home. She radiated kindness and calm and burned brightly with intelligence. There was nothing saccharine about her. She loved a good story and a groan-worthy pun. She loved her six children to the best of her ability and as equally as she could, even though I tease my brother Steve that he was her favourite. She loved having company and made everyone feel welcome in our home. We often had extra people at the table for Christmas dinner. She loved Clint Eastwood. We even had a poster of The Outlaw Josey Wales hanging on the door of our bathroom. She stayed up very, very late reading. She read War and Peace every year (I haven't read it once). Mom loved to go out for cheesecake, but the rule was we had to hike up and down the steep hills of town for an hour and a half to earn a slice.

Mom was also the sunshine for a lot of people in the community we lived in. At the funeral reception many people said to me: "If it weren't for your mother I never would have..." My hometown newspaper printed a cover story about her contributions as an historian and supporter of artists. She would have been honoured. Her work was incredibly important to her. I felt so proud to be her daughter. 

This morning, a week after we returned home, I was hit with a wave of grief. I recalled how, during an hour on Mom's last day when we were alone together in her palliative care room, I had talked to her about the walks we used to take together. I thanked her for teaching me to love art and literature. I sang her 'You are My Sunshine'. 

Mom, you have left me, but that's okay. Your sunshine will always be with me. I know that now.

June 7, 2021

Head Writer

When I logged in to this blog for the first time in over a year, I read through a couple of posts and thought, wow, I used to write regularly. What happened to this satisfying habit of mine? The answer is a bit of a saga, and potentially a boring one depending on your perspective. Some people simply do not want to know about other people's health issues. If that's your perspective, that's okay, go back to whatever you were doing before. I get it. 

 If you do want to hear my saga, read on. I'll try to keep it brief and to the point.

I had kept up this blog for nine years when I ran out of steam. I had told all my stories worth telling, and although some notable stuff still happened in my life I didn't yet have enough perspective to write about it properly. I was also busy working, and keeping fit enough to keep working, at my physically demanding job as a baker. My daughter had major spinal surgery late in 2019 and the lead up to it, and the recovery from it, took a lot of energy, physically, mentally, and emotionally from her, but also from me as her mother, advocate, and caregiver post-surgery. She was starting to recover well by February, 2020 and had begun to be able to socialize with friends. She was even able to help with a theatre production doing the lighting cues from the booth. Life was starting to feel normal again. Maybe I would find some brain space to write and post on here, or perhaps even in a new format.  And then, the pandemic hit. 

I was laid off from my job March 19. I slept hard for a month, my body taking a much needed break. My mind, too, I suppose. I felt anxious much of the time with no job to focus on, so I came up with a schedule for my day. Part of the schedule including writing out my anxiety about the pandemic in a journal most mornings, followed by a walk or run. I began to do solo creative projects, drawing and collage, which I had not done in years. Life settled into a bearable pattern while I tried to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

On May 21, 2020 I drove to my massage therapist's house for my monthly appointment. I have struggled with back and neck pain for many years, due to minor scoliosis, a skiing accident and a fairly serious car accident. On the way home I decided to stop at my aunt's new house. I was not going to go in. I simply wanted to say hi and drop something off for her. I'm always a little foggy after a massage, and it would have been better to head straight home, but I wanted to see my aunt. She asked me inside and I thought, okay, I will sit at her table for a few minutes, have a glass of water and go home. She showed me around the new house, pointing out things she and my uncle would improve and change. I spotted a nice-looking back deck off the kitchen, so I walked out to it to see the back yard. I didn't realize the plate glass patio door was closed because it was crystal clear. I smacked, nose and forehead first, right into the glass and bounced off of it. I felt a bit dazed. My aunt felt terrible. I sat down for a few minutes until I felt okay enough to drive home. 

Over the next couple of days I developed a dull headache in the area where I had smacked my forehead. I thought the pain not serious enough to call the doctor about, so I took it easy until it subsided and  carried on as normal. The morning of June 10th I awoke with a low-grade fever and a pain under my left eye. I called my doctor, wondering if I had Covid19, of course. He diagnosed me with sinusitis over the phone and suggested Tylenol and rest. After four days I started to feel better. On the evening of  June 14th the fire alarm went off in our building. My daughter and I went outside, me clutching a cup of tea, and sat under a tree, chatting with a neighbour until the fire department cleared the building for re-entry. As we walked back into the building I stopped to talk with another neighbour. I felt something strange, like a light 'clunk' in the back of my head. The next morning I awoke with the worst headache I had ever had in my life. Pain and pressure pulsated relentlessly. I woke my daughter and asked her to take me to the hospital. Because I could not have anyone in the ER with me due to Covid, I struggled to explain my pain to the doctor. He examined me, confirmed sinusitis and prescribed antibiotics and a nasal spray. The only symptom of sinusitis I had was the headache and some facial pain. I had no excessive mucus, no issues breathing through my nose, just a terrible headache twenty four hours a day. the next weekend I was back in the ER. The doctor there changed my antibiotic. Still, the pain did not subside. I tried everything. I stuffed so many pills down my throat hoping something/anything would take away the feeling of a bear trying to chew the top of my head off. My husband took me to the ER again. The doctor was baffled. The intravenous migraine treatment just made my nose ache excruciatingly. He ordered a CT Scan. The CT Scan confirmed sinusitis, but everything else looked normal. The pain carried on, and on, and the doctors could not figure out why. I think I visited the ER six times in total, just begging for help with the pain. I silently hoped they would admit me and deal with whatever this horror was, but no. The doctors were kind, but I think some of the nurses wondered if I was a drug addict. Some of them definitely thought I was a drama queen. After four weeks I was sent to an Ear Nose and Throat doctor who prescribed a more specific antibiotic, even though he said my case of sinusitis was minor and he was also baffled by the severity of the headache. He ordered another CT Scan which, two weeks later, showed the sinusitis had cleared up completely. When we went for the consultation he looked at miserable, exhausted me and called the hospital. He got me in that afternoon to see an Internal Medicine Specialist.  

I had been in contact with an old friend, Dawn, whom I had not seen in nearly thirty years. I had sent her a message when I heard her mother had passed away after a battle with cancer. Dawn had heard I was dealing my own health issue and kindly asked me about it. When I described my symptoms she told me about a friend of hers who had a sudden onset of similarly debilitating symptoms, and suggested I find someone who could assess me for a similar diagnosis because her friend was doing so much better after being treated by a sports medicine doctor for concussion. I was glad the hospital let my husband come in to the appointment with the Internal Medicine Specialist. We waited three hours in her waiting room and I literally leaned on him for support. My husband and I had been discussing the possibility of the smack into my aunt's door being the root cause of my trouble. My wonderful daughter and main caregiver (my husband was dealing with the stress of running a busy resort during Covid and a Province-wide travel allowance) had written down the details and timeline of my case for the specialist, which was incredibly helpful. The IMS diagnosed me with probable concussion and ordered two weeks complete rest in a dark room (and also blood tests for everything from AIDS to vitamin deficiency). What a miserable time that was, but I endured it in hopes of recovery. Reading was a no-go, and I was ultra-sensitive to noise. After the two weeks in a dark room the pain had not subsided, and I was still barely sleeping, even with a sedative. I felt like I was in a rocking boat all of the time. My GP referred me to a neurologist and I finally got help for the pain. By way of a diagnosis which he took some time to reach (He ordered an angiogram in the meantime, which showed nothing abnormal), the neurologist decided I had a neck and shoulder soft-tissue injury probably caused by the head smack, which was causing nerve pain in my head. He prescribed physiotherapy, including IMS needling which is similar to acupuncture, massage therapy, and allowed for the continuation of my chiropractic treatments as long as they were gentle. The IMS needling physio decided I had whiplash. My massage therapist had additional thoughts on my injuries and treated my whole person. On Dawn's advice, as well as my sister's, I sought out and found a physiotherapist in our city who specializes in concussion and vestibular issues. After our first consult on September 25th, she said I had enough symptoms to be treated with concussion therapy. She gave me tasks and exercises to do that had nothing to do with lying down in a dark room. I soon saw big improvements and gained the confidence to keep pushing myself. The idea was this: "Neurons that fire together, wire together." She had me walking around the block, reading a little bit, doing word searches and colour-by-number pages within a month. Without her and without my three other therapists (and of course my amazingly patient family) I would not be typing this today. It has taken a village and a lot of discipline to get me this far. I still have a few miles to go, but I was able to go off the medication earlier this spring. I continue to have pressure in my head and stiffness in my neck, but much, much less pain. I still have to watch my screen time. I can't listen to music for hours like I used to. I need lots of quiet breaks between social visits. Driving is tiring, but I can drive. Grocery shopping is tiring, but I can do it. I still cry when overwhelmed emotionally. Sometimes I forget things I should remember. But, I am 'getting there'. I am mobile and operative, and incredibly grateful. 

After meeting my concussion physiotherapist and starting her exercises, as soon as I could manage to pick up a pen and focus on the page I started writing down to-do lists and schedules at the beginning of each day. The reward of this daily effort was to track my progress, but I also admit to a slight obsession with documenting events in my life. Recently, when I realized I could write a decently long email I decided to try a blog post. I believe writing is great brain work, too. This post has taken several days to compose and edit, and it's probably still full of mistakes, but it's a start. The purpose of publishing this post is to share my story in hopes of helping someone else - like Dawn helped me by telling me her friend's story. I know this sounds trite, but if I can spare even one person the pain and suffering I went through for the length of time I endured it, my post will have been worth it.