Sunday, March 21, 2021
Saturday, March 6, 2021
There are many stories within a life story. When I reflect on the life of my beloved cousin Caron Hill Roudebush, I remember so many stories of her dance through life with humor, strength of spirit, unconditional love for family and friends and joy in each day.
There is the story of her birth on May 7, 1940, in the sunny front bedroom of a house in Burlington, Kansas. She was the first child of Evelyn Curtis Hill and Elmer Hill. Their landlady had welcomed them as a couple but said she didn't like to rent to families with young children. Caron's birth changed her mind: she fell hopelessly in love with the winsome dark-eyed baby girl and happily helped to care for her. The family would eventually move to Kansas City, however, where Elmer was hired as a mechanic for TWA. Her mother, who had a brief career as a teacher before her marriage, was a loving stay at home mom to Caron and her younger brother Jack.
Caron spent many happy days of her childhood visiting our grandparents' farm in Toronto, a small eastern Kansas town that was still thriving in her childhood. Caron had so many memories from those days, far more than the rest of the grandchildren who were born after World War II. She was the only grandchild to know and love her Uncle George. They played together on the farm and he adored her, writing to my mother that she was "the cutest, most beautiful little girl ever." Caron went to the train station with our grandparents to see him off to war in July 1944. She and Grandma burst into tears as he boarded the train. They held each other on the drive back to the farm, weeping together as Grandma moaned "I'll never see him again." Four months later, George was shot down over Germany, dead at the age of 24. Decades later, the memory of Uncle George waving and blowing her kisses through the train window as she cried would still bring tears to Caron's eyes.
As we played and danced, sharing secrets, stories and dreams throughout our childhoods, Caron was so much more than a cousin to me. She was like a wise and affectionate older sister who told me she loved me every time we talked and, throughout my life from childhood to my ungainly teens and all the decades beyond, she told me that I was beautiful.
She was the beautiful one, though, even winning a local beauty contest. And she was popular in high school with a great group of friends who called themselves The Divas and vowed to be friends for life. (They kept that promise!) But the most beautiful aspect of her life -- a wonderful love story -- began at the end of their freshman year when she and Bud Roudebush discovered each other.
She was giddy in love when she came to spend the summer of 1955 with us in California, to help out after my sister Tai was born. She wrote to Bud every day as I hung over her shoulder. Sometimes, but not always, she would let me read his replies. Once she wrote him a note with all the words for "Unchained Melody", a hit song that summer: "Oh, my love, my darling...I hunger for your touch." We eagerly awaited his reply and laughed when it arrived: 'Caron! What happened to you? Did you fall on your head or something?" Even though the memory of that unique mail exchange faded for them, "Unchained Melody" became their special song for decades to come.
Caron's high school days were a blur of parties and dances and just hanging out with Bud and The Divas. She begged her parents to let her drop out of school and get married. They insisted that she finish high school and attend a secretarial course first. She and Bud were married on February 15, 1959. After a tour of duty with the Air Force, Bud worked as a surveyor while Caron was a stay at home mom to their children Cescilie, Aaron and Jason. She returned to work as a school secretary to help pay for their college expenses. Even with the inevitable challenges of life -- raising three bright, lively and resourceful children, then watching the nest empty -- their love only grew.
As Caron and Bud danced and loved and grew through all the transitions of their lives together, Caron never stopped exploring, learning and triumphing over obstacles along the way. After her kids finished college, Caron began taking classes at a local community college, finding herself drawn to a scientific curriculum. She had a perfect 4.0 gpa and was surprised when her advisor told her that she had earned enough credits for her Associate's degree. That graduation was very special to her.
"Imagine!" she told me. "I'm smart! In high school, I was too focused on being in love and getting married to care about academics. I wouldn't change a thing, of course, but it's nice to know officially that I'm smart!"
She was also graceful and strong, studying Hawaiian dance, exercising daily and giving her eldest grandsons a run for their money in basketball sessions. When I visited in 2007, Caron, 67 by then, was nursing a broken arm, suffered when she leapt into the air to make a successful jump shot and then fell during a fiercely competitive basketball practice with her teenage grandsons. She had just as fiercely fought and won a battle against breast cancer some years earlier and now she glowed with good health. She was dedicated to healthy eating, exercise and lifestyle changes, having given up her longtime smoking habit as she entered midlife.
Bud, in the meantime, focused on his long-time interest and talents as a photographer, particularly enjoying capturing Caron's growth from teenager to grandmother with special love. He also took some breathtaking photos during their travels -- to see hot air balloons in New Mexico, ride a train through the Rockies, explore the Egyptian pyramids on the backs of camels and the beauty of the countrysides and capitals of Europe during several trips abroad. Winning a small state lottery in midlife had enabled them to plan for both financial security and fun. We all rejoiced in their good fortune, happy that they had a chance to travel the world together while still healthy and active.
By 2010, Caron began to experience unmistakable symptoms of COPD. As her condition worsened, Bud finally retired to take care of her.
As her dependence on him grew, he was careful to honor her independent spirit. One morning when I was visiting in 2013, Bud, Caron, her brother Jack and I were sitting around having coffee, talking and laughing. Bud finally looked at Caron and said "You know, Caron, I'm enjoying our conversation so much that I'd like to go into the bathroom with you when you take your shower so we can continue our talk. Would that be all right with you?"
She smiled. "Why yes," she said.. "I would like that very much!"
We all knew that Caron couldn't shower without Bud's assistance. Yet, he always made it her choice to have him accompany her.
We talked a lot about the past -- our past, our mothers' pasts -- during that visit. I teased Caron gently about the many artifacts from the old farm that had landed in her home: our grandparents' bed in the guest room, the small children's chairs on the hearth that had once belonged to our mothers and then later to Caron and Jack when they were small.
We had made many trips back to the tiny town of Toronto by then. Our last trip there together, in 2013, brought up wistful memories: the ice cream parlor where grandma would take us for special treats and the small town library where our Great Aunt Floss held forth as librarian, story teller and town news conduit, the hardware store initially owned by Uncle Elmer's family. The hardware store, the library and the ice cream parlor were all shuttered by 2013. In fact, all of the town's storefronts were empty. Toronto School, a magnificent brick building, stood gleaming in the late spring sun -- but it had been empty for years. Caron, Jack and I looked at each other and sighed.
On our journey to Toronto that year, we drove through Burlington and parked in front of the house where Caron was born. It had held up well and sported a new coat of paint. Caron looked at that house, at the windows of the front bedroom where her life began and she sighed once more. "So many memories," she said quietly.
In these later years, Bud has taken over the housework and cooking as well as caregiving. But Caron's mind was sharp and she was fully engaged with family and friends. Reading my memoir, "The Crocodiles Will Arrive Later", shortly after its November 2020 publication, Caron told me that she wasn't shocked to read about the terror and chaos caused by my father's mental illness and alcoholism, but she found it immensely sad that my brother, sister and I had lived through so much pain. "I hope you know that you had no part in your father's unhappiness no matter what he told you," she said. "We're all responsible for ourselves. We decide what kind of life we're going to have, what kind of day we're going to have each morning when we get up. And I hope you know, too, that I love you very, very, very much!"
I told her that I loved her, too, and was so proud of her for making it to 80 -- something she had not been sure she could manage. It was an age landmark that had eluded our mothers and their sister Ruth. My mother died at 67. Aunt Evelyn and Aunt Ruth had passed away at 79. I told Caron that she was an inspiration.
Being an inspiration took a toll: Caron was in and out of the hospital four times in the past year with a variety of health crises, including a coronavirus infection that was not Covid-19, but that proved a grueling ordeal nonetheless. "You kicked the coronavirus' butt!" her son Jason told her as she left the hospital. Caron laughed ruefully and replied "But I think it took a big bite out of mine!"
Through it all, Bud has been by her side, holding her as they listened to their favorite music and danced in their hearts with a lifetime of warm memories. Bud never complained, only expressed his joy and good fortune in spending so many years with the love of his life.
During the challenges of the past year, the Garth Brooks song "The Dance", especially the last two lines, held special meaning for him:
My life is better left to chance.
I could have missed the pain, but I'd have had to miss the dance.
They danced an imaginary dance as they held each other, quietly celebrating their 62nd wedding anniversary on February 15.
Time moves on steadily, relentlessly. And there are so many losses along the way.
Jack recently returned alone to Toronto to walk the deserted streets we ran through joyously as children, fully immersed in the delights of a town where everyone felt like -- and often was -- family. Now the small family farms have been gobbled up by sprawling factory farms. A dam project 60 years ago that was supposed to make Toronto a water wonderland and tourist destination simply devoured more farmland and devastated the local economy. Now the town's demise is nearly complete. Jack walked past houses and stores that were not only shuttered but were also collapsing. He was astonished to see that Toronto School is being demolished and its bricks sold as souvenirs of a past we'll never see again.
Caron's joyous dance through life, ended on February 26. She took her last breath, gently, quietly, with Bud holding her hand.
The pain of her loss is great. We will miss her forever. But there is music in warm memories and warm memories in music. Oh, what a dance of joy, love, laughter and courage Caron's life turned out to be!
Sunday, February 7, 2021
Amidst the headlines announcing the deaths of legendary actors during the past week -- Cicely Tyson, Christopher Plummer, Cloris Leachman -- there was a smaller news item noting the death of yet another actor: Mike Henry.
Mike Henry was a former football star at USC and with the Los Angeles Rams before turning to acting. He starred in three Tarzan movies, was Junior in the "Smokey and the Bandit" films and appeared in a number of other films, television shows and plays onstage in Los Angeles. Our paths crossed in 1972 when we both were cast in a revival of the Broadway musical "High Button Shoes", a production starring Gavin MacLeod, during his tenure with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and before he became the captain of "Love Boat."
|A backstage photo of me during "High Button Shoes"|
It has been decades since I let go of my acting career and aspirations, but the announcement of Mike Henry's death took me back to another time and place when I was a twenty-something actress known professionally as Kaylin McCoy because there was a "Cathy McCoy" already in the union and I wasn't allowed to use a name -- such as my full name "Kathleen" -- where anyone might be tempted to call me Kathy. So I combined my first and middle names Kathleen Lynne to be Kaylin, though no one ever called me that except Gavin MacLeod. It was a painful time for him, long before he discovered the comfort of religion. He was dealing with the end of his first marriage and, while appearing in "High Button Shoes", he had fallen in love with Patti Steele, the choreographer for the show, who would become his second wife. Gavin would occasionally sit beside me at cast parties and sigh "What does all this mean, Kaylin? What do our lives mean, really?"
And I would look at him, at bit embarrassed, shake my head and say I didn't know.
I was in my own cocoon of pain -- in the process of making the decision to let go of my passion and my dream for an ongoing career as an actress. I was beginning to realize that, while I liked acting, I didn't like the business. I knew that, as a young character actress, my chances were slim in L.A. for a sustained career. I didn't have the looks, perhaps not the talent nor the drive to carve an ongoing niche for myself in acting. I had seen enough highly talented, middle-aged actors hanging onto their dreams well past the time when there seemed to be any chance of success. I didn't want to be one of them and was equally passionate about writing. In fact, I was making a steady, if modest, living primarily as a writer. The rationale for my choice to quit was clear, but still it hurt to think of letting go of a dream I had nurtured since childhood.
It would be another year before I actually quit -- and during that time I did a few voiceovers and another play "Dylan" in the role of the one woman even Dylan Thomas, serial womanizer that he was, didn't find attractive. That show was a great way to end my brief career: I loved the play and everyone in it and even got a nice review in Variety ("a delightful young character actress"). I walked away without regret and have rarely looked back.
But Mike Henry's death this week took me back to that time as I remembered his gentleness, his kindness and his generosity when we worked together. He hosted several cast and crew parties during the run of the show at his lovely Valley pool home. And one night toward the end of the show's run, he was my hero.
Someone had knocked a fire extinguisher off the wall backstage and it had sprayed a small spot of foam that no one, including me, had noticed. Getting ready to dance onto the stage for the curtain call, I had slipped in it, dislocating my left knee and falling hard on my right hip. I slid onto the stage area and, in my shock, got up, took a bow and exited, only then starting to feel the full brunt of my pain. In a moment, Mike was in the dressing room with a bag of ice and a first aid kit. Patti helped me remove my tights and put her arm around me as Mike sat beside me, my left leg in his lap. He popped my knee back in place, iced it with one hand, wiped my tears with a tissue in the other hand, and then taped my knee so expertly that I never missed a show. "You're going to be okay," he said, looking into my eyes with such gentle reassurance that I believed him at once.
Sadly, life didn't turn out quite as okay for Mike. In 1988, he retired from acting due to neurological symptoms that stemmed from repeated concussions during his football days and from Parkinsons disease that doctors thought might also be due brain trauma caused by football. He suffered for 32 years of neurological decline, a fate made bearable in large part by the presence of his devoted wife Cheryl, who was by his side for 36 years and who described him in an interview after his death as "a lovely, lovely man."
Yes, he was. Although I never saw him again after "High Button Shoes" closed, I have always been grateful for his kindness. And I quietly said "Goodbye" in my heart to this lovely man, a sweet memory from a past I let go nearly 50 years ago.
Traveling back in my memory to that time has made me think once again of Gavin's question "What does this all mean?"
From the vantage point of age, life means so many things -- and letting go is a prominent part of this meaning.
It means letting go of the dreams that no longer serve to advance one's growth as a loving, giving person and finding new and better dreams.
It means making a habit of forgiveness, not holding onto grudges and even political divisions, giving others the benefit of the doubt and remembering to forgive yourself, too, for being hopelessly human.
It means paring down your life, as time goes by, to the essence: what soothes your soul, what brings joy and fulfillment, what enables you to contribute in significant ways to the lives of others.
It means rejoicing in the successes and the happiness of others as well as your own blessings.
It means embracing failures, disappointments and setbacks as learning opportunities.
It means living with gratitude for what is and what was, for friends and family who have been fellow travelers through all the phases and transitions of your life.
It means treasuring all the love in our lives -- including love that didn't last and love that has been constant, love that we've received and love that we've given, love expressed with gentleness and kindness that endures in our warm memories and brings joy to our lives in this moment.
Monday, November 9, 2020
I was a frightened young girl -- dreaming of escaping my childhood home and the dysfunction within -- when I first thought about writing a memoir about my crazy family.
Starting when I was six, I would write stories scrawled in my father's discarded day planners, usually tales of happy orphans making their way in the world. I begged my father to tell me stories of his own childhood because I was determined to write a book about him. In his better moments, he laughed and complied with some stories that were fun and some that were harrowing: about his early life in Arizona in the arms of his loving Navajo nanny, about his mother's abuse and his father's kindness, his traumatic discovery of his father's untimely death nearly a year after he had died (his mother claimed he was on a business trip) and then his adventures as a child actor in silent films and in vaudeville as he struggled to support the family from the time he was nine years old.
By the time I was sixteen, I even had a title in mind for my memoir: "The Crocodiles Will Arrive Later."
The inspiration for that came from two different sources. My father, who suffered from schizophrenia and alcoholism, called his depressions and delusions "crocodiles", envisioning them stalking and devouring him in an endless cycle of fear and hopelessness.
At his best, Father was charming, fun and loving. At his worst, he was abusive and threatened our lives on a daily basis. My brother Mike, sister Tai and I never knew which Father we would find when we walked in the door. And we feared that even if Father didn't manage to kill us during one of his rages, the crocodiles of his mental illness might consume us, too, as they had not only our father but also his mother before him. Mentally ill and alcoholic, she died when our father and his sister, our beloved Aunt Molly, were in their teens, leaving them orphaned.
But they put themselves through UCLA and did well: Father became an Army Air Force pilot and test pilot and Vice President of Engineering for national aerospace company. Aunt Molly became an award-winning poet, television writer and a civilian speechwriter for the Strategic Air Command. Our mother was a registered nurse who became a pioneer flight attendant for American Airlines from 1935-1943 (a time when flight attendants had to be RN's and no taller than 5'4"). She did a lot of PR appearances for American, including hosting First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on a tour of airline facilities in Los Angeles.
But though Aunt Molly continued to thrive throughout her life, my parents lived lives of not so quiet desperation that became worse -- sometimes horrifying -- as the years went on.
I was determined to write about our lives -- and how love and fear, deep pain and laughter could co-exist and how learning to laugh between the pain could soothe one's soul. I was always thinking and dreaming of writing that memoir.
I discovered the exact title for it when I was sixteen. It was a phrase embedded in a letter to parents of students at my sister's ballet school. The letter was discussing strategic arrival times for an upcoming recital featuring dancers from age two through six. This production was, on paper, a dance version of "Peter Pan." In reality, it was something of a fever dream: all 10 of the six year olds in my sister's ballet class played Peter Pan simultaneously. The five year olds were Wendys, the four year olds Lost Children, the three year olds Tinker Bells and the two year olds were crocodiles, tasked with holding their arms in front of them to form imaginary snouts and rocking back and forth with as much menace as they could summon in their one minute stage debut.
The instructions for the arrival times were firm: The Peter Pans would arrive at 1:30 for the 2 p.m. performance and so on in 15 minute increments until instructions for the Crocodiles. There was just a terse directive: "THE CROCODILES WILL ARRIVE LATER." The plan was to have them arrive just before their number and be picked up immediately after before any backstage mishaps occurred.
I waved the letter at Aunt Molly, my idol and mentor. "This will be the title of the book I write about our family!" I told her.
She smiled. "That's perfect," she said. "But please remember, when you write it, that as well as crocodiles, there was love and laughter."
Our Third and Best Parent
The Three of Us
So years and decades passed and my dream was always there. I wrote a number of other books -- self-help books for teenagers, for parents, for those suffering estrangement. Through my adventures as a journalist and author and a psychotherapist, the dream of "The Crocodiles Will Arrive Later" lived on in my imagination. But it took years to make sense of my childhood of horror and humor, cruelty and love and what came after.
My literary agent Stephany Evans wondered if a memoir would be the best use of my experiences and insights. She suggested, with good reason, that a self-help book for those suffering the aftermath of troubled and painful childhoods might be the way to go. I trust her judgement. And I'm working on the proposal for the book she suggested, looking forward with hope and enthusiasm to writing it. And if anyone reading this has experiences to share or suggestions about what must be included in such a book, I'd love to hear from you. (Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org). That's my NEW dream for the future!
But in the meantime, I couldn't get that long-time dream of a memoir out of my head. My brother and sister encouraged me to write it as did a very special nun -- Sister Rita McCormack -- my brother's first grade teacher who intervened to stop our father's abuse for a time and who has been a treasured lifelong friend. My husband urged me to write it on a daily basis. Blogging friends like Jeanie Croope, Rosaria Williams, Dee Ready and Sally Wessely also urged me to give it a try after reading some autobiographical blog posts.
So I did -- at long last: The Crocodiles Will Arrive Later is being published today!
My memoir tells the story of my family's tumultuous experiences with a mentally ill, alcoholic parent and how my siblings and I fought to create new, very different lives for ourselves in adulthood. It talks about what and who helped along the way -- two courageous nun teachers who intervened at different times, our beloved Aunt Molly who brought joy and imagination to our lives and even a couple of celebrities whose kindness helped me to keep hope alive. Some places of refuge that may be familiar to some -- like St. Bede School, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, Northwestern University, 'TEEN Magazine and Vroman's bookstore in Pasadena-- figure prominently in my story
My long-time dream is finally reality: The Crocodiles Will Arrive Later is now on Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, Powells.com, Walmart and Vroman's. It is available as a trade paperback or as an e-book.
Now I'm getting busy with that new dream: to write a self-help book for those whose painful childhoods continue to haunt them in adulthood. In the meantime, I'm hoping that my memoir will give others who have grown up with fear and pain the inspiration to look back and begin to let go of what was and to imagine what might be.
Sunday, November 1, 2020
It began for me in mid-January when a new patient came for a session so ill she had to lie down on the couch, coughing and moaning through her session. Though I urged her to go home, stay in bed and take care of herself, she insisted on staying for the full session. I cringed inwardly but reassured myself that I hadn't been ill for years and had had a high intensity flu shot.
A few days later, I woke up with a scratchy throat, a severe cough and a high fever. I had an ear infection and bright red eyes from a concurrent eye infection. I went to the local hospital ER, tested negative for both strains of flu and also for strep, got a prescription for the ear infection. There was no testing for Covid-19 then, which still seemed a world away. So I came home and crawled under the covers, leaving it to Bob to entertain our weekend guests: his former Little Brother Ryan Grady and his husband Michael Collum who had come for the long Martin Luther King weekend.
I was awakened from a feverish sleep (103 degree fever) that night by Bob's screams from the bathroom. He was coming out of a grand mal epileptic seizure. I jumped out of bed, raced to his side and promptly fainted. When I fell, my left foot twisted behind me at an angle and then I fell on it, shattering all the bones in my mid and fore foot.
Michael stayed to watch over Bob, who simply needed rest, and Ryan took me to the Emergency Room where the doctor said my foot might be fractured and put an orthopedic boot on it. After visits to my primary physician, a podiatrist and a surgeon, the news got progressively worse: I had a severe crush injury, a lis franc fracture to my foot that would require surgical reconstruction with metal plates and clamps. The recovery period would be at least a year. And the surgery itself was delayed for four weeks because of my severe cough (which would have precluded me from having a general anesthetic). The surgery finally took place on February 18 with an extremely painful, extended period of immobility, two different casts and a variety of orthopedic boots, and eight months wheelchair bound.
Then the small miracles began: being able to use the bathroom by myself, being able to take a sit-down shower without assistance, being able to stand briefly, taking my first tentative steps in late September. Taking my first bike ride in late October.
Now I'm walking: sometimes with a cane and more often very carefully on my own. I can wear regular shoes for at least some of the day and am beginning to exercise again -- very carefully -- riding our three-wheeled bicycle two miles a day. The doctor says I will continue to improve over the next year -- perhaps able to take long walks sometime next year, able to walk barefoot long enough to get in the community pool for some lap swimming in a few months. Every step along the way feels wonderful and miraculous.
I'm immensely grateful that any of this is possible and humbled by how much help I've needed and received along the way. My husband Bob has been quite literally supportive and immensely patient through this ordeal. Friends and neighbors Marsha Morello, Vicki O'Hara, Kelly Hartwig and Sherri Brown brought food and comfort in those early, very painful days. And friends nationwide have offered support in so many ways: Georgia Bohlen painted a cheerful cat picture and sent it to brighten my days; Jeanie Croope sent a gift card for Panera Bread and Kathy Bernath, the daughter of our former neighbor Wally Skurda, sent flowers and visited. I got many messages of love from friends Mary Breiner, Tim and Mary Kate Schellhardt, Pat Hill, Robert Luppi, Pat Cosentino and Sister Rita McCormack. I have also been grateful for the patients in my practice who hung in there through all the cancellations and uncertainty of those winter months. All of this has meant so much to me.
Now in healing mode with my foot, I look around at the fears and divisions we're all having around the pandemic, Election day (whatever our political affiliations) and how incredibly our daily lives have changed this year.
Dealing with the dramatic changes 2020 has brought isn't easy to be sure. But trying times are so much more bearable when we support each other with kindness and compassion.
I was reminded of this during a recent phone conversation with my friend Bob Luppi, whom I have known since grade school and who renewed our friendship a few years ago after his retirement. I mentioned that these are turbulent, uncertain times. "They are," he replied. "I don't want to know your political affiliation and I won't tell you mine. I just want there to be peace and love and kindness between all of us. That's what matters most."
That is everything.
Monday, March 30, 2020
As the toll of Corvid-19 climbs alarmingly around the world, there are sights that can't be unseen and words that can't be unheard such as:
- Crowds of shoppers battling in the aisles of big box stores for dwindling supplies of toilet paper and bottled water, oblivious to store managers calling for peace and civility
- Bare shelves stripped of sanitizers, cleaning supplies, paper products and bottled water.
- Crowds of young people, feeling invulnerable to the virus or simply not caring, packing bars, pubs and restaurants in cities across the nation, offering an unparalleled opportunity for the virus to spread among these healthy young people to be carried on to the elderly and otherwise vulnerable.
- Political and generational divisions spawning verbal ugliness -- from contentions that the virus is simply a media hoax to the belief that the virus' penchant for killing more older people is just punishment for those loathsome Boomers
- Wealthy people retreating to their doomsday shelters in old missile silos or to remote vacation homes
- People buying guns in record numbers...to protect themselves from each other.
People of all ages, ethnicities, professions and social standings have become ill from Covid-19. While the elderly and those with underlying health issues are most at risk for serious illness and death in this pandemic, Covid-19 affects us all in terms of health and loss, disruption of work, income and lifestyle. These are scary, trying, uncertain times.
It all makes me think of an earlier time when panic reigned: the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war and those of us in our teens feared we would never live to see young adulthood. People were hunkering down in backyard bomb shelters, hoarding canned goods and threatening to shoot anyone who intruded. It was my introduction to a very real sense of mortality and to the worst of humanity.
My Aunt Molly, a professional writer and award winning poet, wrote a poem back then about that "I've got mine, screw you!" bunker mentality that crisis inspired over half a century ago. Her poem was originally published in The Antioch Review.
All these years later, we can do better.
Think about the people who matter to you. This crisis is an opportunity to say what you've always wanted to say to those you love, to remember the important people from your life whom you may not see or hear from regularly, to reach out over the chasm of social distancing to touch another's heart.
Tuesday, February 11, 2020
|With Ryan (red shirt) and Michael the morning after|
At the dawn of 2020, my husband Bob and I marveled at the fact that, despite being in our mid-seventies, we were healthy, strong and active.
We agreed that we were grateful for this extended healthy, happy time in our lives.
"This won't last, of course," Bob said quietly, thinking of the recent deaths of several friends and the downward spiral in health for another.
"But every day that we're healthy is a blessing," I said. "I'm grateful for every day of our healthy, active lives."
We smiled as we talked about the upcoming visit of Ryan Grady and his husband Michael Collum, flying in from Los Angeles for the extended Martin Luther King weekend.
We call Ryan "the son of our hearts." He came into our lives as Bob's Little Brother in the Big Brothers Program in Los Angeles. He was a quirky, bright, funny 9 year old then, who regaled Bob with a full throated rendition of "The Glory of Love" in the car, only minutes after they first met. Ryan quickly became dear to us, the son we would have been proud to have. (And we marveled at how his parents had produced not one, but two marvelous kids, as Ryan's older sister Kelly captured our hearts as well.)
As a young teenager, Ryan helped me to study for my oral licensing exam as a therapist and said "I want to do this, too!" And he did, becoming a licensed clinical social worker, seeing therapy clients and working as an administrator in an agency serving veterans. He's 36 now and when he married Michael in 2017, Bob was his Best Man. We've come to love Michael, too. Michael is an attorney by day and pianist by night. We could talk with them for hours -- and do.
This time, we were looking forward to showing Ryan and Michael just how vital and fit we were despite our advancing ages.
Pride before the fall.
The first sign of trouble was subtle. A patient came to see me, curling up on the couch in abject misery, coughing and sniffling through her session. I felt bad for her as well as a fleeting fear I quickly dismissed. After all, I hadn't been ill in years. And, as usual, I got a high intensity flu shot. I would be fine, but still....why hadn't she stayed home? I asked her if she really felt well enough to continue the session. She did and left at the end of the hour with my admonitions to go home, stay home, drink lots of liquids and rest.
My throat started feeling scratchy two days later, the day that Ryan and Michael arrived, We went out for dinner. I started feeling worse. Saturday morning, I woke up with a wracking cough, a fever and a painful earache, something I hadn't had since childhood. I went to the local ER where a doctor said the ear infection was bad and gave me a prescription for antibiotics.
I opted out of the festivities that day....and out of lunch and dinner, too. My fever climbed, my infected ear -- my good ear -- was completely blocked. I could barely hear. I crawled into bed early and fell into a feverish sleep.
"Help me! Help me!"
In the dark of 2 a.m., I startled from a deep sleep to the sound of screaming from the bathroom. I jumped out of bed and raced to the master bathroom where Bob lay in the aftermath of a grand mal seizure. Bob's epilepsy is well controlled by medication. Seizures are few and far between, but when they happen, they're serious. Rushing to his side, I felt suddenly faint, passing out beside him. It was pain that brought me back to consciousness. My left foot had twisted and I had fallen on it. The pain was intense, the swelling immediate. Neither of us could move. My cell phone was charging on the bathroom counter. I pulled it down and texted Ryan who, with Michael, was asleep in the casita guest house in front of our home.
Michael and Ryan rushed in to help: Michael took charge of Bob, who simply needed to rest, and Ryan rushed me back to the local ER. The receptionist smiled with recognition as we came in. "Oh," she said. "Today you have company! Your sweet grandson brought you in!"
Ryan and I looked at each other and smiled. "Actually," he said. "Kathy and I are special friends, though I'd say we do have something of a mother-son vibe going on...." And we chuckled.
After studying my x-rays, the ER physician shrugged. "It's suspicious for a fracture, maybe a little bone chip" he said, giving me an orthopedic boot and telling me to follow up with my primary physician.
My primary sent me to a podiatrist who gasped when he saw the foot and took more x-rays and ordered a CAT scan. "This is very serious," he said. "This is a lisfranc fracture involving a number of bones in your foot and all three tendons that hold the bones together have torn. You need surgery as soon as possible! We have a narrow window of opportunity to fix the foot. The recovery time for this injury is at least a year."
He sent me to a surgeon who confirmed the diagnosis and the urgency, telling me that the surgery would involve rebuilding the foot with metal plates, pins and screws, that I would be in a cast for three months, a rigid boot for three more months and a modified boot for some months thereafter -- and in a wheelchair unable to put any weight at all on the foot during all that time.
There was only one impediment to surgery: my respiratory infection and cough.The surgery has been scheduled and canceled several times now. The window of opportunity for an optimal healing result has come and gone. I may always limp. Or need a cane. But anything would be an improvement.
Life with limited mobility is a humbling thing. I'm in a wheelchair. I need help going to the bathroom and bathing and dressing. Always fiercely independent, I've had to learn to depend on Bob, to ask for help, to rely on him for everything.
And now another development: I've lost my voice in the wake of weeks of violent coughing. And I'm watching another surgery date approach, hoping this one won't pass me by.
In the meantime, life keeps happening. During a routine echocardiogram two weeks ago, a mass was discovered on Bob's thyroid. He had a CAT scan and the result was "highly suspicious for malignancy." He is awaiting a biopsy. And someone very close to me, who prefers anonymity, was just diagnosed with kidney cancer. And a college friend of mine passed away last week.
It's all so fragile -- our health, our lives. In only an instant, everything can change.
Bob and I both are struggling to imagine what would happen if both of us end up needing surgery and recovery time in the weeks to come. The most routine tasks might become major challenges.
In the meantime, our home decor has taken a small but definite shift toward geriatric -- with wheelchair, walker, extended shower bench.
The cats were initially puzzled by my sudden disability but Sweet Pea and Hamish already have settled into quiet indifference. Maggie gives me extra affection. And my three-legged cat Ollie, convinced somehow that I'm being held prisoner in this chair, springs to attention every time I move, running circles around the chair, pouncing the wheels and lying down in front of it, blocking the way. Every journey is a perilous one as I learn to take evasive action to avoid running over my beloved feline companion.
Family and friends at a distance worry, wondering how they can help and express their love and concern. And friends here make heartfelt offers to help.
I'm immensely grateful.
I'm grateful to Bob for his patience and resourcefulness as a caregiver.
I'm grateful to my brother Mike and special friends - Tim, Mary, Pat, Georgia, Mary Kate, and Marsha -- for helping to lift my spirits in so many ways.
I'm grateful that when my accident happened, Ryan and Michael were here to lend physical and emotional help. It was not exactly the way we thought the weekend would go, but both Bob and I felt blessed by their presence nonetheless.
I'm grateful for my private practice and the wonderful clients who have hung in there through the uncertainties of the past few weeks. I look forward to getting past surgery and back to being fully present for them.
I'm grateful that my injury is somewhat fixable, that my time in a wheelchair may be long, but far from permanent. I feel hopeful for Bob's health and for my anonymous loved one's prognosis.
And I feel grateful for every day -- whether healthy or not.